‘The Imaginary’ Filmmaker Yoshiaki Nishimura Talks Studio Ponoc’s Complicated Relationship with Studio Ghibli

The animated feature is on Netflix now

The Imaginary
Studio Ponoc/Netflix

“The Imaginary,” on Netflix now, is a charming hand-drawn fantasy based on a book of the same name by A.F. Harrold. It follows Rudger (voiced in the English language dub by Louie Rudge-Buchanan), the imaginary friend of a young girl named Amanda (Evie Kiszel). Together, they go on a magical odyssey, including to a town of imaginaries, where forgotten imaginary friends live.

It’s full of the kind of lush, accessible animation and fantasy concepts that you’d probably associate with Studio Ghibli. But “The Imaginary” was produced by Studio Ponoc, a relatively young Japanese animation studio that was responsible for “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” released back in 2017.

TheWrap spoke to Yoshiaki Nishimura, a Studio Ghibli alum, who founded Studio Ponoc and wrote and produced “The Imaginary.” Nishimura talks us through the inception of “The Imaginary,” the connection with Studio Ghibli and the decision to lean into intensity (occasionally) in an otherwise genial film. (Hey, there’s a character called Cruncher-of-Bones.)

Let’s talk about Studio Ponoc. It was formed when Studio Ghibli looked like it was going away. Studio Ghibli came back. Where does that leave Studio Ponoc?

How Studio Ponoc came into its conception is that Studio Ghibli dissolved its production division. There have been some collaborations still going on with Studio Ghibli. For “The Boy and the Heron,” they didn’t have enough animators to work on it, so we have assisted in the process. But I think when it comes to Studio Ponoc, I believe that there was a sense of duty, almost sense of responsibility that I felt. Because, just to give you a bit of a context, Japan suffers from a declining population. The number of children are going down, year by year. And many animation studios don’t produce enough films targeted towards children, a lot of the animation is created for adults. I really felt a sense of danger that there may not be enough films that children could enjoy today. I really wanted there to be films for them to enjoy. And it’s difficult for me to comment on Studio Ghibli itself now, because I’m not part of them. However, it is part of my history. It was definitely part of my creative journey. Obviously, our films are not just for children. They are cross-generational, but it’s something that I really want to make sure that children should be able to enjoy. It is our calling to make these films.

Where did “The Imaginary” come from?

I came across the original book at a local bookstore. I am an animation filmmaker, but I just think about filmmaking 24/7, basically. I read children’s books all the time, whether it be just children’s books or young adult fiction, but I try and read a lot of it. And one day I came across the books by Ashley Harold and they were great. They were very interesting. But that’s not the reason why I chose it. It was one of the books that really captured this sense that I have been thinking about for a long time, this sense of something that is invisible, but exists within us. Whether it be the unspoken happiness or unspoken grief, we all carry that sense of something that’s all around us, but invisible. How that’s depicted in this book was an imaginary friend. And that’s really something I thought oh, this captures what I had been trying to portray.

The world of imaginary friends exists in this dreamlike fantasy space. Can you talk about that?

Not so much. You’re asking the question from the visual imagery creation point, but we just need to explain a few things. It’s basically partly due to the pandemic, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to really see what matters, what is crucial in the world. Partly because we couldn’t really understand what children were going through, what kind of effects that pandemic would have on children. But also, if you look at it from the global scale as well, we couldn’t really see what the other countries were dealing with those challenges as well. And that’s just one component of it, but it’s just becoming increasingly more difficult to really understand and capture and truly understand that and to empathize with what somebody is going through. It was partly the pandemic, but it also partly the internet, partly the data that we are bombarded by. And it’s so easy to see and search for any visual images, any, anything that you look for when there are AI generated images floating around as well. But that is making it so difficult to really understand the crux of what we carry, and what we suffer from as well. I thought, if I could capture that sense that we all want we all experience, becoming a lot more distanced by from each other, I thought if I could capture that, and they can really show it within the film, then a lot of people may really feel like, Ah, I know that feeling. I know about sense. And then the film itself could connect each other to all of us.

It was nice seeing a family film with a little bit of danger and some edge. Was having that element important to you?

We did question before the production, whether those scenes were too scary. But when I was speaking to my two children and when I saw how they see the world and what they were viewing as well, I really recognize that their perceptions and what they are facing right now are completely different to what I thought the current children are ready for. It’s partly because of what’s happening in the world, be it Ukraine or any international situations that we are facing. But also my children have viewed the images from the earthquake, the great earthquakes of Japan as well – extremely scary, really threatening images. The world that they live in is really filled with those scary images. It’s impossible to protect them. They have been exposed constantly. And that’s why sit would be a lie for us to create this world in animation, where everything is peaceful and everything is great and dandy and we didn’t want to tell a lie. We wanted to create the world based on reality that they’re experiencing. Because that’s what they’re seeing on TV, internet. And I believe that that is one of our duties as filmmakers. This is not something that we escaped from and we believe that the audience wouldn’t escape from what they’re consuming as well. Rhe goal for this film was to really question and give an answer to the method and how those challenges could be overcome. For the children.

“The Imaginary” is on Netflix right now.

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