For nearly 30 years Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli was the art form's gold standard, churning out classics like Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), Princess Mononoke (1997) Spirited Away (2001) and Howl's Moving Castle (2004). But when director and Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement in 2014, fans around the world wondered what would happen to contemporary animation with a Totoro-sized hole in it.
This weekend, American audiences will get an unexpected answer when Mary and the Witch's Flower, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, hits theaters.
The film is the first feature from Studio Ponoc, a new Japanese animation studio formed by numerous Studio Ghibli veterans, and it gives animation lovers a peek into the future. But Yonebayashi, who trained under Miyazaki, tells Newsweek that he's not necessarily interested in drawing comparisons between Witch's Flower and his work at Ghibli.
"The last movie I made at Studio Ghibli was When Marnie Was There, a rather quiet film exploring the interior feelings of a young girl," Yonebayashi explained through a translator. "As an animator on other films, however, I became quite adept at fast-paced action scenes. We chose to make Mary and the Witch's Flower an energetic film, to let it tell the world that we're a new company."
Ponoc's first film follows a child named Mary (voiced in the English language release by The BFG's Ruby Barnhill) who finds a magic flower in the woods and discovers that witchcraft runs in her family. It's certainly energetic—Mary whips around the idyllic English countryside on her witch's broom—and the animation is lovely in a way Ghibli fans will immediately recognize—every plate of food in Mary's world bubbles and steams like Ponyo 's bowls of ramen. But what makes the film exceptional is how it distances itself from Ghiblian adventures.
No spoilers, but the way Mary deals with what she goes through in the film is an outright rejection of the previous studio's bear-hug embrace of magic and witchcraft. And that was deliberate: Mary and the Witch's Flower is Ponoc's political statement on youth in Japan, Yonebayashi says.
"In the last 10 years, Japan has faced earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear accidents," he explains. "We feel a lot of anxiety and fear, and many of us are uncertain about our future. We're finding that we can no longer rely on the mindset that many used in the past. Japanese people have long felt that invisible things affect us greatly, and that we are pushed and pulled by these forces, as if by magic."
Yonebayashi believes a new Japan, led by young people, must be marked by determination and grit. And in that spirit, Mary is a hero for contemporary Japan. "If there is a present-day magic, a magic for our time, it's in the way Mary moves forward with her own abilities. She falls down, gets scraped up, faces difficult circumstances and then overcomes them. I think the audience can learn from her and take the next step in our own lives."
Miyazaki fans might be aghast at that point of view. But it's a refreshing, and perhaps necessary, evolution of the films Ghibli and now Ponoc create.
Take Spirited Away, for example. It's rightly hailed as one of the greatest animated films of all time. But its heroine, Chihiro, gets trapped in the spirit world, spends the first act panicking and whining and only escapes by acquiescing to her magical environment. (Even demanding characters like No-Face and the witch Yubaba's baby, who seem difficult and selfish at first, are rewarded only when they become more docile and polite.) Every one of Chihiro's attempts to save herself is wrong, and she only finds her freedom by listening to instructions from older, magical characters.
Now compare Chihiro to Mary: She begins her adventure with a chip on her shoulder, and her refusal to submit to her elders and the magic they're obsessed with keeps her alive. It's a seismic change, not only in the storytelling but the message it presents to viewers.
"I want kids to become more assertive, like Mary. I want them to feel active and in charge of themselves," he says. "I think if we can start to feel close to this kind of heroine as a culture, Japanese kids might feel encouraged, as if they're getting a pat on the back and a push from behind at the same time."
The task of announcing Studio Ponoc as a legitimate successor to Studio Ghibli is not an easy one. But with Mary and the Witch's Flower, Yonebayashi follows Mary's lead, staking his and Ponoc's claim actively and assertively. That the film is also a subversive critique of 21st Japanese culture just helps Ponoc own its place in the animation world.