Some few weeks ago, as the Tokyo 2020 Olympics began their delayed and controversial opening ceremonies, a beautifully animated short film appeared on the internet to surprisingly little fanfare. Clocking in at only 8 minutes 28 seconds, Tomorrow’s Leaves features breathtaking visuals – noticeably reminiscent of the house style of the globally beloved Studio Ghibli – rousing music, and an only somewhat confusing plot. It also sports a not-so-subtle Olympic message. Indeed, the short was commissioned by the Olympic Foundation of Culture; according to a press release, its stated themes are “Olympism,” with the short being “…a landmark work of art celebrating the Olympic Values of Excellence, Friendship and Respect.”
While a sense of “Olympism” propaganda may slightly taint the film for some, it is still true that Tomorrow’s Leaves is a work of art. Fluid, vibrant 2D animation (aided by some CG mapping) is used to quickly demonstrate a fantasy world of disparate people groups united by the interconnected influence of nature. Sports and friendly competition show a path towards cooperation. With a few hundred thousand views on YouTube, the short has been well received – by those who’ve seen it. Yet, like much of the content produced thus far by Studio Ponoc – a Japanese animation studio known more for its lineage than its actual output – it seems word just isn’t quite getting out.
Coming of the Dawn
Studio Ponoc, animators of Tomorrow’s Leaves, burst onto the anime scene in April 2015 to a good deal of fanfare. 2015 was a significant year, in that it was the start of a dark age for fans of the vaunted Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki Hayao, co-founder of Ghibli and director of such beloved classics as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Totoro, Nausicaa, and more, was recently retired. Mutual co-founder Takahata Isao’s film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya had released to critical acclaim but underwhelming box office receipts. Ghibli production stalled after 2014’s When Marnie Was There; its long-standing animation department was let go. An era in world animation seemed to have ended.
Then came word of a successor studio, founded by Ghibli veterans. Its very name, Ponoc, Serbo-Croatian for midnight and the dawning of a new day, symbolized new beginnings. A gorgeously animated feature film was in the offing; a trailer reflected many of the Ghibli stylings. On screen, a precocious young girl rode a broom through a fantastical world of deep, vibrant colors. Perhaps the Ghibli magic truly could live on in a new studio!
Six years onwards, the question remains: what is Studio Ponoc, really?
In June of 2015, there arose some confusing news. Nishimura Yoshiaki, head producer of Studio Ghibli since long-time frontman Suzuki Toshio stepped down in March the year previous, was revealed to be producing animation for another studio. Although Ponoc had come into existence two months earlier, its nature as a haven for Ghibli veterans was not yet well understood; Anime News Network‘s reporting on the issue reveals doubt as to how Nishimura could be producing an advertisement for Ponoc while still working at Ghibli. The article in question even felt the need to make clear that “Studio Ponoc runs separately from Studio Ghibli.”
Indeed, this was an uncertain time in Ghibli’s history; was the studio shutting down? Why was Nishimura working for another company, while still claiming to be a producer for Ghibli? What was this Studio Ponoc?
Nishimura himself is at the center of the tale, one which echoes past history. Studio Ghibli was founded in 1984 by two directors, Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao, in conjunction with producer Suzuki Toshio. Discussion of the production company has since revolved around the story of these three men. Ponoc, for its part, is similarly the product of two individuals: Nishimura Yoshiaki and Yonebayashi Hiromasa.
A New Set of Founders
43 years old as of this writing, Ponoc studio head Nishimura joined the Ghibli team back in 2002 upon returning from a university study abroad in the US. His initial duties at Ghibli involved copyright management; shortly, however, he was put in charge of film promotion. He managed advertising for 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle, 2006’s Tales from Earthsea, and 2008’s Ponyo. In 2006, Nishimura also achieved the status of producer for Takahata’s long-gestating final masterpiece, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The film was released in 2013; in 2014, Ghibli released its last theatrical film to date, When Marnie Was There. Nishimura also produced this film, working closely with director Yonebayashi Hiromasa. This relationship would soon serve as the basis of Studio Ponoc.
For his part, Yonebayashi joined Studio Ghibli all the way back in 1996 as an animator. He provided keyframe animation on numerous Miyazaki-helmed films, starting with the beloved Spirited Away. (In fact, it’s been variously claimed that the No-Face character was based on Yonebayashi, or that Miyazaki felt Yonebayashi drew the character in such a way that it resembled the artist.) A good reputation and long years spent at the company led to Yonebayashi becoming the youngest theatrical director in Ghibli history with 2010’s Arrietty. At the time, he was only 37 years old. (Although the director of Ghibli’s first film for television, 1993’s Ocean Waves, had been 34.)
Importantly, Yonebayashi was seen as a potential candidate for establishing the longevity of Studio Ghibli. Both he and Miyazaki’s own son, Goro, were the only directors besides Miyazaki or Takahata to helm more than one film for Ghibli. In 2014, Yonebatashi’s Marnie released to good reviews and fair financial returns — but its inability to capture the top spot at the annual box office in Japan signaled that Ghibli was entering uncertain waters. As Ghibli began to shut down production, what was a Ghibli successor in waiting to do?
On the official website for his film Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Yonebayashi described the frustration and sadness of this period in his life.
“After Studio Ghibli broke up its production department, I left the company with many other staff members. For someone who loved Ghibli, this was a very regrettable thing. This is because, after completing Marnie, I had but one thought in my mind. As much as possible, I wanted to continue making animated films.”
Yet, without the backing of an established studio, how could Yonebayashi accomplish that goal? Nor was Yonebayashi the only former employee of the esteemed Ghibli to find themselves reeling from the change in their status quo. A whole production company’s worth of world-class animators was now out of a job.
The answer came from Nishimura. The brass at Ghibli may have decided that time was up, but that didn’t mean they needed to stop making films. Why not do what the Ghibli founders had done back in the early 1980s: take a team of experienced animators with shared history, and create something new?
The result was Studio Ponoc.
Now, starting a new theatrical animation studio from scratch is no easy thing. Even for creators and producers with as impressive a curriculum vitae as Nishimura and Yonebayashi, the way was fraught with difficulties. Their initial proving ground was a short 15-second advertisement for the West Japan Railway Company – a far cry from a two-hour-long feature film. Yet, in terms of quality, the short showed that the sheer skill of Ghibli was still alive in the animators at Ponoc.