Sam Clements: Can you tell us when your vision for Studio Ponoc became a reality? Did you always want to set up your own studio?
Yoshiaki Nishimura: The production section of Studio Ghibli was dissolved in 2014. Director Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki thought seriously about what it meant for Studio Ghibli to stop making films. I was told about the dissolution while we were making When Marnie Was There and The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya. I was told about it promptly because it was going to affect both projects. So maybe I started to think about it then. I hoped that I would continue making the kind of films we had been making at Studio Ghibli: films with a strong message, that both children and adults would have fun watching.
After making When Marnie Was There, I asked director Hiromasa Yonebayashi if he would like to make another film. He said yes, and I decided to set up my own studio to achieve that. It wasn’t that I wanted to become independent or to have my own company. I just wanted to make films. So when you ask, ‘was this something you always wanted to do?’ – it wasn’t if ‘this’ means creating my own company. But it was if ‘this’ means making films.
SC: How do you remember your time at Studio Ghibli? How did the experience shape your work as a producer?
YN: When I joined them, Studio Ghibli was a small company. I was in charge of international contracts, purchasing films made abroad, as well as Japanese books. I was also managing budgets and producing concerts at the Ghibli Museum.
I learned how to make animation on the job. My film producer experience came from working with producers such as Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki.
There was meaning in what we created there, and our team always knew the messages and values we wanted to communicate to audiences. I think it was an ideal way of making films. Compared with other studios in Japan, we were blessed in terms of both our schedules and our budgets. We were confident of being able to create what we wanted to create at Studio Ghibli.
SC: What did you want to do differently with Studio Ponoc?
YN: The industry has changed, and we have to adopt new techniques. But the main thing was for us to continue making films. We want to convey messages that we think are important for our times, our society and the environment we live in. I think in essence our aspiration is the same as it was for Miyazaki with Studio Ghibli. We want to make films that are not just interesting but also have meaning.
SC: Mary And The Witch’s Flower is based on Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick. When did you first become aware of the book, and what was it that appealed to you?
YN: I like children’s literature very much, and I read a lot of it – because I like it, but also because I have young children. In terms of what attracted me to this particular book, in many of the stories I have read there is a magical solution: a girl or boy solves a problem by using magic. But rather than a story about a child with special powers, we wanted to tell a story about people, about children today. We wanted them to think about how they should live in today’s society.
At one point in the book, Mary says something very important. She says that it’s not ok to use magic powers just to open a door. She thinks she and her friend should use their own abilities, no matter how long it takes. She tries to solve the problem with her own power, without any magic.
That way of thinking moved me a lot. For us, coming originally from Studio Ghibli, when we thought about how to make a film, we didn’t care how long it would take, and we believed in what we were doing. In that way, we made films that had value. I felt that Mary’s words were an encouragement to us, the creators.
At the same time, not being able to see what the future holds and feeling anxious… I mean, having a magical power isn’t about believing in miracles, it’s about doing the immediate things you need to do while trying to move forward step by step, and as you do so paths open up to you. I think it’s possible to communicate that. And so I thought this had the potential to become director Yonebayashi’s own story, and that perhaps it could also inspire courage in people today. That was why I suggested it.
SC: Did you always know Mary And The Witch’s Flower would be the first feature film to come from Studio Ponoc?
YN: Yes, yes, yes. We thought that Mary And The Witch’s Flower was ideally suited to be our first production. Yonebayashi and the Studio Ghibli team were faced with this creative challenge: would they be able, starting from absolute zero, to create something equivalent to the Ghibli-level quality that they themselves had built up over time? Yonebayashi also had his own challenge: could he create his own story about a witch, a motif used so often by director Hayao Miyazaki? And for my part, I wanted to know if I would be able to properly handle the production of such a work, so that was my challenge. All of those challenges are manifested in this girl called Mary – all of those challenges are projected onto her, I think. I thought we would be able to pour our own feelings into making this film.
SC: Was it important to you to launch Studio Ponoc with a feature film instead of working on shorter-form content?
YN: There was a time when we thought about starting Studio Ponoc with a short film. That’s how it was for Pixar, and many Japanese animation studios start off with short content. But we like challenging ourselves. With Mary, we had to put together a new production team to go straight into producing a long-form, high-quality animation. I think that if you try to wriggle out of things when you’re just starting out, then you’ll end up always wriggling out of things. So we thought if we’re going to make long-form films, then we should start off with long-form films. It was a sort of public declaration, and it demonstrated our determination and commitment.
However, now that we’ve completed our first feature-length film, we’re in production on three short animations. We wanted to undertake this creative task to see what would lead us into the next production.
SC: You previously worked with director Hiromasa Yonebayashi at Studio Ghibli. What made him the right person to direct Mary And The Witch’s Flower?
YN: I thought that if Yonebayashi was going to direct another film, then Mary would be a good fit. So what happened first was that Yonebayashi said he wanted to make a film, and when he said that I recalled When Marnie Was There, which he and I made together at Studio Ghibli. When we had finished making When Marnie Was There, there were three points we thought we could do from the opposite perspective.
One was that the protagonist of When Marnie Was There, Anna, is introspective and introverted, so next time let’s do the opposite. Let’s go the other way. In other words, let’s depict an extroverted, outgoing girl.
The second thing was that Marnie was a very still, quiet film, but Yonebayashi, in particular, said that he wanted to make something dynamic, a work in which we could use very active animation. So there was that.
And the third thing was that Marnie is set in Nemuro village in Japan, a tiny world, and the film uses this microcosm as the stage on which to tell the intimate story of a young girl’s adolescence. So instead of that, this time let’s do a story about a wider world. Maybe a road movie, or maybe a fantasy.
In other words, let’s do a fantasy movie in which an outgoing girl engages in lots of action. We’d already decided that. And when trying to come up with a project that matched the objective, I thought the motif should be a witch, and then we decided on Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick as the source material. So as far as I’m concerned it is Mary And The Witch’s Flower because of Yonebayashi’s involvement.
SC: What was the biggest challenge before starting production on Mary And The Witch’s Flower?
YN: Biggest challenge? Creating a new production team, starting a new company, making an entirely new movie. Betting my whole life on this has been the biggest challenge.
SC: The film is brought to life by traditional hand-drawn animation. Is it important to keep these skills alive?
YN: Personally, I think it is important. I have always been familiar with that style of work. Beautiful backgrounds and characters drawn by hand have a certain power, and ensuring that hand-drawn animation is kept alive is extremely significant.
The number of 3D works has increased greatly, but I think there are still many things that can only be done with 2D animation. I want Studio Ponoc to be a collective that explores that potential. One of the reasons we’re making three short films after Mary And The Witch’s Flower is in order to introduce audiences to hand-drawn animation. I would be delighted if people – including Western audiences – could get a sense of the potential that still lies in flat animation, which we could perhaps even call ‘classic’ animation.
SC: Was the production schedule similar to your previous projects?
YN: Well, with Studio Ghibli, and producing 2D animated films in Japan, drawing up the production schedule is quite a unique process. Ghibli had something like 150 permanent staff members, and it was easy to draw up a schedule. In Japan today, animated films are being made in large numbers, and small production companies like ours aren’t able to secure anything like 150 or 200 staff. We bring together staff on a project-by-project basis, who help us and do the work for us. In other words, even if I draw up a schedule, the question of whether we can get the staff is the main sticking point. It’s the same for other companies too. For all production teams – other than Ghibli – production schedules are always last-minute. That has been the case for several decades in Japan, and now new players are spurring this on, such as Netflix or Amazon – joining the animation sector, spending money and making films. So there’s that as well. The number of animated works has increased, but there aren’t enough people. And that puts even more pressure on schedules. It’s not a very favourable situation right now for animation in Japan.
SC: How did you feel before your first screening of Mary And The Witch’s Flower for an audience?
YN: Well, when I first saw a trailer for the film on screen in a cinema, I was extremely happy. When I was working at Studio Ghibli, we would get the trailers for our movies shown in cinemas all over Japan. And there would be press conferences that everyone would register for. Thinking about it now, it seems arrogant, but we just thought of it as natural.
But starting Studio Ponoc off our own backs made me realise that isn’t always the case. So when the trailer was shown I was really happy; I was so happy I cried. And when we completed the film as well, rather than a feeling of satisfaction, I just felt gratitude.
SC: The character of Mary appears ahead of the film on the ident, which made a big impact on me. How long did it take to crack Mary’s look, and when did you make the decision to add her to the Studio Ponoc logo?
YN: Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki all supported me. Takahata said in his last years that Studio Ponoc could become a stronghold of animation. Even Hayao Miyazaki was kind enough to be concerned about our production and brought things to help us keep going. And I still see Suzuki regularly. We wanted to feel what those three had felt when they were working at Studio Ghibli. Towards the middle of the production, I was thinking that we really should be bold about showing what we are making in the form of Mary. To show our strength.
I think we decided to include Mary on the ident about four or five months before completion. We got director Yonebayashi to draw her by hand, using fairly rough lines. That was also because Yonebayashi wanted to communicate his wish for hand-drawn animation to be kept alive: the beauty of Studio Ghibli’s legacy of hand-drawn animation, and the power of it. So Mary’s image also expresses our desire to keep that alive as we move into the future.
SC: We’re thrilled that Mary And The Witch’s Flower has made it to UK cinemas. How have audiences reacted to it around the world?
YN: I have heard that it has been very popular. That’s great to know. We want it to be watched by everyone, from children to adults. But at the same time, as creators, we are not bothered by age or race or nationality or gender or anything like that. Our aim is to produce something that is watched by many people. It’s a great source of positive energy for our next piece to hear that Russian people enjoyed it, or that they loved it in South-East Asia, or that it was a hit in Europe.
SC: Are you looking forward to bringing Mary to England?
YN: Of course. Of course. We want to express our thanks to Mary Stewart’s niece, who gave us permission for the original story. We are also grateful to the artists that provided us with imagery of England. We did some location-hunting in England while designing the views. We tried to show our respect for the culture of the country when we were designing the background images of the beautiful English countryside. We want them to see just how we appreciate that beauty in Japan.
SC: And finally, it sounds like you’ve been very busy lately. Do you get to the cinema often? What was the last film you watched?
YN: I love movies and try to watch at least two a week. There’s a cinema not five minutes from me, so I go a lot. Recently we went to watch Coco as a family. That was a masterpiece. Fantastic.
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.Find your nearest cinema and book tickets