Yoshiaki Nishimura lives in the world of children's imagination. "As an animation filmmaker, I read a lot of children's literature, and not just from Japan, but England, Germany, and all sorts of different sources," says the Studio Ponoc founder. Which is how, six years ago, he stumbled upon English author A.F. Harrold's 2014 children's novel, The Imaginary. In it, Nishimura found the inspiration for his new movie, one that explores the power of imagination from a unique perspective.

"In a lot of films about children, whether it be E.T. or My Neighbor Totoro, we watch these kids encounter a creature and gradually change through their experiences with them," he explains. "What was special about The Imaginary is that the main character is a boy who is created from the imagination of another person. He is the creature, and the world of the story is seen through his eyes."

The Imaginary follows Rudger, an imaginary friend whose existence is threatened after he is separated from the young girl, Amanda, who first dreamt him into existence. His journey back to her leads him to a place known as The Town of Imaginaries, where imaginary creatures like him find new purpose after being forgotten by their human companions. The movie's English-language voice cast includes Hayley Atwell, LeVar Burton, Kal Penn and Jeremy Swift.

The Imaginary is the third release from Nishimura's Studio Ponoc, which he founded in 2015 after stepping out on his own following a decade at Studio Ghibli. (During his time at Studio Ghibli, he was Oscar-nominated for Best Animated Feature Film in 2015 for The Tale of Princess Kaguya and 2016 for When Marnie Was There.) Like Studio Ponoc's previous offerings, 2017's Mary and the Witch's Flower and 2018's Modest Heroes, The Imaginary carries forth Nishimura's belief in the importance of making films that speak to younger viewers.

"Throughout my career, there's always been one thing that I've truly believed in," he tells A.frame, "which is that art that's really created for children can survive through the eyes of adults."

A.frame: This is the first Studio Ponoc film you wrote yourself. [Nishimura also produced the movie.] What was it that drew you to this story, and what made you want to be the one to tell it?

Yoshiaki Nishimura: I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but the concept of an imaginary friend is not wildly accepted in Japan. It's not really a thing in my country. So, after I decided that I wanted to make The Imaginary, I found it very difficult to really communicate the plot of the film to a lot of directors and writers. In an effort to do that, I created this document explaining everything about the film. I thought it was going to be about four pages long, but it ended up being 40. In that document, I talked about the imaginary world itself, and I didn't just explain what it was — I wrote ideas about how it should be visualized, and which camera angles should be used to explore it in certain sequences. I really laid everything out.

When Yoshiyuki Momose read it, he said, "You've already done so much work and invested so much. If you're this interested in this film, why don't you write the script yourself?" That was really where me writing the script began. All my life, I've been an animator, not a screenwriter, so my approach was very different from what most writers would have done. I basically just imagined how the entire film would be shot from beginning to end in my head, and then I wrote that down on the page.

How did you decide on the animation style of the movie? The blend of 3D and 2D is really unique.

I've lived in the world of Japanese animation for a long, long time, and, from my perspective, the style of Japanese animation hasn't really changed all that much over the past 40 years. The background imagery is always done very precisely and is always very well defined, but the character designs are always very simple. With this film, I wanted to challenge myself and my team to go beyond that style. Something I'd been thinking about for a decade or more was experimenting with lighting and shading. I've always felt that, if you can really control the lighting and shading, then you can really control the impact you have on people's emotions and the way they psychologically process the stories you tell. For this film, we probably created around 140,000 drawings, but if we had made it without thinking about the lighting of each scene and had just done everything all by hand, it might have taken two to three times that many drawings. It would have demanded a lot more work than what we did.


How were you able to pull off what you did in — relatively — so few drawings?

While I was exploring the ways we could experiment visually, I found out that there was this French company, Les Films du Poisson Rouge, that had developed a technique for lighting and shading in animation that immediately excited me. I called Yoshiyuki and said, "I want to use this technique." At that time, production had started and the pipeline had been set, so everyone at the studio was really angry with me. [Laughs] They said, "Why do we have to change our plans now? Do we have to do this?"

I understood why they were upset, but I really, passionately felt like we needed to challenge ourselves to try new things. So, I begged, and I managed to convince everyone at the studio to let me try out this new technique, and that's how we were able to achieve the look of the film. The refined, precise nature of the background is really reflected and matched by the complexity of how the characters are designed, lit, and shaded. It all came together so well and created a path for us at the studio to continue moving forward together. It was never about taking hand-drawn or hand-painted images and simply making them three-dimensional. It was always about trying to create images that would have as much impact on the viewer as possible.

As you look to the future, what hopes do you have for the direction the studio is moving in? What kinds of stories do you want to tell?

We don't want the audience to hear about a new film from us and think, "Oh, it's Studio Ponoc. We know what this is going to be." We want to be a little unpredictable. One thing I really value is telling very different, diverse stories. I'm also very aware of the fact that our primary target audience is children, so we really want to avoid making anything that seems like it's talking down to kids. That's not something we want to do. Like Rudger does in the film, we want it to seem like our stories are sitting down and talking to the children who watch them.

We want to create pieces of work that encourage and communicate to kids that, when they experience moments of sadness or fear, they can overcome them. I believe one film can change the world, so at Studio Ponoc, our basic mentality is that even though children all grow up, we can create something that will remain in their hearts when they get older. If we do that, then we might be able to have an impact on the world around us, through the viewers who watch our films when they're young and hold onto them even when they have grown up. As long as we hold onto that belief and we keep making unpredictable moves, I'll be happy.

Director Yoshiyuki Momose and Yoshiaki Nishimura working on 'The Imaginary' at Studio Ponic.

As a studio, how do you decide which projects fit with that basic mentality and are worth pursuing as a team?

It's very simple. Studio Ponoc is not a huge company. It's not like Pixar or Disney, so if I say we're going to make a film, it happens! [Laughs] That's why I think very deeply about every project. I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about each film before we move forward with them.

Japanese animation has a greater global reach right now than ever before. How does it feel knowing that your work and the work of your fellow animators now has the chance now to be seen and appreciated all around the world?

The animation world in Japan is very narrow. It really feels like everyone is friends with each other, so I'm personally really happy to see these pieces of work that are created by my friends be seen and received all around the world. In Japan, we're experiencing a decrease in our child population right now, though, and we're one of the only animation studios that's still primarily targeting children as our audience. The intended demographics for a lot of animated films are changing, because a growing percentage of the population in Japan is adults. I can't blame the other studios for making that change, because it makes more sense as a business right now to target adult viewers.

So, it's really a great honor that we at Studio Ponoc have the chance to continue reaching out to children not just in Japan, but all over the world, especially through platforms like Netflix, which lets us share our work in other countries and gives so many viewers the chance to experience our films. That's something that working with Netflix on The Imaginary has really allowed us to do: To directly connect with audiences around the world.

By Alex Welch


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