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'Mary and the Witch's Flower' shows where Japanese animation can go after Studio Ghibli

'Mary and the Witch's Flower' shows where Japanese animation can go after Studio Ghibli
For the first Ponoc effort, "Mary and the Witch's Flower," filmmakers decided to adapt an English novel, “The Little Broomstick” by Mary Stewart. (GKIDS / Studio Ponoc)

It's hard work, building a dream world of magic.

That's especially true when emerging from the shadow of some of the world's most renowned cinema architects — the legendary Studio Ghibli. After all, Ghibli was led creatively by the two most revered figures in Japanese animation: Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.

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But conjuring a world of fascination was the challenge facing the filmmakers who left Ghibli to found Studio Ponoc after Ghibli's future was called into question when Miyazaki announced his retirement in 2013. (Miyazaki has since returned to animation.)

"Director Yonebayashi and I wanted to continue making animated films, so I decided to create a new studio," says twice-Oscar-nominated Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura by phone, with the help of interpreter Beth Cary. Nishimura and Oscar-nominated "When Marnie Was There" director Hiromasa Yonebayashi were among those who forged ahead to create Ponoc's first feature, "Mary and the Witch's Flower," opening Thursday.

The studio's name came from the Serbo-Croatian "ponoć," or "midnight" — the end of one day and the start of another.

"We have a strong determination to hold up the spirit of Studio Ghibli films. It hasn't been easy," says Nishimura. He cites the difficulties of financing without the Ghibli name and the practical concerns of starting a studio from scratch, down to acquiring all the right hardware and software.

"Studio Ponoc started with two or three people in the beginning and by the end had 450 creators working on the feature film."

But those hurdles were tiny compared to the biggest one:

"Because Director Yonebayashi and I, and many of the creators, had been at Studio Ghibli, we were expected to make a similarly high-quality, meaningful film, and we had to do it in 2 1/2 years."

By comparison, Pixar animated features can take four to seven years.

For the first Ponoc effort, the filmmakers decided to adapt an English novel, "The Little Broomstick" by Mary Stewart. Fans of a certain bespectacled kid sorcerer might find familiar a few elements in the 1971 children's book, including a school for young wizards.

The story centers on a lonely 10-year-old who stumbles upon a flower that gives her magic powers for a limited time, and an enchanted broomstick on which she flies into a world of witches and transmogrified animals. The filmmakers' wild imaginations are on full display in the design of the fantastic school and the amazing creatures.

The selection was more of a group effort, says the producer, than they were used to at the old studio.

"At Studio Ghibli, the objective was to realize what directors Takahata and Miyazaki had in mind," says Nishimura, 40. "Their ideas, their concepts. But at Studio Ponoc, from project planning to storyboards, we have lots of discussions about it. I think we have a lot better staff communication at Studio Ponoc. Of course, this is sort of the normal way of doing things at places in the U.S., like Disney and Pixar.

"As they became older, 77 for Miyazaki and 82 for Takahata now, their view of life has shifted as well. Their interests are with issues of life and death, as shown in ['The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,' 2013] and 'The Wind Rises' [2013]. Director Yonebayashi and I are at the age when directors Takahata and Miyazaki were making ['My Neighbor Totoro' and 'Grave of the Fireflies,' 1988], so we have become the new generation to create films for the next generation of children."

Yonebayashi, 44, was born two years after "Broomstick" was published.

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"When we were children, we watched films made by directors Takahata and Miyazaki," he says. "In those days, they were just starting out and their works were very energetic. Their recent works feature more parting scenes at the end. The former works had more of people starting something out. As this first film of the new studio, I really wanted to make an energetic story where the heroine meets up with other characters and she will be part of that community and stay there and have it be a story of encounters."

Yonebayashi's "Marnie" was thought to be Ghibli's final film, but Miyazaki recently announced he would come out of retirement to make a new feature, "How Do You Live?"

"My last film, 'When Marnie Was There,' was a very quiet film, the internal struggle of a young girl," says Yonebayashi. "In working for Studio Ghibli for 20 years as an animator, I became very adept at dynamic action scenes; that's one of the things I learned from working with Miyazaki. So when we set up the new studio, I wanted to use my special talent for such action scenes."

Yonebayashi got his wish right away in "Mary" with an opening sequence in which a young witch flees for her life.

"The first two minutes are very action-packed," he says with pride. "When I saw that part, I thought we had done something that was equivalent to Studio Ghibli's films. The person who worked on that was Shinji Hashimoto, who was the one who did the scenes where Princess Kaguya rushes into desolation, and the background art is by people who worked on 'Howl's Moving Castle' [2004]. So it was very effective, I thought."

While the filmmakers are excited to be out on their own, they will never forget the legacy of Ghibli.

Nishimura says, "At Studio Ghibli, we put our all into each of the films we made. There is a wide range of animated films in Japan, but more and more are being made for an adult audience. We felt that, if the Studio Ghibli spirit disappears, there won't be any films made for children and adults to enjoy together. The same feeling was held by creators, animators and background artists."

Yonebayashi says, "It's not a system that creates animated films, it's humans who create animated films."

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