Studio Ponoc’s First Magical Journey
Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi looks back at the making of his studio’s first movie,
thing that could be inspirational to young viewers. He says the quote from the novel that spoke to him most directly reads: “… Magic isn’t fair … I’ll do it the way it’s used to, even if it does take longer.” With that unifying story theme in mind, they duo went to work.
Of course, attempting to make a Ghibli-quality film without any of the Ghibli cultural capital proved far from easy. When Nishimura and Yonebayashi visited USC a few months ago, they related some harsh figures. Over the course of the film’s two-and-a-half-year production, a team that began with two to three animators grew to 450. It proved a hugely difficult enterprise for an animation studio that began life without even a home base. As Yonebayashi noted, “We [me, Nishimura, and co-writer Riko Sakaguchi] put our heads together in discussions on the script with an enormous number of drawings, going from one café to another, as we had no office back then.”
The team went from the best-funded studio in Japan to having to start from scratch without any of the software, hardware or servers they had had access to. Funding had to be acquired without the boon of the Studio Ghibli brand name. Nishimura went to previous investors on his last two features to try and acquire the necessary resources. Though it was a hurdle, he was very familiar with working on difficult productions as a producer on The Tale of Princess Kaguya. He notes, “The production was particularly full of difficulties which led to delays and interruptions, and even the risk of funding being withdrawn.” Thankfully for Nishimura, his investors shared his vision of con- tinuing to create hand-drawn features in the style of Ghibli, and they wrangled up the needed funds
Watching Mary, that devotion to the Ghibli style is on full display with every gorgeously rendered frame. Even more so than Yonebayashi’s movies at Ghibli, it visually quotes the entire history of Ghibli, from the opening scenes with its bizarre creatures and dizzying heights that evoke Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Nausicaä, to the serene depictions of Mary’s everyday life that evoke My Neighbor Totoro and Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday. Not to speak of the gobs of former Ghibli talent lurking in the animator credits. Atsuko Tanaka, Masashi Ando, Shinji Otsuka and others lend their talents to the production. Shinya Ohira, who was responsible for the boiler room scene in Spirited Away, here conducts a climactic transformation sequence that seeks to one-up his past efforts for Ghibli.
In addition, veteran character designer Akihiko Yamashita, who also provided character designs for Arietty and Howl, contributes designs that evoke the entire history of Ghibli, including one broom-wrangling mouse by the name of Flanagan, who evokes Miyazaki’s anthropomorphized characters for Sherlock Hound. If you’ve watched a lot of Ghibli, the film almost seems like a remix of past images.
It’s hard not to read an allegorical component to Mary and the Witch’s Flower. In some ways Mary’s journey to find strength without magic echoes Ponoc’s quest to establish itself without the aid of the Ghibli brand. Ponoc has one foot in the past and one foot in the future as a brand new animation studio with some of the best in the industry throwing their weight behind it.
“I aim to run a studio that allows creators the stability to focus on their creative work by compensating them appropriately for their creativity,” says Nishimura. “On this point, it is the same as at Studio Ghibli. As a new company that is just starting out, we are of course beset by funding issues, but I want to make sure to implement this policy.” Nishimura also stresses intentions to collaborate internationally on future productions, both to address financing issues and to stylistically distinguish Ponoc from the more insular Ghibli. He adds, “To raise an idea that is different from what we had at Studio Ghibli, at Studio Ponoc we plan to engage proactively with international co-productions and co-financing as a way of collaborating outside of Japan.”
Ponoc even utilized its own English-language dub expert in concert with U.S. distributor GKIDS in the film’s western localization. If they continue plans to turn Ponoc into an international studio, it will join other anime studios like Masaaki Yuasa’s Science Saru and Studio Trigger who have made use of western crowdfunding methods and worked on western properties. Like Mary, each of these studios found themselves without the magic of their former brands striving to make their own name for themselves.
One quote from Miyazaki sticks with Yonebayashi: “One film can change the world.” Time will tell if Mary and the Witch’s Flower, excellent studio debut though it may be, will change the world, but Ponoc will certainly strive to balance the need to preserve the past with the need to transform with the passage of time. GKIDS will release Mary and the Witch’s Flower in select U.S. theaters on January 19.