Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi discusses his latest heroines, 2D animation and the future of Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli.
These are interesting days for Studio Ghibli. Founders and animation legends Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata have released their final feature films -- The Wind Rises and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, respectively -- and seemingly retired from their duties at the Tokyo-based institution. Now, with the studio celebrating its 30th anniversary this June, rumors are swirling that hand-drawn animated films -- already a thing of the past at Disney and DreamWorks -- may similarly be phased out at Ghibli. Add to the mix that the studio’s latest film is a trippy, lyrical tale of a secret friendship between two emotionally fragile girls and suddenly there’s an awful lot to talk to director Hiromasa Yonebayashi about, to put it mildly.
Much like his directorial debut, The Secret World of Arrietty, Yonebayashi’s Marnie follows a youngster hoping to heal from the wounds life has inflicted on her by escaping into nature. There, she finds more than she bargained for in the beautiful and equally isolated Marnie, who lives in a picturesque manor by the sea. As Anna attempts to figure out whether her friend is real or merely a figment of her fertile imagination, another question looms even larger: could this film, with its lush backgrounds and delicate characterizations, mark the end of an era?
As Yonebayashi explains, regardless of whatever comes next, this was a tale worth telling and a journey worth taking.
James Gartler: How did you discover Joan G. Robinson’s book and decide it should become a Studio Ghibli film? I can’t help but notice that, like The Secret World of Arrietty, it also focuses on an ill child retreating into the wilderness…
Hiromasa Yonebayashi: [Producer] Toshio Suzuki was the one who gave me the book. It was a terrific, moving story, but too much of it took place inside her head for it to be suitable for animation, so I figured it was too difficult and turned it down. But as I drew some illustrations, I began to want to see this beautiful story. With Arrietty, I had regretted that I wasn’t fully able to depict the naïve emotions of the human characters, so with this film, I wanted to carefully show the inner world of Anna.
JG: Miyazaki is said to have developed the stories for his films while they were already in production, making changes along the way and having animators draw directly from his storyboards. What is your process like? Are scripts and storyboards all completed before animation begins?
HY: I’m not able to pull off the daring tricks that Miyazaki does, making up the story as he goes, so I finish almost all of the storyboard before we begin the animation work. As long as I come up with a storyboard that can hold up to any questions at that stage, the talented staff will find ways of making it even better as they work on it. My basic approach is to create a world to which the staff can keep adding.
JG: This is a film about breaking free of isolation and reconnecting with the world. Did you (and your crew) draw upon your own experiences or moments from your childhood to make Anna and Marnie’s inner turmoil more authentic?
HY: Even as a male, I can relate to an adolescent’s feeling of wanting to be seen and yet simultaneously distance oneself from others. Ultimately, all characters come from within us. As I drew Anna, I just made sure I identified as closely with her emotions as possible.
JG: Did you find it challenging to find the right body language for Anna, a character who isn’t always comfortable expressing herself?
HY: In terms of Anna’s movements, I operated on a mostly instinctive level. When some animators would show me some movements they came up with, I may feel that it doesn’t feel quite right... but tweak the timing just a little and suddenly there’s Anna. It’s hard to explain.
JG: What direction did you give composer Takatsugu Muramatsu when discussing the score for this film? How did you want the music to factor into the mystery playing out on-screen?
HY: The key thing with the music was how closely it can identify with Anna. Muramatsu said he bawled when he read the book. At that point, I figured we were more than halfway there. And the score he came up with was sweet, tender, and fit the story perfectly.
JG: The backgrounds in the movie are absolutely beautiful. How long does it take for a typical background to be completed and how many artists work on each one?
HY: It depends on the shot, but typically it takes three to four days per background. With this film, the animators first drew the layouts, which were then sent to the production designer, Yohei Taneda, and his assistants, who made their modifications. They were then turned over to the art team, who drew them, after which the production designer again made any necessary changes. That was the typical process.
JG: With both Miyazaki and Takahata now reportedly retired from Ghibli, what has changed at the studio? Is there a different creative energy or atmosphere?
HY: Miyazaki may have retired from feature animation, but he’s gung ho about making shorts, and Takahata hasn’t retired. That said, it’s difficult to make these films at a fast pace, so the company decided to scale down and wait for the right opportunity. I’ve left the company, so I can’t say with any certainty, but I imagine they’ll make another film. As for me, I’m currently developing another project with the producer of this film, Yoshiaki Nishimura.
JG: How much does the financial success of Marnie impact Ghibli’s decision to continue making hand-drawn animated films in the future?
HY: The future of Ghibli is up to Miyazaki and Suzuki, so I really don’t know. Personally, I’d like to continue making hand-drawn animation, but I think the future of Japanese animation will probably involve a combination of hand-drawn and CG.
When Marnie Was There opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, May 22 prior to expanding into limited release. Check www.marniefilm.com for theatrical listings.
James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.
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