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“If we appreciated animation more, the world would be a lot of fun” — Yoshiaki Nishimura Talks The Imaginary

4 min read
A still from the trailer of The Imaginary

What if your imaginary friend came to life, got separated from you before undertaking an adventure of a lifetime? That’s the premise of Studio Ponoc’s latest movie The Imaginary, based on the book of the same name by A.F. Harrold.

It’s distinctly British in a way we might have seen before (ahem, Arietty) but harnesses the imagination of children as if it were a PG take on Paprika. Any anime fans will know they are in good hands here, with many of the studio’s alum hailing from that little-known animation house, Studio Ghibli.

FILMHOUNDS sat down with writer and producer Yoshiaki Nishimura to find out more about how to bring imagination to life, and what the two studios have in common. 


I’m sure you get a lot of stories that you’d like to adapt, but why did this feel like an important one to tell?

The reason why this story appealed was because it was magical and very imaginative. The perspective the story was told was very interesting. It wasn’t told by the human character, it was told by the imagined friend who the human character has made up, and that really appealed. There’s the sense of a secret, hidden world from adults. It provides a step towards their adulthood in a way, it’s something that is their treasure. 


This is the studio’s first film feature film since 2017. What has changed in the time since you made your last?

There are things that have and haven’t changed. We have grown as a studio, so we are slightly bigger than before. But during these last few years, we have been hungry for a new challenge and all the creators have really embraced it. One of them,  you may notice, is the different look in The Imaginary. We have employed a new technique of adding the texture of light and shadow in our animation. I believe that technique really allowed us to go beyond the boundaries that we previously had with hand-drawn and hand-painted anime.


Was it important to stick to the original novel’s story and the look of its illustrations?

It is important to retain the core message of the book. You can’t change that. As a medium, literature and film are completely different. As filmmakers, we needed to think of ways to make it more expansive and detailed in terms of portraying feelings for example. When it comes to illustration, the illustration by Emily Gravett in the book is amazing. We were trying to replicate what was depicted in the book as well as include hints of what we can create on screen.


Obviously the film is going to Netflix, and they’ve had such a boom with their animated content. Why did it feel like the right home for The Imaginary?

A lot of children are watching Netflix, including my children. It just seems to be the media that they prefer. What appealed to me the most was the fact that it had the potential to reach so many children from different cultures and different countries. This film will be available in 16 different audios and 42 subtitles. That kind of collaborative effort and the potential to reach a huge number of children were definitely a big appeal for me.


You’ve been across some of our favourite animated films over your career. Is there anything that you have learned in your past experience with Studio Ghibli that you’ve taken forward to creating films like this?

Yes, there definitely have been. Studio Ponoc has a strong link to Studio Ghibli as you have mentioned, not only in its techniques. I think one thing that I’d really like to stress is the feeling and passion that we have for creating a cinematic art piece that could really speak to people. I feel that a film that could really speak to somebody emotively and could change someone’s life — and in turn, could really change the world as well. We believe that as a studio, and Studio Ghibli believed in the philosophy as well. It is very important to create something that children can relate to and really see themselves in as well. Children grow up to become adults, and what they have experienced and believe creates this world in turn. That sense of passion, duty and responsibility is definitely the strong connection that we have.


Do you think we appreciate the art of animation enough? 

I’m not so much commenting on whether this world appreciates animation as an art form. But what I will say is that if the world appreciated it more, I think it would become more fun and interesting. As context, films created through computer graphics or stop motion animation have their origins in a different place to handpainted animation — they are more linked to sculpted art. Our origin is more in painted drawings and 2D. What we work on is filled with symbolism and metaphors. You can really see what the artist was trying to capture in a two-dimensional art form. 

This is something that can be seen in The Imaginary. There are lots of hidden meanings and symbolism that we have embedded. For example, what Rudger is wearing. Why is he wearing a stripy t-shirt? There is a hidden meaning behind it. This was the same with Studio Ghibli films. There are lots of hidden clues and messages. That’s why most people would be able to enjoy an even more the second or third time. If you re-watch a film as an adult, then you might notice something different. I’d like to hope that people will be able to appreciate what we have tried to do in this film.


The Imaginary is on Netflix from June 28th.