Former Studio Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura founded Studio Ponoc as a fresh start, and now that the studio has seen its first debut film in Mary and the Witch's Flower, all eyes have been peeled to see what was next. As a cool way of showing what Ponoc's capable of, the studio will be producing a series of short film anthologies with different directors, animators, and themes -- the first of which, Modest Heroes, is showing this week.
ComicBook.com recently spoke with Nishimura about choosing to follow up a feature film with a short film anthology, the inspiration behind each of the shorts, and plans for the future of the anthology.
Read on to read our full interview with Studio Ponoc's Yoshiaki Nishimura below!
ComicBook.com: Mary and the Witch's Flower was your studio's debut film, so how do you feel about the film's success in the West?
Yoshiaki Nishimura: I'm very happy for Mary and the Witch's Flower's success in the West, but when I look back at how Ponoc started, GKIDS, and everyone involved with the film, I'm very thankful for everyone who was involved in bringing Mary and the Witch's Flower to the West.
Does the success of it add any pressure to future projects?
If we were Disney or Pixar, yeah maybe there might be added pressure [laughs], but we have a more independent studio feel. So yes, it is scary to think about if we aren't a success in the future then I'll just have to put my hands up and retire. But generally there is no pressure I feel.
Is the Short Films Theatre, starting with Modest Heroes, a sort of experiment? A way for Ponoc to feel out what to work on next?
So Modest Heroes isn't necessarily a foreshadowing of what could be Studio Ponoc's work -- I'm looking at general entertainment right now. You have a lot of sequels, reboots, and recycling. And the problem is, you keep doing that and the audience is going to get bored. For us at Studio Ponoc, we want to keep creating new things and always pushing boundaries before anyone even notices that they're bored. We're about continuing to experiment and push boundaries. So, Modest Heroes is not necessarily an experiment; it's something that needed to be done at that time for our studio. We felt we needed to do that at that point.
If one of the shorts is say, more well-received than the others, is there room to spin it out into a full feature?
Our decision to work on short films was meant to be contained within the short films. It was never meant to be, "Oh, let's release a short film as a test for a full feature." Of the three, the most possible would be "Kanini & Kanino," but they're all self-contained within their films. And honestly, if we [had] even thought of making it into a feature we would have made it a feature in the first place.
Each of the volumes have a unifying theme, so what would you say is the major running ideology for this Modest Heroes collection?
So initially, this initial anthology was supposed to be four shorts and was called Life. The fourth short would have been made by [Isao Takahata], but he unfortunately passed away. The original premise for Life would have been to reflect daily life with birth, death, and the strength of life. Takahata's scene was supposed to be "Death," but that's not possible anymore, so we started looking at the three. Of course, it is about life, but putting that aside, we realized there was another important theme. Which was the everyday, unseen heroes.
We're not talking about Marvel or DC heroes [laughs], but just the everyday heroes around us. We wanted to support these people and shine a light on them, Because these people go about their daily lives, and doing these little heroics takes courage. That's the central theme of the three shorts.
You mentioned how you decided on a new theme when working with the three existing shorts, so was the first theme decided on before working on the shorts overall? Or did it just all happen at the same time?
We decided on a theme first. I initially sat down with the four directors and, as a producer, told them the theme was "Life." [They] should be able to use a new approach and way of expressing in [their] animation. Another element was that someone needed to be saved. At least one person is saved. After that, I would talk to directors about what motif they wanted to use, and maybe offer suggestions for them.
Is there a particular process to deciding which directors you wanted for this anthology?
I already had the directors in mind. Director Yonebayashi I had worked with before. Momose has been in the business for 30 years, great animator. And I'd always wondered, "Wow, what would it be like to work with him, and have him create something." Director Yamashita, he was his production right hand. So it was a combination of people I had worked with and I hadn't worked with. So I thought this combination would be a successful one.
Did any one of the shorts stand to you more than the others? Is it possible you have a favorite?
As producer, I worked closely with all three, and I don't have a favorite, I love them all! What was interesting about Modest Heroes was that it was actually released in theaters, which is rare. We were in about 100 screens in Japan, and the distributor handed out a questionnaire. What was interesting was that it was split evenly, 33% for each one. I would probably surmise that "Kanini & Kanino" [is] what the kids love, "Life Ain't Gonna Lose" is maybe what the moms love, and "Invisible" is what the dads love.
Now that you all have one anthology of shorts under your belt, do you think it'll be an easier process next time?
I think it'll be a lot more difficult than this first set. Because with other rounds of the shorts, I would want to work with different directors, and directors outside of Japan. I want to explore working with Western directors. What would happen if you brought in a director that's more specialized with CG, and brought them over to Ponoc with its 2D animation? Or working with directors from France; what would happen if you put together a French director with a Japanese director? We're always trying for things people have never seen.
Is there anyone catching your attention right now?
Yes there is, but can't really say anything right now [laughs].
Do you already have ideas in place for future themes for these anthologies?
Yes, I have already planned up to ten volumes [laughs].
What do you want audiences to take away from the Modest Heroes experience?
What's interesting is that -- when the shorts were being screened in Japan -- was that a lot of people hadn't experienced shorts before. In feature film, there's a beginning, ending, like, "OK, that's the end of the story." But within these 15-minute experiences I hope that we are zooming in on the essence of life, the core of it. I hope that people will have a glimpse, at least, of what we believe is the essence of life.