Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: January 2005

Friday, January 28, 2005

10:06:58 pm , 419 words, 6748 views     Categories: Animation

Recent sightings

Shinya Ohira did some nice work in Ghibli's latest film, as did Shinji Otsuka. G being G, Ohira's bit was corrected, but still unmistakable. Ohira is reportedly in full force in the recent Windy Tales 10, and, a bit more surprisingly, in the Tennis no Oji movie that opens this weekend. I wonder how many GITS SAC fans will be mobbing the theaters for this one. Maybe Ohira fans. It's surprising how prolific Ohira seems, considering the nature and quality of what he does. A real inspiration.

Sam Cham started again at 18, and it's one of the best episodes in the series. It's the same Sato Dai writer-Sayo Yamamoto director team that did an earlier ep. I'm loath to even mention it here because the show is so hip it's painful, but the quality is there in this case, which ironically is probably because they had extra time due to the temporary cancellation. Nice balance between still and motion throughout, with a few good bits courtesy Nobutake Ito. Anyone who could allow that Yuasa bit in without the slightest correction can't be all bad.

I haven't seen anything from Mitsuo Iso since Kill Bill, which hopefully means he's working on something big. I recently saw his bit in Voogie's Angel 3, and it ranks as one of his best. Watching it gave me goosebumps, which hasn't happened in a while. It got me to pondering the question of why there's nothing else out there that's remotely comparable to Iso's work, which seems different at a fundamental level. Where did Iso get the idea to do animation like this? And why doesn't anybody else? After rewinding and watching Iso's bit about ten times, I came away awed and feeling the same thing I always feel after seeing an Ohira bit - amazement at how boring everything else seems in comparison. This is the sort of animation I want to see.

Shogo Furuya was at it again in Tweeny Witches 33. I personally derive considerable pleasure from the fact that his episodes look so different from the rest of the series, but this understandably causes consternation among some viewers who are accustomed to their anime looking the same week after week after week after week. I laud the production stance that allows a person with as sure a vision as him to wield complete control over his work. And I say that even though I'm not completely convinced by his directing. What is satisfying is that we can see the person behind the creation.

Friday, January 21, 2005

11:25:29 am , 549 words, 2817 views     Categories: Animation, Director: Yasuhiro Aoki

Tweeny Witches eps

Rumour has it that Tadashi Hiramatsu and Mamoru Hosoda are involved in the upcoming Genius Party, in addition to maybe Satoshi Kon and definitely Masaaki Yuasa. (I wish they'd change that embarrassing title.) It's curious how many of my favorite figures seem to gravitate towards 4°C. Hiramatsu is a real surprise. This will be his directing (kantoku) debut. He was talking about moving towards directing in that interview, but I didn't expect to see something so soon. Similarly, a year ago I read a piece by Hosoda commenting on Animatrix, which together with his appearance at a panel for Mind Game seems kind of a lead-in to this development. If Yasuhiro Aoki and maybe Furuya Shogo take part as well, I'll be happy as a pig in mud.

Word further has it that the film is inspired by or based on the works of Yasutaka Tsutsui. Yasutaka Tsutsui was one of the main writers of what the Japanese called "alternative sci-fi" around the 70s. Blending social satire with science and anything else that came to mind, Tsutsui is one of the few Japanese writers I've read for whom the word "genius" really seems like the bon mot - not a great writer in the literary sense, but a great explorer of ideas via the written word. About five years ago I discovered his books and devoured everything I could. I was in the UK at the time, and I'd make trips to London just to buy bagfulls of his books at 50p/pop. Another writer of this ilk is Shin'ichi Hoshi, the Japanese king of the short-short, whom Studio 4°C just turned to for a recent omnibus-format TV series. The anime industry has been rather thin on ideas of late; these writers offer some good ideas to help shake up tired anime thinking.
After more than a month of recapping, Tweeny Witches started up again today, with ten eps till the end, to commemorate which here's an anal list.

StoryboardDirectorAnimation Director
01Ashino/AokiYoshiharu Ashino
02Yasuhiro Aoki
03Masahiko Kubo
04Yasuyuki Shimizu
05Toru Yoshida
06Yasuhiro AokiDaisuke NakayamaKen'ichi Yamaguchi
07Yoshiharu AshinoKazuya Nomura
08Yasuhiro Aoki
09Yasuyuki Shimizu
10Shogo FuruyaHideki Sekiguchi
11Masahiko KuboKazuya Nomura
12Sunao KatabuchiToru Yoshida
13Shogo FuruyaKen'ichi Yamaguchi
14Yasuhiro Aoki
15Toru Yoshida
16Yoshiharu AshinoHideki Sekiguchi
17Yasuyuki ShimizuHirozaku Sueyoshi
18Yasuhiro AokiToru Yoshida
19Toru YoshidaYoshiharu AshinoAkira Tamura
20Yasuhiro Aoki
21Shogo Furuya
22Hiroaki AndoKazuya Nomura
23Chie Uratani
24Yoshiharu AshinoKen'ichi Yamaguchi
25Toru Yoshida
26Yasuhiro Aoki
27Shogo Furuya
28Hiroaki AndoKazuya Nomura
29Yoshiharu AshinoHirokazu SueyoshiAkira Tamura
30Chie Uratani
31Yoshiharu AshinoYumi Chiba
32Yasuhiro Aoki
33Shogo Furuya
34Yoshiharu AshinoToru Yoshida
35Yasuyuki Shimizu
36Yoshiharu AshinoYasuyuki Shimizu
37Yasuhiro Aoki
38Yasuhiro Aoki
39Yoshiharu AshinoYumi Chiba
40Yoshiharu AshinoKazuya Nomura

05吉田  徹
12片淵須直吉田  徹
15吉田 徹
18青木康浩吉田  徹
19吉田 徹芦野芳晴田村 晃
25吉田 徹
29芦野芳晴末吉宏一田村 晃
34芦野芳晴吉田 徹

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

10:54:19 pm , 322 words, 1536 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie

A Room Nearby

Ever been driving around in the rain with the world melting into mud around you in a series of mudslides that block your road, and you run across a film that captures just the way you're feeling at that particular moment? Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's film A Room Nearby kind of simulated that experience for me tonight. It was my main haul from the Best of Ottawa selection. I'd seen a number of the other films already anyway. But it would still have been even if I hadn't. Just what I like to see: someone creating a new form using animation. Documentary had been well complemented with animation in In the Realms of the Unreal, and here the crossbreeding is even more impressive and successful, seamless. We have a series of narrators monologuing about their experiences with loneliness, which Fierlinger riffs on brilliantly with witty and apt animation that does what a good opera score does, namely interpret the words and not pantomime them. You get the sense of a master at work. The drawings are simple and bold and sketchy, and he lifts the third wall occasionally to show you the ragged mechanism at work. One of the vignette spinners is none other than Milos Forman, and his deadpan tale of a dog on and in ice was eye-burning. I lost two cats recently, and I can still feel the void. It's a story that hurts in a healing way. Actually, it wasn't recent, it was more than three years ago, but time flows by at a speed disproportionate to certain memories that seem frozen in time. Where are the films that tackle stuff that means the remotest something like this? Something we've all felt at one time or another, or will, and it never gets talked about. I'm immensely indebted to the Fierlingers for making this great film that touched me profoundly, which doesn't happen often to me in animation.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

09:11:04 pm , 34 words, 1218 views     Categories: Animation


The next episode of Digital Stadium on Saturday will be curated by Koji Morimoto with surprise guest Masaaki Yuasa. Too bad there's no way of seeing it over here. Sounds like a killer episode.

Monday, January 17, 2005

05:24:03 pm , 288 words, 1040 views     Categories: Mind Game

Mind Game: Two for two

Hooray redux! As many fans had hoped, Mind Game has won the Noburo Ofuji Award at the 59th annual Mainichi Film Concours hosted by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper. The Mainichi Film Concours is one of Japan's most famous film contests, each year giving out awards in various categories, including two in animation: the venerable art-oriented Ofuji Award and the younger, more general Animation Film Award. Makoto Shinkai's The Place Promised in Our Early Days has taken the Animation Film Award. Mind Game thus joins the ranks of historical animation greats including indepenedent animators like Tadanari Okamoto and Yoji Kuri and full-length features like Night on the Galactic Railroad, Gauche the Cellist and Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon, past laureates of the prestigious Ofuji Award. The Ofuji Award is the oldest and most important animation award in Japan, focusing on inherent quality over popularity. The strictness with which the awardees are selected can be inferred from the fact that there were several years when no Ofuji Award was given because no film was deemed to merit the prize that year. This is Mind Game's second award, coming as it does a month after the announcement that Mind Game had won the Japan Media Arts Festival's Animation Divison Grand Prize. (To learn more about the first award and view a list of past Ofuji Prize winners, see my December 17 post.) Together these are two of the most important awards in Japan for animated films, so fans are gratified that recognition is slowly arriving for the film, which passed by with scant public acknowledgment last summer in a short and limited theatrical run. The awardees were announced today (actually tomorrow, the 18th, Japan time) on the Mainichi's Japanese web site.

Sunday, January 9, 2005

02:33:09 pm , 5074 words, 21956 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Tadanari Okamoto: The Heart of Animation

Tadanari Okamoto and Bretislav Pojar
(Czechoslovakia, 1969)

Anything is possible in animation. You can animate junk (Legend of the Sky Kingdom), food (Svankmajer), dead critters (Brothers Quay) - whatever tickles your fancy. The single person who did probably more than any other Japanese independent to prove that anything is possible in animation is Tadanari Okamoto. From one film to the next throughout his 25-year career as an independent animator, spanning from 1965 to the year of his death in 1990, he continuously experimented with a huge range of methods and styles for creating films. His tenet was 'never the same thing twice'. He never allowed himself to repeat the same method twice in a row, always adding some new little touch to an old method or completely changing direction and adopting a medium that he had never attempted to animate before.

Beginnings: 1932-1963

To tell Okamoto's story from the beginning, we have to make a short detour to talk about Tadahito Mochinaga, the legendary father of Japanese stop-motion animated filmmaking. Mochinaga had started out working under Mitsuyo Seo, and had left Japan for Manchuria just before the end of the war, where he found himself in demand for his animation knowhow. (To learn more about his fruitful China period, I refer you to an outstanding article on Mochinaga by Kosei Ono on AWN.)

Upon returning to Japan around 1953 after nearly a decade in China, Mochinaga made several TV advertisements using the stop-motion technology he had developed in China, thus becoming the founder of Japanese stop-motion puppet animation. In January of 1956 he completed his first Japanese-produced stop-motion puppet film, Uriko Hime to Amanojaku (18 minutes). The film proved popular enough that he was able to produce another, 5 Monkeys (17 minutes), completed in June 1956, which reportedly showed definite technical improvements over his first.

Not long after his return from China Mochinaga had taken on a protege, a young person named Kihachiro Kawamoto, whose first job as the puppet maker for Mochinaga was a television advertisement made in 1953. Kawamoto seems to have created the puppets for many of Mochinaga's films made between this year and the founding of Mochinaga's studio MOM Productions in 1960, including a promotional film about the history of beer commissioned by the Asahi Beer Company, completed in July 1956, and Little Black Sambo, completed in November 1956, which is the film that brough Mochinaga to the attention of Videocraft International in 1959 at the Vancouver International Film Festival. The technical strides made since the previous year must have been quite something, because Videocraft was so impressed by the polish of the film, probably in no small part thanks to Kawamoto's puppets, that it convinced them to commission a handful of stop-motion TV series from the studio, including The New Adventures of Pinocchio and Willy McBean & His Magic Machine.

Which brings us back to Tadanari Okamoto. Born in Osaka in 1932, Okamoto graduated from the law school of Osaka University in 1955, and worked in the legal profession for two years before quitting and entering the film school of Nihon University in 1958. After graduating in 1961, Okamoto entered the MOM production, where he worked on several of the TV series commissioned from the studio before finally quitting and forming his own company, Echo Incorporated, in 1964. Along with Kawamoto, then, Okamoto is one of the more famous of the figures who followed in the footsteps of Tadahito Mochinaga and continued to develop the possibilities of stop-motion animation.

Echo Inc: 1964-1990

Over the next few years Okamoto produced his first few films, most of them using puppets. It's well known that Kihachiro Kawamoto had made the pilgrimage to Czechoslovakia to learn under his idol Jiri Trnka. Similarly, during the first few years of Echo Incorporated, Okamoto made a symbolic visit to Czech stop-motion puppet guru Bretislav Pojar in his native land. Most likely consciously influenced by the great Czech animator, the puppets of Okamoto's early films bear some stylistic similarity to the Czech school. But already the seed of his experimental desire is there, as he is already trying out different techniques with each film, most notably the sturdy, rugged wooden blocks of Back when Grampa was a Pirate (1968). His first film at Echo, A Wonderful Medicine (1965), won him the prestigious Ofuji Prize at the Mainichi Film Concours and the Silver Prize at the Tokyo Educational Film Festival. It was a sign of things to come, as Okamoto went on to win the Ofuji Prize a total of eight times over the length of his career, more than any other individual in the history of the prize, and to win more than two dozen other prizes.

In October 1971, just 6 years after the launching of his career as an independent, Okamoto's first retrospective took place. The fact that it was possible to put together a show entirely showcasing the work of one creator is significant, because it indicates the breadth of his oeuvre, which in itself is what had the most impact on animation enthusiasts of the day. While other creators may have been making more individual films, none could boast the variety of Okamoto's films, whose variety made them ideally suited to back-to-back appreciation. Okamoto thus established a reputation early on for constant creative renewal, and never let up.

In October 1972, exactly one year after his first show, Okamoto joined together with Kihachiro Kawamoto, with whom it can be assumed he had become acquainted during his MOM Pro days, to put on the first "Puppet Animashow", which over the next 8 years would showcase the latest films made by the two animators. The first program consisted of Okamoto's Chikotan (1971), Sarukani (1972) and Mochimochi no Ki (1972) and Kawamoto's Oni (1972). As should be obvious by the time proportion (49 minutes by Okamoto : 8 minutes by Kawamoto), each program was overwhelmingly dominated by the creations of the extremely prolific Okamoto. The two had a diametrically opposite style, which made their works an ideal pairing: Kawamoto with the same unified style from one piece to the next, mood serious and subjects traditional; Okamoto more laid back and humorous and stylistically unpredictable, dealing with real life issues. The shows were among the most successful events of their kind in Japan at the time, and were held in various cities including Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka. Other independent animators managed to hold one-off events, but none had the lasting power of the Puppet Animashow.

Okamoto produced some of his best pieces in the years immediately following the start of the Puppet Animashow. Below is a sampling of a few of those.

Monkey and Crab (1972)
In Sarukani (1972) he created a wonderful folk tale full of the grim vitality in the tales of old, without softening anything, as tends to be done when folk tales are adapted to animation. The puppets are among his most memorable, hewn from blocks of wood with bold, rough jabs in a way that perfectly matches the elemental nature of the story. Sarukani has been retold before, but usually in softened form, since the protagonists in effect viciously kill the monkey in the original story. Okamoto shows that he understands the nature of the folk tale by retaining the hard edge of the original. Part of the appeal of folk tales is that they're the product of an age that seemed to be more in touch with the elements, which is perhaps why death is often sudden and brutal in folk tales. This film well captures that atmosphere. The hair-raising climax uses dynamic animation, camera work and sound effects to achieve a riveting effect. This is one of Okamoto's most memorable and tactile creations. It's one of the only animated adaptations of a folk tale I've ever seen that successfully captures the hale vigor of these old stories. It's also the stop-motion puppet film with the most unique and appealing puppets I've seen, bold and blocky creations far-removed from the typical clean and sleek forms that for some reason seems to dominate the genre.

The Mochimochi Tree (1972)
One of Okamoto's running obsessions is with narrated stories - stories in which a single speaker narrates the story and the various characters instead of various voice actors standing in for the characters. Mochimochi no Ki (1972) is one of his earliest and best in this grouping. One of the direct inspirations for his using gidayuu narrative to tell this story was having recently seen a performance of traditional bunraku theatre, in which gidayuu is used, and been tremendously moved by the emotive power of the form. Based on his fragmented memory of hearing gidayuu as a child, Okamoto rewrote the story into a semblance of the traditional 5-7 gidayuu form, and sought out the gravelly voice of gidayuu master Rodayu Toyotake to read the story to the accompaniment of the shamisen. Animation then as now tended to be eternally focused on the now, so Okamoto's film was unusual in that it went in the diametric opposite direction, towards a traditional form. Okamoto realized that using this music was the obvious answer for the story, and came up with a way of integrating it in a way that melds perfectly with the animation, so that in effect the two are inseparable in the finished film, a perfect hybrid. Traditions are in constant evolution, and here Okamoto has provided his own contribution to that evolution. For the characters, Okamoto put together pieces of traditional Japanese paper, which he animated by connecting the pieces with wire, as he would often do later with his semi-relief animation. In all of his films Okamoto constantly experimented with his materials to achieve the desired effect. In this film he found that using back-lighting allowed him to acheive the right texture for the tree that is the central element of the film.

Praise be to Small Ills (1973)
In Nanmu Ichibyo Sokusai (1973), which was shown at the second Puppet Animashow, Okamoto went one step further in the integration of tradition and innovation by combining a modern music form with traditional visual inspiration. While again a narrated story, this time the narration is much richer, like a one-man-show, mixing forms old and new. Folk singer Kohei Oikawa throws together a wide variety of elements from traditional Japanese music to modern folk, peppering the narration with poetry here, dialogue there and prose here to create a style of narration never heard before or since, and without which the film would be unthinkable. The visual inspiration of the film comes from the traditional ema votive picture hung at a temple by a visitor to make a wish - for example to find a boyfriend, or to get over an illness, or to pray for a safe childbirth. Okamoto uses cedar wood (the material used to create the ema) to put the characters together, effectively using the substrate of the ema to tell a story that represents the archetypal human story hidden behind these innocuous, crudely drawn objects. It tells the simple story of two hunters, one strong, the other weak, the lives they lead, and their eventual deaths. It's an extremely moving generational portrait, a reminder of all the stories of life and death buried in our past, reflecting the simple beauty of the mundane dreams invested in the ema.

A wide variety of forms and styles
Okamoto went on to continue working in all sorts of styles visual and audio, short and long. In The travelling companion (1973) and the two other shorts in the Ningen Ijime series, The phone booth (1975) and From cherry blossom with love (1976), he used ultrafast rakugo or Japanese traditional sit-down comedy narration by Chomaru Katsura to get across some biting social satire, drawing images with great vigor and velocity by using a fat marker. One of his most original and widely appreciated films is 5 Small Stories (1974), an omnibus of 5 shorts, each animated using a different medium, each sensitively and movingly treating an issue affecting people in contemporary Japan, from risutora or layoffs to bad housing conditions. Starting in 1975 Okamoto began setting songs to animation for the monthly music video program and independent animator favorite Minna no Uta, using various methods including cel, puppet and clay, eventually producing a total of 6 for the show. Who's That (1976), which could be called Okamoto's 'The Seasons', was a collection of 10 haiku-like shorts animated using characters made of yarn. Okamoto also produced a handful of films intended for multi-screen display: for the Okinawa Ocean Expo in 1975 he produced The Water Seed, which parodied ancient Japanese design motifs, and Deep Sea Fish, which used translucent materials; and for the Nagoya Anthropology Museum in 1982 he produced The Evolution of Mankind, which realistically recreated the lives of our pre-historic ancestors.

Towards the Rainbow (1977)
Among Okamoto's more memorable longer films of the latter half of his career can be counted Niji ni Mukatte (1977), which tells the story of two villages on either side of a river who come together to build a bridge to connect their villages and thereby permit a young couple in love to be joined in marriage. The story provides Okamoto with a chance to shed light on the technical ingenuity borne of necessity that the Japanese people traditionally put to use in their everyday lives in various areas. Okamoto did voluminous research and visited numerous bridges built in the traditional way to be able to accurately recreate the methods of old on screen. The music, again sung by Kohei Oikawa, blends traditional weaving songs from two actual locales that would have been in a similar relation to one another. A feeling of depth was achieved in the portrayal of the mountainous villages by using crepe paper to recreate an enshrouding mist, a method Okamoto had used the year earlier in The Strong Bridge (1976).

The soba flower of Mt. Oni (1979)
In Onigakureyama no Soba no Hana (1979) Okamoto achieved the ultimate feat of combining two diametrically opposed formats representing the traditional and the modern: watercolor and cel. Since cels by definition repel water, to combine the two he had to go through a time-consuming process of experimenting with various media in order to figure out a method that would allow him to paint onto cels and thereby recreate the characteristic look of old Chinese and Japanese landscape painting in the new medium. The solution he found was to place a layer of carpenter's putty on a cel to create a hydrophilic surface, over which he then painted. The result is a gorgeous and unified film that is one of his most technically innovative, visually rich and dramatically balanced. Toei released a film that took a similar approach the same year, Taro the Dragon Boy, in which Isamu Tsuchida provided beautiful traditional landscape-inspired watercolor backgrounds, but otherwise nothing was done to match the cels to the backgrounds, whereas Okamoto went that one step further and thereby attained the conceptual visual unity lacking in Toei's film.

The Magic Ballad (1982)
The masterpiece of Okamoto's late period is undoubtedly Okonjoruri (1982), which is also his last full-length film, and his longest, clocking in at nearly 30 minutes. It tells the story of the unlikely friendship of Itako, an old woman, and Okon, a kitsune (magical fox) with the power to heal illness by singing a magical song. Okamoto used papier mache to create the puppets, a new material to him, but one whose innate properties and unique forms he nonetheless managed to use to good effect in creating the simple but appealing protagonists of the film. The soundtrack is among the most studied and perfect in any of his films, with great variety and delicate balance using a minimum of material. The story is mostly spoken through dialogue between Okon, but occasionally we revert to narration by Itako, and then there are the various musical elements that come into play altogether naturally in the course of the story. The joruri of the film's Japanese title makes reference to the general term for Japanese musical theater, which often takes the form of just this sort of dialogue, alternating with various types of music like the shamisen-accompanied ballad that forms the centerpiece of the film. Okamoto's film is thus a sort of modern reinterpretation of joruri, kneading together various traditional elements of musical theater into an audiovisual form that is accessible to modern audiences. The film is dramatically one of Okamoto's heaviest, treating the issue of old age, loneliness and death, and his measured pacing of the dramatic moments is powerfully moving, but the film is not dreary and is narrated in an authentically inflected dialect leavened with dry humor that seems to spring from the soil of the peasant landscape that is the story's stage.

The Restaurant of Many Orders (1991)
Around 1988 Okamoto began production on what was to be his last film, an adaptation of Kenji Miyazawa's Chumon no Oi Ryoriten. The film was to break new ground for Okamoto yet again, as he now took up the challenge of creating a film that would look like a moving copperplate engraving, thus combining hitherto unseen density of texture with the appeal of two-dimensionality. One year into production Okamoto called on Toei Doga veteran Reiko Okuyama, who had recently taken up etching as a hobby after retiring with nearly 30 years in animation behind her, to help him animate the film. Okuyama had decided to finally call it quits after helping out longtime associate Isao Takahata on his film Grave of the Fireflies in 1986, apparently dissatisfied with the limitations of commercial animation and her own career. Through the experience of meeting with Okamoto while working on the film (she animated the protagonist hunters) Okuyama relates that for the first time in her life she felt that her long career in animation had not been completely wasted. For the first time she felt like she was doing animation that meant something to her. This experience is what led her to take an interest in independent animation, which is what led to her short in Winter Days. Restaurant was in fact intended as a study for what Okamoto hoped would become his first full-length film, to be called Hotarumomi, in which Okuyama had hoped to participate; but death interceded on February 16, 1990, putting an end to these plans and a premature end to the life of one of Japan's most original and beloved independent animators. Okamoto's friend and comrade Kihachiro Kawamoto took up the task of completing the nearly finished Restaurant from Okamoto's directions, and the film went on to win 6 prizes including the Ofuji Prize and the Minister of Education Prize. In 1991 Tadanari Okamoto was posthumously awarded a special prize by the Mainichi Film Concours. In 1994 Pioneer re-issued their two-LD set of his works. Last summer an exhibit of the materials Okamoto used to create his films was on display at the MOMAT to accompany the full screening of his entire body of work in the historic History of Japanese Animation series.


There have certainly been experimental animators before and after who broke new ground with method and style, but Okamoto's films were never purely experimental. Communication was always his first priority. So even though experiment with new methods was his driving motivation as an animator, the experimenting was always there as a means of finding out how best to communicate the subject matter, and as a result his films always felt completely natural and unforced, the experimentation perfectly integrated. In each film it's as if the method chosen were the only possible method for the subject in question. He had the intuition to realize that different subjects were better served by different methods, and the ingenuity to figure out what those methods were.

If Okamoto hasn't won many foreign prizes, it's probably due to one of the things that makes Okamoto so unique: the intextricable role language plays in his work. It's fair to say that one has to understand the language to fully appreciate Okamoto's acheivement, so Okamoto may never truly be appreciated outside of his native country. This most emphatically does not take away from the merit of his films, but does limit their reach. His best films are a totally unified whole that interweaves language, music, directing and the various materials used for the animation into a perfectly unified whole that makes them among the most perfect animated creations anywhere.

In an Okamoto film, everything is through-conceived. Each shot is first and foremost a satisfying composition that works on its own. The figures in each film are always designed in a new way, always with an eye for what works. The material used as the substrate for the movement is matched to the subject and the background. Different materials in turn call for a different kind of movement, so that each film is also an exploration of a new approach to animation. The subject is always treated with an understated warmth and humor not dissimilar to Ozu. And yet there is also an underlying bite and spirit of challenge, and an interest in the world around us, as in the 5 Small Stories (1974), one of the few of Okamoto's films that used an original story by Okamoto himself, indicating how important the world around us was to Okamoto.


One of the things that makes Okamoto a truly great filmmaker and not just a great animator is that his ingenuity at picking out the best method for the subject at hand reached beyond the visual material component to touch every other aspect of the production, most notably the soundtrack. The music and the narrative are two of the most important elements in an Okamoto film, without which the film would only be half what it is - be it the gidayu-narrative style of Mochimochi no Ki (1972); the folk-narrative style of Praise be to Small Ills (1973); the various musical pieces he has animated for Minna no Uta; or the shamisen solo of The Magic Ballad (1982).

In the latter, the solo in question is no throwaway interlude but a powerful creation in its own right that captures the theme and the feeling of the the magic ballad that is the pivotal narrative element of the original story. It's worth looking into how this solo came about to give an example of the typical amount of work that went into the musical side of Okamoto's films. When seeing the films, one senses the amount of work that went into the soundtrack, but knowing the details of how that soundtrack came about increases one's appreciation of the director's devotion to getting the most perfect music possible in each of his films.

For the song in question, there was only a short line describing it in the original story. One line may have sufficed amply in the medium of letters, but the question thus became what to do about it in the completely different medium of film. Okamoto's answer was that a full song had to be elaborated, and one that would not be a mere pretty distraction but the "pillar" sustaining the film. Okamoto's first idea was to use the traditional gidayuu form of musical drama for the song, as he had done in Mochimochi no Ki (1972). But he felt this brash-sounding style would be a mismatch with the slow, rural feeling of the thick Tohoku dialect spoken by the protagonist, grandma Itako, so he decided on the use of the shamisen instead. The shamisen is used, for example, in gozeuta, songs played by blind female beggars accompanied by the shamisen. After working with collaborator Yoko Higashikawa to invent lyrics for the song, taking hints from various traditional Japanese forms, he went to Yujiro Takahashi, a master carrying on the traditional performing practices, to compose the song itself. Takahashi also played various traditional forms for Okamoto's benefit, which helped to give Okamoto a more rounded idea of the musical background of the story. Okamoto had also listened to various records and watched various films to research the project, but otherwise had never studied traditional music in depth. The completed film integrates various musical forms used in the daily life of the pre-modern rural Japanese village subtly and skillfully, in a way that goes by all but unnoticed, but that helps to create the film's uncanny sense of authenticity. Okamoto's great contribution was to show that music can be the key to unlock our cultural past.

Tadanari Okamoto:                                      
                 What People Call Animation

I wanted to work in the movies. But I wanted to do something where the art side would be the major element. So I wound up in animation. But when I arrived, what people called "animation" seemed far removed from my own notion of art.

Young people who enjoy animation today seem less interested in the artistic aspect of the medium. Cute, trendy drawings designed in a nearly identical fashion, streamlined by identical production methods, appear to have become a veritable form of communication to this generation, a language of symbols like the stylized handwriting of adolescent girls.

To the animation industry, the notion of individuality that is championed by experimental animators is viewed as an obstruction standing in the way of communication, to be shunned in favor of conformity and accessibility. What's more important are interesting stories and novel situations.

It's futile to compare the rarefied creations of the so-called fine arts—where value is proportional to individuality—with the mass-produced goods of the animation industry—where value is proportional to quantity—, but as giant conglomerates enter the picture looking for a piece of the animation market, the animation industry will continue to grow, making it harder for small-scale individual animation to survive.

If I've focused obsessively on new stylistic methods and approaches to sound all these years, it wasn't out of some desire to show off or prove that I'm the best, but to be true to my personal vision. I always believed in the unlimited expressive potential of animation, ever since I started working in animation. That's why I never allowed myself to use the same style or method twice in a row in my films, but instead always forced myself to look for new expressive means. It's been a continuous process of trial and error that has resulted in major losses in terms of both time and money, but that has also made it possible for me to discover a tailor-made production style that enables me to circumvent a major chunk of the technical drudgery inherent in the animation production process. If I've been able to produce more than 30 films both short and long over the last twenty years (entirely apart from commissioned work), it's largely thanks to my rational simplification of the production process.

However, efficiency has not been so overriding a priority as to convince me that moving to a computer would solve all of my problems. Besides, at the current stage that's still too costly a step. There's something about working with a crew that I would miss if I were working alone on a computer. There's no telling what might happen in the future at the current rate of technological advance, but if the system becomes too efficient, I can envision it turning into an easy way of mass-producing animation—which might be a boon to the industry, but of questionable benefit to the medium as an art form.

An animated film comes about as the result of an inner need to express something. It goes on to be seen by its audience and receive a commensurate degree of recognition. At one extreme are films that aim purely to reach as many people as possible: they receive support, but run the risk of becoming standardized products. At the other extreme are experimental films produced entirely for personal satisfaction: they can be made in small numbers, but production will eventually become unfeasible for lack of funding.

The ideal as I see it would be to tread between the two extremes, speaking your heart to an audience of kindred spirits who would in turn go on to be your base of support for the continued creation of your films. Animators at both extremes will probably scoff at the idea as naive and idealistic, but how else could I possibly go on doing something as hard as animation without a dream to hold on to?

― Tadanari Okamoto, 1986


 1965 A wonderful medicineふしぎなくすり14'21"puppet (wood, leather)
 1966 Welcome, alienようこそ宇宙人14'27"puppet (wood, plastic)
 1966 Operation woodpeckerキツツキ計画14'35"low relief (wood)
 1968 Back when grampa was a pirateおじいちゃんが海賊だった頃3'51"puppet (wood)
 1968 Ten little indians十人の小さなインディアン1'39"puppet (wood, leather)
 1970 Home my homeホーム・マイホーム3'47"low relief (origami)
 1970 The flower and the mole花ともぐら15'29"puppet (wood, leather)
 1971 Chikotanチコタン10'54"cel (crayon)
 1971 Lonely valleyお淋し谷3'22"cel (multi-screen)
 1971 December song12月のうた1'58"cel (multi-screen)
 1972 The monkey and the crabさるかに19'12"puppet (wood)
 1972 The tree of Mochimochiモチモチの木16'51"low relief (J paper)
 1973 Praise be to small ills南無一病息災17'40"low relief (painted
cedar planks)
 1973 The travelling companion旅は道連れ世は情2'16"cel (marker)
 1974 Five small stories小さな五つのお話19'35"cel+puppet
 1975 The water seed水のたね18'57"low relief (cloth,
stencilled dye)
 1975 Deep sea fish深海魚4'9"relief (plastic, silicon)
 1975 The prince with the big bellyオナカの大きな王子さま2'20"cel
 1975 The phone boothうらめしでんわ2'49"cel (marker)
 1976 Symphonic variationsシンフォニック・バリエーション2'13"yarn
 1976 Who's that?あれはだれ?21'13"yarn
 1976 The Strong Bridgeちからばし10'47"puppet
 1976 From cherry blossom with loveサクラより愛をのせて2'32"cel
 1977 Towards the rainbow虹に向って18'26"puppet
 1978 Letter on a snowy day雪の日のたより2'24"cel
 1978 Panache the squirrelりすのパナシ21'32"yarn
 1979 Beautiful nameビューティフルネイム4'1"cel
 1979 The soba flower of Mt. Oni鬼がくれ山のソバの花22'55"cel
 1980 Forgotten doll忘れられた人形13'29"photo+puppet+cel
 1980 Shhh!お静かに4'14"cel (marker)
 1981 Grampa frypanふらいぱんじいさん20'56"clay
 1981 White elephant白い象22'32"low relief
 1982 The magic balladおこんじょうるり26'32"puppet (papier mâché)
 1982 Human evolution人類の進化19'40"cel+puppet
 1983 The surly donkeyロバちょっとすねた2'23"clay
 1984 Metropolitan museumメトロポリタンミュージアム2'21"full+low relief puppet
 1986 Coro's on the roofコロは屋根のうえ2'20"clay
 1991 The restaurant of many orders注文の多い料理店19'00"cel

Data gathered from the Animation Animation LD set originally released 8-24-1986 and re-released 9-25-1994.

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Sunday, January 2, 2004

07:26:29 pm , 3633 words, 5254 views     Categories: Animation, Translation, Interview

Gisaburo Sugii vs. Hiroshi Masumura

Below is a conversation between Gisaburo Sugii and Hiroshi Masumura about the 1985 movie Night on the Galactic Railroad. Masumura is a manga artist who has created a large body of work set in a fantasy land called "Atagoul" (the title of a short CG pilot by Mamoru Hosoda), where the inhabitants are primarily anthropomorphic cats. Around 1983 Masumura began adapting several of poet Kenji Miyazawa's short children's stories in manga form, transposing the characters into the anthropormphic cats that are his forté. The stories he adapted include Matasaburo the Wind Imp, The Cat's Office, Snow Crossing, The Biography of Budori Gusko and Night on the Galactic Railroad, a vast undertaking that took him several years, indicating just how important Kenji's oeuvre must have been to Masumura, which is also made clear in the discussion below. For Night, Kenji's magnum opus, he went so far as to draw two different versions of the story - one at the beginning of his trek across Kenji's Iihatov, of the last extant version of Kenji's manuscript for Night, and one at the end of his journey, of the earliest extant version of the manuscript.

It was based on Masumura's idea of transposing the characters into anthropomorphic cats that the same was done for the characters in the movie version that was in planning at the time at anime studio Group Tac, to be directed by studio co-founder Gisaburo Sugii, whose career had run the gamut from the avant-garde adult masterpiece Belladonna in 1972 to the musical fantasy Jack in the Beanstalk in 1974 and the anthology-format TV series Tales from Old Japan over the years that followed. Night on the Galactic Railroad was to become one of his most significant achievements, an unclassifiable film whose every element combines perfectly to create a transcendent experience like no other animated film. YMO co-founder Haruomi Hosono provides music of incredible emotive power, while the voice actors breath every syllable with a degree of sensitivity and clarity that brings out the poetic power of Kenji's language to the greatest possible extent, and every background recreates the untranslatable poetry of Kenji's original in a compellingly stylized and unrealistic fashion that puts the spotlight on all the right details. Further, in a move that is rather exceptional for an anime film, seminal 60s avant-garde theater playwright Minoru Betsuyaku was brought onboard to adapt the story to the screen. A dream team in every sense of the word. It's one of the greatest anime films of all time, based on one of the greatest Japanese books of all time.

How did Gisaburo approach the making of this film? There remains much to be said, but this conversation sheds some light on this question. Little has been said about this film elsewhere, so I wanted to present it here. There are a few items that differed from my own intuitive understanding of the film from years of viewings, so it's instructive. For example, I took the humans to have been inserted simply as a way of mirroring the inverse distanciation effect Kenji seemed to have intended by naming the main characters with unfamiliar Italianate names, only to name the victims of the sinking of the Titanic with familiar Japanese names. This isn't mentioned by Gisaburo, so that may not have been the case at all.

This conversion was translated from the mook released by Asahi Sonorama in August 1985, two months after the film hit the theaters.


Gisaburo Sugii: Did you intend to use cats from the start when you were thinking of adapting Night on the Galactic Railroad?

Hiroshi Masumura: I wanted to do it with people at first, but I'm not very good at drawing people... (laughs) But I don't think I would have done it with people even if I could draw people. The second you set down a human face to this story, it changes the feeling of the story entirely, defining it around your own image, and I wanted to avoid that. I wouldn't have bothered to give it this much thought if the story didn't mean as much to me as it does.

GS: People have tried to animate Night on the Galactic Railroad before. It's a pretty common project. But it never works out. The projects always go belly-up midway. One of the reasons is that Kenji's descriptions of the landscape and colors are extremely specific, which surprisingly makes it more difficult to adapt. They try to reproduce those colors and details, and it never works. When Atsumi Tashiro (producer of Night) first talked to me about the idea eight years ago, I re-read the story, and the first thing I did was to try to put a face on Giovanni and Campanella, like you did. But I just couldn't come up with anything. If you try to force your own image onto those characters, it winds up changing what Kenji was trying to get across by this story through the characters. This time around I had a look at your manga when the project was in planning, and honestly, it was an incredible shock. I had never even dreamed of drawing the characters as animals. It was the obvious answer. It solved all the problems. I don't have a hard time visualizing the characters as cats now, thanks to your original, but I imagine it must have taken real courage to take that step.

HM: Deep down the reason I've set my manga in the land of Atagoul, where cats and people are on equal terms, is basically because of Kenji. The Acorn and the Wildcats is where I got the idea in the first place. So I don't think I'm doing Kenji any disrespect. One thing, though, is that there's a line in one of Kenji's poems where he says "I hate cats," so I was afraid people might be opposed to the idea because of that. (laughs)

GS: Kenji didn't draw any pictures for the original story; the pictures are the text. So, just the opposite, I think it would be nonsensical to try to adapt it literally and not take some freedoms with it. Your book is a perfectly valid creation. You've taken the mood of his story and transformed it into an extremely emphatic visual equivalent that brings out the mood of the original.

HM: The reason I drew a manga based on the story in the first place was because there was a lot I could identify with in the feelings of the characters. Also, Kenji's descriptions of the scenery are extremely vivid visually, so they come across as very realistic. His descriptions are both beautiful and opaque at the same time: "Dipping his finger in the invisible river of the sky." Then there are the various mysterious neologisms scattered throughout the text like tenkirin ("Heaven Wheel") and sankakuhyou ("Triangle Scope") and sekitanbukuro ("Coal sack"), which are so visually evocative and rich. It was a strangely pleasurable experience, coming up with concrete images of these objects and then putting them down on paper, only to be disappointed by my own lack in skill, and surprised at the incredible difference between the finished drawing and the object as I'd imagined it.

GS: My biggest problem in the film was the question of culture. The names are Italian-sounding - Giovanni, Campanella - but the feelings described seem pretty obviously Japanese. When you read these names it brings up this image of people in an imaginary European-like land somewhere, but my interpretation is that it's basically Kenji's feelings as a Japanese poet that we see in the characters and the landscape. So the question of culture is obviously a major issue for making a movie version. The landscape in your own manga version is your own personal vision of that world. I had trouble deciding whether to go with your own image of the world, or to put together a vision of Giovanni's life and environment more suited to a movie.

HM: I know what you mean. I didn't go into detail about things like how to draw the walls. You'd have to give them texture, add details to the interior scenes. And what color is their hair? Do they wear pants? There's a lot that isn't defined in my version.


GS: One of the things that occurred to me while making the film is that what probably motivated this story, besides the obvious motivation of Kenji wanting to convey to kids a certain message, was nothing so much as the simple fact that Kenji saw the milky way one night and was inspired to write a wonderful fantasy that would interweave the beauty of the milky way together with his view of humanity. If you don't bother to read any of the research that's been done on the book, and you just read through it in one sitting, I think what comes across first is just how clear and beautiful a story it is. I had to do a lot of research to make the film, but I think it would probably be more conducive to producing an honest reading of the story as Kenji intended it to forget all the research and just go with that feeling of clarity that comes across on that unprepared first reading.

HM: I tried to approach the story without any set preconceptions about what it meant when I drew my manga. Overall I think I have a fairly good picture of the original, but it's full of all these wonderful holes that you just can't fill in no matter what you do, which are part of the appeal to me personally.

GS: Things like the tenkirin and sankakuhyou.

HM: Luckily nobody seemed to have paid any attention to my sankakuhyou, because I drew it wrong and nobody said a thing. (laughs)

GS: For the movie we went with the theory of Tsuneo Maeda (animation director) that the sankakuhyou might have been just a triangular device planted in the ground to map mountains, which Kenji might have been acquainted with since he loved the mountains. Tenkirin is probably a neologism, but it's fairly obvious that's it's primarily a symbolic object. Kenji's reasons for using these incomprehensible objects is probably simply for the feeling of mystery they inspire in the reader. In the movie I've taken the liberty of interpreting the tenkirin as the milky way. My own view of these objects is that they're Kenji's way of saying to the reader: use your imagination, interpret however you want. His ability to fire the imagination is one of his greatest skills as a poet. I think it's being truer to Kenji's intentions if you don't dig too deeply into the parts that Kenji has deliberately blurred over for us.

HM: There's a poem called "Refractive Index" at the beginning of Spring and Chaos. It's full of all sorts of difficult terms. It's like Night, with all these semantic holes added to make it impossible to understand. But I think it's better to leave those blank spaces as they are rather than to try to force out some kind of labored understanding.

GS: In the movie we read the introduction to Spring and Chaos aloud over the final sequence where Giovanni is running home. It fits perfectly. It's amazing how unified Kenji's view of humanity, the universe and nature is throughout his work. That poem very clearly captures Kenji's overall philosophy. You might say Night is the story version of Spring and Chaos.

HM: I had to read Kenji's poems every day for a TV program earlier this year. When you read a poem enough times to be able to recite it from memory, it tends to pop into your head every once in a while. So for kicks sometimes I'd recite Spring and Chaos over and over and over. After a while it finally starts to sink in that the message is the same as Night. It sounds like something Kenji would do anyway - repeating something over and over like a sutra. So I think you did the right thing using the poem at the end of the film. People might leave the theater wondering what that crazy poem was, but unconsciously kind of getting how it relates to the film's message.


HM: I noticed you left out the religious conversation between the boy and Giovanni.

GS: I considered cutting out every reference to religion. My own interpretation of Night is that it was Kenji's attempt to construct his own personal cosmogony. Kenji had his own interpretation of Buddhism and Christianity that he wanted to convey, but gradually blurred over the explicit references as he worked on polishing the manuscript over the years. I thought it was best to not deal with Kenji's blurring tendency, which is why I mostly eliminated the entire "true God" conversation scene.

HM: Instead Giovanni just goes right to the heart of the matter with one line.

GS: That line was important because it's Kenji himself posing the big question to himself.

HM: The original story doesn't talk about Giovanni as having this overwhelming evangelical urge or anything. He doesn't try to force himself on anybody. None of his lines in the original story come across as evangelical.

GS: I might be reading too much into the story, but the way I read it, here's Kenji, who already had a fair number of years of experience looking for the path to true happiness, saying to people younger than him with less of that experience, "Look, I'll leave you a hint, but I can't do any more than that. You'll have to figure out the path to happiness on your own." Giovanni would therefore in effect be Kenji saying, "It's up to you to look for the path to true happiness." Which is why I cut out the scene where Giovanni attains enlightenment after the Scorpion Fire scene. Instead I have him say "I'll become like that scorpion" at the end of the film when he learns that Campanella is dead. Giovanni learns the truth about life through Campanella's sacrifice of himself to save Zanelli. My perception of Kenji's religious stance is less that of a firmly established Christian god than an abstract deity standing for the natural world, represented by the void of the coal sack. In his later years I get the distinct impression of Kenji's religious evolution towards a view of god as the universe itself, this dark, unfathomable coal sack of nothingness that's the ultimate destination of everything and everyone.

HM: But don't forget that Kenji asked in his last will to "distribute sutras" on his death. I agree that religion is less prominent in his later work, but when you read his later work you nonetheless really get the impression that it was written by a person who's no longer afraid of death. You get the sense of someone with truly ironclad spiritual readiness.


HM: What was the purpose of adding the blind wireless operator? He wasn't in the original story.

GS: He was screenwriter Minoru Betsuyaku's idea: a blind wireless operator who hears all of the misery in the world. My idea of the train was that it probably has all sorts of characters like this. Minoru must have been on that train at some time in his life to come up with a character like that. (laughs) Night encompasses all sorts of possibilites. That's its breadth.

HM: Is this approach the result of your years working in animation?

GS: You could say that. I worked on Tales of Old Japan (Nihon Mukashibanashi) for many years before this. Folk tales are a perfect example of an idea with the breadth to encompass different interpretations, just like Night. Ordinary stories created by someone are finely honed in a way that's extremely precise to the author's intent, so there's not a lot of room for interpretive freedom, whereas folk tales are so basic and loose that every person can bring their own interpretation to each story. Night is like that in that it invites each person to come up with their own interpretation. You can read it as a pleasant folk tale-like story, or you can read it as a philosophical text with religious overtones. You can also read it a scientist's literary homage to astronomy. What's amazing is that this breadth didn't come from a simple folk tale but from a poet with a very unique and delicately fine-tuned poetic sensibility. So I think adding a blind wireless operator shouldn't have any adverse effect on the mood of the story.

HM: Did you not consider making him a character like Dr. Vulcanilo? (a character in the early version of the original story)

GS: For this movie I decided that I didn't want any character representing god like Dr. Vulcanilo to be there telling people, "Do this and that, and you'll find true happiness." I wanted to make a movie that would have the same effect as reading one of Kenji's poems does - to make you feel what Kenji is trying to say, rather than understand it, rather than trying to explain it in words. So for example Giovanni's feelings of loneliness are conveyed through the landscape, instead being explained through drama. I didn't want to use words to express what it was that Giovanni learned from Campanella's death. You follow him along on his journey through the stars, and feel the complexity of his emotions when he woke up and learned that his companion on the journey, Campanella, was dead. I felt that the best way to convey that complexity was through silence, by not verbalizing it.


HM: Why did you make all the people on the Titanic humans?

GS: I wanted to make the point that it doesn't matter whether they were humans or animals.

HM: But it clashes with the rest of the film. Won't it confuse people and get them to wondering what it's supposed to mean? Here everyone they've seen is a cat, and suddenly they're presented with a boatload of people. I think it's the most jarring moment in the film.

GS: My feeling is that people won't be that bothered by it. Having the two side by side goes to the root of Kenji's world view: cats, people, insects and rocks alike - everything is one despite any outward differences. I wanted to emphasize that position of his in the film. Also important were the abstract images like the sankakuhyou that flies past the window. If you asked me to draw my image of Night in one drawing, I'd have the pampas grass in the foreground releasing crystal spores into the air with bizarre geometrical objects floating around behind them and a photograph of mars in the background - very much a collage of disparate elements. I wanted to bring out that heterogeneity in the film somehow. The film is put together in such a way that you can throw in various elements and it would still hold together. I guess it's a habit of mine to make films like that. I've got an aversion to making films that are nice and tidy. (laughs)


HM: I can personally relate to Giovanni's feelings. What are you trying to say to Giovanni?

GS: What I'm saying to Giovanni through this film is this: If you want to find true happiness, go back to the city.

HM: What do you think happens to Giovanni after this?

GS: I don't know whether Giovanni was crying or burning with hope as he was running home at the end; only that his heart was so full of emotions that he broke out running. That's why I said that "Everything starts here" at the end. Back in the city he'll go on living life one day at a time with the memory of a dear friend called Campanella in his heart, and one day I think he'll find something.

HM: Kenji's sister Toshi died before he started writing the story. I think it's acknowledged as one of his motives for writing it. It was his way of asking the question: where do we go when we die? If Giovanni is Kenji, then Campanella is Toshi. He had to find a way of getting over Toshi's death to be able to go on living. So he goes on a journey through the heavens with his sister, meeting all sorts of people along the way. But he can't fool himself into saying Toshi has gone to heaven and now she's happy. So he puts all his scientific knowledge to the task of looking for the heaven that he's always believed in. I think this process of searching overshadows all of Kenji's late work. But if he really loved his sister, he'd let her go. The way I see it, that's what Dr. Vulcanilo and Giovanni's ticket is about. The answer he found was that Giovanni (Kenji), left behind by Campanella (Toshi), has to go on living in the city to make up for the life s/he wasn't able to live. Which is the same as your ending.

GS: The nature of the medium requires some kind of feeling of identification with the main character, something universal that people can grasp, so I had to melt down the complex themes of the original to focus on Giovanni. You can read the original in a variety of ways. You can take a personal line and read it as a requiem for Kenji's sister. But insofar as Kenji broaches issues that reach far beyond the personal, it would be a contradiction to treat the story purely as a personal allegory. That's why this movie version does not take that kind of personal line, to remain truer to the spirit of Kenji's story.

Saturday, January 1, 2004

06:42:56 pm , 2249 words, 1866 views     Categories: Mind Game, Translation, Interview, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Animeister Masaaki Yuasa Interview


 1  I was a Teenage Frame-Stepper

First off, congratulations on Mind Game winning the Animation Division Grand Prize at this year's Japan Media Arts Festival.

Thank you.

How does it feel?

It feels good. The film was well received critically, but I don't think very many people got to see it in the theaters, so I hope this prize will do something about that and help to get more people to see the film. I want to emphasize that I myself am only here as a representative. Mind Game would never have been able to win this prize were it not for the work of all the people involved in its production, particularly the author of the original manga, Robin Nishi, and the producer. I consider myself just one of the people who was involved. So on the part of the entire staff, thank you for choosing Mind Game.

How did you become interested in animation?

I was in the seventh grade when I saw Hayao Miyazaki's Cagliostro's Castle, which is what caused me to become interested in the idea of making pictures move. During high school I watched Gold Lightan, particularly Takashi Nakamura's episodes - not for the designs, but purely for the animation; for the quality of the drawings and movements. Anime was mass produced back then, so there wasn't a lot that moved very well. But Gold Lightan was different. It had great drawings and incredible movement. Video decks having just come along, during high school I'd go around to different shops renting anime videos that looked as if they might have the kind of movement that interested me based on the package art - although, needless to say, the cover art didn't always match what was inside. I also recorded anime that I liked off of TV and watched it over and over again. Again, not so much for the anime itself, but just to see the parts done by my favorite animators. When I got to college I kept doing more of the same, and started playing the movements in slo-mo, one frame at a time, to understand the sequence better. After I went pro I learned that people looked down on that sort of thing, but I loved doing it back then. After graduating from college I joined animation studio Asia-Do. I picked Asia-Do first of all because it was run by Tsutomu Shibayama, who had done Dokonjo Gaeru, whose drawings and movements I absolutely loved, but also because I was interested in children's literature at the time, and Asia-Do did a lot of one-off releases based on that kind of material.

 2  From Animator to Director

You started as an animator. How did you come to work as a director?

While I was at Asia-Do I was given the chance to do things like draw storyboard for song scenes¹, or set rakugo to pictures². But that was all in the capacity of an animator. After that I started working under Mitsuru Hongo on Crayon Shin-chan. As a director his stance was to remain open to suggestions; if anyone had a good idea, he would use it. In the first film, Action Kamen vs. Haigure Mao, he used an idea I came up with. He drew the storyboard for the scene, and I animated it. When I saw the finished product I felt it was the best thing I'd done since I started working in the industry. It was an incredible feeling to see something I'd come up with moving up there on the screen. It made me really happy. After that, I was invited to draw storyboard on the Shin-chan TV series, and I'd do about one episode a month. Back when I was working as an animator directors would often tell me that I didn't get this or that about their directing, which I found extremely frustrating. It made me want to respond, 'Okay then, why don't you give me a chance to show you that I do get it.' Besides, I was curious to test my own abilities, and felt that the experience of directing might prove helpful to my animation. But even more than that, I wondered what I was going to to do in the future if I was still working as an animator at 40 or 50. I've been lucky so far to work under good directors like Mitsuru Hongo and Keiichi Hara, but I knew I'd find it stressful to have to work under a director with a style that I couldn't get into. If I knew how to direct, then I could avoid that. I worked as the designer for the films, so I drew lots of things, but of course not all of them got used. Another thing I like about directing is being able to see all of my ideas go directly into the final product.

 3  Mind Game

And so we come to your directing debut, Mind Game, in which you use a variety of experimental techniques such as inserting photographs of the faces of the voice-actors. What were you seeking to acheive with this approach?

I wanted to give the film a 'rough' feeling. I felt mixing together different media would be the best way of conveying the rushed feeling of Robin Nishi's drawings. In live-action films CG is often used in combination with live-action footage because otherwise the CG lacks a feeling of reality; it feels kind of predictable. I felt that the same applied to this film: sticking to one media throughout - CG or drawings - would have led to a feeling of predictability. So I wanted to jump around between lots of different styles, almost randomly, throwing in photos every now and then to add some reality, to make the whole thing feel rather bizarre. I'm hoping it comes together like a collage, with all sorts of things thrown together, but nonetheless with a feeling of unity. When the characters feel kind of out of touch with the world around them, the background looks a little more rough to reflect that. I thought that was the more interesting way of doing it. So long as there's a clear story to follow, people seem forgiving if drawings are a little rough on the edges and lacking in unity. On the other hand, the project came about because of this manga, so I had no intention of veering away from the manga. But to be perfectly honest the manga lost be a bit in the second half, so that part I handled in a way that made more sense to me personally. If you don't know why you're doing what you're doing, the results can be disastrous. Take for example Cat Soup. The original manga is a vitriolic satire of all the brutality that exists in the world. Personally there's a lot I can't follow in there. So what I did was to pick out one vignette that seemed to offer a shred of hope, and mold the story around that. So instead of brutality for bruality's sake, the brutality is there to give a realistic weight to the message of hope that lies at the core. In that way I was able to find an approach that made sense to me personally. In the case of Mind Game, that message isn't hidden at all, it's spoken aloud - quite vocally, in fact. In this case I thought it was important to be loud and clear. There are lots of things in life that can't be accomplished unless you take them head on like that.

 4  Animation in the Digital Age

With the transformation from cel-based analog animation to computer-based digital animation, how have things changed on the workfloor, both technically, in terms of how animation is produced, as well as mentally, in terms of how animators approach this new situation?

It's easier to draw storyboards now, because you can draw shots that would have been impossible to animate before. On the other hand, digital can also be a pain in the ass. Before you could draw everything on one cel, but now you have to split one drawing into a whole bunch of different layers for the character and the effects and try to keep all of them straight in your head. That's the major disadvantage. But again, you can do a lot more now with digital. You can add sketchy effects to create a drawing that feels more analog than what you would have been able to acheive before in analog. That's what I'd like to pursue. I want to achieve a freer digital line to see if I can overcome the hard-to-avoid stiffness of digital drawings. Anything is possibile in digital, but that can also be a handicap, because there's so much freedom that it's hard to figure out what should be done. The good thing is that you can play it by ear and try out different things pretty easily. Before it was a real hassle and you had to re-shoot everything, but in digital you can fix it with one click, so you can test something out as many times as you want. Everything is data, so making changes is easy. Editing, coloring, everything is a lot easier, which I think accounts for why you see so much anime being made nowdays in spite of the fact that production conditions have actually worsened. Digital is what made that possible.

But the most interesting thing about digital is that anybody can use it. Even amateurs can make high-quality animation on their PC if they have the right software. The hurdle has thus been greatly lowered. However, a danger of this new freedom is that people seem more prone to settle for less; for good enough. Overall quality has improved, but what seems to have been lost in the equation is the movement. People seem less attracted to the idea of creating movement. Most anime seems to focus on the pictures and the directing. The quality of the drawings has risen so high that moving them has become extremely difficult. Personally, I'm not bothered if a drawing isn't very good. I just want to make it move. I love it when a character runs and the background moves. I love that feeling. It's like I'm in there running with him. That's why you see a lot of eye-perspective shots in my work. That's me in there. Also, subsequent DVD sales are an important part of the picture nowadays, so you have to make an anime that will look good on repeated viewings, which has had this adverse side-effect. The pictures are nice, but the movement is boring. There isn't much there that excites as animation.

As digitization continues to make it easier to do certain things, I think it will start to become more obvious when a project would be more suited to, for example, live action or 3DCG. In the same way, my goal is to continue to pursue the sort of animation that's only possible in 2D. Right now, I personally feel that live action is more interesting. The advent of digital has added a breadth to live-action filmmaking that literally makes it possible to create anything. But I want to try to continue to explore the virtues inherent to the flat medium of animation; to create animation that could only be done because it is animation.

 5  Animation for Whom?

I think animation is an excellent tool for opening kids' eyes to the interesting things in the world around us. Children who manage to grow up into adults who fit into the world are extremely lucky - the boy who grows up to do what he dreamed as child. When I was a boy, I was more interested in anime and manga than I was in the real world. The real world was a complicated and incomprehensible place. I didn't see where I fit in. That's a very painful thing for a child. Right now I get a lot of enjoyment out of looking up stuff for my animation, in encyclopedias and so on. For example, the way rain falls on mountains, which flows down to make a river, which creates sandbanks that change the landscape. Once you know that, it changes the way you look at the world around you, and leads to learning about other things. Animation is a good tool for transmitting this sort of knowledge in a fun and easy way. If you tried to do the same thing in live action, it would take a tremendous amount of work, to set up the shots and so on, and you'd pick up lots of irrelevant information in the shots. Animation is nothing but pictures, so it's easy to draw precisely what you want to convey in a way that's easy to follow for kids. Of course, that said, Mind Game was aimed at something more like the 20-up age range. (laughs)

I'm working on a short right now, but I'd like to do a TV series eventually. Directing, this time. Mind Game was based on someone else's story, but I'd like to get to the point where I can make up my own stories. It's easier to get approval for adult projects, but I'd eventually like to do a kids show. Something like the shows I enjoyed watching as a kid - Doraemon, Obake no Q-Taro, Hana no Pyun-Pyun-Maru. ◊

¹ Chibi Maruko-chan: My Favorite Song ちびまる子ちゃん わたしの好きな歌, movie, 1992.
² Anime Rakugokan アニメ落語館, 3 OVAs, 1992.

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