The Art of Hiromasa Yonebayashi – All the Anime

By Andrew Osmond.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the future director of Arriety, When Marnie Was There and Mary and the Witch’s Flower, was in at anime’s deep end. It was 2000, and the 26-year-old was Ghibli’s baby, the studio’s youngest key animator. He’d joined Ghibli four years before, dropping out of a commercial drawing and advertising class at university. His bottom-rung initiation had been in the inbetween/cleanup department on Princess Mononoke. Now Yonebayashi had been given his first animation on the studio’s new film, Spirited Away.

You might remember one of Yonebayashi’s moments. It’s when Chihiro’s dad – who sees nothing wrong about taking stuff without asking because he’s got credit cards and cash – is pigging out on food in a strangely empty restaurant. That shot turned into a massive trial for Yonebayashi. Director Hayao Miyazaki was on his back, complaining the dad wasn’t tearing into his lunch enough, or the food in his hand wasn’t animated properly. Yonebayashi pressed Ghibli colleagues into munching food on camera, to better learn the dynamics of mastication.

Speaking to a documentary crew filming the animators’ toils, Papa Miyazaki didn’t mince his words. “I think that this experience has revealed the weak point of (Yonebayashi’s) personality and his attitude toward his own life…  His struggle to understand and overcome the obstacle will make him realise how he should live.”

It was a challenge Yonebayashi had already internalised. Talking to Britain’s Little White Lies magazine, he remembered watching the likes of Totoro and Nausicaa as a child. “I was excited by the world of Nausicaa, and then eventually I joined the Ghibli team and I was building one of these worlds for them. That was a wonder. The history of Studio Ghibli is also a history of myself, from childhood to this very moment.”

In contrast to Goro Miyazaki, Yonebayashi paid his animator dues for more than a decade before his first feature. In addition to duties on Princess Mononoke, he was loaned out, or freelanced, on non-Ghibli anime of the time. He in-betweened on the 1998 Spriggan film and on 1999’s Jin-roh. He also animated on episodes of Serial Experiments Lain, Master Keaton and later Monster. But Yonebayashi continued to work on successive Ghibli projects. After Spirited Away, he drew key animation for Howl and was an Assistant Animation Director on Tales from Earthsea. He also animated on several of Miyazaki’s short films that were made exclusively for the Ghibli museum.

By Ponyo, Yonebayashi had risen. He animated a splendid moment that you probably will remember – the title character bounding joyously across massive liquid fish on a raging sea. In 2008, when Ponyo opened, Suzuki and Miyazaki were deciding on Ghibli’s next feature. Arrietty would be based upon Mary Norton’s British books about the “Borrowers,” tiny people no larger than insects. According to Toshio Suzuki in his book Mixing Work With Pleasure, the intent was to give the film to a young director, and Suzuki suggested Yonebayashi.

Suzuki claims Yonebayashi was Ghibli’s best animator, which would outrage many sakuga fans. However, Suzuki may have been thinking specifically of the (generally young) animators that Ghibli trained in-house; he distinguishes them in the book from the elite animators working for Ghibli irregularly. Either way, Suzuki says Miyazaki accepted the choice quickly, and they told Yonebayashi – who was, on this account, nonplussed.

As Suzuki describes it, “He loved his job (as animator) and the thought of directing had probably never entered his mind… It took him a little while to get used to the idea, but in any case the matter had been decided.”

This blog’s discussion of Goro Miyazaki raised the issue of how the Ghibli studio crafts its own narratives. In Yonebayashi’s case, I have an Arrietty press-kit given to British journalists, which includes a lengthy translated account of the film’s background, also by Suzuki. Once again, Suzuki calls Yonebayashi Ghibli’s best animator, but the press-kit lays even more stress on his inexperience. Yonebayashi is quoted: “Doesn’t a director need his own philosophy or point of view? I don’t have that.” To which Miyazaki and Suzuki exclaim, “That’s already in the book!”

As with Ghibli’s promotion of Goro Miyazaki’s issues with his dad, this is weird marketing – a way to set fans and critics against a new director from the start. True, the story in the press-kit doesn’t end there. “At first, Maro would try to gauge Miyazaki’s opinion on everything,” Suzuki says (“Maro” is Yonebayashi’s nickname). “But when it was time to draw the storyboards, he realised that he had to face it alone, and informed Miyazaki that he would not seek his advice anymore… Things are proceeding smoothly for now, but our only worry is Miyazaki. Maro is surely on his mind, and you may never know when Miyazaki may come storming into the production area with unsolicited advice and new ideas.”

This is the press-kit, remember.

As for the UK Blu-ray of Arrietty, it includes a hesitant presentation on the film by Yonebayashi, but also a separate extra where Miyazaki holds forth about Yonebayashi. The Ghibliotheque book highlights Miyazaki’s brutal comments. “I had envisaged that we’d produce a lot of new talent,” Miyazaki mourns. “People who were ambitious and had an inexhaustible supply of ideas. But we hadn’t. So we assigned the job to Maro, who just stood there vacantly… Am I being too honest? He’s a good guy but that alone won’t produce a good film. There’s no use flattering him.”

I took this extra as self-parody, like a comedy roast or Miyazaki’s “slavedriver” self-portraits from years before. How Yonebayashi took it is harder to say. When I was covering Arrietty for a magazine, I emailed several questions for the director. However, I received just two brief answers, where Yonebayashi played down his own role completely.

A sample: “Miyazaki is the mastermind behind this project… I am sorry to say that before Miyazaki asked me to direct this film, I have never read the original novels… It was Miyazaki’s idea to transpose the setting to modern-day Japan. The reason was because I am not familiar with the United Kingdom, so he probably wanted to eliminate the chance of anything unusual appearing on screen.”

All of which supports the notion of Yonebayashi as a functionary, a placeholder director carrying out instructions. Or in the words of Jonathan Clements, someone whose directing career amounts to “diligently pastiching Miyazaki’s world-beating style.” Personally, I think Arrietty and Yonenbayashi’s later features are worth much more than that, though Yonebayashi’s own part in them is harder to evaluate.

Miyazaki co-wrote Arrietty’s script, with Keiko Niwa. However, Yonebayashi wrote verses that he sent to the film’s French musician Cecile Corbel; she says they were a crucial influence on her folk-Celtic score. Moreover, as Suzuki pointed up earlier, it was Yonebayashi, not Miyazaki, who drew Arrietty’s storyboards. His skill is obvious from a glance at them.

In Mixing Work With Pleasure, Suzuki says drawing the storyboards was crucial for Yonebayashi to preserve his independence, and that he holed up in a separate apartment building while drawing them. No prizes for guessing who he was hiding from! (When Miyazaki had collaborated on Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart in the 1990s, Miyazaki wrote and storyboarded the film.)

Suzuki himself says Yonebayashi does not “brand” his films with his own personality, like Miyazaki, or like the auteurs of film theory. Instead, Suzuki compares Yonebayashi to a stage manager, who “brings out the best in each role, lets the actors perform as they please, and concentrates on manipulating the script for greater effect.” However, Suzuki seems to contradict himself just after, crediting Yonebayashi with a distinct sensibility of his own. He argues that Yonebayashi creates a girl, Arrietty, who thinks before she acts, whereas Miyazaki would have done the reverse.

I’m not fully convinced on that point, but there are moments in Arrietty that go beyond Ghibli algorithms. Early on, Arrietty realises a “giant” human boy has seen her and is watching her calmly. She cowers behind a piece of tissue, the tick of a clock becomes a beating heart, she’s depicted as shocked and fascinated… and we’re suddenly in a portrait of burgeoning sexuality, female sexuality, that’s most unusual for Ghibli. The scenes just before highlighted Arrietty’s loving closeness to her father, making her transition even more pungent.

Released in 2010, Arrietty was Ghibli’s highest-grossing film not directed by Miyazaki, earning nearly $150 million worldwide. I think it lacks the spontaneity of, for instance, Ponyo bounding along the giant fish, and the third-act perils feel flat. Then again, I think Yoebayashi’s next film, When Marnie Was There, which took less than a quarter of Arrietty’s earnings in 2014, holds up as one of Ghibli’s best, most affecting films.

A tale of two girls, one possibly unreal, Marnie deepens Arrietty’s female subjectivity. It effectively takes the depressed Chihiro from the first minutes of Spirited Away and doesn’t kick her into Miyazaki’s preferred therapy of hard work. The film is emotionally closer to Shinkai’s Garden of Words than it is to Miyazaki’s films, with touches of the dream transitions of Satoshi Kon.

I’ve written about When Marnie Was There previously, highlighting the presence of Masashi Ando. (Ando would go on to direct The Deer King; Yonebayashi, perhaps returning a favour, would contribute key animation for it.) Yonebayashi said he chose Ando specifically for his portrayal of girls with “murky, painful” emotions; the veteran animator served as Marnie’s character designer, animation director and co-writer. Yonebyashi had a script credit too, but so did Arrietty’s Keiko Niwa.

Certainly it’s consistent with Suzuki’s image of Yonebayashi bringing out the best in a team – Marnie also featured such elite animators as Takeshi Inamura, Shinji Otsuka and Hiroyuki Okiura. But if Yonebayashi isn’t clearly Marnie’s auteur, it feels equally implausible that he wasn’t a creative part of the film’s success. Once again, he drew the storyboards (there are a few samples here), without needing to hide them from Miyazaki, who was receding into his supposed retirement after The Wind Rises.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Yonebayashi commented, “With Arrietty, I was strongly aware of making a Studio Ghibli film, so this time I decide to think only of the audience.” That audience failed to storm the box-office; yet in making such a comment, Yonebayashi was putting himself well beyond Arrietty.

Yonebayashi moved to the new studio Ponoc to make his third film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower in 2017, which I’ve also discussed before. A lesser film than Marnie, it moves from a flamboyant action prologue to a slow, subdued first act that feels like a children’s anime from forty years ago. However, these early scenes have a special appeal to British viewers, for at last Yonebayashi places a story in a Ghibli-style England, in the woods and fields and damp forest mists of Shropshire. Later there are gorgeously transforming animals, a funny message about self-esteem, and the uncontrolled birth of a metamorphing monster.

I interviewed the director about Mary, and brought up its pronounced absence of screens of smartphones, setting the film apart from Shinkai’s Your Name a year before. “The modern world is full of information,” said Yonebayashi, “on social networks, social media. People are really baffled by rumours, gossip, brands…. People are so controlled or influenced by this information. I wanted to create a story in which the protagonist uses her own power and strength to move forward. That would be the ‘magic’ in the modern world.”

Yonebayashi’s next anime felt similarly old-fashioned – the “Kanini and Kanino” segment of Ponoc’s 2018 anthology Modest Heroes, available on Netflix. It’s effectively an aquatic Arrietty, featuring a miniature family living in a little brook, though the threat is far scarier. A perfectly good film, it feels worryingly retrograde beside the anthology’s other, more innovative episodes. Following the high of Marnie, Yonebayashi now seems subject to repetition and diminished returns. He’s far beyond handholding these days… but possibly one last callous roasting by his ex-teacher Miyazaki might be just what Yonebayashi needs.

Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films.