Following in the footsteps of Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli is no easy feat, but that’s what Studio Ponoc has set out to do. Founded in the aftermath of Ghibli closing production in 2014, this new offshoot studio aims to honour the principles and approach Ghibli made so popular, only under a new name. Mary and the Witch’s Flower / メアリと魔女の花 / Meari to majo no hana marks their first attempt, and it’s a lightweight fairy tale anime with beautiful artwork and gorgeous detailing. Studio Ponoc is off to a strong start…
Spearheaded by several animators who have previously worked for Ghibli—in particular, former lead film producer Yoshiaki Nishimura—Studio Ponoc is a clear continuation of Ghibli’s usual themes, animation style, and subject matter. The name “Ponoc” is even inspired by the Serbo-Croatian word ponoć (meaning “midnight”), and Nishimura is upfront about how it’s meant to signify “the beginning of a new day”. The studio also attracted many former Studio Ghibli employees to work on its first feature, so there’s no mistaking the lineage of talent.
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arrietty, When Marnie Was There), Mary and the Witch’s Flower is another story adapting a classic English children’s book. This time it’s Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick (1971).
The quiet countryside town of Redmanor is unsurprisingly boring for precocious Mary, who’s moved there to stay with her Great Aunt Charlotte. But while roaming in the woods one day, Mary discovers a flower identified as the “fly-by-night”, and her gardener tells her witches desire the magical power of the flower. The next day Mary discovers an old broomstick that gains a mind of its own after the flower’s bulb bursts on it, which duly whisks herself and a cat away to a magical academy run by intimidating headmistress Madame Mumblechook.
Hayao Miyazaki fans will surely notice visual similarities between this and the similarly supernatural Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), but there’s more to Mary than following in the masterful director’s footsteps. The film also evokes Harry Potter with its school of magic, together with a hint of Narnia. Once Mary begins to find out more about the magical world and some of its dark secrets, it’s abundantly clear what the villains are up to and how Mary must stop them. While this is a lovely fairy tale adventure, it’s not particularly complex because the heroes and villains are painted in broad strokes.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower isn’t even a very ambitious movie. But it’s designed to delight and entertain thanks to a plucky hero everyone will love, and a charming story about trying your hardest to do the right thing… even when the odds are stacked against you. The movie makes for a fun adventure with a lot of energy and colour, but it’s definitely more for kids than adults.
However, it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of the adventure as the tale puts you in Mary’s shoes and helps you feel her experiences. She discovers amazing things about magic but also the cruelties it can be used for, and the choices she makes help make this an effective coming-of-age story.
In many ways, this is everything fans want from Studio Ghibli and evidence their beloved style and approach to animation hasn’t vanished from this world.
When developing Mary and the Witch’s Flower, the animators even scouted locations in England to draw impressions of the scenery and natural environment. This isn’t the sort of thing that happens during the pre-production of most anime projects, and the level of attention to detail shows in the finished product’s atmosphere. It’s beautifully crafted in terms of the designs and the world-building, being a welcome continuation of Ghibli’s award-winning aesthetic and approach, rather than being an imitation or reimagining of that studio’s output.
Fans looking for the emotional heft of Ghibli’s best films may feel shortchanged, but Mary and the Witch’s Flower is evidently pitched at younger audiences. It may lack the challenging conflicts that would have made its story deeper and more nuanced, but it’s also a stunning and involving adventure boasting a fine protagonist with lots of visual energy.
For longtime Ghibli fans, the way Ponoc has admirably continued their legacy, so confidently and convincingly, makes it something special and worth celebrating.
Cast & Crew
director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi.
writers: Riko Sakaguchi & Hiromasa Yonebayashi (based on ‘The Little Broomstick’ by Mary Stewart).
voices: Hana Sugisaki, Yūki Amami & Fumiyo Kohinata.