Worth Watching: Mary and The Witch’s Flower

Ever since I watched – with bemusement – My Neighbour Totoro when it aired a few decades ago on Channel 4, I have been a big fan of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki.  Totoro was fantastical, whimsical, funny and – dare I say it – wholesome.  It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

And Studio Ghibli hasn’t disappointed since then.  I’ve seen their entire back catalogue many times.  I’ve seen their recent releases too.  Film Four screens the complete Ghibli collection every year, for free – both in Japanese and English voice cast (Japanese versions late at night, the English voice cast during the day).

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A big part of Studio Ghibli’s appeal, to me at least, is the music.  Joe Hisaishi’s work has been nothing short of miraculous.  You can download and stream many of Studio Ghibli’s music via Apple Music.  Mary and the Witch’s Flower OST is there too.

The beauty of a Ghibli film is in how they draw you into their world.  It may be a world full of spirits in need of a good bath such as Spirited Away, or a young teenage witch setting out in the world in Kiki’s Delivery Service, or maybe a World War II fighter pilot redeeming himself for a past mistake in Porco Rosso.  Whatever world Ghibli transports you to, you’re going to be told a damn fine tale.  Even non-fantastical movies such as Only Yesterday (dir. Isao Takahata) and Ocean Waves (dir. Tomomi Mochizuki) which deal with human relationships are works of true craftsmen.  In short: as the youngsters say these days, a Ghibli film gives you all the feels.  I’m usually in tears at the end.

One of my all-time favourite Ghibli movies is Arrietty, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and written by Hayao Miyazaki.  It’s adapted from the first book in Mary Norton’s The Borrowers and is by far the best adaptation.  It’s incredible from a number of viewpoints.  The first is that the animation allows you to easily mix the smaller people with the larger.  There’s an incredible scene in which a housekeeper has discovered where Arrietty’s family live and lifts the floorboards and roof of their “house”.  We see it from a very low perspective, looking up at a screaming Homily who is facing the massive grinning face of the housekeeper, Sho.  It’s something that would be extremely difficult to pull off in live action.  Another element that makes this film stand out is the original soundtrack from Cécile Corbel, a French musician who is not only a singer with a beautiful voice but one of the best harpists I’ve ever heard.  She sings in both Japanese, English, French and goodness knows how many other languages Arietty has been translated into.

Yonebayashi has also been responsible for one of Ghibli’s final movies, When Marnie Was There, which was adapted from Joan G. Robinson’s book of the same name.  It’s an intriguing ghost story with a substantial twist.  It delighted, shocked, and made me sad at the same time when the final reveal is made.

After Marnie, Ghibli fell into deathly silence, with Isao Takahata sadly passing away not too long after The Tale of Princess Kaguya, and Miyazaki had announced his retirement after his excellent The Wind Rises.  It was at this time rumblings were happening that eventually resulted in Yoshiaki Nishimura and Yonebayashi forming Studio Ponoc (pronounced “ponnotch”, which is Croatian for “midnight”) and with it, Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

Yonebayashi and his producer Nishimura had bought the rights to Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick (you can read all about it via this excellent blog post) and adapted it for the screen under the name of Mary and The Witch’s Flower.  It tells the adventure of Mary Smith who has moved in with her great aunt for a small spell (hahahaha) while her parents go away to the United States on business.  Bored, Mary goes exploring in the forest surrounding the property and discovers an unusual flower, the “Fly-By-Night”.  It is said that witches seek this out for its tremendous power.   Things escalate when Mary chases one of the vicar’s son’s cats into the forest.  A slight accident invokes the powers of the Fly-By-Night and Mary is whisked away, on a broom, to Endor College, a magical place where witches and wizards go to study magic.  There she meets Madam Mumblechook and Professor Dee, who – thanks to the Fly-By-Night’s magical properties – are impressed with Mary’s newfound magical abilities.

Needless to say, things don’t go too well from this point onwards and Mary has all manner of misadventures as she attempts to get back to a normal life.  She discovers secrets along the way and makes new friends too.  It’s a lovely story that encapsulates everything that I love about the glory days of Ghibli.  The animation, as you’d expect, is the finest out there.  Many of Ghibli’s animators have made the transition to Studio Ponoc, and given Nishimura, Yonebayashi and the animation team’s experience at Ghibli, you can expect nothing less of a bloody amazing piece of work.

Is Studio Ponoc the rightful heir to Ghibli?  I’d have to say a big yes.  I’d expect in a few years time we’ll start to see a Studio Ponoc museum in Japan to complement the existing Ghibli museum (which I MUST visit – it’s on my bucket list).

It isn’t quite the end of Ghibli, however.  Miyazaki has recently released a 14-minute computer generated short called Boro the Caterpillar and is working on one last film (retirement for Miyazaki means more work!) – all of which will be detailed in an upcoming documentary called Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki which will be coming to U.S. theatres.  I only hope it’ll come to UK cinemas too – or at least available via video on demand or streaming.  I found a previous documentary called The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness to be utterly fascinating.  For fans of Isao Takahata (and who isn’t?), then I highly recommend the documentary, Isao Takahata and His Tale of Princess Kaguya.

Long live Studio Ghibli!
Long live Studio Ponoc!