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Credit: Studio Ponoc

Studio Ghibli refugees are releasing their first film. Hayao Miyazaki approves

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Jan 19, 2018, 1:40 PM EST (Updated)

When anime director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty, When Marnie Was There) joined up with fellow Studio Ghibli veteran Yoshiaki Nishimura to create Studio Ponoc in 2015, they kept their mentor, Hayao Miyazaki, at the forefront of their minds.

After all, Yonebayashi's Mary and the Witch’s Flower, which opens January 19, tells the story of a young, clumsy girl who comes across the fly-by-night, a flower oozing a magical nectar, and ventures to a Hogwarts-like magical college on a broomstick. Sounds like a Miyazaki movie, right?

“The last film that I made at Studio Ghibli, When Marnie Was There, was a quiet film about the interior feelings of a young girl,” Yonebayashi told SYFY WIRE during a phone interview, through a translator. “I wanted this new film, the debut film of Studio Ponoc, to be an action-packed film that had a lot of fantasy aspects in it as well.”

What’s more, Studio Ponoc was looking for a plot that contained familiar elements but had an innovative perspective. And they found it in Mary Stewart's 1971 book The Little Broomstick.

“The reason that [the book] The Little Broomstick appeals to me is that many of the stories that use magic and deal with the magical world have the main character solve problems and difficulties using magic,” Yonebayashi said. “This [story] was different. Mary rejects magic at a crucial point and uses her own human strength to go further and solve the problems that she's facing.”

Mary and the Witch's Flower broom

Credit: Studio Ponoc

When Studio Ghibli famously closed its production division in late 2014, Yonebayashi and Nishimura still wanted to make good animation films that would be appealing to anyone, from children to adults. They realized that, rather than striving to join other companies, they were better off starting their own venture. And thus, Studio Ponoc was born. Yonebayashi was put in charge of directing and animating, while Nishimura would be responsible for production and the nuts and bolts of a new company launch. The name Ponoc derives from the Serbian word "ponoć," which means "midnight" and, metaphorically, indicates the start of a new day.

This idea of a new day also played a part when it came to choosing to adapt The Little Broomstick as Studio Ponoc's first feature. In fact, Mary’s adventures and subsequent changes in attitude, in a way, mirror the establishment of Studio Ponoc; after Yonebayashi and Nishimura left Studio Ghibli, they felt like they had less “magical power” to work with.

“Even without the kind of magic that Studio Ghibli provided,” Yonebayashi said, referring to the hardships that came with opening a new studio, “we could move forward on our own.”

Luckily, he had a lot of years to learn the art and technique, so there was no reason to rely on undefinable magic.

Yonebayashi Studio Ghibli credits include, but are not limited to, movies such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Ponyo. Ironically, he was more interested in drawing and manga than actual animation while growing up. It was during a part-time job he held while attending art school that he came to fully appreciate the wonders of animation.

“I was really struck by the way the still drawings I would draw would be able to be moved by animation, that there was movement that could happen thanks to the animation process,” Yonebayashi said. 

Coincidentally, when his job hunt started, Studio Ghibli was recruiting. He had just seen Whispers of the Heart by Yoshifumi Kondo. “A lot of the staff who worked on that film were young staff members at Studio Ghibli,” Yonebayashi said, “so I was very influenced by the vitality that not only showed in the film, but also in the process of making that film.”

While at Ghibli, Yonebayashi was pretty satisfied with what he was accomplishing in the animation field. Then, in 2009, Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki and director Hayao Miyazaki asked Yonebayashi if he would be interested in directing a film they were considering, what would then become The Secrets of Arriety. Yonebayashi was reticent at first, thinking it was beyond his abilities. However, reading the source material, the novel The Borrowers, changed his mind.

“I liked that story, and, in my mind, I could expand upon it in terms of imagination,” Yonebayashi said. “As an animator, you have a very limited view of the film because you just work on a portion of it. But as a director, I had to think about other things: background art, the music, the casting. I became enthralled with [the] excitement and fun of creating from nothing. I was grateful I was able to become a director, as well.”

Mary and the Witch's Flower book

Credit: Studio Ponoc

Gratitude to Miyazaki remained a constant in Yonebayashi’s life; when he and Nishimura parted ways with Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki remained an important figure to both of them, offering encouragement during their high-stakes production of a debut feature. With fairly limited staff and resources, Yonebayashi and Nishimura were able to complete Mary and the Witch's Flower in two and a half years.

“When I was able to report to him I finished the film, he was very pleased for us,” Yonebayashi said. “I recall he had a big smile on his face.”