An underwater fantasy epic. A slice-of-life drama about a kid suffering from an egg allergy. An invisible man who becomes an unlikely hero. All three of these stories are segments from Studio Ponoc‘s Modest Heroes, an anthology film following up the animation studio’s highly anticipated inaugural feature film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower.
Modest Heroes comes to the U.S. (in theaters January 10 and January 12) amidst a sea of buzz, much like last year’s Mary and the Witch’s Flower, an enchanting and serene fantasy adventure directed by the director of The Secret World of Arrietty. Why so much buzz around a rookie animation studio? Because it’s made up of chiefly Studio Ghibli alumni.
It’s no surprise that Studio Ponoc is being informally positioned as the successor to Studio Ghibli in the wake of legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki‘s retirement (and subsequent return). The fledgling studio was founded by Yoshiaki Nishimura, the Oscar-nominated producer behind Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya, and is staffed by the 150 Ghibli employees who were left without a workplace after Ghibli’s film division shuttered in 2014. But though many rising companies would shrink at the prospect of being compared to one of the greatest animation studios to ever exist, Nishimura is embracing it.
“At Studio Ponoc it was really our intention to carry on the Ghibli spirit,” Nishimura told /Film in an interview via translator. “That was our biggest personal challenge to meet that high bar.”
At first glance, that spirit may in be the familiar warm, vibrant animation style of Studio Ghibli that Miyazaki established right off the bat with 1984’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind — and hasn’t changed much since then outside of Takahata’s films. And looking at Modest Heroes‘ first segment, that seems to be the case. But the anthology film, which Nishimura said presented an opportunity for directors Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Yoshiyuki Momose, and Akuhiko Yamashita to “explore new ways of approaching storytelling and expression,” is a bold collection of radically different segments that range from gauzily animated family dramas, to a high-concept tragicomedy that operates in highly detailed shades of grey.
“At the end of the day, for us, we’re always looking for the right expression to tell the story,” Nishimura said. “So whatever ‘style’ that may be, we will always choose the right animated expression in order to tell the story.”
You started off working as a producer for Studio Ghibli. What made you decide three years ago to found Studio Ponoc?
What happened at the end of 2014 was that the production division and the film division [of Studio Ghibli] was shut down and at that time, Miyazaki-san announced his retirement —which, of course, he is making films now — but at the time it left 150 of us who wanted to keep making films like we had: universal films that could be enjoyed from children to adults. So that’s how Studio Ponoc came to be.
What were the biggest challenges of founding Studio Ponoc?
When we were at Ghibli, you had the environment, you had the Ghibli brand and you had the staff that was well established. So starting from zero meant that we didn’t have a brand or finances as well as the technology…we had to start from scratch. So that was very challenging.
Studio Ponoc released its inaugural feature film last year with Mary and the Witch’s Flower. What was it like developing that film as a brand new studio?
The director of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, [Hiromasa] Yonebayashi and I had already done two full animation features at Ghibli together so we were very used to going through development, production, and all the way through distribution. So at Studio Ponoc it was really our intention to carry on the Ghibli spirit. That was our biggest personal challenge to meet that high bar. So we’re really very happy that Mary and the Witch’s Flower came out and it was a success.
Why did you choose and did you always intend to choose Mary and the Witch’s Flower as Studio Ponoc’s first film?
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is, as you know, about a flower that grows once every seven years. And at first Mary steps out on a magical adventure but then she realizes on her journey that she doesn’t have to rely on magic, that she can rely on what she has. That was the theme that director Yonebayashi and I wanted to put into a feature and to be able to teach children that as well. So we thought Mary and the Witch’s Flower was a very appropriate first animated feature for Studio Ponoc.
How would you describe Studio Ponoc’s goal as an animation studio?
At Studio Ponoc we love children, and we love to bring stories to children. And in this day and age, overall the world population is starting to tip more toward older adults rather than a younger population, and then you have Netflix and Hulu and all those streaming services that tend to gear toward adults. So our intention is to really create something specifically for children that they can call their own.
Because of the animation style of Mary and the Witch’s Flower resembling Ghibli films, and the number of Ghibli alums at Studio Ponoc, people have talked about your studio as Ghibli’s successor. Is there a pressure that comes with that expectation?
No, there is actually no pressure at all because we have a generation that grew up watching Director Takahata and Miyazaki-san’s work so not only do we want to carry on the spirit of Ghibli, but we can as well.
Now that Hayao Miyazaki is coming out of retirement and restarting Studio Ghibli, has that affected things at Studio Ponoc?
First and foremost, as fans we’re very excited that he’s back to creating more animated features, and unfortunately Mr. Takahata passed away, but at Studio Ponoc we are looking to create animated features that are better or just as good as what Studio Ghibli has done.
Your follow-up film to Mary and the Witch’s Flower is an anthology film, Modest Heroes. So why did you decide to follow up with this film?
We decided to create a series of shorts, because unlike a full feature, we can explore different styles, themes, and also expressions. In the case of a feature, you have to continue a certain theme for a long time whereas for the shorts, we were able to explore new ways of approaching storytelling and expression. So we took this opportunity to be able to challenge ourselves in new ways.
Does this mean in the future we’ll see different animation styles and experimental projects from Studio Ponoc?
Everyone tends to think that Ghibli has just one style, but that’s when Director Takahata came in — if you look at Princess Kaguya and My Neighbors The Yamadas, those are different. If you look at the entirety of Ghibli, there is no Ghibli-specific style. One thing we learned while we were at Ghibli was that it’s just not about your story because animation can push boundaries of storytelling and expression. It has to be a combination of story and expression, it can’t be very expression centric or animation-centric. It won’t become the finalized story and expression that we are looking for. At the end of the day, for us, we’re always looking for the right expression to tell the story. So whatever “style” that may be, we will always choose the right animated expression in order to tell the story.
What new projects can we expect from Studio Ponoc?
Most are in still development, but you will be seeing animation from us that are for children but are something that also adults can enjoy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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