Mary and the Witch's Flower (2018)

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the first feature film from a young production company, Studio Ponoc. If this lush and wondrous animated film reminds you of Hayao Miyazaki, you are not mistaken: Studio Ponoc is arguably the sole rightful successor of Studio Ghibli at this point in time. Ponoc’s claim for this long-contested title rests on two points: the genealogy of the company and the strength of their first feature film. Hence I shall begin this article with a quick overview of its origin.

Studio Ponoc is founded by a young producer, Yoshiaki Nishimura, who is credited for the successful production of two Academy nominated feature films which mark the final splendour of Studio Ghibli, the fabled animation studio founded by two legendary directors of contrasting styles, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, and the producer, Toshio Suzuki, in 1985. Nishimura helped late Takahata in his first assignment as a feature film producer and successfully released what would become the maestro’s Academy nominated swan song, The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013), which must be recognised as a major cinematic achievement in the most general sense of the word. He then went on to oversee an intensely cathartic story of loss, grief and enduring love, When Marnie Was There (2014), which earned him the second successive Academy nomination. Yet, shortly after the release of Marnie, Suzuki, in his capacity as the general manager of Ghibli, announced the studio’s indefinite hiatus from feature filmmaking: it was effectively the end of Ghibli as an animated feature film production company. In the wake of this seismic event which shocked everyone including Miyazaki, Nishimura left Ghibli and launched his own film production company. Unsurprisingly several former Ghibli employees joined Nishimura to support his statement of intent: regardless of Ghibli’s fate, they were not going gently. They simply refused to quit what they had learned to love through many personal trials to meet the prohibitively lofty standard set by Miyazaki and Takahata during their respective tenures at Ghibli. Amongst who empathically responded to Nishimura’s calls for a fresh start was Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a young director who had already worked with him on one occasion at Ghibli as the director of When Marnie Was There. Having successfully directed two critically acclaimed features, that is, Arietty (2010) and When Marnie Was There (2014), Yonebayashi was the most critical piece of the puzzle for Nishimura. Without Yonebayashi’s talent and experience, the new venture could not have been what it is. Given the immense experience and skills they accumulated through their career at Ghibli, it comes as no surprise that their first feature is as much a continuation as a new beginning. For all intent and purposes, Ponoc is an evolution of the legacy of Studio Ghibli, not a break from the past. Whilst this fact in and of itself is a welcome development and does not diminish their feature debut in any way, it is the most significant criterion for the final evaluation of the film. Then the question is: How does it fare against Ghibli classics?

Mary and the Witch’s Flower tells a story of a young English girl, Mary Smith, who moves to her great-aunt’s country estate ahead of her professional parents whom she appears to see infrequently. Whilst undoubtedly privileged, Mary is ultimately a typical adolescent: bored, lonely and unsure of herself. She finds great-aunt Charlotte kind yet distant, and struggles to settle in the routine of idly English country life: she simply cannot find her bearing in this steady, comfortable, yet somewhat uninspiring new home. In addition, Mary is saddled with typical adolescent angst: she feels unloved and inadequate, and she dislikes in particular her unruly flaming red hair. Naturally all of this changes without warning. One day, by following her neighbour’s cats, Gib and Tib, Mary comes across a botanical species of unsettling beauty: locals call these wild flowers ‘Fly-By-Night’, which is allegedly sought by witches for its hidden supernatural power. Mary thinks nothing of the local legend and delightedly accentuates her bedroom with it. Yet, unbeknownst to her, a strange plot is unfolding in this sleepy village, and ‘Fly-By-Night’ will soon place Mary at the eye of the storm. When Tib goes missing the next day, Gib leads Mary into the forest. She unwittingly unlocks the power of ‘Fly-By-Night’ and is transposed to a magical realm by an old broomstick with a mysterious inscription. It flies Mary and Gib to the school of sorcery, wherein she is declared a chosen one in short order by the school master, Madame Mumblechook, and the school’s chief research scientist, Dr. Dee. However, when Madame Mumblechook realises that Mary’s exceptional power originates not from her innate ability but from ‘Fly-By-Night’, they seek to take possession of the flower and harvest its immense power by which the duo aim to achieve their ultimate ambition: establishing the supreme synthesis of magic and science. When they press Mary to reveal the location of ‘Fly-By-Night’, Mary lies in panic and tells them that her neighbour, a young boy named Peter, took the possession of the flower. Mary promises to return the next day, hurriedly flies home and keeps the flower for herself. Yet, soon afterwards, Mary realises that her seemingly innocent lie has seriously implicated Peter and his life is now in grave danger. She now faces a stark decision: What is she going to do with the power she was temporarily endowed by the ‘Witch’s Flower’?

If all of this sounds familiar, such a feeling is quite justified. Mary and the Witch’s Flower vividly demonstrates all the attributes the audience comes to expect from Studio Ghibli: outstanding animation that transposes the viewers to a soaring world of fantasy, a classic coming-of-age story and the characters that appeal to diverse age groups, an element of Bildung with strong messages which are at once timeless and relevant at the time of release, and a nuanced critique of industrially materialistic world-view. Furthermore, there are specific instances in this movie that remind us of numerous Ghibli classics. As in Kiki’s Delivery Service, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a coming-of-age story about a young ‘witch’. Like Chihiro, Mary is ‘spirited away’ against her will and must overcome a powerful sorceress to save the ones whom she cares. Whilst Mary bears some resemblance to May from My Neighbour Totoro, Peter could easily pass as a young Howl (Howl’s Moving Castle). As in Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Ponoc’s debut feature is about discovering what makes life wholesome, and being reflective about the implications of our activities not merely in terms of their impacts on humankind, but also on the earth’s ecosystem as a whole. And, like Howl, Mary resists the temptation of ‘sorcery’ and rediscovers her inner strength in order to meet life’s sometimes insurmountable challenges. Given the genealogy of Studio Ponoc, none of this should come as a surprise. After all, Yonebayashi served as the key animator for every feature directed by Miyazaki since he first assumed this position for Spirited Away. In this light, there is no one better than Yonebayashi to keep the legacy of Studio Ghibli alive today: not only is he talented, he literally knows what makes the cinema of Miyazaki uniquely important. For this very reason, Miyazaki hand-picked him to direct Arietty and When Marnie Was There to prepare Ghibli for his retirement: he had long sought a talented director from younger generations to carry the torch, and he concluded that Ghibli’s future must be trusted in the hands of Yonebayashi (There can be no successor for Takahata, for he is truly one of a kind). Whilst Miyazaki’s grand scheme was usurped by Suzuki’s decision not to continue without Miyazaki, Yonebayashi did well at his new home to justify Miyazaki’s faith in him: Mary and the Witch’s Flower is enchanting, philosophical, and technically accomplished movie. However, Yonebayashi is not merely following ‘Miyazaki’s direction’ to the letter: whilst his new film is not a clean break from Miyazaki’s legacy, there are enough of unique characteristics in this movie to make it his own. Thus it is important for us to examine what makes Mary and the Witch’s Flower different from the films Miyazaki directed, as well as from the ones Yonebayashi filmed for Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli.

There are two major reasons which separate Mary and the Witch’s Flower from its spiritual predecessors. The first is the character design of the main protagonist, Mary. The design of the main protagonist is of utmost importance for animated films: the stories are told through her/their/his perspective, and the temperament of the protagonist literally determines the tone and the palette of an entire film. Whereas a live action film could be open to a dialectic of conflicting and paradoxical elements which are often represented by contrasting characteristics brought on by actors, an animated film offers far fewer frictions in realising the director’s vision; she/they/he does not face challenges from the presence of actors who, for better or worse, could alter the movie with the personal qualities of their own. In an animated film, every element of the film is dictated by the director’s vision (Loving Vincent, see, is a notable exception to this rule by virtue of its unique directorial method). And thus, in an animated film, it is not enough to say that the movie tells a story about her/them/him: instead one must recognise that the main character is the story. Hence the character design of our main protagonist, Mary, can tell us a lot about the reasons why we find her story different from comparable movies by Miyazaki. As we have noted, Mary reminds us of May, a younger sibling from My Neighbour Totoro. Whilst May is much younger (e.g., at the age of four) than Mary, they share traits that are at once affirming and uplifting: they both possess uncomplicated outlook and straightforward manners, and express innocent curiosity and exuberant love of life. Whilst Mary does suffer some teenage angst, she remains remarkably honest with herself. She may dislike how she is, yet she does not allow herself to be tormented as her teenage counterparts from Ghibli films do. For instance, Kiki gets caught up with her insecurity, almost entirely loses sight of who she is and severely compromises her ability to fly as a result. On the other hand, Anna (When Marnie Was There) feels so unworthy that she breaks down both physically and psychologically: she is afflicted by violent asthma attacks and severe depression that makes her only a step away from being suicidal. Mary may feel unloved by her parents, yet she has no fear of actual severance from them in a way Satsuki (My Neighbour Totoro) and Chihiro (Spirited Away) do. In many ways, Mary remains quite innocent despite her age: she may experience ups and downs, yet none of them would come close to push her over the edge. Whilst this fact is neither good nor bad in and of itself, in the case of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, telling a story through an innocent and uncomplicated protagonist without an older sibling with more serious outlook on life has a decisive effect on the tone and the mood of the movie: the childlikeness of the main protagonist takes some stakes away from the plot. Consequently Mary and the Witch’s Flower, despite being such a delight to watch, does not inspire the awe and wonder of Miyazaki classics. It also fails to induce the same level of affective reaction which Yonebayashi achieved with his previous efforts for Studio Ghibli. Notwithstanding the dangers Mary faces, her trials do not feel as grave as that of Nausicaä or Ashitaka (Princess Mononoke), and her emotional life does not have the same level of intensity expressed by Anna and Arietty. Whilst Yonebayashi achieves a sublime catharsis with each of his previous features, his latest effort feels comparably flat. The overall impression of the film is in fact close to that of Ponyo, which is a charming tale about the bond between much younger protagonists who are about the age of four or five. Given the age of Mary, her childlikeness and uncomplicated nature simply do not come across as a realistic picture of someone from this particular age group, and this impression in turn undermines the otherwise strong message of the film.

There is another reason why Mary and the Witch’s Flower prevents itself from becoming a proper epic movie: the absence of the stern shadow of death. This is due to the ways in which two generations of Japanese have experienced modernisation of their country, which also explains why Mary was presented as an incredibly naïve person as a teenager. Though no fault of their own, Nishimura and Yonebayashi do not know death as intimately as Miyazaki and Takahata do. The latter’s experience of suffering and surviving the war as helpless children lends a profound sense of finality to their respective works. There is little doubt that Takahata’s personal experience of surviving American firebombing and the starvation that followed gives authenticity to the arguably one of the most important and heartbreaking movies on children of war, Grave of the Fireflies, wherein we witness two orphans of war dying of starvation in the wake of an American firebombing campaign. Whilst Takahata soon shifts his focus toward current social problems in his subsequent works, he does return to face death with his last epic, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, in which he passionately argues for what he sees as the essence of wholesome and meaningful life on earth. Although known as a social-realist, Takahata’s political engagement cannot be reduced to any particular ideology: his resistance to liberal capitalism was informed by his poetics rather than his politics. Throughout his career, Takahata consistently rejects liberal capitalism, yet this position of his did not make him a socialist or a Marxist. Having encountered death as a child, Takahata wanted the audience to question what makes our lives wholesome and worthwhile. He clearly understood that the rat race enforced by liberal capitalism is not the answer. Since the domination of liberal capitalism was not a given for this generation of Japanese, he did not see it as the ‘end of history’. In short, his resistance to modernity was existential, not ideological. The same seriousness is also found in Miyazaki’s works. Well-known for his wizardry with visuals and storytelling, Miyazaki’s lush world of fantasy is always framed sharply by the shadow of death. Although he did not come as close to death as his illustrious colleague did, the sense of finality nonetheless underlies every film he has directed. And it is this contrast between life and death that lends remarkable strength and profound sadness to every protagonist he has created. Whilst Miyazaki has been always fond of uncomplicated characters such as May and Ponyo, the vast majority of his protagonist bears a profound sense of loss. Life, for Miyazaki and Takahata, burns brightly against the dark shadow of death, and this existential finality makes their protagonists’ trials deeply affective.

Unfortunately, Mary and the Witch’s Flower fails to produce the soaring emotional experience in the vein of Studio Ghibli's best works. This is a curious phenomenon given Yonebayashi’s past success as a director of two feature films at the fabled studio as the de facto successor of Hayao Miyazaki. Whilst Yonebayashi was capable of expressing that profound sense of finality and loss during his tenure at Ghibli, in directing his first movie of his own, he failed for once to capture and express the preciousness of life against the pervasive shadow of death. And his first failure at the new studio is significant not only because it makes us question how the legacy of Ghibli fares in the future; it also makes us wonder how Japanese attitude about war, life and humanity might transform in coming years. This is not a mere question of aesthetic choices such as the character design: it is the historic perspective, or its lack thereof, which determined how Yonebayashi designed his main protagonist in the first place. With the passing of every generation, we lose unique historic perspective which each generation had to earn through their experience. With Takahata already gone and Miyazaki once again preparing his retirement from feature film making, we are about to lose a unique outlook and understanding of Japan’s experience of modernity. And the change of attitude toward some of the most troubling aspects of modern Japanese history has been evident for quite some time. For instance, there has been a serious controversy over the revision of Japan’s so-called ‘pacifist constitution’. Whilst Miyazaki and Takahata’s generation has been the staunch defender of Article 9 of Japanese constitution which originally prohibits Japan from sending troops abroad and categorically limits its military capability to self-defence in the most strict sense, younger generations of Japanese have become more vocal in their frustration over the ‘pacifist constitution’ which is drafted and enforced by Americans in the aftermath of the WWII. As a result, despite protests, the problematic ‘reinterpretation’ of Article 9, which enables Japanese to support its allies militarily outside Japan, was pushed by the PM Shinzō Abe, and approved by the parliament in 2014. This shift in attitude amongst younger generations is due to the lack of historical perspective; it is as if younger Japanese are discussing the political future of their nation as a hypothetical subject with no careful consideration for possible implications. As Japanese Geist currently attempts to reconstruct itself in a vacuum, the danger in this abstract exercise is all-too-plain to see. Interestingly this desire to unlearn the lessons from the most destructive chapter of history comes despite the omnipresence of death in the post-WWII Japanese society. Youth suicide in Japan is just as serious a problem as gun violence in America. Bombs have stopped from falling upon them, yet death has been just as pervasive in ‘peace’. Since Isao Takahata directly addressed the prevailing nihilism in Japanese Geist in his splendid final act, one is obliged to ask: Can younger generation of artists at Studio Ponoc follow their predecessors’ great acts and find their own way to fight this sickness unto death? To meet this challenge, Studio Ponoc must relearn Takahata’s lesson: animated films are not mere entertainment, and it is the duty of creators to make serious films about important subjects in life. To fulfil their promise, they must fully appreciate this insight. If they do, given their talent and skills, the rest will surely follow.