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How Yoshiaki Nishimura’s ‘The Imaginary’ Reflects Studio Ponoc’s Noble Mission

The new 2D animated film, directed by Yoshiyuki Momose, explores the intersection of imagination and reality, advancing the studio's efforts to create deeply emotional and innovative works for children that can influence adults as well.

When Oscar-nominated producer Yoshiaki Nishimura started at Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli two decades ago as part of the production team for Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), the young filmmaker learned an important lesson.

“One film has the power to change one person's life,” shares Nishimura. “And that, in turn, has the power to change the world.”

Whether or not any of Nishimura’s or Miyazaki’s films could be credited with such influence (it’s certainly arguable), Nishimura approaches each film with importance and intent, like it’s either the last he’ll ever make or the last a viewer will ever see.  

Having spent many years producing Ghibli films such as The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and When Marnie Was There (each nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar), Nishimura founded his own studio, Studio Ponoc, in April of 2015, joined by former Studio Ghibli animators like Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) and Yoshiyuki Momose (Grave of the Fireflies, Spirited Away). Since its founding, Studio Ponoc has produced two commercials, the short Tomorrow’s Leaves, the anthology film Modest Heroes: Ponoc Short Films Theatre, Volume 1 and two feature films: 2017’s Mary and the Witch's Flower and The Imaginary, releasing on Netflix Friday, July 5. 

Based on the award-winning novel of the same name by English author and poet A.F. Harrold, and directed by Momose, The Imaginary tells the story of a grand adventure taking place in a world where reality and imagination intersect, not unlike the world of animation. The film’s main character is Rudger (or “Roger”), a boy who is invisible to all but the child who imagined him. Born from the mind of a young girl named Amanda, Rudger’s days are filled with joy, as he joins his friend in a world of play and pretend from the confines of Amanda’s attic. That is, until Amanda’s memories of Rudger begin to fade. Eventually, Rudger finds he must face an inevitable truth: As people’s memories fade, “Imaginaries” will disappear from their view and be forgotten. Confounded by his own fate, Rudger clings to a glimmer of hope as he comes across a town where other Imaginaries like him continue to live. 

Rudger and his new friends embark on their ultimate odyssey, an unseen crusade, as the future of Rudger’s family and loved ones hangs in the balance, and the hidden truth of the “oath in the attic” unfurls its secrets: the world is cruel and yet full of love. Will imagination win or will reality seize the day?

Check out the trailer:

“I, myself, did not have an imaginary friend, but these concepts were not unfamiliar to me,” notes Nishimura, writer and producer of the film. “I was a child similar to Amanda, always imagining things like, ‘What if the world was faced with a disaster and was ending, and there were five children selected to save it with me being one of those five children?’ I played a lot of games like that and that experience, as well as my own children being young and imaginative when I found this story, helped me to smoothly enter into the mind of Rudger.”

In the early stages of The Imaginary’s production, Nishimura says he also noticed a parallel between Rudger and animation creators that greatly influenced the way he approached the storytelling. 

“Animation is made for children, often inspired by children, and has a unique ability to speak to them and to show children who are sad or have many fears, that these are things they don’t have to walk through alone,” notes Nishimura. “But animation is also something that, once the child grows up, they might forget. They may not remember the characters and stories we animators made for them or feel like they are too old to keep living in that world. Even so, I believe something very important still remains within the child. Even if they’ve forgotten, something that the children experienced through these films lives on within them. And then, when they grow up and when they're facing something difficult, that thing that they felt as a child remains and gives support and says, ‘We can do this together. You are not alone.’”

He continues, “Creating a work that makes a child feel like, ‘Oh, they are on my side,” is one of the things I was trying to accomplish with The Imaginary. But I also felt like I was creating a film about the experiences of animators around the world.”

This is one of the reasons Studio Ponoc partnered with French animation studio Les Films du Poisson Rouge. It was also because the studio had made a name for itself after aiding in groundbreaking lighting and texturing techniques on Sergio Pablos’ 2019 Netflix film Klaus. On that film, the French studio expanded on their 2D-animation interval software, Houdoo, developed in-house, to create lighting and shadow effects that would make the images look nearly 3D, without losing any of their 2D integrity. Studio Ponoc collaborated with French creatives Anaël Seghezzi, who oversaw texture and lighting, and producer Catherine Estévez to embrace the challenge of expressing textures in The Imaginary reminiscent of Dutch Golden Age painters such as Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijnm and Johannes Vermeer. 

It’s a pioneering venture for Japanese Animation. 

“When you look at Japanese animation for the past 30 or 40 years, the character style hasn't really changed too much,” says Nishimura. “The background scenes have become very refined, but the character animation stayed simple. That's because there are limitations in hand-drawn, hand-painted animation. I’ve always thought that, if we could go beyond this, then we could create some new, more dramatic expressions. Then, I found this light and shading technology by Les Films du Poisson Rouge. And I said, ‘This is it.’”

Japanese animation studios have dived into producing fully 3DCG animated projects before, more notably in Lupin III: The First and Earwig and the Witch. But Nishimura makes clear that their partnership with Les Films du Poisson Rouge was not due to wanting a 3D look for The Imaginary and its characters. 

“We wanted a way to dive deeper into the emotions of the human experience,” explains Nishimura. “Because we are new and we don't have that same history or legacy as studios like Studio Ghibli, we are very eager and very passionate about trying something new and pairing our stories with new technology or working with people from a totally different country.”

Still, the producer says there is a “golden rule” he and his team will continue to carry over from their time at Ghibli. 

“We all believe stories made for children are still able to influence the views of the parents or other grown-ups,” says Nishimura. “In order for me to work on The Imaginary, I really had to face my past. Because we're dealing with memories from childhood, when I was trying to write, I became Rudger in my mind. And the first thing that came to my mind as Rudger was that, though I had never disappeared before, I was scared of disappearing. This was the exact fear that I had as a child at 10 years old and, in some ways, I still carried it with me as an animator.”

He adds, “I had to face what I dealt with as a child, and also understand what my children were dealing with, and also what the children of the crew members were dealing with. We had to address these concerns before we could create an animation that would speak to children. So, I went back into my memories and held the hand of my childhood self so I could create a Rudger that would hold other children’s hands. And that’s something we would like to carry on with Studio Ponoc.”

So, the question remains, ‘Will imagination win, or will reality seize the day?’ Perhaps some of the answer lies in Studio Ponoc’s name. 

“Ponoc is a Serbo-Croatian word for ‘midnight,’ and midnight is the connecting point of the old day and the new day,” shares Nishimura. “Maybe it sounds overly romantic, but we feel strongly about promoting peace for children. And creating films that heal our past and promote peaceful futures is an important part of why Studio Ponoc exists.”

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at