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Studio 4°C's latest feature, Tekkon Kinkreet, which screened in theaters in Japan last winter, will be receiving its North American premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York just one week from today. Screenings are also planned for the near future in Los Angeles and Hawaii. Details are provided at the bottom of this post for anyone who wishes to attend. The opportunity to see this film on the big screen, where it deserves to be seen, is something that may not roll around again for quite some time, so fans of animation of all stripes, don't miss this opportunity. I haven't seen the film, but I have no doubt that it will be an unforgettable experience.
Like the studio's previous film, this film is also based on a cult manga with a fiercely devoted following. I imagine there must have been considerable pressure to make a film that lived up to the original. All press and viewer reviews I've read for the film suggest that Tekkon Kinkreet is a triumph that does just that, and then some, and is nothing less than what one would expect from the studio that produced Masaaki Yuasa's Mind Game. The film has generated a bit of press about the fact that its director, Michael Arias, is the first westerner to direct a Japanese animated feature. Michael was kind enough to answer a few of my questions via email, so I'm proud to be able to present a short interview with the director on the occasion of the North American premiere of his film.
What was it that attracted you to Taiyo Matsumoto's manga Tekkon Kinkreet in the first place and compelled you to want to make it into a film?
I was in Tokyo to take care of a friend whose wife had recently died. My work wasn't busy and he was unable to work, so we spent most of our time sitting in his flat - an apartment on the eighth floor of an old building - on the balcony, smoking cigarettes, and watching the traffic below. It was a strange time in Japan: just after the Kobe earthquake and in the midst of Aum's sarin attacks. Helicopters flying overhead at all hours, police on the streets, yakuza killing cult members on television. Weird with a big W. But my friend had a good manga collection and I was getting bored, so I asked him for a recommendation. And, without stopping to think, he handed me the just-released books of Tekkon and said "You have to read this. It's going to make you cry." And that was it. Hooked. Even the first illustration of Black and White looking over the city - it just felt so real, felt like what I was doing, staring from above at the construction in our neighborhood, listening to helicopters at night, searching for something solid to hold on to in those pre-apocalyptic days. And of course, I cried many times reading it, also a new experience for me to be moved to tears by a manga.
What was it like directing your first feature-length animated film? Had you aspired to becoming a director prior to directing Tekkon?
Never wanted to direct before. I'd been doing special effects and CG animation and software development for several years before encountering Tekkon, and I was pretty happy just focusing on details. I'd seen several directors go through painful experiences getting their movies made and really didn't think that was for me.
Tekkon really began as an extra-curricular thing for me. I was writing some software for integrating CG and traditional animation - the Softimage Toon Shaders. Studio Ghibli and Dreamworks Animation were both using it on feature films (Princess Mononoke and Prince of Egypt, respectively), and I needed a test bed for my work, something to help me test and demonstrate the software's features. So I modeled a scene from Tekkon, nothing too great to look at actually. But a producer friend of mine looked at it and offered to show it to Taiyo Matsumoto, Tekkon's author. Taiyo liked what he saw enough to encourage me to do something more with it. And that was the beginning of the Tekkon pilot project. This was originally seen as a demo for a planned Tekkon feature, with me supervising the production and directing the CG and Koji Morimoto, my mentor in traditional animation, storyboarding and directing. I'm really proud of the 4-minute CG pilot we did, but our sponsorship fell through after we finished, Morimoto went back to his home base, Studio 4°C, and I found myself without any way to pursue Tekkon.
Then Animatrix came along. The producer of the Tekkon pilot and I, with Eiko Tanaka, president of 4°C, produced that project together. But I was still thinking about Tekkon, all the time. My best friend from college, Anthony, who was doing some writing for me on Animatrix, responded very strongly to the Tekkon manga and offered to write a screenplay on spec. That really got my juices flowing. But when Animatrix wrapped it was clear that Morimoto had lost interest in directing Tekkon. And by this point Morimoto, Anthony, and others around were encouraging me to direct, perhaps just to shut me up because I was really obsessing! And then I showed the script to Eiko (she had read the original) and she and I decided that she would produce Tekkon and I would direct, all at 4°C. That was really the start of the movie we have now.
The script was originally written in English based on the French and English translation of the original manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, and was translated back to Japanese on the occasion of starting production on the film. Aside from the language difficulties inherent in doing this, which you've talked about elsewhere, how did the film evolve at this point in terms of content?
A script, insofar as it expresses the mood, timbre, and tempo of the film to be made, is the foundation on which all else is constructed. And I felt very strongly that Anthony's script described the movie I wanted to make. In a way, the structure of Anthony's script was more important to me than the fine details - and, structurally, it is a pretty big departure from the original. He really got it right - the story of Treasure Town, the sense of doom, the action in Kiddie Kastle all fit together very seamlessly. That was the stuff that I wanted to get in the movie that wasn't obvious from reading the original.
But I had amazing collaborators: to begin with, Shinji Kimura (art director) and Shojiro Nishimi (animation supervisor). And they both had some very definite ideas about how to execute. On "set" I really tried to remain as flexible as possible. I didn't come to work with every frame finished in my head (though I know other directors who are able to do that). We all agreed that we needed to make Tekkon as dense and immersive an experience as possible, and we could see that there was a great deal of whitespace to be filled in in order to get there. So nearly everything after we began working together at 4°C was additive. We weren't replacing sequences from the script with those of our devising (as many have imagined), so much as adding layers: visual details, actions, etc. So there is certainly a great deal of material in the film that emerged from my collaboration with Kimura and Nishimi (and the rest of the staff for that matter) but anyone can read our script and see that it was our blueprint.
What was producer Eiko Tanaka's role? She was involved in creative aspects of the film, namely working on the script, which was not the case for the studio's previous feature, Mind Game. Why the change in policy?
After Anthony, Nishimi, and Kimura, Eiko was the next person I'd go to for an opinion. And in the early days, when I was still getting a feel for the dynamics of the job, she was often the first person I'd want to talk things over with. Her sense of what's right and wrong for a project and her ability to brainstorm with artists is what makes her a great producer.
And she certainly was very involved in Mind Game's creative process as well. That has always been her role (perhaps Tekkon is the first time she's got screen credit for it). To my knowledge she's worked that way on everything after Spriggan, starting with Princess Arete.
There certainly are producers who are content to focus just on budget and schedule but that's not her style. Not mine either. On Animatrix, both Eiko and I were very involved in the creative side of the film, much to the project's benefit.
Many of the staff members are faces that are somewhat new to Studio 4°C, unless I'm mistaken. Who brought the team together? How were they chosen? I've heard many of the staff came on because they were fans of the original manga. Do you think that energy benefited the film?
I did want to get as many on my staff who were familiar with, if not fans, of the manga. So much of my work was about explaining the movie we were making, and I thought, insofar as I was trying to remain faithful to the manga, having people who knew where I was coming from would be a good first step.
Nishimi was at 4°C when I started Tekkon - his high-school buddy Yuasa had invited him on for Mind Game and he'd stuck around to direct a couple of shorts. I found a stack of his drawings lying around and was intrigued enough to stay late and snoop around his desk. An amazing talent like that hidden away inside Telecom for 20 years. Who'd have thought? Kimura was at the studio to return some equipment he'd taken with him when Steam Boy moved to Sunrise, when Eiko asked him to meet with me. We got along from the beginning. I recognized Kubo and Uratani when Eiko suggested them for Tekkon - they'd worked as animators on Animatrix and were both 4°C perennials in a sense.
Eiko and her assistants brought a great many animators on to the show, Tatsuya Tomaru (Steam Boy animation supervisor) and Masashi Ando (Paprika animation supervisor), among them. Many animators came on because of Nishimi's or Kimura's involvement, or because they were fans of the manga. It's a pretty small community, with everyone working on everyone else's films, so word gets out pretty quickly. I think the first animators who came on the show might have been a bit circumspect but, once we had finished shots to show off, getting talented animators was not a problem.
Later, I cast the movie and also brought Plaid on to compose and Mitch Osias on for sound design.
What is your impression of Studio 4°C?
Eiko's place! A great place to work. A tough business but I wouldn't want to do this kind of thing anywhere else.
How does final film compare to your original vision?
Visually, it's much more complex than I'd imagined. Just the level of detail is far beyond what I thought we could pull off with painted backgrounds. But, by and large, it's what I wanted. The music and the voice performances and sound design are also elements I'm very proud of. Plaid's soundtrack is their best work so far I think.
We did much more "creative" work in the final stages of production than you might normally see done on an animated feature. Not just editing but storyboarding and animation as well (the whole Minotaur sequence was very last-minute). In that sense, we didn't really know what we had until it was finished.
Could you talk about the background art, and of art director Shinji Kimura's contribution? From the shots I've seen, the imaginary Asian city of Takaramachi appears to be one of the most vivid and imaginative depictions of a city I've ever seen in an animated feature. What were the influences that informed the visual conception of the city?
The first discussion I had with Kimura was about making the city the star of the movie. What I meant by that was that I wanted us to be as involved in the life of Treasure Town (Takaramachi) as we would be in any of the characters. The city has its own cycle of evolution that we follow - the early images of the movie are designed to make us feel intrigued, comfortable, and nostalgic. And when the city grows into something darker, more modern, we should feel pain at the loss of the dear old town, some apprehension about the city changing. That is the big "arc" of the movie. The characters' dramas are smaller arcs drawn within Treasure Town, rather than in the "foreground". Kimura and I wanted to make the city as solid and three-dimensional as possible (while still looking hand-crafted) and that influenced every decision we made about its design.
I wanted the city to evoke some nostalgic associations with a previous, less hurried, more peaceful age, so Kimura and our colorist Miyuki Ito and I looked at printing from 50s and 60s Japan (also a bit of India and China) - children's books, matchboxes, billboard advertising. The film shows a great deal of that graphic sensibility in our choice of color. I liked something very evocative Taiyo said about Treasure Town was that he imagined it like a box of toys spilled out on the floor.
One more purely selfish explanation for our background design: Kimura had just finished 10 years as art director of Otomo's Steam Boy and he definitely wasn't content to do more shades of gray! He really wanted to use color freely and I couldn't deny him that impulse.
Could you talk about the use of CGI in the film? I've heard you were particularly adamant about simulated handheld camera shots.
Japanese animation - limited animation - evolved a certain way because of various practical concerns and economic limitations. But, to a large extent, I think those are no longer relevant. We don't ink and paint cels the old way, and we don't use a down-shooter anymore. I remember those days very well - in college I had a night-shift job operating an Oxberry at a small animation house in New York. Blecch. But having digital tools at one's disposal really opens up a great deal of untried territory for hand-drawn animation.
I love hand-held camera work (for certain subject matter). City of God and some other recent movies really affected me with their mixture of hand-held camera and dolly work. Those techniques have always been considered off-limits for traditional animation. They're tough to storyboard meaningfully, let alone animate. But I had some ideas for executing these kinds of shots; not just hand-held, but also dolly, aerial, time-lapse, and underwater shots (just to mention some of the techniques we've played with on Tekkon).
I guess there's different ways of looking at animation. The purist approach would be a locked-off camera on a static painted background with characters moving around in the frame. Great for some material but not what I wanted for Tekkon: immediate, frenetic, and off-the-cuff.
There was some resistance at first. Hard to tell Kimura that you're going to blur one of his paintings after he's spent a couple days on it! There's part of me that says, "yes, motion blur and depth-of-field effects are gimmicks". But then who's to say they're not valid in the hand-drawn world? That's the thing, it's all hand-crafted in the end. The computer doesn't actually do anything for you, just makes it easier to fix mistakes (I exaggerate). Everything's changed since we started using computers to composite or paint cels. Very few, if any, even draw on cels (acetate) anymore, for that matter. The borders of "traditional" filmcraft are being redrawn every day here.
The storyboard wound up being drawn by four people. According to Tekkon's official site, the rough breakdown is as follows. Shojiro Nishimi handled the scenes involving Kuro and the action scenes; Chie Uratani handled the scenes involving Shiro; Masahiko Kubo handled the scenes involving Hebi and the yakuza; and Hiroaki Ando handled the "image scene". Why was the storyboard split up this way? Do you feel splitting up the storyboard added richness to the film?
I did two sets of boards for the whole film, one before the project had officially started, and another during pre-production, while Nishimi was doing his character designs and Kimura was designing sets and doing concept art. These were both rough things, thumbnails really, but they were very useful in explaining the project to my main staff. I'm a terrible draftsman so they were not so useful from a production standpoint, but they were a step forward from the script. As soon as you start thinking visually you begin to look at a project in very practical terms - how many shots, what has to be drawn, alternate approaches to staging. But I knew these boards would have to be done "properly" before we started our layouts.
There were a couple of reasons for splitting up the production boards.
First, we had spent more time designing than expected - everything about the project, from the color scheme, to the planned use of CG for backgrounds, vehicles, and crowds, had to be tested thoroughly before bringing more people on. And splitting the storyboard workload seemed a natural time-saving move.
Next, I wanted to emphasize the contrast between White (Shiro) and Black (Kuro), and I thought asking Nishimi and Uratani to work in parallel on those two sides of the story would naturally give us something akin to having two camera operators shooting different sequences. Even though I discussed everything in great detail with each of them before beginning a particular sequence, their opposing sensibilities would show in their their framing, etc. Nishimi really has a great feel for action and big set pieces, but Uratani has the most delicate touch of all when it comes to character drama, dialog, the subtle and quiet (she really is incredible).
Kubo came on, like Uratani, as an assistant animation supervisor, and it seemed like a waste of his talent just to have him doing vehicle and mecha design while the others were storyboarding. He's kind of a hardboiled stoic character himself, so giving him the yakuza and Snake sequences was perfect. Those sequences do, in fact, comprise their own subplot.
Ando's storyboarding, unfortunately, didn't really get much play. I had initially asked him to storyboard the first of White's underwater sequences and a couple of other odds and ends. But the underwater sequence he did ended up being cut together from the other underwater sequence (Uratani storyboards), and most of his other scenes dropped from the film. Only the scene of the yakuza meeting up with the police in Tekkon's first reel is based on his boards. He's a powerhouse though. I initially asked him to come on as CG supervisor when his wife, our original CG super, found out she was pregnant. But I think he was a bit fried from Steam Boy's CG duties and wanted to concentrate on the animation side of the project. He did so much work in so many different departments I asked that he be credited as co-director. He's extremely talented, and a great fellow. And our eventual CG supervisor, Sakamoto, worked out wonderfully as well.
I boarded a few scenes myself - some special-effects-heavy shots and then, of course, the Minotaur "hell" sequence, though that wasn't my original intention. I had first asked Morimoto to come in as a special guest and direct that entire sequence. But we waited a year and got only a few pieces of concept art. And the clock was ticking - very much down to the wire at this point and still no ending for the movie! In the end, he was just too busy on other projects and, I suspect, didn't feel like working on someone else's film. But to his credit, I used all of the art he did as jumping-off points for my boards. He really does have a unique vision and an amazing imagination.
I guess storyboarding like this violates everyone's expectations of a director of animation. Miyazaki, Kon, Otomo, and Morimoto, among others, work all the problems out before stepping into the studio. At least people imagine they do (the reality being more complex). But I wanted to do something differently here, something that would take advantage of these talents, rather than confining them to animation supervisor work - a crucial element in making a film like this but also, as it happens, a very tedious job (correcting others' mistakes, redrawing characters one keyframe at a time). Uratani went as far as to say that the storyboarding was her favorite part of the job. And I asked Kubo to animate the Minotaur sequence in part because he seemed so frustrated doing his supervisor job.
I wanted to do things differently. And, because it was my first time, but also because I had such willing co-conspirators, it was easy for me to break rules (with storyboards but certainly also with our camera work). You have that freedom, that challenge, on a feature film (television has very different constraints of course). Otomo once said to me and Nishimi, "if you're not doing things differently you shouldn't even bother". He was a great inspiration to us in a very practical sense: every time Nishimi and I were feeling down we'd go have a drink with him, and he was never short of pearls like that.
Incidentally, Uratani, Nishimi, and Kubo, all did quite a bit of key animation on top of their work as supervisors. Kubo animated the final Minotaur "hell" sequence as well as the fight in the yakuza office. And Uratani, in the end, was our most prolific animator.
Tekkon was seen by a lot of people in Japan. How did you feel about this, and how did Japanese audiences react to the film?
It's great. The movie was a great success here and I'm sure the DVD will do well also. Very gratifying.
Do you think you could have gotten Tekkon made into a feature-length animated feature anywhere else?
No. Believe me, I thought about it. Certainly from a technical standpoint, Japan is the only place to make a movie like this. But I think Japanese audiences are particularly receptive to this kind of film. People here, even "average" movie audiences, are really very sophisticated in their appreciation of animated cinema. At one point I shopped the project around Hollywood and, though everyone liked the pilot, I got some very strange suggestions: change White to a girl, make the characters older and make the story a romance, etc.
What do you want audiences to get from the film?
Tekkon has an important (and obvious) message about the power of creation and imagination over destruction. That message is both eternal and particularly relevant in the times we live in. Like Black, so many young people today are looking for something solid to hold on to, something to believe in. But if we can each find meaning in our love for another, even someone like White, then I think there's hope for the world.
It's been 12 years since you first read Tekkon Kinkreet. What are your future plans now that your long odyssey with Tekkon Kinkreet is winding down?
Hard to say what I'll be doing next. If the powers that be see fit, I'd like to make a live-action film and try out some of things I did with Tekkon that way. The time and money at stake when one's doing animation make experimentation a challenge. But then, if that goes well, I think another animated feature. But that's thinking way ahead and I've never been good at foreseeing where I'll be and what I'll be doing years down the line.
MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art
Roy and Nita Titus Theaters 1 & 2
Wed 4/25 (T1), Thurs 4/26 (T2), Fri 4/27 (T2) - 8:30 pm
Sat 4/28 (T2), Sun 4/29 (T2) - 2:00 pm
Mon 4/30 (T2) - 8:30 pm
Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival
Laemmle’s Sunset 5
Sun 5/6 - 5:00 pm
Hawaii International Film Festival
Thurs 4/26 2007 - 8:45 pm
TEKKONKINKREET © Aniplex, Asmik Ace Entertainment, Shogakukan, Beyond C., Dentsu, Tokyo MX