19-year mystery solved with startling revelations from the person who drew it. 

Now that Studio Ghibli has made the unprecedented move of releasing 400 images from its films free for the public to download and use — “within reason” — there’s been an unexpected development. One of the animators who worked on the 2001 film Spirited Away has used the opportunity to share some of the scenes he illustrated online, along with some startling revelations.

The animator divulging Ghibli’s secrets is 47-year-old Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who worked at Studio Ghibli for 18 years before leaving in 2014 to found his own animation company, Studio Ponoc. Yonebayashi famously became the studio’s youngest-ever director with the 2010 film The Secret World of Arrietty, after cutting his teeth as an animator on a number of Ghibli films, including Spirited Away.

Taking to Twitter on 19 September, a day after the Ghibli images were released, Yonebayashi shared some insider knowledge in a series of tweets that quickly went viral online (translation follows):

“Ghibli says it’s okay to freely use these, so about my key frames: Spirited Away was my first feature film so though I was nervous I researched a variety of things as I drew. For the part where Haku is fed the dango, we all interacted with a large-breed dog and observed the movements.”

▼ So that explains the realistic movements between Chihiro and Haku in his dragon form.

People online revelled in this revelation, sending the tweet viral with over 350,000 likes. That wasn’t the end of the behind-the-scenes information, however, as Yonebayashi went on to say:

“It was written on the storyboard that the soft, flabby food the dad eats is the stomach of a coelacanth.
Haku moves quickly and stops suddenly so there aren’t a lot of key frames, making it super simple.
Chihiro is trembling and nervous, so there are a lot of key frames, making it a pain.”

As the main character who becomes separated from her parents and spirited off to a strange world filled with magical spirits, the rendering of Chihiro does require a lot of detailed original frames to help convey her emotions and draw the audience in to her plight.

But hold on, let’s back up for a second and take a look at the more explosive revelation here: the unidentified food eaten by Chihiro’s father is the stomach of a coelacanth?? The strange, pale, bird-like hunk of…well, something (pictured on the dish second from the left in the picture below) has been a topic of speculation amongst eagle-eyed viewers for almost 20 years.

Some have argued that the mystery food is a lamb’s stomach, while others have sworn it’s a Taiwanese street food called ba-wan, which is made up of a translucent dough made from sweet potato starch.

▼ Ba-wan

The ba-wan theory ties in with the popular rumour that the town in Spirited Away was modelled on Jiufen, a popular tourist spot in Taiwan.

However, the mystery food that’s been puzzling viewers for years has finally been revealed to be the stomach of a coelacanth. While photos of the stomach itself can’t be found on the Internet, coelacanths are rare types of fish once thought to be “living fossils”.

Yonebayashi goes on to say:

“Apparently it wasn’t written in the storyboard…maybe it was written in the layout drawn by Director Miyazaki? Incidentally, it was retouched to be about three times more jelly-like than the original picture.”

It looks like Yonebayashi was somehow reminded that the direction to draw the coelacanth’s stomach didn’t actually appear in the storyboard but in the original layout sketched by Miyazaki. Either way, it’s a startling revelation that left people reeling.

“What?! I thought this was meant to be ba-wan?”
“I always thought it was some sort of magical onion!”
“Isn’t it an over-steamed quail that turned into gelatin?”
“Well, coelacanths certainly look like they’re from another world, so it’s still mysterious.”
“Does this mean someone at the studio actually ate a coelacanth?”
“A long time ago (over 30 years ago), some manga magazine featured eating coelacanth, so maybe that’s where they got the idea from?”

Given Ghibli’s renowned love of nature and all the flora and fauna found within it — a running theme in a lot of their movies — it’s likely that the team used either a photo or their imagination to draw the fish’s stomach, taking creative liberties with it later on to enhance its odd, flabby texture.

So the secret behind the mystery food that’s baffled viewers for 19 years can finally be laid to rest, thanks to this surprising revelation from the key animator who worked on the film. And as the latest in a string of surprising new fan discoveries revealed years after a Ghibli film release, it looks like there’ll be more surprises to come in future.

Source: Twitter/@MaroYonebayashi via Hachima Kikou
Featured image: Studio Ghibli
Insert images: Studio Ghibli, Wikipedia/IcyNeko, Wikipedia/徐月春, Wikipedia/Alberto Fernandez Fernandez 

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