It’s entirely by design that everybody looked at publicity materials for Mary and the Witch’s Flower and thought, ‘Oh, Studio Ghibli have a new film coming out?’ It looks just like a Ghibli film. And so it should, with Arrietty and Marnie director Yonebayashi Hiromasa at the helm and a number of his collaborators from those films present and correct. It’s also drawn in the Ghibli house style of art that, let’s face it, is Miyazaki’s style as developed from the Toei Animation aesthetic – but was unambiguously adopted as a house style by all the other directors including Miyazaki’s great and sadly departed senior, Takahata. But Ghibli this is not. It seems like the great animation house has given up trying to create a new figurehead director and is winding up feature animation production. So the young man who got to direct two of the most recent Ghibli films and who seemed to be such a good fit because he was meek and malleable, has actually gone off to a new studio. Ghibli producer Nishimura Yoshiaki has founded Studio Ponoc, and despite having to start everything from scratch – including trying to procure funding – they have produced a film that is everything a Ghibli film ought to be. Call it derivative if you like, but I call it a logical progression. And it’s wonderful to know that a new generation will be continuing the lineage of the studio and just might live up to or even surpass the accomplishments of their forebears.
And for all its imitative qualities, this felt like freedom for Yonebayashi. For the third time, he’s adapting an old, somewhat quaint British novel for his animation – but this time it’s not so peaceful and introverted. This time it’s about witches, magic, cataclysmic spells and soaring magical flight. His light, deft touch in the previous two films was appreciated, but I get the feeling he enjoys a larger and more spectacular stage, while retaining a lot of the cute, small-scale feeling.
The source material, The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, is not a book I’ve ever come across. I don’t think it’s been in print for many years. I’ve vaguely heard of her from her books The Crystal Cave, an Arthurian work beloved of hippies, and The Moon-Spinners, which Disney made into a live-action film, but I’ve never read anything she wrote. I don’t know how closely this adaptation matches the source material, but I suspect it’s pretty close. And it’s probably a good idea to use a decades-old book as your source when you’re expecting to battle accusations of unoriginality: not only did they have to get Mary well-separated from Kiki so that this wouldn’t seem overly slavish in its Ghibli imitations, but it would be all too easy for a story about a British kid going to a school for magic and proving to be a prodigy at magic and flying brooms thanks to something her family did in the past to be called imitative of Harry Potter. Instead it might just make a wider audience realise just how derivative – or, to put it more kindly, how connected with a rich legacy of similar British works – Rowling’s books really were.
While Mary and Kiki are very little alike, there are far more connections with the Ghibli tradition here than just the fact that Mary looks like Ponyo grew up to look a bit like Arrietty. Perhaps most obvious would be the echo of Miyazaki’s passion for flight. But there’s more than that. The matriarchal figure first seen formed from a huge gush of water is very Spirited Away, while the powerful, noble, unstable and dangerous force at the end bring Mononoke-hime to mind. Mary at times gets the determination of Nausicaa or the inner strength of Sheeta. The design of the school is a little bit Howl-ish in places, while the gardens have just a hint of the world of The Cat Returns. On that note, just like in Whisper of the Heart, the cats here totally steal the show. Tib the grumpy cat was hilarious.
As with the likes of Mahoutsukai no Yome, it’s fun to see England rendered through the fanciful lens of Japanese romanticism. Once again there’s a very odd take on British food, with what looked like breaded chicken, beans, dumplings and sliced tomatoes on a plate together. But at the same time they had very clearly come to England and used photos of real Shropshire houses for their backgrounds – you could even see that they had some Celebrations ready to eat! Having only ever adapted British children’s books centred on adolescent girls, I’ll be interested to see if Yonebayashi expands from there after this. Britain has always kind of been represented as an echo in Ghibli’s works, from the adaptations of British books that had their locales stripped away or changed to Japan to the scenery based on Welsh mining villages in Laputa. But it seems like Yonebayashi actually wants to set films based on British works in Britain. And that’s very entertaining for me to see.
I’ll be following his career and the developments of Studio Ponoc with interest. I hope they make many, many classic films and soon the world will say Yonebayashi in the same way they now say Miyazaki.