A new Ghibli? The Dawn of Studio Ponoc

As a collection of shorts from Studio Ponoc heads to Edinburgh International Film Festival, we ask if the anime house can fill the void left by Studio Ghibli

Preview by Ross McIndoe | 13 Jun 2019
  • Modest Heroes

“Ponoc” means midnight. Some people would associate that with the darkest, loneliest point in the day, with things coming to an end. For Studio Ponoc, it is about the chance to start something new.

When Hayao Miyazaki, the godfather of Japanese animation, announced his retirement in 2013, it seemed that the world was to lose not only one of its finest filmmakers but also the studio he had founded. There had been talk for years over who would take the reins at Studio Ghibli once Miyazaki stepped away. His son, Gorō, had tried his hand with Tales of Earthsea (2006) before collaborating with his father on From up on Poppy Hill (2011), while Hiromasa Yonebayashi became the studio’s youngest ever director with 2010’s Arrietty and followed it with 2014’s Oscar-nominated When Marnie was There. While none of these attempts quite hit the heights of Ghibli classics like My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, they made it clear that there were talented hands for the studio to be passed on to. But it was not to be.

As of 2013, Hayao Miyazaki was done and so was Studio Ghibli. A few years later Miyazaki’s cohort, Ghibli co-founder and esteemed director Isao Takahata would pass away. It seemed that an era was truly over, 35 years of endlessly imaginative, unbendingly empathetic animated storytelling coming to a close. A dark time, as one of the great lights of the film world quietly went out. But the darkest point comes right before the new light starts to shine.

Film critics with an eye on animation have long been eager to declare a successor to Miyazaki. Studio Ghibli’s wayward son, Mamoru Hosoda, left the studio unhappily in 2002 and went on to stake a powerful claim to the title of true successor with films like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), Summer Wars (2009) and the Oscar-nominated Mirai (2018). In 2016, Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name became the fourth-highest grossing film of all time in Japan and won rave reviews from across the film world. That same year, Naoko Yamada came through with her astonishingly accomplished debut, A Silent Voice.

All told, there were no shortage of candidates to duke it out for Miyazaki’s throne. But there was only one who could trace their lineage directly back to the father of Totoros and Kodama. Studio Ponoc was founded in 2015 by former Ghibli duo Yoshiaki Nishimura and Hiromosa Yonebayashi. Working with a staff composed largely of former Ghibli employees, their first feature, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, arrived in 2017. Its rainbow-tinted magical flourishes and the delicate care painted into its every frame made it clear that this was a studio capable of carrying on the Ghibli legacy.

Just to disrupt this tidy “passing on the mantle” narrative, Hayao Miyazaki announced in 2017 that he and Studio Ghibli were back in the game, working alongside his son on a film that promised to deliver never-before-seen animation techniques. The light may be dying, but Ghibli’s beloved curmudgeon is not yet done raging against it.

Whatever happens next with Studio Ghibli, its offspring is already carving out a path of its own. Ponoc will arrive in Edinburgh with the first volume of its animated anthology, Modest Heroes, featuring three short films directed by former Ghibli stars Yonebayashi, Akihiko Yamashita and Yoshiyuki Momose. Two of the stories are fantastical tales of invisible salarymen and underwater realms, while the other is a small-scale drama about food allergies and the difficulty of juggling parenthood and career goals.  

For Ghibli fans, that balance sounds cosily familiar, even if the format is a little different. A new day is coming, and it’s looking very bright indeed.

Modest Heroes – Ponoc Short Film Theatre, 27 Jun, Filmhouse 2, 11pm – tickets here

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