By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
As Hiromasa Yonebayashi, director and co-writer of “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” admits, the world might have been a bit different, had not the world-renowned Studio Ghibli stayed open.
Studio Ghibli, famous for its lush, involved, kid-friendly anime features, shut down temporarily in 2014. And Yonebayashi, who directed “The Secret World of Arrietty” for Ghibli, co-founded Studio Ponoc, and kept on with the Ghibli tradition.
“Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” now available on Western DVD through the distributor GKIDS, follows the Ghibli playbook most of the way through. Like many of the studio’s older stories, this one comes from a children’s book, in this case Mary Stewart’s “The Little Broomstick,” published in 1971. Yonebayashi, working with screenwriter Riko Sakaguchi, developed the story for the screen.
It begins in confusion and conflagration. As a fire rages, voices scream to not let someone escape. We don’t know where we are, or who’s involved, or how the fire started.
A young girl with bright red hair grabs a broomstick and flees the scene. After eluding some odd, mid-air monsters, she crashes to the ground. Her satchel breaks open, exposing some blue flowers, which cause the foliage and animal life around them to go crazy and mature too quickly.
The action moves to an English country house, and we understand that some time, at least, has gone by. Soon we meet another red-haired girl, Mary Smith (voiced in Japanese by Hana Sugisaki, in English by Ruby Barnhill).
Mary is temporarily separated from her parents, in the care of her great-aunt Charlotte (voice by Shinobu Otake, and Lynda Baron). She’s out of school for the summer, but stuck for ideas on how to spend her time. She hates her hair, which she tries tying into pigtails.
She hates her own clumsiness, which causes trouble when she tries to pitch in with household chores. She hates a local boy from the nearby village, Peter (voiced by Ryunosuke Kamiki, and Louis Ashbourne Serkis), who makes fun of her hair … although she might, in the grand tradition of children, secretly harbors some affection for him beneath her curses.
As the action moves on, Mary discovers the broom left behind by the other girl, many years ago. Still potent with magic, the broom takes her on wild adventures she never imagined.
She’ll make long pilgrimages to strange places. She’ll have strangers fawn over her, praising her for her hair, her personality, her way of looking at her world, all things she’d considered liabilities, where she came from.
But do her new friends really have her best interests at heart? Are they trustworthy? Are they worthy of being called true friends, with all the warmth, concern, and selflessness that it implies?
Yonebayashi demonstrates mastery with colors and textures, and a sharp, clear, look to even the most fantastic of the scenes. The bright red found in Mary’s hair, the fire, and elsewhere, plays a crucial role overall, but the cool blues of water, used oddly enough to make monsters and apparitions, comes into play as well, as a foil for the red.And the director matches a color scheme, with a thematic scheme. The fantastic world opened up by the magic broomstick, always has references, sometimes sly ones, to the mundane world.
And the animation stays attuned, in the tradition of Studio Ghibli, to the wonders of even the mundane world. Even in still air, on a still morning, Mary Smith scowling and sighing out her window, hoping and praying for something interesting to happen, a butterfly flies by. Then another butterfly.
And the butterflies dance through the air. A reminder to take stock in our surroundings. We might be bored, angry, frustrated. But with sharp eyes and a willing spirit, we can find an oblique path to magic.
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.