Thursday, July 18, 2024

Interview With “The Imaginary” Producer & Screenwriter Yoshiaki Nishimura

Yoshiaki Nishimura is the founder of Studio Ponoc and the producer and screenwriter of its new animated feature film, “The Imaginary,” directed by Yoshiyuki Momose. He previously earned two Academy Award nominations for producing “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” in 2013 and “When Marnie Was There” in 2014. Formerly of Studio Ghibli, he also worked on “Howl’s Moving Castle” before starting up Studio Ponoc, which has produced “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” “Modest Heroes,” “Tomorrow’s Leaves” and now, “The Imaginary.” Nishimura was kind enough to spend a few minutes answering questions about his animation studio’s latest, which can now be streamed on Netflix.

I recall that when you founded Studio Ponoc, Miyazaki announced his retirement, and Studio Ghibli moved away from feature animation. Now that both are back, how do you see Studio Ponoc’s role in this new landscape?

First, I am truly delighted that Miyazaki-san completed “The Boy and the Heron.”  Directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata are the “creative hometown” for all of the creators at Studio Ponoc.

But nothing has changed at Studio Ponoc since its founding.  While we wholeheartedly embrace our connection to Studio Ghibli, we are not making films while looking to the past.  Our core filmmaking philosophy at Studio Ponoc is to be a friend of children in the future.  By putting children at the center of what we create and considering what today’s children are thinking and facing in our current world, just like Rudger in “The Imaginary,” we seek to support children by being by their side.

One notable difference between the two studios, as you can see watching “The Imaginary,” is that Studio Ponoc is actively innovating new forms of expression and entering into new collaborations to support such innovation in our filmmaking; I believe our actions in this regard distinguish us from Studio Ghibli.

“The Imaginary” is very different from other imaginary friend-themed films, which are usually told by a child who has an imaginary friend. Your screenplay is told from a friend’s point of view. When you were writing it, did you find that the change of perspective to that of Rudger freed you to tell the story differently?

I was able to take a new approach by having the imaginary friend be our main character.  By showing the entire short life of our Imaginary, which begins by being born of a child’s imagination and ends with disappearing when forgotten, we were able to depict the meaning of the life of humans.  We felt that we might be able to create a film that could present – and even begin to answer – questions children have, such as why people are born and why people disappear.

Adapting children’s books poses an unusual challenge since young fans of the book know the story well and expect the movie to be as close as possible to what they know and love. Did you feel bound to stay close to the narrative of the novel?

Very important to us when selecting an existing story on which to base a film is to honor the core message of the story while not being bound by every aspect and detail of it.  We are thinking of how to express this core message in the medium of a film to our audiences, aiming for a work that causes fans of the original work to say, “Yes, that’s it, that’s the story I love and wanted to see in a film.”

How closely did you work with the film’s director, Yoshiyuki Momose, while at Studio Ghibli? Why do you think he was the right fit to direct “The Imaginary?”

While at Studio Ghibli, director Yoshiyuki Momose changed and even revolutionized visual expression in the many films on which he worked in an extraordinary number of ways.  With this in mind, and with such a wide variety of Imaginaries created by children and the visuals in the worlds of “The Imaginary,” he is the perfect director for the film.

Congratulations on your new multi-film deal with Netflix, which will guarantee that audiences all over the world will be able to see your films. But I have to ask: the visuals in “The Imaginary” are particularly striking in their beauty. Do you have any regrets that most audiences won’t be able to experience them on the big screen?

Thank you for your kind congratulations.  To answer your question:  To start, by working with Netflix, I am thrilled that children and general audiences around the world will be able to experience “The Imaginary” in 18 audio languages and with subtitles available in 33 languages.  In particular, in this era of social networking and instant simultaneous information exchange, it is thanks to Netflix that viewers across the globe will be able to see our film all at the same time.

Though Rudger’s determination to get home to Amanda is the throughline of your screenplay, the film’s secondary characters, particularly Amanda’s mother, Lizzie, are quite well fleshed out. We really feel for her continuing pain and grief at her husband’s loss. How important was it to you to emphasize this real-world grief in this world of imagination?

Animation is particularly well-suited to depicting worlds and moments deeply imbued and rich with imagination, and therefore, I felt it very important to show imaginary worlds.  But in our world in which people are becoming increasingly isolated, I felt it important to depict the reality faced not only by children but also by adults.  Honest and genuine depiction of reality also enhances the power of our storytelling and our conveying the preciousness of imagination and the imaginary worlds it creates. 

How involved were you in casting the actors for the English-language version of the film? The more famous actors cast seem spot on for their roles.

At Studio Ponoc, our Japanese version and our English version are equally important as our own original versions.  With that in mind, we did the casting for both versions ourselves.  While many productions aim at very famous actors as their main casting objective, we search for actors who are both exquisitely talented and fit the roles precisely.  This is how we selected Hayley Atwell, Jeremy Swift, Sky Katz, LeVar Burton, and others from our marvelous cast, and I am very pleased with the results.

There are elements in “The Imaginary’s” story that feel very English in their approach, yet their visualization onscreen feels very Japanese. It’s a delicate balance that makes the film feel fresh. Were you aware of that unusual balance when you were writing the screenplay?

In Japanese animation, and in particular, in hand-drawn, hand-painted Japanese animation, creators very often want to set their stories in Japan. We believe that hand-drawn, hand-painted animation offers excellent opportunities to depict a wide variety of settings around the world and even in imagined worlds, and therefore, we were delighted to present the various worlds and settings of “The Imaginary” using our techniques and skills.

The Imaginary” is now available to be streamed on Netflix. You can watch the trailer below.

You can follow Tom and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter @thomaseobrien

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Tom O'Brien
Tom O'Brienhttps://nextbestpicture.com
Palm Springs Blogger and Awards lover. Editor at Exact Change & contributing writer for Gold Derby.

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