How No Country for Old Men inspired the scariest anime villain of 2024

Anthony McGlynn
The Imaginary

Studio Ponoc returns with its first feature film in six years, and The Imaginary is worth the wait.

A beautiful, enchanting anime movie about a child named Amanda and her make-believe best friend Rudger, The Imaginary celebrates innocence, empathy, and imagination in the face of life’s struggles. Based on the novel by A.F. Harrold, the film uses the book as a way to demonstrate the power of animation itself.

Yoshiyuki Momose is director, while Studio Ponoc founder Yoshiaki Nishimura produced and supplied the screenplay. A former Studio Ghibli producer, Yoshiaki brings some of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s whimsy and magic.

Not just in Studio Ghibli’s shadow

But The Imaginary is more than just a tribute act. It has dark, existential undertones that contrast the gorgeous visuals, and Yoshiaki told us about reconciling those ideals – and some unexpected influences.

“I felt a need to depict an element of the truth within this film, because we don’t all live in this happy, magical, perfect world,” Yoshiaki told Dexerto. “Children are observing what the world is, and how adults are taking on those challenges, what they are doing to protect them and be there for them, and I wanted to depict that, as well as give clues on how they could overcome the challenges themselves.”

Fundamental to what makes The Imaginary so engrossing is the standard of filmmaking from Studio Ponoc. Breathtaking set pieces litter the Netflix movie, with a light show in a library full of Imaginaries (the in-universe term for imaginary friends) being among the most dazzling.

The Imaginary

The Imaginary is overflowing with creativity

We meet a litany of beings, big and small, who all served as besties to someone at some point. They escape fading away by coming together, combining their raw imaginative energy.

Yoshiaki went deep on this mythology, leading to a first draft that was twice as long as what made it to screen. An estimated ten times what we see and hear from the Imaginaries was thrown around for backstory, but the film demanded more than just lore.

“What I prioritized is that I didn’t really want everything to be logical visually,” he says. “There needed to be that sense of whimsical nonsense within the characters, and that ended up looking very fun and imaginative.”

The Imaginary

A villain Stephen King would love

What’s a lot less amusing is Mr Bunting, a disconcerting fiend who feasts on Imaginaries. He appears as a middle-aged man, accompanied by a child-like imaginary phantom, and everything about him makes you squirm before he tries to consume Rudger.

He made me think of Pennywise the Clown, the shape-shifting, child-eating grotesque from Stephen King’s It. The filmmakers had another, equally upsetting touchstone in mind.

“[Director Yoshiyuki Momose] took inspiration from the illustration in the book and expanded on that,” Yoshiaki reveals. “In terms of characterization, it’s based on the film No Country for Old Men, the character played by Javier Bardem. That sense of somebody following you wherever you go – there is no escape. I wanted to create that creepiness.”

Just like No Face in Spirited Away or the blazing war in Howl’s Moving Castle, such villainy serves as a conduit for a bright conclusion. We’re stronger than we think – and smarter and more creative and capable of incredible love and kindness.

Rudger in The Imaginary

Empathy is its own artistic pursuit

These things have a way of fading as we get older and caught up in adulthood. Yoshiaki wants viewers to understand that navigating the world can be an artform as valuable as any pretend battle or finger-paint masterpiece.

“People tend to think of imagination as something that is grand, like how it’s depicted in The Imaginary, creating a whole world with a single person’s imagination. But I don’t think it’s limited to that form,” he muses.

“I strongly believe empathy is a form of imagination as well. The power to be able to really understand what the person standing next to you is going through. Or cast your mind onto somebody who is in a refugee camp in another country, what those children are going through.

“I think that sense of imagination is being lost from this world more and more. So I really want us to really value and think about the opportunities that we have to use our imagination in that way. That is perhaps even more important than the power to create.”

The Imaginary is streaming on Netflix now. Check out our upcoming anime and new movies lists for other releases to be aware of.