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Interview – ‘The Imaginary’ Writer and Producer Yoshiaki Nishimura

The Imaginary Interview min

Netflix’s latest animated film, The Imaginary, from Japanese animation studio, Studio Ponoc, is a visually stunning and emotionally resonant story about friendship, loneliness and resilience.

The film was written and produced by Yoshiaki Nishimura, who created Studio Ponoc after working for several years at the legendary Studio Ghibli. Nishimura was nominated for an Academy Award for The Tale of Princess Kaguya, a film in which he worked extensively with director Isao Takahata (more on that below).

Nishimura started Studio Ponoc in 2015, releasing the studio’s first feature film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower in 2017. The Imaginary is Studio Ponic’s third feature film, and sure to be its biggest hit, thanks in part to the global partnership deal with Netflix.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Nishimura virtually and with the assistance of a translator, following the film’s premiere at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Imaginary premieres July 5, 2024 in the United States on Netflix.

The Imaginary Key Art
The Imaginary Key Art

POC Culture: The film recently premiered at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France. I wanted to ask you about your experience at the festival and how exciting it was for you.

Yoshiaki Nishimura: You might know this already, but Japanese audiences watch films very quietly and they don’t really show their emotions very much in theaters. But at the Annecy Film Festival, I felt that people were expressing [their emotions], and something that touched me the most was, before even the end roll started after the film, the clapping, the cheering, was just amazing. You couldn’t even hear other noises. I selected the theme song, but we couldn’t even listen to the theme song because everyone was excited and cheering. It really moved me.

POC Culture: What a wonderful experience. I know Japanese audiences are known for being very polite, so I’m glad that you had the opportunity to experience that reaction at Annecy.

You have extensive animation experience and you studied live-action films in the United States as well. Personally, what are some films that inspired you generally?

Nishimura: I have two. One is Grave of the Fireflies. It’s a piece that made me believe in the power of animated films. This piece is a film made by Isao Takahata, who I also made a film with (Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya). So animation is not something that simply makes children happy. This film made me understand that animation can be by children’s side when they’re feeling sad or lonesome. And what I felt from this film is also related to The Imaginary.

Another one is the film, Dead Poets Society, which really impacted me in wanting to come to the United States to study film. I’ve seen this film more than 100 times, to the point where I’ve even memorized and I know all the lines from the film. So when I feel like I’m becoming a little conservative, I use the line, “carpe diem!”

POC Culture: It’s great to hear about the films and stories that have inspired you. Now for this film, you mentioned in another interview that you had certain ideas that you wanted to share in a story and that you found this book, The Imaginary, that was the right fit. What were some of the ideas that you wanted to communicate?

Nishimura: Before I started doing this, I created four short pieces, and two of them deal with the subject the unseen or the invisible: One was Invisible Man, and the other one was Life Ain’t Gonna Lose. I feel there are things in the world that are unseen but are still very important. Because we have the expression where we use animation to allow audiences to experience something that is not seen, I was trying to explore that, so then I found this. I felt that when I found this original story, that this story would allow us to do what we want, and also convey what the original story wanted to convey. That’s why I selected this story.

[L-R] Rudger and Amanda in The Imaginary. Credit: Netflix © 2024 Ponoc
[L-R] Rudger and Amanda in The Imaginary. Credit: Netflix © 2024 Ponoc

POC Culture: That’s great. So many children feel unseen or ignored and I thought this story played with that idea in an interesting way. I’m interested in your creative process for this film. I’ve heard you talk about spending 12-hour days with with directors for months for past projects. Could you talk about your creative process working with the director for this film, Yoshiyuki Momose?

Nishimura: I spent 12-hours a day with director Isao Takahata for 4 years. It was a learning process for me. My style as a producer always changes depending on which director I work with. Mr. Momose is amazing at creating visuals but not necessarily story making, so that’s why I took on the role of story making and steered the process.

This was the first time I took on the role of script writer, and I received credit for that, but because it’s not something I’ve been doing, I’m sure my approach is very different from another script writer. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but in Japan, the concept of an imaginary friend is not widely accepted. Maybe 10-20% might have some idea. So it was very difficult explaining this concept to the creators and director. First, I was creating a four-page treatment document to explain, but then it turned out to be a 40-page long document, including not just the idea, but the camera work, lighting and all other information included. It had sound effects and everything, so I was told, “If you have everything you need, why don’t you write the script?” So that’s how I ended up being the script writer. The way I did it, first of all, create the two-hour film within my mind, and then start writing down all the images that I created in my mind. I think it was more script writing based on the visuals and words that were imagined in my head and just jotting it down.

Background Art from The Imaginary. Credit: Netflix © 2024 Ponoc
Background Art from The Imaginary. Credit: Netflix © 2024 Ponoc

POC Culture: Wow. that’s an incredible way to approach this project. You talked about the idea of imaginary friends is not common in Japan and it’s more spirits or ghosts. How do you think Japanese audiences and children will experience this film? Do you think they will be confused or experience it differently?

Nishimura: Like you said, let’s say if I created this story based in Japan, then maybe people might have perceived it as a ghost or monster. But the concept that I really wanted to focus on in this story was, Rudger is someone who is imagined by Amanda, so he is a separate being, but he’s also part of Amanda. That’s why I wanted to set the story in England. In Japan, they don’t use the term “imaginary friend,” but there are similar beings that are depicted as something else. But they have this existence. We use the term yōkai. It’s not a fairy, it’s in between this imaginary thing, but not an imaginary friend.

In Japan, we have this concept of Zashiki-warashi, a child looking creature that lives in your rooms, but I think that’s actually an imaginary friend. So I felt that because they have knowledge of things like this, they could smoothly accept the idea of the imaginary friend.

POC Culture: That’s very interesting. Now I’d like to ask you about some of the innovation in this film. You discovered this light and shadow technique halfway into production, but you wanted to incorporate this technique into the film. What was it about this technique that you felt was so important to incorporate?

Nishimura: In Japan, the animation style has not really changed in the past 30-40 years. The technique for depicting the backgrounds are becoming more and more precise, but the characters have stayed pretty simple. So within Japanese animation, the backgrounds and characters are separating, because the backgrounds are becoming more precise. So I felt like we could merge the backgrounds and characters if we were able to incorporate this new technology that I found of lighting and shading.

But the real purpose was, if you could control the shading and lighting, you could control deeper the emotion and experience of a person looking at these visuals. It’s not that we use this technology to make 2D animation look 3D. It’s an imaginary world, but we wanted to depict this world with reality. That’s why we needed to express the human emotion very deeply. And we were able to do so because there was this technology made in France. If we didn’t have this technology, this time we ended up creating 140,000 drawings, but without this French technology, we would have ended up having twice or three times more than the 140,000 drawings.

POC Culture: That’s fascinating to hear, and I thought the emotional depth in the story was quite strong. Congratulations on the film and great to speak with you.

Nishimura: Thank you. Nice to meet you.

About The Imaginary:

Studio Ponoc’s The Imaginary portrays the depths of humanity and creativity through the eyes of young Amanda and her imaginary companion, Rudger, a boy no one can see imagined by Amanda to share her thrilling make-believe adventures. But when Rudger, suddenly alone, arrives at The Town of Imaginaries, where forgotten Imaginaries live and find work, he faces a mysterious threat. Directed by renowned animator Yoshiyuki Momose (Spirited Away), The Imaginary is an unforgettable adventure of love, loss, and the healing power of imagination.

The groundbreaking hand-drawn animation of The Imaginary is heightened by first-of-their-kind techniques of light and shadow. The Imaginary is based on the beloved and award-winning novel of the same name by A.F. Harrold and illustrated by Emily Gravett (Bloomsbury Publishing).

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Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture.  He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.

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