“Many of the stories we created at Studio Ghibli as the studio was winding down were about separation,” Yonebayashi, the director, said. “But as we started production anew at our new studio, we turned away from stories of separation to stories about coexistence and encounters.”
“Modest Heroes” was initially envisioned as four films, with the director and Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata contributing a seven-minute segment based on a story from the Japanese epic “Heike Monogatari.” But that project was canceled when Takahata died in 2018 at 82. Nishimura worked with the director during the last 10 years of his life, and said he was inspired to join Ghibli after seeing Takahata’s critically acclaimed “Grave of the Fireflies” as a young boy. “When Isao Takahata died, I cried like I have never cried before, and I felt like a part of me had been chipped off from the shock,” he said. “Modest Heroes” ends with a dedication to him.
Studio Ponoc is in the midst of planning another short film and several feature-length ones; Studio Ghibli’s next film, “How Do You Live?,” based on a 1937 fantasy novel by Genzaburo Yoshino, is slated to open in 2020 or 2021. The current boom in Japanese animation has led to a shortage of capable animators, a major issue in an industry notorious for its often breakneck work schedules. “Some people I met who had worked with Miyazaki on ‘Princess Mononoke’ are still traumatized by it,” Napier said. “Miyazaki himself acknowledged it. He used the term ‘boro boro,’ which means ‘crumbling.’ They really rode people to the limit there.”
Ponoc felt the pressure early on. “There was always a group of talented staff members on ‘standby’ from the beginning of production of director Hayao Miyazaki’s films at Studio Ghibli,” Yonebayashi said. “With ‘Mary,’ we had to start from scratch, with no one.”
In addition to releasing both of Ponoc’s films in the United States, the distributor GKids also holds the North American theatrical rights to Studio Ghibli’s classics (rights acquired from Disney in 2011). If the stars align, GKids could release a Ponoc film and Miyazaki’s latest “last” film at the same time. “Of course we would love to get” the Miyazaki film, the GKids president, Dave Jesteadt, said. “That would be a huge honor. But separate from the business side, I’m just very excited to see it, just like any other fan.”
And the prospect of Ghibli and Ponoc making films at the same time? “It was unexpected,” Jesteadt said. “Although maybe not so much in hindsight? There have been multiple times that Miyazaki has retired and unretired. But I think that while there’s great fellowship and a lot of shared animators and talent between those studios, it’s also great for both companies to have a little artistic competition. There’s always room for more great films.”