Studio Ponoc wants its anime to change the world — and escape Studio Ghibli’s shadow

Studio Ponoc wants its anime to change the world — and escape Studio Ghibli’s shadow

When Studio Ponoc premiered its first feature-length animated film, 2017’s Mary and the Witch’s Flower, audiences and critics alike championed Ponoc as the successor to Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli, which at the time seemed to be on a potentially permanent hiatus. With the studio’s latest film, The Imaginary, Ponoc is aiming for something higher. In an interview ahead of The Imaginary’s American debut on Netflix, Studio Ponoc founder Yoshiaki Nishimura told Polygon that he’s ready for Ponoc to create its own style and legacy, and move out from under Studio Ghibli’s shadow.

“With [Mary and the Witch’s Flower], I wanted to carry on [Studio Ghibli’s] conviction and the legacy they created,” Nishimura said. “For The Imaginary, I was focused more on the pure filmmaking — not something to carry on from Studio Ghibli, but the creation of film itself. How would I want to depict this imaginary world?”

Amanda and her imaginary friend Rudger, a young boy her age, laugh as they ride together on a gigantic red-breasted swallow in Studio Ponoc’s anime movie The Imaginary Image: Studio Ponoc/Netflix

Based on A.F. Harrold’s 2014 children’s book of the same name, The Imaginary centers on Rudger, the imaginary friend of a young girl named Amanda who lives alone with her newly widowed mother, Lizzie. Rudger and Amanda are inseparable, embarking on fantastical adventures in beautiful worlds conjured up by the latter’s imagination. When an accident separates them, Rudger embarks on his own journey of self-discovery while attempting to reunite with Amanda.

The Imaginary is Studio Ponoc’s first film since the 2018 anime anthology Modest Heroes, and the studio’s first feature-length movie since Mary and the Witch’s Flower, its 2017 debut. Aside from Tomorrow’s Leaves, an animated short commissioned in honor of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Ponoc has been quiet since Modest Heroes. When asked why Ponoc took so long to release a new film, Nishimura was candid: The studio simply needed the time to iterate before committing to a new animation style.

“We wanted to move forward and explore different styles,” Nishimura told Polygon. “In order to do that, we started creating shorter pieces and faced different challenges. […] That is one of the reasons why it took us as long as it did.” The 2018 death of Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, who Nishimura worked with on Takahata’s final film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, also contributed to Nishimura’s reluctance to leap into a new feature-length project.

A blond haired anime boy with brown years stares intently at something off-screen as a group of colorful characters including a red-haired girl and a pink hippo look at him from a campfire in The Imaginary. Image: Studio Ponoc/Netflix

“This is very personal for me,” Nishimura said. “Isao Takahata, who I was involved with in creating things for maybe eight or 10 years, passed away. I really had to take time to think about what kind of work we should be creating. I went into depth thinking about [the] direction I should take in creating animation after his death.”

The result of that extended period of experimentation and contemplation was The Imaginary. Directed by Yoshiyuki Momose, a former Studio Ghibli animator who also directed Tomorrow’s Leaves and the animated short Life Ain’t Gonna Lose as part of Modest Heroes, the film employs much of the same soft, pastel-and-watercolor-infused art style of those films. But it’s accentuated with CG animation, which is apparent in the early scenes, as Amanda’s imagination transforms the cramped dimensions of her house’s attic into a winter wonderland of snow-capped hills and vast forests.

A colorful attic space filled with books and toys in The Imaginary. Image: Studio Ponoc/Netflix

For Nishimura, who produced and scripted The Imaginary, an essential piece in creating the film came in the form of proprietary software created by Les Films du Poisson Rouge, a French animation studio known for its work on Netflix’s 2019 animated film Klaus. “When I saw this [technology], I said, ‘I have to use this, I need to use this,’” Nishimura told Polygon. “For The Imaginary, […] we drew 130,000 drawings. So if you really want to control the shadows and the lighting of all these drawings, [it would’ve taken] two or three times more than usual. So using this company’s technology, we were able to control this lighting and shadow digitally, where it was more efficient and we could create it faster.”

Japanese animation has significantly expanded in reach and impact over the past three decades, growing from a niche cultural export into a bona fide global phenomenon. Studio Ghibli’s films — in particular, those directed by studio co-founder Hayao Miyazaki — have played a pivotal part in the transformation of anime’s reputation across the world, despite the director’s disdain for the term itself. When asked about his time at Studio Ghibli, Nishimura explained why the studio distanced itself from “anime” as a description, and why that’s no longer the case.

A brown-haired anime girl and a blond-haired anime boy playing beneath a blanket in a colorful attic in The Imaginary. Image: Studio Ponoc/Netflix

“The reason is because 20 to 30 years ago, when [the] Western world referred to something as ‘anime,’ it included pieces where [that] involved something sexual or violent,” Nishimura told Polygon. “But as you know, there are so many diverse, different forms of anime now, and now that people have an understanding of anime as something very diversified, we don’t have to define and differentiate ourselves.”

As for the reason Studio Ponoc continues to focus primarily on creating animation for children, Nishimura says he believes it’s his purpose in life.

“When I was 14, I made a decision that I am going to live for children,” Nishimura told Polygon. “That’s why I went into the animation industry. [If I could] provide [a] message to children [about] what’s important […] in their childhood, if they would accept that message […] when they grow up 10 years or 20 years from now, [I would tell them] I believe this world is going to be a better place if they understand what is very important. The reason is, this is something I would like to share as a person who had an opportunity to spend time with Miyazaki-san and Takahata-san. We truly believe that one film can really change someone’s life. We believe that could even tie into changing the world itself. That’s why I want to face the children. That’s the reason.”

The Imaginary is streaming on Netflix now.