By Lyle Sylvander (Yokohama–shi, 2001-02) for JQ magazine. Lyle has completed a master’s program at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and has been writing for the JET Alumni Association of New York since 2004. He is also the goalkeeper for FC Japan, a New York City–based soccer team.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower, the debut feature film from Studio Ponoc, an anime outfit founded by Studio Ghibli veterans Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Yoshiaki Nishimura after Ghibli closed its doors in 2015, starts in medias res, with a violent firestorm engulfing the screen. A small girl with bright red hair escapes the maelstrom by flying away on a broomstick, pursued by dolphin-squid-fighter-jet hybrids. She plunges down through the clouds and crashes into a field, where her stolen cargo of glowing blue flowers scatters, instantly transforming the landscape as trees burst out of the earth to towering heights in the blink of an eye. Who she is, where she is, and why she needs to escape isn’t revealed until the final act.
Director Yonebayashi delivers a film packed with many of the attributes that characterizes Studio Ghibli at its best. In this story (based on The Little Broomstick, a 1971 children’s novel by popular British author Mary Stewart, a young female protagonist journeys through a fantastical world, battling witches on a magical quest. As in the best films of Hayao Miyazaki, the hand-drawn animation (a novelty in the CGI-dominated marketplace) depicts a European fairy tale setting while retaining a unique Japanese otherworldliness. This family-friendly film recalls such Miyazaki masterworks as Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Unlike those films, however, Mary and the Witch’s Flower falls short of being a masterpiece.
The animators invoke worlds upon worlds here: the green woods and mist-filled forests of England rendered in swooning evocative watercolors, and the show-stopping Endor, a psychedelic space from out of a dream or drug trip, packed with strange objects, unexplainable phenomena, students floating by in soap bubbles, fountains morphing into human form, grotesque creatures loping out of the shrubbery, only to disappear just as quickly. Endor is dazzling in an off-putting way (similar to some of the “worlds” presented in Ari Folman’s The Congress, where animated avatars engulf their originals). The action sequences are intricate and thrilling.
It’s not hard to picture J.K. Rowling reading The Little Broomstick as a child (it predates Potter by 25 years), getting swept away by the story of a regular kid, who’s really not regular at all, attending a boarding school run by witches and warlocks. There’s a lot here reminiscent of other stories, like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, as well as other films from the Studio Ghibli canon: Yonebayashi’s Oscar-nominated When Marnie Was There (also adapted from a British YA novel published 50 years ago) features a little girl who discovers an abandoned mansion while staying with her relatives in the English countryside. Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service comes to mind, too, tracking the adventures of a young witch and her “familiar,” a cat named Jiji. Mary and the Witch’s Flower doesn’t feel derivative, but it lacks the depth of these other explorations.
The basic plot reads like a reverse of Kiki: A girl discovers a magical broom that whisks her away to a special school for those with magical powers. Children will undoubtedly be entertained but some parents may find the story adequate at best and lackluster at worst. Such faults aside, the film was a box office hit in Japan (although less so internationally).
Mary, as a character, is refreshingly unremarkable—she’s a regular kid. She has empathy for animals. She’s got a healthy temper. She takes joy in the simple things. She’s helpful to her great-aunt. She hates her hair. She follows the gardener around asking him questions. She seems like a real child (Barnhill’s performance is excellent). However, there’s nothing missing for Mary. There’s no real inner conflict in the character, informing her choices (consciously or unconsciously). She’s unhappy about being too clumsy to help around the house. She’s annoyed by the local boy, Peter, even though he’s friendly to her. Conflict doesn’t have to be some huge melodramatic thing, but the total lack of inner conflict in Mary might be why Mary and the Witch’s Flower—as transportive and entertaining as it is—feels a little slight.
On the positive side, Mary and the Witch’s Flower entertains some interesting notions about the ethical use of magic, like how it can be properly/improperly and morally/immorally used. As a cautionary tale for children, the climax even involves an unexpected twist when Mary learns that she doesn’t need to use magic at all to defeat her adversaries—a variation on the Wizard of Oz-esque “you had the power within you the whole time” ethos. As in that tale, Mary grows into a more mature and self-reliant heroine, perhaps serving as an educational role model for children everywhere.
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