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This interview done on June 25 comes from here, where you can see a shot of the director and stills from the film.
I'd like to start by asking you about the original book. At the symposium before the screening the other day, you talked about how you'd liked the book for a long time because you thought you could do a lot of things with it. What made you choose this book?
When I read the book, it felt like a story that would let me say the things I wanted to say. I don't mean it felt like I could use the story to my own ends. It was just a very stimulating story when I first read it, and that feeling never went away, ever over all those years. It's been more than 20 years since I first read the book. The main thing is that, over all that time, this strong desire to adapt this story to animation didn't change.
What was it that interested you about it, exactly? Kenichi's friendship with Coo? Kenichi's troubled adolescence?
All of those things. To me, it's not just a story about a kappa. I tried to talk about a lot of things in the film - kids, family, society. I liked the story because I thought it would let me do that.
At 2 hours and 20 minutes, it's rather long for an animated film. Is the reason it's so long because you had to fit in all those themes?
A lot of people have been saying that it's long. The thing is, I didn't write a script. I just dived right into the work. In other words, first I came up with the basic outline, and then I moved right onto the storyboard. I didn't have a lot of restrictions on this film, so I decided to go right through the storyboard first and see how long it turned out. Afterwards, if need be, I thought I could go through and cut whatever scenes needed to be cut. So I drew the storyboard that way, and it turned out to be 3 hours long. I knew that was too long, so I sort of resigned myself to cutting it at that point. It took a hell of a lot of work to bring it down from that length to the current length. It feels like I spend most of my time as a director resigning myself to this sort of thing.
I know 2 hours and 20 minutes is long for an animated film, but I cut away all I could. That was the best I could do.
Does the film have a message? Was conveying a message an important factor to you?
No. I tried to make sure the film didn't come across as having a strong message.
The other day there was a screening on Earth Day. It was preceded by symposium. But the movie didn't strike me as an environmental film. It seemed to be a lot more subtle than that. It just shows Japan as it is today - an environment that kappas can no longer inhabit.
I think that's the best way to look at it. I wanted to get across a number of things, about the environment and so on, but without being too overt about it.
The film takes place today, but with a few touches of fantasy. What was your approach to balancing realism and fantasy?
Most of my effort in this film went to getting that balance right. I didn't want to just make a purely realistic film. Fantasy is an important element of this film. But I didn't want it to be an alternate reality either. I want it to be a subtle touch of fantasy that takes place in a reality that we can all relate to. That's just the kind of thing I personally like.
Watching the film, I couldn't help but thinking in real life there would have been more commotion if a kappa turned up one day.
I know. I realize that this isn't quite how things would have turned out in reality. I wasn't able to do any better than that. The fact is that I already had a lot of other things I needed to do for the film, so I couldn't just spend all my energy to focus on that aspect.
The setting is Higashi Kurume, which is interesting because it's a place that's not quite urban, and not quite rural. It's kind of inbetween. What made you choose that location?
The writer of the book, Masao Kogure, he lived there. The first time I visited Masao Kogure, I had some time on my hands, so I went for a walk, and I really liked the rivers I saw there. That's why I chose it. It seemed like a good setting. It's not that I didn't have other candidates, but it had meaning to me because Masao Kogure lived there.
How many years ago was that?
About 10 years ago.
You were busy with Shin-chan at that time I think. What kind of a film did you have in mind at the time?
A certain game company was looking for anime projects at the time, and someone asked me to submit an idea. I submitted this as my idea, and the producer gave it the go ahead. I went to meet Masao Kogure for the first time to get his permission. We hadn't yet decided that we were going to be making the film.
The town of Tono turns up in the film. Did you do any location hunting?
I'd been wanting to do the film for a long time, so I'd had chances to visit Tono before any number of times, just looking for ideas. Later I also went together with the staff.
Okinawa also turns up in the film. Does Okinawa have any special significance to you?
It does, actually. I kind of re-discovered Okinawa in the process of making the film. Twenty years ago I didn't know anything about Okinawa other than the fact that it was in the news because of the US military base and that there were tourist resorts there, but finding out about their traditional ideas about spiritual things kind of opened my eyes and got me really interested in their culture. That's when I discovered the Okinawan yokai called Kijimuna.
People are starting to pay more attention to Okinawa now - not just to the beauty of the ocean there, but to Okinawan culture. Personally I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. I don't think it's good for Okinawa to take on this fantasy island, southern paradise type image.
The background art in the film was particularly beautiful. Was that something you asked the staff to focus on?
Yes and no. Some of the art that came to me was beautiful, and some of it I asked to be redone a number of times to get it right. We had a lot more time than we would for a TV series, so the background artists also put a lot more effort in.
It's been 5 years since you directed your last film. Did it benefit your new film to spend that long working on it?
In the end, yes. But really I wasn't working on it for all of those five years. It took a long time for me to finally get to the point that I could start working on it. When I finally started, I was the only one working on the film for a good while. Though this film took a lot longer to make than the Shin-chan films, it was still done in a relatively short time. The animators probably wanted to spend more time on their part. But it's hard to do that in this day and age. Good staff, and particularly animators, are hard to come by. Everyone talks about Japan as this country of anime, but the fact is that a lot of the burden of that work is shouldered by a small handful of talented animators. That's one of my biggest worries - whether I'll be able to find the staff to make the film.
Over the many years that it took you to finally get to work on the film, did your goals change any from what you had originally wanted to do?
No. They stayed the same. A lot of it is exactly as I originally set out to do at the very beginning, while there are also things I came up with along the way.
What are some of the things that didn't change?
I had come up with the climactic sequence at the very beginning. And I had wanted to focus on the growing-up aspect since the very beginning. There was nothing about that in the book.
Am I correct in assuming that you intended this as a children's film?
Absolutely not. That's not what I intended at all.
I see, then I was mistaken. I thought you had intended it as a children's film that adults could enjoy as well. So you set out to make a film that anyone could watch?
No, that's not what I set out to do either. I wanted to go beyond that sort of genre-based thinking. It's something that I learned while working on the Shin-chan films all those years ago. Movies made with that sort of mentality are no good.
With genre films, you have the people with the money on this side. They know exactly what kind of film they want to make - they want to make a film that they think this group of people over here will want to see. So they know exactly how to make it, how much to spend, and so on. Lots of movies are made with that approach, including animated movies.
Many movies these days do seem made for a predetermined audience.
Well, it occurred to me at one point that that's the problem. Or rather, my audience made me realize that - the people who came to see Adult Empire. When I made that film, I didn't think anyone would want to watch it. But I was absolutely honest in that film, really true to myself, so personally I was very satisfied with the film. I accepted that probably not everyone would like it. Some people might even hate it. Why? Because it wasn't a genre movie anymore. But much to my surprise, it became popular by word of mouth. So I didn't discover that on my own. It's people's reaction that made me realize it.
It's at that point that I realized that it was silly to make a film in a specific genre or with a specific audience in mind. I realized that, if you make a film honestly, then the film will get the recognition it deserves. Since then, that's been my basic approach.
How did it feel when you first began moving away from genre movies with Adult Empire?
It was a real struggle. I'd already done a few of the films by that time, but come time to start on the next one, I didn't have any ideas, so I actually didn't approach it very seriously. I had kind of a 'whatever' attitude. But when I started working on it, I started feeling kind of lost, on auto-pilot, so I felt like I had to do something or I'd lose my grip. That's when I started becoming more serious. It was a big change for me. Usually I would just throw together some formulaic plan, but I was sick to death of that sort of thing. All of a sudden I started taking the work deadly seriously.
Was it constricting to have to work with a situation like that where the characters are already fixed within a set framework?
Yes and no. Sometimes it was a real burden, but other times it was a real life-saver. Working on the same characters for so long makes it easier to figure out how a character would react or speak in different situations. For example, obviously Shin-chan would drop his pants and do the butt dance in this situation. So it's actually kind of helpful to deal with characters whose limits you know. Not always, but often.
The characters in this film seem to have been created very freely. How was it different working with these characters?
With this film I didn't have that intimacy with the characters, which made it considerably more difficult than I'd expected. I had to work out each of the characters' personalities right as I was drawing the storyboard, which was a real challenge. What would this character do here? What would he say here?
A moment ago you were talking about avoiding genres. Why animation then? Animation is more in thrall to preconceived notions than many genres.
Because that's all I can do. Because I've been doing it for 20 years and that's all I know. Based on my own knowledge and experience, the choice was obvious. There was no hesitation there.
What surprised me about this film was how realistic the characters were. The characters in your previous films often had very simple forms. Why did you choose more realistic forms for this film?
With this film for the first time I had the chance to create everything myself. Having worked with simply stylized characters for a long time, this time I wanted to get away from that and do something I'd wanted to do for a long time but never had the chance to do. I also wanted to place some limitations on myself by making the characters more realistic. In other words, Shin-chan could do these giant leaps, and you wouldn't think twice about it. The unrealistic design makes the audience accept it. I didn't want to be able to hide behind that sort of thing this time.
The opening sequence is a little scary. Weren't you worried about the what the children in the audience might feel?
I've been told that before. When I set out, I made a decision not to get hung up on that sort of thing for once. That scene was absolutely necessary to the film because it summarizes the relations between kappas and humans. That scene was also one of my very early ideas. I'm sorry if children find the scene difficult to watch, but I had absolutely no intention of modifying things simply to make the film kid friendly, so no, it never occurred to me.
Studio Ghibli is one of the more well known animation studios in Japan in terms of being seen by a large audience. How do you see yourself in relation to them?
I'm not under the illusion of being remotely qualified to consider them rivals or anything. I don't think it's helpful to be oversensitive about other creators like that. For a long time I've known that I could never reach their level of dedication to the act of creating animation, so I've resigned myself to going in a different direction of my own.
Many people think very highly of your work in the industry. How do you feel about that?
Not much. It's not that I don't appreciate it or anything. It's just that I'm actually a real slacker, so it doesn't ring true to me. Just ask any of the staff. (laughs) If anything, thank the staff for all the hard work they put into make these films what they are.
So your style is all about teamwork?
The thing that impresses me about Takahata and Miyazaki is how they deal with their staff. They place incredible demands on their staff. I just can't do that. I tend to prefer to let the staff do things their own way. If people like the results, then so much the better.
Do you have any new plans?
I do, but I can't talk about them yet... because I haven't done anything yet. (laughs)