What Studio Ponoc’s debut could mean for Studio Ghibli’s uncertain future.
The last four years have been confusing times for Studio Ghibli fans and anime enthusiasts in general. First, in 2013, legendary director Hayao Miyazaki, who is also one of Ghibli’s co-founders, announced his retirement following the release of his film The Wind Rises. The studio still co-produced the computer-animated series Sanzoku no Musume the following year, but then a few months later another co-founder, Toshio Suzuki, declared the company would take a “brief pause” to restructure in the wake of Miyazaki’s departure — which, in turn, lead to speculation about the company’s future and whether they would ever produce animated feature films again.
In 2015, lead producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, along with several staff members, left Ghibli and founded Studio Ponoc. And now this year sees the release of their first movie, Mary and the Witch’s Flower. The animated feature is based on Mary Stewart’s novel “The Little Broomstick,” which tells the story of a young girl who, led by a black cat named Tib, finds a mysterious magic flower and a broomstick in the woods. The broomstick takes her to Endor College, where nothing is as it seems.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower was helmed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who previously directed Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There. He also wrote the screenplay with Riko Sakaguchi, who previously scripted Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Nishimura is credited as producer, and other Ghibli collaborators such as music composer Takatsugu Muramatsu (When Marnie Was There) are also part of the team.
Meanwhile, both Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki have still been active in the past couple of years. Ghibli co-produced the 2016 Academy Award nominee The Red Turtle, and Miyazaki is on the road back out of retirement with a 12-minute short film called Boro the Caterpillar (his first approach to CG animation) and confirmation earlier this year that he’s working on a feature length version with the studio. But the future of the animation house remains undefined, which makes the prospect of a Ghibli alumni-produced film even more promising.
When Miyazaki announced his retirement, both fans and the media took the news with some skepticism. It wasn’t the first time the filmmaker talked about calling it quits, and even he was aware of the frequency of the comment, to the point that he clarified that “this time, I mean it.” Although Miyazaki’s relationship with work is complex — his idea of retirement is to keep creating, only without the pressure of a deadline and to maybe, maybe have a free weekend every now and then — part of what granted more credit to his statement was Ghibli stopping production.
Even though Ghibli’s pause ultimately resulted in the departure of several staff members and the creation of Ponoc, this crossroad was a point that the company would inevitably reach with or without Miyazaki’s retirement. Unlike other animation houses, Ghibli usually retained a large portion of full-time staff, which translated to nearly considerable annual personnel expenses. While Ghibli is far from bankruptcy, part of its economic balance is intimately linked to the financial success of Miyazaki’s projects. Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There grossed just $34.1M, which is a very respectable box office revenue but doesn’t quite compare to the usual take for a Miyazaki film, which often topped $100M. Whether Miyazaki decided to retire early or later, the studio would eventually have to make important changes in the way it operates.
Moreover, the generational gap is closing in on the studio as well. Ghibli’s founders, including Miyazaki, Suzuki, and Isao Takahata, are well into their golden years (76, 68, and 81, respectively), and the company celebrated its 32nd anniversary last June. At Ponoc, Nishimura is only 39 and Yonebayashi is 44, and like Takahata and Miyazaki in Ghibli’s heyday, both have considerable experience in filmmaking (Yonebayashi also worked as an animator on Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and many others, while Nishimura produced Howl’s Moving Castle, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, and When Marnie Was There).
But it’s not only their (relative) youth or their professional credentials that leads to think that Ponoc and this second-generation of Ghibli alumni might help carry on the animation house’s tradition. Mary and the Witch’s Flower also seems to share some of Miyazaki’s trademark themes and motifs, such as a young female leading character and humanity’s relationship with nature. Likewise, the company’s name is the Croatian word for ‘midnight’, which has been interpreted as “the beginning of a new day,” in similar fashion as Ghibli’s.
While it is still early to determine the full success of Mary and the Witch’s Flower and Studio Ponoc — the movie did open pretty well in Japan last month — there is reason to believe that they might be the new wind blowing life into Studio Ghibli’s legacy in the middle of an uncertain future.
Watch a trailer for Mary and the Witch’s Flower, which GKIDS just picked up for a winter release in the US :