Studio Ghibli, whose Spirited Away is breaking Japanese box office records, has embarked on a new feature, based on Howl's Moving Castle, a children's fantasy novel by British author Diane Wynne. But in a first for the studio, the director is not Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, the two master animators who co-founded the Studio in 1985, but Mamoru Hosoda, a veteran with rival Toei Animation, whose credits includes the popular Digimon franchise.

"Yoshifumi Kondo directed one of our films, Whisper of the Heart (1985), but it started as a TV program," explained a Ghibli spokesman. "This is the first time we've had someone other than Miyazaki or Takahata -- or someone from outside the company -- direct a feature from the beginning.". The film is being prepared for a summer 2003 release.

Following the release of his latest film, Spirited Away, Miyazaki, 60, announced that he was retiring from animation directing. Takahata, whose last Ghibli film was My Neighbors the Yamadas (2000), has not yet announced his next project.

In a related development, Ghibli is reportedly in negotiation with several Hollywood studios to release Spirited Away in the United States. Disney, whose Miramax division released another Ghibli domestic blockbuster, Princess Mononoke, has also been in discussions to distribute Spirited Away, but the departure of former chairman Peter Schneider, who was Ghibli's most important ally in the company, has "complicated matters," said a Ghibli source.