Stu­dio Ponoc’s First Mag­i­cal Jour­ney

Animation Magazine - - Features -

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.

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