Wearing a cool flat cap and a charming suit, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi looks like a bit like a Japanese Wes Anderson when we meet him in a London hotel one autumn morning. He’s here with producer Yoshiaki Nishimura to promote When Marnie Was There – an animated, gently fantastical drama about an isolated 12-year-old girl, Anna, and her friendship with a ghostly youngster named Marnie. The movie’s significant not just as the second film from Yonebayashi – who previously brought us the charming Arietty – but also as what is almost certainly Studio Ghibli’s final film.
Inevitably, the fate of Japan’s most beloved animation house came up in the interview that follows, but we also found time to talk about the process of making Marnie, how it differed from the long and difficult production on The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, and Yonebayashi’s memories of first working at Studio Ghibli as an in-between artist.
I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the process of adapting a work of literature for a visual medium like animation. How do you make what is an intimate drama about the friendship between two characters visual?
Yonebayashi: It’s an English classic, and I was given this by [Toshio] Suzuki, the producer. He asked me to change the setting to Japan from England. I read it, and thought it was absorbing and moving, but thought it would be very difficult to visualise as a film. Because most of it is about Anna’s internal turmoil, so I actually turned it down once. But the more I thought about it, I started to come up with things that weren’t in the original novel, like the dancing scene between Marnie and Anna, or Anna as a girl who draws. Also, we changed the setting to Japan, but we stuck with Marnie as a non-Japanese character, as she was in the original novel, with blonde hair and blue eyes.
Miyazaki wasn’t so keen on having Marnie as blonde and blue eyed, but I insisted! [Laughs]
It was brave, I must say, to make Anna such a troubled, isolated character. Was it important not to soften that, to handle it honestly?
Yonebayashi: There were a lot of discussions between the screenwriters and the producer, Mr Nishimura as well. From the beginning of the film, we had to show the illness of the mind, but at the moment in Japan, there are so many children who feel lonely and separate from others, cut off from others, even though they’re always connected by SMS. They still feel left out, or feel lonely. But when they see Marnie, maybe they could take a little step forward. If they could do that, then maybe it’ll have been a worthwhile work to do.
This is a question for Nishimura-san. He was one of the producers on Princess Kaguya. I wondered how the experience of producing that differed from Marnie, because I understand Princess Kaguya was a very difficult film to make.
Nishimura: In terms of my work, it’s exactly the same. From the concept we discussed together, to working with the director, the staff, it’s the same. And the release to the world, it’s the same. But the direction from the director [Isao Takahata] is very different. As you know, Studio Ghibli is dominated by Miyazaki and Takahata, and everybody strives to achieve what they want, what they order and produce. With Mr Yonebayashi, it’s different, because his approach was taking collaboration with the team leaders of individual sections. He isn’t top-down, he takes a more bottom-up approach. He listens to everybody. That is, I guess, because he’s rather younger than the two maestros.
Also, everybody knew that this was going to be the last of the feature-length Ghibli animations. So everybody wanted to support [it], and wanted to be there for the film.
So if this really is the last feature-length animation from Studio Ghibli, where does it go from here? Will they still produce short films, or maybe something for television in the near future?
Nishimura: There is a Ghibli museum in Japan…
Ooh yes. I’ve been!
Nishimura: Ah! Yes. Miyazaki’s plan is to produce 12 short films to be shown at the museum. If there are 12 of them, we can rotate them once a month. At the moment, they have nine, so there are three more to go. So Miyazaki’s working on that. Apart from that, there are talks of 15 to 30 second TV commercials, or TV series, but nothing is concrete.
I know Yonabayashi-san began as an inbetween artist on Princess Mononoke before working his way up to director. I wondered what his memories are of working his way up the ranks at Studio Ghibli.
Yonebayashi: I remember an episode when it was just after Ghibli, about a month in as an in between artist. At Studio Ghibli’s studio, there are windows in the ceiling, and when it’s sunny, we’ll leave it open, and when it’s raining we press a button and close the windows. But one day, I closed the window just above my desk. And Miyazaki called me into a different room. He was furious – red faced. I almost cried because Miyazaki, the world maestro, is telling me off like that! That’s what I remember.
I became key animator with Spirited Away and then Ponyo, and when I finished Ponyo, Miyazaki praised me as an animator. And then that led me to direct Arietty. I never imagined I’d direct a Ghibli film after 18 years.
With Studio Ghibli being such an envoy for 2D animation and Japanese animation, I just wondered, with this being the last feature, what is the future of traditional animation? How will it survive and maybe evolve?
Yonebayashi: I like drawing drawing physically.
Nishimura: I’m preparing myself in order not to finish hand-drawn animation. Because 2D and 3D are different things. 2D animation is an extension of paintings, but 3D is an extension of [of sculpture], so they’re completely different. What they can express are different. Of course, 2D has an advantage over 3D as well, as Miyazaki and Takahata and Yonebayashi, those directors, have proved. I’m determined not to stop that tradition.
Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Yoshiaki Nishimura, thank you very much.
When Marnie Was There is out in UK cinemas on the 31st May.