When celebrated animator and director Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement in 2013, the fate of Studio Ghibli, the storied animation house he spearheaded alongside Isao Takahata, was uncertain–sort of.
Widely considered the Walt Disney of Japan, Miyazaki has been universally praised for staying true to his hand-drawn, 2D style in the age of CGI, with films including My Neighbor Totoro, Academy Award winner Spirited Away, and The Wind Rises, which was supposed to be his last feature. However, Miyazaki is apparently coming out of retirement with a new film How Do You Guys Live?, and his son Goro Miyazaki is working on a feature as well through the studio. Even though Studio Ghibli doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon, Miyazaki’s initial plans for retirement and the temporary shutdown on production that followed prompted some Studio Ghibli alumni to strike out on their own with Studio Ponoc.
Founded by producer Yoshiaki Nishimura and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (When Marnie Was There, The Secret World of Arrietty), Studio Ponoc is in a unique position. Nishimura and Yonebayashi have made it clear that they want to continue in the same animation style they worked on at Studio Ghibli, but in order for the company to survive, it will have to find its own, distinctive lane–especially with Studio Ghibli still around. It’s a little early to tell, but Studio Ponoc’s new release seems to be a first (and symbolic) step in the right direction.
Based on Mary Stewart’s children’s book The Little Broomstick, Mary and The Witch’s Flower follows a young girl who stumbles upon an enchanted flower that gives her temporary magical powers, and access to a university for witches. When things go awry, she has to rely on more than borrowed enchantment.
“When Mary loses her magic powers and decides that she must fulfill her promise to help save her friend, that sort of overlaps with my feeling of having left Studio Ghibli and into this new phase, where the future is uncertain for us but we still need some kind of courage to go into that uncertainty,” says Yonebayashi, who worked at Studio Ghibli for nearly 20 years.
In addition to maintaining the animation style of Studio Ghibli, Yonebayashi says he wants to continue Miyazaki and Takahata’s vision of anchoring their films with deeper themes, like children of war (Grave of the Fireflies) or nature preservation (Princess Mononoke)–just in his own way. What Yonebayashi is primarily focused on is offering encouragement in trying times.
“One of the things that Studio Ghibli was very good at was to use whatever current topics that were in the world and put those into the films–that’s what I would like to do,” Yonebayashi says. “In our current world, we have lots of news and situations that make it seem like the world is unstable. So within my work, I want to encourage and push the people who are watching the film into the next step of their lives.”
As for Studio Ponoc’s next steps, it’s currently developing four short films with an eye toward more features. Even though Mary and The Witch’s Flower is far from the caliber of storytelling that Studio Ghibli has developed, it’s not completely off the mark. As a review from IndieWire so eloquently sums it up: “It has the taste and texture of a vegan hot dog, and ultimately the same effect–a lie that satisfies those who can’t shake their craving for the truth.”
That shouldn’t suggest that Studio Ponoc isn’t capable of doing better–it’s merely still making its way out from under a rather large shadow. Whatever Studio Ponoc puts out will undoubtedly be compared to the work of Studio Ghibli–and Yonebayashi knows it. Carving out an identity that’s distinct from one as renowned as Studio Ghibli is a tall order, but one that Yonebayashi is dedicated to fulfilling.
“Even when I made my films at Studio Ghibli I was being compared to Hayao Miyazaki and his films, and of course [Mary and The Witch’s Flower] is being compared to the past studio Ghibli films,” Yonebayashi says. “I’m working on a new project and I’m constantly thinking about what I can do in a new and different way. And it’s difficult to create something new but I’m finding new expressions as to how I want to present my work.”