Exclusive interview with Hiromasa Yonebayashi - Picturehouse Spotlight

Exclusive interview with Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Sam Clements talks to Hiromasa Yonebayashi, director of Mary And The Witch’s Flower.

Sam Clements: I believe you worked with producer Yoshiaki Nishimura on When Marnie Was There. What memories do you have of him?

Hiromasa Yonebayashi: Oh yes, he was also working on The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya at the same time, so he must have been very busy. Even so, he was very committed to the work on When Marnie Was There. For Mary, the studio was not yet ready, so I remember that we used to get together in cafes to plan it.

SC: When did you first hear about Studio Ponoc from Nishimura? What did you think of it at the time?

“Being able to experience the British people’s way of thinking had a big impact. There were elements that we didn’t understand until we experienced it – such as their attitude to nature. I look up to English culture, and that is something that is reflected in the movie.”

HY: We had already discussed whether we would make a movie together before Studio Ponoc. I think it was soon after the release of When Marnie Was There. It was already known at that time that Studio Ghibli would be shutting down its production department in December of that year. We had a chat about how we could carry on making movies after that, or even if we would carry on making movies after that. We said we would use a studio outside Ghibli or one that we would set up ourselves. So then we decided that we would set one up and discussed how we would do it.

SC: Mary And The Witch’s Flower is based on Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick, and you co-wrote the screenplay with Riko Sakaguchi. What was the biggest challenge while writing the script?

HY: My previous film, When Marnie Was There, was a calm piece that illustrated inner emotions. It had been decided that the next piece would be the complete opposite, with the main character being very much about action. So we did various searches, and we found this source material. It has a very quick development with lots of fun action. We thought it would make a fun animation.

But we also felt that it needed another side for it to work well as a movie, so there are many things we’ve added to the original story. That’s what we worked on with Sakaguchi and Nishimura. Adding bits to the original was very difficult and took a long time.

SC: Both Arrietty and When Marnie Was There are English children’s stories. As a director, what draws you to this classic source material?

HY: Those two were selected by the producer. It’s only by chance that all three are children’s stories from England. Many classic tales from the UK, although they may be called children’s stories, often contain themes that are thought-provoking for adult audiences too. Also, they are aimed at children, so they tend to end not with sadness but with hope. That’s the pull. Plus the world of Ghibli, I believe, has some similarities with the soul of the classic English tales.

SC: Do you yourself like English culture on the whole?

HY: Well, I don’t know that much about it, but… For Mary And The Witch’s Flower, we set it in the UK as per the original book, whereas for the previous movie, When Marnie Was There, we were asked by the producers to set it in Japan instead. In order to produce such a movie, there were many things I wasn’t certain about, so we actually went to the UK and looked at old manor houses, the countryside as well as the way of life. Being able to experience the British people’s way of thinking had a big impact. There were elements that we didn’t understand until we experienced it – such as their attitude to nature. I look up to English culture, and that is something that is reflected in the movie.

SC: What else did you learn from visiting the UK on your research trip?

HY: We understood from Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick that nature was important, so we felt care needed to be taken to illustrate that in detail. The art team came with us to collect a lot of material. The rented mansion that Mary moves into has a garden, and we really wanted the garden to be very beautiful. Also, there’s the forest. For the scenes where a lot of nature is shown, we took many photos that are reflected in the movie.

One thing I thought was very different from Japan was the clouds. To me, it looked like they were in a place you could touch just by reaching out, but they also looked as if they were spreading far, far away. It seemed like there was a secret world inside the clouds.

SC: It’s an extremely beautiful animated movie. How did you approach the art direction?

HY: We were aware that we ought to carry on what had been done through Studio Ghibli in the past. The fundamental component of a movie is the technology involved in setting the backgrounds. People from all around the world often say that the backdrops in Ghibli movies are beautiful. The technology underlying it plays a large role in that. It sets the level of the piece. So we placed great emphasis on that. For this piece, although the story takes place over several days, the majority of the film is set at night. From the night-time until dawn. We were careful with the changes in the light for those times. Even if it was night-time, we considered carefully what light sources there would be.

SC: Mary is a protagonist with a strong personality. Did you have a design in mind for her look from the beginning? Did it change during the process at all?

HY: The design and the inner character are not unrelated. The main character is very strong, with a lot of feelings about her own situation and about things like her red hair. We wanted to make her so that as the film went on, she stopped worrying about such things. So at the beginning, we had her looking in the mirror and getting frustrated. She is frowning as she’s putting up her hair. Her hair ends up in a real state. During her adventures, her hairdo unravels and gets very messy. But by then, she really isn’t that bothered about it any more, and she carries on with her journey to rescue her friend. She is becoming a strong girl. I thought it was nice that her outward appearance changed like that in the movie.

SC: The two cats that appear in the movie – Tib and Gib – have very expressive faces and realistic movements. What did you do to achieve that on screen?

“We believed it was important to bring things back to reality by showing that they ate normally and went to bed at night. We put effort into illustrating that. Whether it be their expressions when they are eating or showing lots of food so that it looks delicious.”

HY: We felt they shouldn’t be too human. There is a cat called Jiji in the film Kiki’s Delivery Service, and he was her partner and the voice of her heart. But with Tib and Gib in this film, although they are partners of a sort, they are also separate beings. I wanted them to have their own existence as cats; they are independent beings as cats. It’s very hard to animate cats in a realistic way. So we used shots of real cats and we actually spent time with some cats. We had several cats at Studio Ghibli, so we’d try to recall them and draw them.

SC: I like the way food is portrayed in the movie. Is it difficult to represent food in such a tasty and realistic-looking way?

HY: We knew from past experience that representing food in a delicious-looking way was very effective. That’s why we showed very tasty-looking food. There is a tendency to lose reality and go off completely into an imaginary world with a fantasy piece like this, but we believed it was important to bring things back to reality by showing that they ate normally and went to bed at night. We put effort into illustrating that. Whether it be their expressions when they are eating or showing lots of food so that it looks delicious.

SC: Was the production process different from what you did at Ghibli? Were there things you wanted to keep the same, or things you wanted to change?

HY: Well, we do fundamentally try to do things in the same way as we did at Ghibli. Obviously, there are small details, like we might use different editing software or things like that. But the process – where people draw the pictures and then we generate them using computers – is the same.

One thing that’s different is that when we were at Studio Ghibli, we already had the brilliant artists that helped Miyazaki make his pieces. Whereas with the new Studio Ponoc, we had to start by looking for artists. That was very difficult. The people that had been working at Studio Ghibli had already scattered to various places for work, so it wasn’t easy to just get them all back together.

But lots did get back together, and we managed to work with some that hadn’t made the journey with us. Making something with so many people means that many ideas get incorporated, so that’s the challenge. It makes for a very interesting product. That’s reflected in the movie.

SC: I think Takatsugu Muramatsu’s score is great. When did he join the production, and what did you discuss before starting the collaboration?

HY: We worked together for the first time on When Marnie Was There, and I knew that his music really spoke to the heart. So we asked for his help again this time. I think we asked him at a fairly early stage. But this is a completely different piece to When Marnie Was There, and Muramatsu was initially surprised that it was so different. But he was innovative and overcame many challenges to produce amazing things.

We asked for the hammered dulcimer to be the instrument that’s heard the most prominently. It was the first time that Muramatsu had incorporated hammered dulcimer into his music. Even though it was difficult, a great piece was eventually achieved. We are very grateful to him for that.

SC: In addition to the original Japanese-language version of Mary And The Witch’s Flower, there’s an English-language version starring Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent. How involved were you in that part of the process?

HY: I left that to other people. They are experienced at it, so I gave them the responsibility. I did hear the completed product. Mary was very energetically acted; Kate Winslet acted Madam Mumblechook very powerfully; Jim Broadbent as Doctor Dee… Even though the characters are all very distinctive, the whole cast produced unique characters.

SC: Do you keep up with how different international audiences are responding to the film?

HY: I haven’t really looked into that very much. In Los Angeles, we had the opportunity to watch it with the audience, and there was a lot of audience reaction then. Their response was quite direct, unlike Japanese audiences. They laughed during the funny scenes, and they were sad about the sad scenes. Seeing such strong reactions makes it all worthwhile. We’re looking forward to seeing the British audience’s reaction.

SC: Is there a particular filmmaker whose work inspired your approach to Mary And The Witch’s Flower? Is there anything you’d recommend to our readers?

HY: One director who had an impact on it, of course, is Miyazaki. I not only saw his films but also took part in them, so they had a big impact. As well as being a brilliant director, he was also a brilliant animator. My time with Ghibli gave me the know-how to create animations. I personally liked moving things around as an animator, so I couldn’t believe how much fun it was to work on films like Ponyo. This new piece shares many aspects with animations like Ponyo.

What I’d recommend to your readers would be a piece showing the power of animation. There are many scenes, like the one where animals change form and escape, or the chase sequences on brooms. But the scene that I put the most effort into, and that I want people to watch carefully, is when Mary loses her power and figures out how she can go deeper into the forest. We put a lot of effort into drawing that scene. I’m sure people watching it will have difficulties in their lives, but it would be great if they kept trying like Mary does. It would be great if they could feel something from Mary: she doesn’t give up.

To read our interview with Hiromasa Yonebayashi, director of Mary And The Witch’s Flower, click here

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is in cinemas now.

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