(YOMIURI SHIMBUN) - Mary has just moved to a new village, but she quickly gets bored because the village is deserted due to the summer vacation season. One day, she encounters Peter, a boy about her age, but he calls her a “small red-haired monkey” because of her thick, wild hair. Mary is insecure about her locks, and Peter’s remark spurs a strong desire to change herself.
So starts Mary And The Witch’s Flower, an animated film currently in theaters. It follows the adventures of 11-year-old Mary after she comes across the “witch’s flower”, whose mysterious power temporarily gives her magic powers. She flies a broom into the world of witches, where she meets with the principal of a magical school and a magic scientist.
Mary And The Witch’s Flower is based on The Little Broomstick, a 1971 book by Mary Stewart of Britain. The film was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who worked for two decades at Studio Ghibli under directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.
Yonebayashi made his directorial debut with Arrietty in 2010, and four years later directed When Marnie Was There. However, he left the studio at the end of 2014 after the company dissolved its production division.
Yonebayashi’s third directorial work is also the first feature-length film by Studio Ponoc, which was established in 2015 by producer Yoshiaki Nishimura after he left Ghibli around the same time. Many other Ghibli alumni also took part in producing the movie.
Mary has vivid eyes that look straightforwardly at the world. She’s always cheerful and widely expressive, not only through her face, but also with her whole body.
Yonebayashi said he aimed to “create a heroine totally different” from When Marnie Was There.
“Beginning from the stage of writing the script, we created a character who is rich in facial expressions and who acts before she thinks,” the director said. “Those characteristics were then reflected in her appearance.”
The initial motive in creating Mary was “to let her move around a lot”, Yonebayashi said. To achieve this, he thought Mary’s range of movement would be limited if her head was drawn in realistic proportion to her body.
Ultimately, her head was drawn large for her height, which is about 130cm.
Yonebayashi also paid attention to Mary’s hair, using a greater number of lines than he usually did at Ghibli. This approach let the heroine “have more stereoscopic, wild hair”, he said.
Mary has her hair in two pigtails at one time and lets it down at another — indicating how her mind is changing. She has thick eyebrows and a full forehead, so viewers will see her as a person of strong will, according to the director.
Since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, Yonebayashi has increasingly seen or heard that people have lost all confidence in what they trusted before.
“In this sense, I guess invisible things such as confidence could also be a kind of ‘magic,’” he said.
Can people move forward on their own even when they lose their “magic”?
“This is all about Mary’s growth, and I believe it can be a theme for all generations,” Yonebayashi said. “I thought it would be meaningful to produce this movie if it could help viewers feel encouraged while they root for Mary.
“We’ve lost our tremendous magic called Studio Ghibli. Can we take a step forward? Mary’s tale also relates to us,” he said.
Mary’s voice was provided by actress Hana Sugisaki, who co-starred with Ryunosuke Kamiki as Peter, Yuki Amami as the magic school’s principal, and Fumiyo Kohinata as the magic scientist.
Sugisaki said she was inspired by the power of the film’s images.
“I felt more and more excited (during recording) because I hadn’t watched most of them before,” she said. “I think I was able to express what I saw and felt first-hand.”
In a scene where Mary steps into the magical school for the first time, for example, the character was supposed to say “Amazing”, according to the screenplay. However, “I found myself saying, ‘Beautiful’ while watching the scene”, Sugisaki said.
Yonebayashi said he would incorporate what the actress said because they were her “truly realistic utterances”. “This explains how beautiful [Mary’s] world is,” Sugisaki said.
The actress described the character as “really adorable.”
“She has a very gentle heart,” Sugisaki said. “When she finds people in trouble, she immediately tries to help them, before she thinks things out, only to find it often doesn’t work.
“However, Mary is so passionate she keeps moving forward without giving up. That positive attitude has been very encouraging to me,” the actress added.
To be shown worldwide
“Mary and The Witch’s Flower” is already a much sought-after film overseas — arrangements were being made for showings in 155 countries and territories in mid-July.
Studio Ponoc released a 30-second trailer online with English subtitles at the end of last year, and it has since received a flood of requests from overseas, including Australia, Britain, China, France, South Korea and the United States.
“We hope ‘Mary’ will be loved by people around the world, particularly children who will see a hand-drawn animated film from Japan for the first time, not one featuring 3D computer-generated images,” Nishimura said.