By Erin Caine
Studio Ponoc is taking its first, resolute steps forward into a new and exciting era for cinema, and will bring rise to an emotional and visually breathtaking age of animation. Ponoc, a Japanese animation company founded just three years ago, has a name that derives from the Croatian word ponoć, or “midnight” — the point at which one day becomes another. Producer Yoshiaki Nishimura founded the company in April 2015, bringing with him the fresh talents of Studio Ghibli, Ponoc’s parent company. Ghibli, one of the most well-known and beloved studios in the industry, has established itself as a major force in animation over the last 30 years, due in large part to the talent of directors such as the legendary Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Ghibli’s catalogue consists of time-honored classics such as “My Neighbor Totoro,” Oscar-winning “Spirited Away,” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” The fledgling Ponoc, determined to carry Ghibli’s creative torch and forge its own path simultaneously, certainly has a lot to prove to the world.
When Ghibli closed its production division in 2014 many employees had a strong desire to carry on Ghibli’s legacy and continue to make animation according to the established visual style and singular creative methods. Enter Ponoc, including, most notably, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, up-and-coming industry star and formerly Ghibli’s youngest director. During his years with Ghibli, Yonebayashi did important key animation and directed two films: “Arrietty” and Oscar-nominated “When Marnie Was There.” When Yonebayashi joined Ponoc, he then took on the daunting task of directing Ponoc’s first feature film, “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” released in 2017 and shown in American theaters earlier this year.
Yonebayashi’s “Mary” both pays an impressive homage to Ghibli and reassures fans that the wonder and spirit of Ghibli classics can still be conveyed in the right (and rightful) hands. From its fixation on magical realms and breathtaking visuals to its plucky, young heroine, the film is formulaically Ghibli. Perhaps in the case of future Ponoc projects, following too closely to the blueprints of previous Ghibli films would only limit their creativity. For a first film, however, it’s an emotionally rewarding experience to see that the vibrant imagination of works from Miyazaki and Takahata can be carried on by those who learned under them. In a post-credits interview, Nishimura fondly described Ghibli’s animation style as not necessarily replicating how things really look — such as simply copying sceneries from photographs — but rather capturing the essence of how things feel. He also stressed the necessity of actually visiting and immersing oneself in the locations used as reference in films, a groundbreaking industry practice for which Ghibli became known.
As for the future of Ponoc, those involved in the company have enough passion and talent to make it a bright one. Nishimura, in an interview with The Verge, shared the studio’s next project: four short films, one directed by Yonebayashi. They are eager, of course, to continue making feature-length films, as well. In the early stages of Ponoc’s journey, it’s important to remember that many of Ghibli’s most popular and beloved films were released several years, even decades, after its founding in 1985, but now they can truly begin to hit the big screen.