Coming up in the animation ranks at Studio Ghibli as an in-between and key animator before making his directorial debut with The Secret World of Arrietty, and earning his first Oscar nomination for 2014’s When Marnie Was There, Japanese director Hiromasa Yonebayashi struck out on his own this year with Mary and the Witch’s Flower.
Based on The Little Broomstick by English novelist Mary Stewart, this dynamic first feature from Yoshiaki Nishimura’s Studio Ponoc tells the story of Mary, a young girl growing up in the English countryside who is unexpectedly introduced to a world of witches. Gorgeously designed, the anime fantasy film sought to meet the high standard that Studio Ghibli had achieved for decades, with fewer resources and much less time.
Speaking with Deadline, Yonebayashi and Nishimura detailed the challenges of mounting the project and the reason Mary made sense as the new studio’s first feature.
How did Mary Stewart’s novel come to you, and what compelled you to adapt it into a feature film?
Hiromasa Yonebayashi: My previous film at Studio Ghibli was When Marnie Was There, and that film dealt a lot with the internal feelings of a young girl. It was a very quiet film. As the first film after we left Studio Ghibli and formed our own, Studio Ponoc, I wanted to have it be a feature with an energetic, acts-before-she-thinks kind of heroine.
I wanted to be able to draw animation with a lot of dynamic movement. Yoshiaki and I were searching for a project that would fit that wish of ours, and we came upon The Little Broomstick.
Beyond the source material, was the film fueled by any other visual or storytelling inspirations?
Yonebayashi: The original story had a lot of speedy action that makes your palms sweat with action scenes. In terms of turning it into a film, I thought it would be helpful to have another theme, and the theme that I came upon was transformation. Transformation of animals was one theme; the other one is the transformation of Mary, herself. At first, she dislikes and lacks confidence in aspects of herself, but she faces her own, internal self and transforms into a stronger girl. Doctor Dee and Madam Mumblechook are trying to transform others by their transformation experiments. I thought of the kinds of issues that we face in the present day, as to what we should change and what we should keep, could relate to a kind of new magic for our present day.
What challenges came with producing Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Studio Ponoc’s first feature?
Yoshiaki Nishimura: At the end of 2014, when the production division of Studio Ghibli was closed, there were those of us who wanted to continue to make good animation films, so we founded Studio Ponoc. There were basically two challenges that we had, making Mary and The Witch’s Flower. One was that everybody knows Studio Ghibli’s high quality—everybody around the world has seen it. The fact that we had to start from zero and approach that quality with a much lower budget, that was a big challenge. We had to gather the staff, and we had to come up with a film that people who loved Studio Ghibli films would enjoy watching, in three years. Something that Studio Ghibli had a 30 year history of providing, presenting such films.
How did you approach your depiction of the English countryside, and the world of magic Mary inhabits?
Yonebayashi: The original story shows a great love of the British countryside and we wanted to respect that. Even with our low budget, we went all the way to England to look at the English countryside and the buildings there, so that we could bring them into the film. I noticed that it was very different from the Japanese world. It was a lot of colors that were different, and we were able to use those aspects in the film. I think that made a big difference to our filmmaking.
For the real-world scenes, I wanted to make them as exact as possible. But for the magical world, I wanted to create an opposite effect, to have things be rather artificial. Even the plants in the indoor college garden, to have those be kind of mechanical looking, and the colors be artificial, as well.
In terms of the building styles within the fantasy world—for example, in Harry Potter, it’s all gothic buildings. I wanted to not rely on one style, but have a mixture of different styles. I think that was the big challenge for the creators, to draw all those different types of buildings.
What inspired the look of the many fantastical creatures seen in the film?
Yonebayashi: Those creatures were transformed animals. Of course, they appear in the original story as well. With the staff, we discussed a lot about how to design those transformed animals. Our main challenge was not to make them into characters. They’re transformed animals. If they turn into characters, the audience might become a little bit too sympathetic with them. We wanted to show that they were animals that have been transformed. That was a difficulty.
How did you get Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent on board for the English voice cast, and what was it like working with two casts of actors in the making of this film?
Yonebayashi: I wasn’t directly involved with the English-language version. I did see the English-language version, and I’m very pleased with how such a variety of voices was achieved. Kate Winslet was wonderful as Madam Mumblechook, and the Flanagan role was played wonderfully, with a really unique voicing. And course, Mary’s role was really a lovely characterization.
Can you explain your process more generally, when it comes to character design? How long did it take to find the right look for Mary and her real-life counterparts?
Yonebayashi: In the story, of course, Mary and Peter are real characters, and then Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee were the fantasy characters. For Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee, I didn’t want to depict them just as pure, evil villains. They had their own beliefs and thoughts, and were trying to do the best that they could do. Of course, their efforts were not going well, so it led to conflict. Mary wants to change herself, and to move on, and go from there as a stronger person. That was what I wanted to depict. Of course, Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee were doing something that I think is not a good thing to do, which is to transform others, whereas Mary was trying to transform herself. All of them are trying to make a better world, but some of the ways they do it are not necessarily the best way.
How did you achieve the dynamic range of motion you set out to realize with this film, particularly with Mary flying around on her broom?
Yonebayashi: In order to show that kind of motion in a very vast expanse, throughout, in the sky where she flies around, required huge drawings of the background art, to allow her to do that. That was a major effort. One of the reasons I wanted to have her be so motion-filled and so active is to show the energy of Mary— that she runs to things, rather than just being passive and quiet. I wanted to depict this so that the audience could get some sort of encouragement, so they could take their next step in their lives.
Fathom Events and GKIDS are proud to present this special premiere event of “Mary and The Witch’s Flower,” in select movie theaters nationwide, English-dubbed at 7:00 PM local time and subtitled at 8:00 PM local time on Thursday, January 18. Full theatrical release begins on January 19th in select theaters nationwide.