Ex-Ghibli auteur reflects on his Oscar-nominated animation

by Yuri Kageyama


The coming-of-age story is familiar: A shy girl has problems fitting in and conjures up an imaginary friend. In Oscar-nominated animation “When Marnie Was There” the inner torment of the girl is expressed with originality through luscious, hand-drawn images.

Hand-illustrated animation is the trademark of Japan’s renowned Studio Ghibli, where the film’s director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, has worked for years.

He says the ways his artists have carefully depicted cloudy skies and rippling waves express the soul of the main character, Anna, who nurses a scar in her heart from being put up for adoption.

“It’s a challenge to convey internal emotions visually such as through her facial expressions and the landscape,” Yonebayashi says quietly during an interview at Studio Ghibli’s picturesque office in Tokyo. “The wind is cold, but there is warmth in an embrace.”

Anna’s foster mother is so worried about how Anna has closed herself up emotionally that she sends the young girl to spend her summer vacation on the coastline of Hokkaido to be with relatives living in a quaint cottage next to a marshy lake and green hills.

That is where Anna meets Marnie, a girl who is clearly not-of-this-world and more fitting of Anna’s attention and friendship than the boring, loud and crass girls in her everyday life.

The film’s tear-jerking conclusion involves an inevitable separation, but with a twist that leaves the heroine more at peace with herself, while showing how some important connections endure.

“She learns she is actually loved by those around her,” Yonebayashi says of Anna. “It is a small step for an individual. But it’s also a big step, and that’s what is being expressed in this film. And I feel that hasn’t been done before.”

The style of “When Marnie Was There” lacks the exaggerated qualities common in animated works by Ghibli and others. Yonebayashi chose to depict the landscape and movements of the characters more realistically, to accentuate the dreamlike quality of the scenes with Marnie, he says.

Yonebayashi recently left Ghibli to pursue his own projects but worked on a number of the studio’s earlier films, including “Princess Mononoke” and “Ponyo,” directed by studio founder Hayao Miyazaki, who won an Oscar in 2003 for “Spirited Away” and an honorary Academy Award in 2014.

When asked what he has learned from Miyazaki about the art of animation, Yonebayashi contemplates for more than half a minute.

“It’s everything,” he says at last.

“Movement, the way to think when drawing a picture, how to draw a line, everything,” he adds slowly. “They all became part of me.”

Miyazaki has announced his retirement, and it is unclear what the next Ghibli work may be. Yonebayashi declined to give details of his next project, but said it might be a Ghibli film. He still remains closely tied to the studio — Ghibli provided the tuxedo Yonebayashi will be wearing to the Oscars ceremony on Feb. 28.

“I feel extremely honored. The legacy and the trust that Studio Ghibli built over the years and the works we have created with members of our team won a positive evaluation,” Yonebayashi says.

The studio was founded in 1985 by Miyazaki with Isao Takahata, whose 2013 animation “The Tale of The Princess Kaguya” was nominated last year for an Oscar.

Through the years, Ghibli has stuck to the labor-intensive method of drawing by hand, steering away from computer graphics and other technology that has become increasingly commonplace among animation studios these days.

Going with less can convey the feelings of the creator, and drawing by hand can feel new, Yonebayashi says.

“A foreigner once told me we do things in a traditional style, and I was reminded that’s how it must appear,” he says with a smile. “But it’s not that 3-D is superior to 2-D. A picture is a picture.”