TOKYO (AP) — The coming-of-age story is familiar: A shy girl has problems fitting in and concocts an imaginary friend. The originality of the Oscar-nominated "When Marnie Was There" comes from how its hand-drawn images express the girl's inner torment.
Luscious hand-drawn animation is the trademark of Japan's renowned Studio Ghibli, where the film's director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, worked for years.
He says the ways his artists have carefully depicted cloudy skies and rippling waves express the soul of the main character, Anna, who nurses a scar in her heart because she is adopted.
"It's a challenge to convey internal emotions visually such as through her facial expressions and the landscape," he said quietly in an interview with The Associated Press at Studio Ghibli's picturesque office in Tokyo. "The wind is cold, but there is warmth in an embrace."
Anna's foster mother is so worried about how Anna has closed up within herself she sends her to spend her summer vacation to seaside Hokkaido, northern Japan, to be with relatives living in a quaint cottage next to a marshy lake and green hills.
That is where she meets Marnie, who obviously is out-of-this-world, even without her long blond hair, and is more fitting of Anna's attention and friendship than the boring, loud, crass girls in her everyday life.
The tear-jerker ending involves a separation that's inevitable, but with a twist that leaves the heroine more at peace with herself, while teaching how some important connections endure.
"She learns she is actually loved by those around her," said Yonebayashi of Anna. "It is a small step for an individual. But it's also a big step, and that's what is being expressed in this film. And I feel that hasn't been done before."
The style of "When Marnie Was There" lacks the exaggeration common in animated works by Ghibli and others. Yonebayashi chose to make the images of the surroundings and movements of the characters more realistic, to accentuate the dream-like quality of the scenes with Marnie, he said.
Yonebayashi recently left Ghibli to pursue his own projects but worked on its earlier films, such as "Princess Mononoke" and "Ponyo," directed by studio founder Hayao Miyazaki, who won an Oscar in 2003 for "Spirited Away" and an honorary Academy Award in 2014.
When asked what he had learned from Miyazaki about the art of animation, Yonebayashi contemplated for more than half a minute.
"It's everything," he said at last.
"Movement, the way to think when drawing a picture, how to draw a line, everything," he added slowly. "They all became part of me."
Miyazaki has announced his retirement, and it is unclear what the next Ghibli work may be. Yonebayashi declined to give details of his next project, but said it might be a Ghibli work. And his close ties with the studio were clear. Ghibli provided the tuxedo he will be wearing to the Oscars ceremony on Feb. 28.
"I feel extremely honored. The legacy and the trust that Studio Ghibli built over the years and the works we have created with members of our team won a positive evaluation," said Yonebayashi.
The studio was founded in 1985 by Miyazaki with Isao Takahata, whose "The Tale of The Princess Kaguya" was nominated last year for an Oscar.
Over the years, it has stuck to the labor-intensive method of drawing by hand, steering away from computer graphics and other technology increasingly the standard these days.
Going with less can convey the feelings of the creator, and drawing by hand can feel new, Yonebayashi said.
"A foreigner once told me we do things in a traditional style, and I was reminded that's how it must appear," he said with a smile. "But it's not that 3-D is superior to 2-D. A picture is a picture."
Trailer for "When Marnie Was There" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-sixU3ZrXg
Follow Yuri Kageyama at: https://twitter.com/yurikageyama
Her work can be found at: http://bigstory.ap.org/content/yuri-kageyama