Studio Ponoc’s ’appealing, engaging’ anime for Netflix is set in the English countrysde

the Imaginary

Source: Netflix

‘The Imaginary’

Dir/scr: Yoshiyuki Momose. Japan. 2023. 118 mins.

Rudger exists solely in the imagination of a young girl called Amanda, his creator. But what an imagination! Being Amanda’s imaginary friend is a constant adventure, with Rudger accompanying her on daydreams from snowy realms to outer space. But when Rudger is separated from Amanda, he learns the bleak truth about the lifespan of an ‘imaginary’ once parted from their creator. This adaptation of A.F. Harrold’s 2014 children’s book is an appealing, emotionally engaging fantasy; the art direction is intricate and exquisite.

A degree of sophistication that at times evokes the kaleidoscopic, constantly evolving worlds of Christopher Nolan’s ’Inception’

While this Japanese animation from Studio Ponoc - which bows on Netflix July 5 - doesn’t quite match the imaginative scope and world-building of top tier anime, it should find a receptive audience. It’s certainly a great deal more charming, not to mention lighter on its feet, than the year’s other film about the existential plight of forgotten imaginary friends: IF, starring Ryan Reynolds. While both films tap into the emotional turmoil that might prompt a kid to create an invisible playmate, The Imaginary brings a degree of sophistication to its storytelling that at times evokes the kaleidoscopic, constantly evolving worlds of Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

Thia third feature from Japan’s Studio Ponoc following Mary And The Witch’s Flower and the anthology film Modest Heroes puts a geographical distance between Ponoc and Studio Ghibli – the film unfolds in an unspecified English coastal town – but the artistic approach shows a clear kinship in the use of painterly, hand-drawn animation and the blurred lines between the real world and a magical dimension. The screenplay is by Yoshiaki Nishimura, who also produced the film and who founded Studio Ponoc in 2014, following a lengthy career as a producer at Studio Ghibli. And director Yoshiyuki Momose also cut his teeth at Ghibli, serving as key animator on Spirited Away, Whisper of the Heart and Porco Rosso, as well as collaborating closely on Isao Takahata’s pictures. So a degree of creative overlap between this film and those of the Ghibli stable is perhaps inevitable, with Ponoc yet to forge an entirely distinctive voice.

But mostly, it’s an enjoyable adventure that benefits considerably from the presence of a genuinely creepy villain in Mr. Bunting, who sports a morally dubious moustache and Hawaiian shirt. He arrives at Amanda’s house claiming to be running a survey on the local children (red flags abound). But in fact, it’s Rudger he wants. Assisted by a spooky, whey-faced ghost girl who looks as though she crawled straight out of a late 1990s J-horror, Mr. Bunting pursues Rudger with a connoisseur’s single-minded determination, and nefarious intentions. It’s Mr Bunting’s presence in a supermarket car park that prompts the incident that separates Rudger from Amanda.

Lost in the human world without his human, Rudger is more vulnerable than he can possibly know. Fortunately, he is spotted by Zinzan, a wily cat with odd coloured eyes who shows Rudger where others of his kind have gathered to find safety – the library, a building dedicated to housing works of imagination. Rudger is convinced that he hasn’t been forgotten, but to reunite with Amanda, he must first venture out into the streets where Mr Bunting and his dead-eyed side-kick are prowling. With the help of a pink hippo called Snowflake, a skeleton named Cruncher-of-Bones, and a girl adventurer named Emily, he faces threats beyond his wildest imagination.

The picture gets a little bogged down in exposition at times but the imaginary worlds are vividly realised with an almost obsessive level of detail. The score, meanwhile, builds in power as the film unfolds, starting out as earnest, pensive and piano-led, but ending as a thrilling orchestral jolt of energy. As one might expect from the talent involved, this is a quality production across the board, with the original Japanese voice cast listed here from Annecy being subbed in intrnational iterations by a cast led by Louis Rudge-Buchanan, Evie Kiszel, Hayley Atwell, Sky Katz and Jeremy Swift. 

Production companies: Studio Ponoc Inc

Worldwide distribution: Netflix

Producer: Yoshiaki Nishimura

Screenplay: Yoshiaki Nishimura

Editing: Toshihiko Kojima

Animation supervisor: Kenichi Konishi

Art direction: Kosuke Hayashi

Music: Kenji Tamai & agehasprings

Main voice cast (Japanese version): Kokoro Terada, Rio Suzuki, Sakura Ando, Riisa Naka, Takayuki Yamada, Atsuko Takahata, Issey Ogata