The Imaginary Interview: Writer and Studio Ponoc founder Yoshiaki Nishimura invites us to explore imaginary worlds

We discuss one of this year’s most enigmatic and touching animated films with The Imaginary writer Yoshiaki Nishimura.

Last Updated on July 11, 2024

The Imaginary, Yoshiaki Nishimura, Netflix, interview, animation

Yoshiyuki Momose’s The Imaginary arrives on Netflix today, and it’s one of the most magical animated experiences you’ll find on screens this year. Based on the book of the same name by A. F. Harrold with art by Emily Gravett, The Imaginary is a fantasy epic on part with some of Studio Ghibli and Don Bluth’s best and most impactful works. 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.

We are honored to be joined by Studio Ponoc founder and The Imaginary writer Yoshiaki Nishimura for this in-depth interview into the world of make-believe, dream-devouring demons and connections that span generations. During our time with Mr. Nishimura, we discuss his love for animation, the challenges of adapting Harrold’s enigmatic tale, the inner workings of the film’s villain, Mr. Bunting (Jeremy Strong), Mr. Nishimura’s dream project, and much, much more.

The following interview is transcribed from an on-camera video interview with Mr. Nishimura and his interpreter. For our full review of The Imaginary, click here!

JoBlo: You’ve produced some of the most epic and heartfelt animated films in the past several years. What attracts you to this genre of filmmaking?

Nishimura: Wow! That’s a very hard question! Initially, as a student, I spent my time thinking I’d do live-action films. But once, I saw children looking at a TV screen and screaming, “Please help that little boy! Please, help!” Then I thought, ‘Oh, wow, that power animation has on a child is so strong.’ Then I remembered something about myself from when I was ten years old. When I was ten, I watched Grave of the Fireflies by Isao Takahata. I’ve seen that film more than 100 times. At that point in my life, I didn’t trust grown-ups or society. When I saw Grave of the Fireflies, I thought, ‘Whoever made this film could be trusted.’ If I’m able to create a film that makes children feel like, ‘Oh, this film was made for me,’ then that is worth spending my life on.

Nishimura and I then bonded over the beauty and emotional trauma of Grave of the Fireflies, a film I’ve only seen once because it scarred me that deeply.

JoBlo: What were some challenges you faced while writing The Imaginary? Was it difficult to adapt the source material while making the story your own?

Nishimura: This story is interesting because there are stories where humans meet Martians, like E.T., but The Imaginary comes from the perspective of a boy who is imagined by a girl. What felt very special to me was that if this girl hadn’t imagined this boy, he wouldn’t have existed anywhere in the world. I felt that if I could utilize this situation, we could depict so many things in the world that are important but unseen. That’s how I started scripting The Imaginary.

Creating a fantasy world in animation is easy, but the difficult part is making sure the reality where human beings are creating Imaginaries is grounded. That was the most important balance when you’re going between the imaginary world and that of human beings.

JoBlo: Did you have an imaginary friend growing up? If so, could you tell us about them?

Nishimura: I did not have any imaginary friends, but in the bathroom, I was always traveling through my “Imagination world.” I would think, what if there are five special boys in the world, and I’m one of them? So, this is a world that’s familiar to me. I have children. The world that they live in is very close to me. I didn’t have an imaginary friend, but playing with my imagination was something I was very familiar with.

JoBlo: The film’s villain, Mr. Bunting, is incredibly sinister. At any point, did you have to keep yourself from going too far with his evil intent and actions?

Nishimura: Fantasy literature in England always has some level of something scary. In my opinion, English literature tries to depict the reality of the world of children. It was a challenging task for me to take the fun part of the fantasy and combine it with the scary. One thing I always had in my mind was that we cannot lie to children. Children now are different from how we were. They’re often surrounded by scary visuals and things that evoke fear. Rather than lying to them and saying the world you live in is happy and beautiful, I wanted to communicate to them that the world you live in might have scary things that exist, but you have the power to overcome them.

I created Bunting so he would exist as a metaphor for scary things in the real world. When you’re growing up, what is this being that might be consistently following you? Through that idea, I said, ah, Bunting, and ensured he was there. I owe so much to Jeremy Swift. This character could have been a really scary being, but with his brilliant acting, he was this creepy, scary being, but at the same time, somewhat comical. I thought that was magnificent.

Next, Nishimura and I spoke about Mr. Bunting’s imaginary friend, a ghostly figure not unlike an undead schoolgirl with unimaginable power. I asked Nishimura if there was a story behind her character, and he told me this.

Nishimura: In the illustration that Emily [Gravett] drew in the original book there was a depiction of Bunting’s imaginary friend. When I saw that, I said, ‘Oh my God, this is Sadako [Yamamura] from Japanese horror films. It took me an entire year to create Bunting’s background. I imagined a girl taken away as a child, and now that child is an adult.

JoBlo: Can you recall your proudest moment while working on The Imaginary?

Nishimura: About my happiest or proudest moment, this current piece is very challenging to us. I assume you’re familiar with Japanese animation from the T-shirt you’re wearing [a black-and-white Spirited Away shirt featuring Chihiro and No Face riding a train]. Within the past several decades, the Japanese animation style hasn’t changed much. The backgrounds and illustrations have become more refined, yet the characters and their design have remained simple. I was always thinking, ‘I wish I could do something to push that forward or present something different.

Then I found this technology of light and shading that was developed by a French company. The first thing I thought was, ‘if I use this technology, I can bring more texture to the hand-painted animation, giving it more depth. What was important is that if we used this technique to control the shadows and lighting, we could create images that could control human emotions more. After I found this technique, I called Momose-san, and I said, ‘I want to use this!’ Then Momose-san said, ‘Oh, this is great! The production pipeline had already been established and begun. People said, ‘Why are we changing this? Why now?’ When they saw the first rush of film that we tried out, they said, ‘Wow! This is really going to change something. I was very happy and felt like we’d accomplished something. That was the moment when I felt confident about the work that we were creating.

JoBlo: Is there another story or novel you’d jump at the chance of adapting into an animated film? Something from your childhood?

Nishimura: I do have one, yes. My favorite children’s story that I’ve read is by a German author named Erich Kästner, called The Flying Classroom. I love this story, and Mr. Miyazaki [Hayao Miyazaki of Ghibli Studios] loves it too. So, if I had an opportunity to create this, I think that would be the final accomplishment of my filmmaking life. I feel that’s something further down the road.

Source: JoBlo

About the Author

Born and raised in New York, then immigrated to Canada, Steve Seigh has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. He started with Ink & Pixel, a column celebrating the magic and evolution of animation, before launching the companion YouTube series Animation Movies Revisited. He's also the host of the Talking Comics Podcast, a personality-driven audio show focusing on comic books, film, music, and more. You'll rarely catch him without headphones on his head and pancakes on his breath.