|<< <||> >>|
There's an enigmatic figure in Japanese independent animation. One who's always lurking there in the background, ready to pounce, or so it seems. It's Keita Kurosaka. Since the beginning of time, if time is measured according to when I started writing this blog, I've been wondering about the full-length feature that Kurosaka has been reported to be working on entitled Midori-ko. I mentioned it in the blog five years ago. I apparently thought its release was imminent back then! Well, five years later, and no word.
But I have hope that we'll be seeing what purports to be the major statement by one of Japan's most important indie animators - and heck, really the only major thing he's made in the last ten years - either this year or next. I found on the web page of young audiovisual artist Ayumi Kawamura mention that she is working as an assistant on Keita Kurosaka's Midori-ko, and that it is due for release in 2010. April already and I haven't seen word anywhere. Same deal?
Keita Kurosaka teaches at the Musashino Art University, and on his home page for the university, it states that Midori-ko was in the final production stages as of March 2009 and due for completion within the year. Whether it was finished last year or is still in the finishing stage, that at least leaves no doubt that it is imminent. We even know that the production company is Mistral Japan, the company that released a 3-VHS set of his work, and the producer is Akira Mizuyoshi, who is an audiovisual artist himself. (filmography on his blog)
You can see compelling stills from Keita Kurosaka's films on his Musashino page. At the top of the page the images are from his 2005 film My Face, and below it you can see images from Agitated Screams of Maggots and Midori-ko. You can see Agitated Screams of Maggots, an awesome little music video for the alt metal band Dir en Grey, in full, and it being his most recent film, I think it gives a sense of what to expect, stylistically, from Midori-ko. It's very painterly and grotesque and surreal, but utterly engrossing despite being, well, gross. It also features little people-like creatures, which Midori-ko is purported to feature, so maybe it seems to be an esquisse of the larger work. Imagine 60 minutes like Agitated Screams of Maggots. (What a lovely title. Just makes you want to repeat it. Agitated Screams of Maggots.) Midori-ko is going to kick ass. Keita Kurosaka is like Bill Plympton via Jan Svankmajer via Francisco Goya via Francis Bacon. I think this film has the potential to be a new landmark in Japanese indie animation, beyond the mere fact of its length and laborious 10-year production mostly by a single man.
It's time for his work to be better known over here, though inevitably it'll probably be too experimental for the animation crowd and too animated for the experimental crowd. Hopefully this film will get him better known and maybe see a release of his work in the west. I've been struggling to obtain copies of those three tapes for years but never been able to.
Below that are some image sketches, which are really neat and showcase his very peculiar style that is like nothing else out there - classical in their painterly aesthetic, but warped and disturbing. I like that Kurosaka is unlike most animators in Japan, even the indie kind. He's closer in spirit to someone like Florence Milhaile. Below those sketches you can see images from some live animation events Kurosaka did in 2008. Animation for him, like Milhaile, is just an extension in time of his painting work, as you will discover reading the interview with him dating from 2006 that I've just translated below, very roughly and quickly.
I'm asked that a lot, but it's a tough question to answer. For one, I don't really think of myself as an 'animation artist'. I originally got my start in the contemporary art world. I was always trying to come up with a way of injecting the dimension of time into my work. Once I embedded an actual motor into a painting to try to add some motion. It took me a while to realize that a form more suited to achieving my artistic goals would be video. But even then, the thought of doing animation never crossed my mind.
My biggest problem as an artist was finding a form of artistic expression that would have the same effect as music, but in the realm of painting - the impact of sharing the same time space and physical space among a large number of people. That just happened to turn out to be video, and in terms of specific technique within that framework, animation, but for me animation has never been anything but an extension of my painting work. My films started out abstract, but after a few films they began to evolve in a more concrete direction, until eventually there were even what you'd call dialogue and stories starting to appear in the films, and eventually even characters. So on the surface, my films began to look more and more like what you'd typically call 'animation films', but it feels really off and wrong when I hear people call me an animation artist.
I don't see myself as inhabiting any particular genre, and I don't even have any particular stance on my work - like I'm an indie versus an industry animator. What drives me a artist is an amorphous motivation, or inspiration, and my biggest problem is finding a vessel for that inspiration to inhabit that will best bring it to life.
Kurosaka Keita and the notion of the grotesque
What exactly qualifies as 'grotesque'? Generally not hard things or dry things, right? Usually when people think of something grotesque, they think of things that are soft and wet and gooey. And to be perfectly honest, that's the sort of thing that interests me most. It's a matter of personal preference. It's like a kid who enjoys playing in mud - I enjoy playing with the philosophical notion of the moist and squishy.
The way I see it, there are two basic meanings behind the notion of the grotesque. One is the common notion of something fleshy and tactile. The other harbors political nuances. The fleshy aspect would be spilled guts and blood stains, the stuff you see in a splatter film. But you find another kind of grotesque in European films, grotesque with a sociopolitical undertone - for example, showing an actual dog getting killed, or someone breaking the neck of a chicken.
So you can divide the concept of the grotesque into two sub-concepts, roughly speaking - the brutal, and the revolting. Personally I'm not a big fan of brutality - I wouldn't hurt a fly, literally. Some movies show animals being killed, for example, but personally I can't take that, I can't watch a movie that does that. My work exists purely on the conceptual level, it has to be pure fiction, and that's something that's never changed.
When I depict something grotesque, I take pains to ensure that it isn't disgusting. The more revolting the image, the more beautifully I render it. It has to be aesthetically refined. I think when people see my work they have a hard time seeing beyond the grotesque images on the surface below to that aesthetic beauty, because I think there's an ingrained bias amongst general viewers against any depiction of things grotesque. There are many films out there that are far more grotesque on a fundamental level, without even having grotesque visuals like in my films. Apart from the purely visual aspect, my films really aren't that grotesque at all. To borrow the words of a mangaka who reviewed my works once, "Keita Kurosaka approaches the act of creating visuals like a kid playing with a box of toys spilled over the floor. The word grotesque is leveled at him by adults disturbed by a display of pure playfulness that they can no longer hope to relive." I thought he captured it really well.
Are you dissatisfied about how people view your work?
Not so much dissatisfied as disappointed at the thought that this is all my work is capable of. In other words, I wonder if there's even any point in me working in a genre in which there are people far more talented than me who are specialized in that genre. It's an interesting position to be in in many ways, but I suspect that what I have to say isn't enough for viewers, that they want to see other worlds.
To put it another way, there are some things that are meant for the broad daylight, and some things that are better appreciated by being glimpsed under the moonlight rather than seen fully, face on. Not to put too self-deprecating a spin on it, but I feel like my work falls more into the latter category. It's not necessarily a negative thing. Like two sides of the same coin, or the wheels on a car, you have to have both. Without the dark side, the world would be out of balance.
I'll leave the bright side to the folks who specialize in that sort of thing. I see myself as one of the last remaining guardians of the dark side of the coin, you might say. I'm kind of an unsung hero, actually. (laughs)
Surrealism is at the core of your and Svankmajer's work. What is surrealism?
Again, the way I see it, there are two types of surrealism. One is surrealism as a means of conveying a sort of parody of the world that goes beyond the real word and brings life to things that lurk just beneath the surface. This type of surrealism can be used as a means to convey political meaning by way of metaphor. In Svankmajer's case, that was part of it - there are times when an artist is unable to produce certain films due to political pressure. Surrealism was once used as a cover of sorts in times like this when you could get hung for saying certain things directly, like a tool in the arsenal of the resistance, but you didn't want to compromise by merely saying things indirectly. You speak by way of images that could be interpreted differently depending on how you look at them. I think that historically this was one of the major components of classical surrealism.
I grew up in the first nonpolitical generation in Japan, so for us, rather than using surrealism to talk about the outside world, surrealism was aimed inwards. In other words, we use surrealism to talk about the self. Underpinning this approach to surrealism are often basic aspects of identity such as our dreams and our formative experiences as children. I've got an interesting story related to this subject. The first time Svankmajer visited Japan, someone from a museum set up a meeting between Svankmajer and I, so that he could critique my work. Both the museum person and I were convinced that Svankmajer would be happy to find someone in Japan who was aiming for something similar, so we were both surprised when, instead, Svankmajer said that as artists he and I were aiming for something completely different at a fundamental level beyond the question of technique, so he was unable to critique my work. I think that experience underscores the decisive difference between the two types of surrealism.
Svankmajer is probably the single artist I most respect, and I view him as my 'master' deep down, but there's one thing I dislike about his work. It's the fact that you can categorically pin down what it is that he's trying to say. I think this becomes particularly noticeable in his later work. In other words, his work is like a translation of his political or philosophical ideals about how things should be. Of course, some people think that's precisely what makes his work good, so in the end it's a question of personal preference, but whenever I encounter something like that in his work, I find it to be a real turn-off. What really excites me is when he creates something that has no obvious interpretation, something completely insane and unhinged, when he goes crazy and creates a world that can't be explained, that's filled with contractions and refuses easy translation. I can't stand it when some meaning you're trying to express is clearly visible when you shine a light on it from the back. We humans aren't built in such a tidy package. But I suspect most viewers don't enjoy things that are excessively ambiguous, because they are legitimately difficult to assess. That's probably the reason why nobody's heard of my favorite films. (laughs)
When a film isn't completely rooted in the individual, it allows viewers to be more objective, which I think is what makes such films easier for most viewers to appreciate. I suspect that the reason Svankmajer is able to go on creating films with images that are so astounding on the surface and still reach a large audience is because, underneath, they convey a meaning that is clearly understood. I find that he tends to hide what's deep inside him and create work aimed towards the outside world. This is only bolstered by his intensely private gaze and his very exacting approach as an artist.
The sun and the moon
In other words, what I was trying to get across with the metaphor about the wheels on a car is that, insofar as you live in today's world, it's impossible to remain completely aloof from the world. Whether you view the outside world according to secondary sources like the newspapers and television, or you come up with your own interpretation of the world from the perspective of a lone member of that society, that society remains the same.
For example, child abuse is a major problem today in Japan. If you wanted to tackle that issue, you could adopt two different approaches. On the one hand, you could take inspiration from the way the issue is reported in the media. On the other, you could take a more individual perspective and look at it from the perspective of the parent or the child. I this this applies not only to surrealism but to any creative activity.
November 15, 2006 at Keita Kurosaka's office
Interviewer: Hiroki Kawai
By some lucky stroke, yesterday as I was browsing through a Japanese second-hand book shop, I found a copy of the "Yoshinori Kanada Special" book that was published in 1982 by Tokuma Shoten. It's undoubtedly the single best book published on Yoshinori Kanada, and probably among the better anywhere on a single animator. It is jam-packed with Yoshinori Kanada's awesome, loose, free drawings, which are massively invigorating to look at. I find the freedom of his drawings not only appealing, but liberating. It's the same feeling I get from his animation. I hope that there will be an updated and expanded version of this book published soon, supplementing the coverage of his first 12 years in this book with the last 25 years of his career. This book was published before Birth was released in 1984, and contains a lot of conceptual sketches for the film, as well as scads of genga from all of his most important work up until then. Also, I love the tag-line: Now, The Super-Hero "IKO" Shoots Your Anime-Spirit!
There's an essay by Hayao Miyazaki about Kanada at the end. Kanada had never worked for Miyazaki at this time, but was to do so soon on Nausicaa, for reasons that will become obvious below. I like how throughout his career Miyazaki regularly picked out great new animators outside of his circle of connections like Kanada, and more recently Ohira - both animators who stylistically hardly seem suited to a Miyazaki film - and invited them to work on his films, utilizing their skill as animators while allowing them to do work that preserved their individuality to an extent. Anyway, here's my translation. It's quite old, I know, but most of the things he says remain relevant and insightful about Kanada and about animators in general. His imaginary reconstruction of Kanada's development is quite perceptive and continues to apply today to many animators. Miyazaki himself, after all, must have gone through much the same process.
He's been true to himself throughout his work. - Hayao Miyazaki
Around the time we were wrapping on Cagliostro's Castle, I remember one day Tomonaga Kazuhide coming up to me and saying how he thought "This Kanada guy at Z is really good". It wasn't long after that at a get-together somewhere that I first laid eyes on Kanada ("met" isn't the right term). As I watched him go-go dancing amid the fracas of youthful animators letting loose, I thought to myself, "Now this guy is the real thing."
I already suspected him to be the "real thing" for being able to incite such barely concealed respect-combined-with-rivalry in an animator as grounded and professional as Kazuhide Tomonaga, but the way he shook his booty with zealous abandon that night only confirmed my suspicions. All of the great animators I know have some kind of behavioral quirk that sets them apart. With Yasuji Mori it's his subtle wit. Yasuo Otsuka is great at doing impressions of people (he does a good Hirohito - one of these days he's going to get killed by some right-winger). Watch out when Kotabe Yoichi gets drunk, ladies... etc.
So I was convinced that Yoshinori Kanada had to be a good animator. We met a few times after that at various get-togethers, but never really got a good chance to talk, apart from one phone conversation where I did most of the talking. I'd never even really had a good look at his work. Yet I was determined to work with him some day. I made the mistake of saying that aloud one day, which is why I was asked to write this essay. Try as I might to squirm out of it, I got tired of fighting off the repeated video education sessions and decided to give it a go, accepting that what I say here might be way off the mark.
I have no intention of trying to analyze or critique his work. For one, I've never worked with him, and for two, he's obviously doing something that people today feel is relevant, so it's not my place to stand on a pedestal and talk down to him. The only thing I know for sure is that he's a person who seems to have been true to himself throughout his work. I like animators like that.
What does it mean to be a real animator? It's a hard concept to define, and defining it would probably be meaningless. I'm sure there are plenty of talented people I've never heard of, and I'm sure there are new ones developing this very moment.
But if we narrow it down to animators who are able to create animation whose drawings and movement (including their sense of timing) feels good as animation - then the number becomes much smaller. Yoshinori Kanada is one of the few animators who can create that kind of animation.
It's easy to imagine why his unique brand of explosions and wild action has bred a league of followers. But that unique feeling in his work can't be achieved by simply copying a template pattern, as will undoubtedly be illustrated by the stale and stultified feeling of battle scenes drawn by his imitators.
The work of a great animator can only be drawn by that animator. Every element of a piece of animation - in other words, the technique providing the foundation for that piece of animation - is the product of the innate sensibility of that particular animator, which is something unique to that animator.
Very few animators have a firm grasp of how weight, momentum and acceleration affect the properties of objects, and are able to instinctively visualize in their heads how a movement might play out in space. Even fewer are able to not only do this, but go beyond logic, integrating physics with instinct to create animation that can't be explained but that simply works in the eyes of the viewers. The ability to create animation that works comes from first achieving mastery of how the laws of physics such as weight and momentum work, and then going beyond those rules - saying to yourself, "Drawing it this way would feel better", and drawing it based on that feeling. It's a mistake to think that his style can be mimicked simply by surface imitation of his crazy poses and rough drawings.
Gatchaman, for example - sorry to name names - certainly impressed with its various innovations, but in terms of the movement turned out to be a classic example of how, no matter how many quick movements or cuts you might string together, the movement simply doesn't feel good or even convincing if it completely ignores the laws of physics.
You've just started out as an animator. Suddenly you have to draw your first genga. You don't know what to do. You're worried, you're afraid. But you tough it out and just draw. Eventually, you don't know why, but you stat to get a sense for how to do it. You start to get little ideas for how to make a movement interesting in this or that scene in the storyboard. Then you start changing the storyboard. At first it's subtle, but it gradually becomes more prominent. Sometimes the director agrees, other times you have to muscle your idea through. Sometimes what you tried doesn't work and you come out with egg on your face. But you just can't hold back this uncontrollable urge to draw things the way you want.
Eventually, the scenes you animated start to stick out from the other sequences, standing apart for how much more lively and individualistic they look and feel. People start to be able to guess what part you did. Your courage starts to build. Usually with this kind of animator, the characters are way off model. Even if he drew the character designs, they're still way off model. You start to notice that, even when you think you drew a character close enough to model, for some reason other people seem to think it's way off. But you don't let it get you down.
Then you're given the chance to handle a whole episode in a TV series. The episode winds up looking nothing like the rest of the episodes, but it's interesting, so you don't let it undermine your newfound confidence.
You give sakkan'ing a shot, but you realize that you're not cut out for it. All it does is make you want to re-draw everything in your own style. You couldn't do that day in and day out, for one, but more importantly, you want to spend all your time drawing movement that you're satisfied with, not correcting other people's drawings. But sakkan's are at the top of the ladder in the animation industry, so you feel torn. You start to feel troubled by how in magazines and the like even the best animation work winds up being attributed to the director or to the animation director, or even to the original creator.
You start to find that you can predict how a piece of animation will turn out if it's drawn this way or that way. And yet, the more this feeling grows, the more you begin to feel a growing emptiness inside.
You take part in some big name projects. You decide to lay aside your issues with the structure or the storyboard or the subject of the film, and just make your part the best you can make it. Your work even receives recognition as a result. You feel like you've achieved something. Another part of you, though, begins to wonder if it's enough to simply chug along as a cog in the wheel. You begin to awaken to what it really is that you want to express as a creator.
If I may be so bold, that is the kind of animator I imagine Yoshinori Kanada to be.
The work of Yoshinori Kanada and Kazuhide Tomonaga on the Galaxy Express 999 movie (viz) was characterized in some corners as a victory for contract animators. But the issue of contract vs. in-house is beside the point. What's really happening is that a new generation of animators is replacing the old. That's all. The problems faced by the new generation of animators are otherwise the same. If some in-house animator someplace lords their sense of superiority over you, they're not deserving of respect anyway, so just leave and go somewhere else.
When the youthful days of experimentation are past, and you've accumulated experience, and it's time to build on that experience, what kind of projects you will encounter and what kind of people you'll work with will unfortunately remain largely up to chance. But it is also undeniable that what work comes your way will be partially dictated by the kind of work you've done up until now. As we head out of this 'anime boom' towards the age of mass consumption of anime, I imagine that not only Yoshinori Kanada, but also many other animators with talent, ambition and endurance, must be holding out hope that they will encounter work that is truly meaningful. I hope sincerely that they will encounter such work.
I'd very much like to work with him, but so far the opportunity to offer him a job hasn't presented itself. I know how hard it can be to be picky about work without losing heart. I hope he takes care of himself and perseveres.
About a month ago one of my readers, Mihai Luchian, pointed out an interesting interview in Russian with Yuri Norstein about the making of his short segment for the Basho-inspired omnibus of short animated films Winter Days. Mihai kindly translated the interview for me, which I touched up a bit, so I'm pleased to be able to offer up this insightful piece about how one of the true visionaries of animation works. There's a palpable similarity between the way Norstein talks and the language of his films - sometimes opaque, but always with the lucid clarity of good poetry. His explanations occasionally seem to turn into pure poetry as his excitement in describing the process of creation crescendos to a fever pitch, but it is always fascinating to peek into the thought process of a great mind. The interview helped me look at the short but masterful piece in a new light, with a better understanding.
powerful verses or the sound of pine trees on a sumi-e
Who came up with the idea to make an animated film out of Bashō’s haiku?
Actually, the idea to make a film based on a cycle of Basho’s poetry, called “renku” or “linked verse”, was proposed by the Japanese. The "renku" cycle comprises 36 strophes, so the concept of the project was to give each strophe to a different director. Each director was to do a small piece without any limits on style, script or form, meaning completely in accord with his individuality. After that, the small pieces would be strung together.
The Japanese decided that it was to be an international project, so they had invited different directors from China, Canada, Belgium, England, Russia and so on, a total of 35. Each director had to make a 30-second piece. Later, the artistic director, Kihachiro Kawamoto, would string together the different pieces, bridging them each by a narrator reading the verses.
I was assigned the first three verses that open the cycle “Winter Days”. Immediately I thought out a winter plot: A boy is cooking a meal on a brazier. He throws on some coal. The shoji screen is open, and through it you can see the mountains in the distance. It’s snowing, overwhelming the rust-colored hills. The boy turns away from the brazier, intensely admiring the view. The food is burning a little. The father (or some other grown-up) enters the room. He senses that the food is burning. Swearing, he grabs a teapot and pours water over the brazier, giving the boy a slight kick to the head. The boy is scared. Still swearing, the father lifts his head and freezes, watching the snow slowly covering the hills. The water continues to pour from the teapot.
At this point, the producer waved his hand - “What are you thinking? The movie must start with autumn. Winter comes along later.” So I had to think out a new plot. I gave it a lot of thought. Later, as little details brought the animation to life during production, the plot began to take on a life of its own.
What does “linked verse” mean exactly? What is renku?
The poets sit around in a circle, and the verses travel from one poet to the next. The 1st one writes the first three verses (called the “hokku”), then the 2nd poet adds his two verses, and so on down through the 3rd, 4th , 7th, 32nd, etc, each poet in turn borrowing the previous poet’s last verse and adding 2 verses to it to construct a new poem.
That is where the expression “linked verse” comes from. You could say that the basic poetic idea wanders around the circle of the poets and in the end locks onto somebody, maybe even the first poet. Each one has 2-3 verses. Basho composes the first 3. He’s the teacher, the respected master. The first three verses provide the later ones with energy. The system for writing the hokku, like the haiku, is fairly well known: 3 verses, each one with a specific number of mora or Japanese syllables: 5-7-5. The couplet that follows is 7-7.
A translation can’t have the same effect as the original, because the number of mora will be different, thus changing the rhythm. Russian and Japanese have a completely different structure. A literal translation would be just as meaningless, though it might sometimes produce interesting coincidences. Vera Markova, who translated Basho, is a great albeit underappreciated poet. It’s laughable to say that someone can translate Japanese poetry without being a poet. Same with film - transferring haiku to the screen is equally hopeless. Especially when you only have 30 seconds!
Seriously, it’s naive to think that such a short piece can even compare to Basho’s poetry. Only when the power of a verse lies in its conciseness can 30 seconds of film hope to come close to the verse. But in this case we were in a rather restrictive situation, proposed by a different creator. Nolens volens [willing or not], you swim in this channel of verses and you can’t run away. Everything that you create is bathed in the glow of the energy of the verses. I’m a slow-witted person, so I wasn’t able to capture the essence of the verse in 30 seconds, or even 3 times 30 seconds – even though a single couplet would have been enough to make a whole short film. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used exposition, plot, and instead just gone with one scene. But it’s too late now.
It’s hard to imagine that such a thing could be possible, but the work on this film was actually harder than the work on “The Overcoat”. I didn’t use such detailed backgrounds when creating “The Overcoat”. Compared to how long it took me to do the short for Winter Days, the work on “The Overcoat” seems like the speed of light compared to the speed of light. 2 minutes of tube time took me 9 months of work, actually more. And the result? I feel like everything I did is beyond hope... though the producer liked it. I feel that I didn’t achieve the intonation that was needed. I’m not talking about technical mastery or the visuals. I’m talking about the intonation of those 3 verses, through which I was hoping to achieve tranquility. Mastery is when one needed path replaces a whole bunch of unneeded paths. You come to the truth only when you achieve mastery.
Could you recite Basho’s verses in your own words?
In the withering gusts,
a wanderer ...
How much like Chikusai I have become!
Basho precedes these lines with the words: “I have suddenly remembered the master of the wild verse, Chikusai, wandering in the old days on these paths.”
Who exactly is Chikusai?
An imaginary character of popular lore. He exists in the imagination of the Japanese in such a high level of reality that they settled him in some small town. He even owns a pharmaceutical store. But he doesn’t treat anybody. He’s a charlatan and everybody understands that he can’t treat. At the same time he is a joker, a holy fool and idler, like our little fool Ivanushka [a character from the traditional Russian fables]. He is a blessed little fool, not an idiot or a simpleton, but a very sharp and clever thinker who plays the game of stupidity, thereby freeing himself from some of the conventions imposed by life itself. However, Basil the Blessed [holy fool during the time of Ivan the Terrible and Russian Orthodox saint] also didn’t care about the church or the rich.
The Japanese were very surprised when they saw the script. They would never have imagined that Chikusai and Basho could meet. In my case, they met thanks to my ignorance. It didn’t even occur to me that there is no way the two could have met. My plot wound up a kind of circus side-show – the antics of a clown in white and a clown in red. Basho/Pierrot, the clown in white, and Chikusai/Harlequin, the clown in white, the one who might, or more likely will pinch you or steal your hat.
A journalist once told me about a meeting she had with the poet Marietta Shaginyan not long before her death. She was an old but very lively lady – already almost 100 years old, or at the very least 90. Imagine the scene: There she was, seated near Blok’s grave. [Alexander Blok, one of the greatest Russian poets after Pushkin] It’s moments like these that bring history closer to home. Shagiyan, withered and bent, sprang out from behind the table, ran to the journalist, grabbed her by the hair, pulled the hair and asked: “Are these natural?” After that she pinched her cheek, sat down and only then began to answer questions. For Shaginyan it was totally natural behavior. She wasn’t a dying old lady who behaved the way people around her expected an old lady to behave. When she was asked where her vitality came from, she answered using the words of Stravinsky: “I want to live the time I received, not to die it.”
|preliminary sketches for Chikusai|
In your movie, Chikusai goes around listening to the trees with his medical horn in the same way a doctor might listen to a patient’s lungs with a stethoscope. That’s all - you don’t have to say anything more, or explain his buffoonery in some artistic way.
There are different kinds of sounds – a woodpecker, a magpie’s flight, a worm gnawing a tree. This 'crescendo' section of the film lasts until the wind starts to blow. Chikusai must be introduced with the help of the underground rumble - the way with an earthquake you first feel the earth take a deep breath, and this is followed by a slight shudder. I think this short segment could provide the plot for a whole film. You could make a film about how old trees breathe, how they creak, how they suffocate (the action takes place in autumn), how the branches tremble from the cold and the trees freeze, engaging in their winter slumber... although the winter in Japan in not our hard frost and blinding snow.
However, the paths on which Basho walked rhyme in a way with our Russian paths. As a poet, he is an eternal wanderer. His way of life is to always wander. The road returns him to himself. Try for a second to imagine Basho’s way of life, what it’s like – Basho’s never-ending journey. It’s not like driving car or hitch-hiking. Imagine the darkness. Not even a small fire or even a living soul near you. The only light is your torch. If the torch burns out, the darkness will devour you. Also, there are robbers, who don’t care if you’re a great person or not. They just see a poor wanderer who might have something precious. Maybe there’s something in his bag. The great Polish sculptor Wit Stwosz created a famed altar-piece in Krakow and died on his way to Hamburg. Where are his bones? Maybe in somebody’s pit for beggars and cripples. And what about Mozart or Rembrandt?
Saint Seraphim of Sarov, who owned nothing and lived in the wilderness, where he stood on a rock for 1000 days and nights and ate only grass, was beaten almost to death by some robbers.
He didn’t even fight back while they were beating him.
When Seraphim was attacked, he had with him an axe that he used to cut trees. But he didn’t use it. He didn’t fight, even though he was very strong. The Diveevsk Monastery still retains the extra-large rags he wore, and his heavy hoe. After he was beaten and they hit his head, he became even more hunched. When the robbers were found, he forgave them and asked for their freedom.
Now that is a feat. Or maybe not a feat, just a way of life. He didn’t think about it as a feat. It was the natural course of action for a holy man. Basho couldn’t be lured by money or good conditions or with the words: “Why are you walking in your rags when it’s raining and snowing?” His words roamed the paths. His verses were his messengers. He used to walk barefoot. Nobody had the power to make him settle down, find a home, enjoy a nice fire and write poetry. He kept walking and walking on his roads and paths. Sometimes a helper would assist him, help him with the load, but most of the time he was alone. The burdens of the road weighed heavily on his swollen feet. His hands were freezing. After all, you are the only one who can feel the burdens of your own life. You can’t feel the pleasure of a walk if you send someone instead of you to do it. It has nothing to do with money. You have to overcome these burdens with your own power, and no one can take your pain away. But too often modern man relies on his possessions, which in the end separate him from the essence of life and devour him, so that he loses even the tiniest amount of knowledge about life and feelings for other humans.
I recently saw a documentary about a new living complex in Moscow called “Scarlet Sails”. I don’t think the people who chose this name [after the story by Alexander Grin] realize the price Grin paid for the book! “A high-comfort community”, announced the presenter excitedly, as if in an attempt to convince us that comfort can be bought by cutting down trees, cementing rivers, creating isolated communities, and the like. A kind of a capitalist bunker with a high level of comfort. As they said, the region has everything a man could need. I really wanted to ask if it had a cemetery. But then this complex is itself a cemetery because it isolates man from creation itself. A dead place for poets. Only computer faces with a high level of comfort. A piece of river just for the district. Maybe the sky will also be divided into pieces, proportionally to a person’s bankroll. What do you think? Will the people of this district want to understand Basho’s life and his verses? This unnatural way of life leads to dependency and impossible expectations. The result – lack of social consciousness. The poets will cease to exist, nobody will hear the trees. In essence, today, the trees are seen as units by which to measure the forests. The forests were privatized, and soon you will be able to see them only by special admission.
|preliminary sketches for Chikusai|
But there will always be a need for poets like Basho!
Yes, there will always be this need. I remember Natasha Guttmann’s story about Richter [Sviatoslav Richter, the pianist], who used to walk 45 kilometers a day. He was so powerful. When he walked towards his grand piano, the crowd before him would split in two, like the water before a ship. Like Basho, he was a wanderer who didn’t gather money, didn’t try to gain anything. He didn’t even need fame. He surpassed it. He had more subtle and great things in his life. He surpassed his mastery and life wasn’t about playing the piano anymore. He didn’t want to play in his last 2 years. Only, from time to time his eyes would light up. His destiny was somewhat similar to Michelangelo’s. To me, these two giants are united in their understanding of life. And that bitterness they felt about the absurdity of their lifelong struggle for perfection, once they had attained the heights of the humanly possible in their later years. I think for Michelangelo it was death. He craved it, he'd screamed about it since the age of 16. Basically, Richter discovered the same thing. “I don’t like myself” – this is how he speaks about himself in the documentary “Richter – The Enigma” directed by Bruno Monsaingeon. There he sits in a cowboy shirt, sharp elbows on the table, before him a writing-book, his expression overwhelmed by an unspeakable melancholy: “I don’t like myself”.
Such masters as Basho and Richter are united through their philosophy: constant motion. Never allow oneself to remain the same - like a river, always renewing itself. I’m always wondering about the paths that would lead animation to the real dramatic art. Mastery is simply a question of mechanics. Mastery is nothing in comparison with the subtler things, the things that you can’t even imagine or postulate. You feel it in your breath, like a kind of fine matter, when something that looks rough and awkward possesses an ineffable hidden compassion and tenderness. It’s an interesting idea: the physics of fine matter, intangible matter. Matter that can only be apprehended by means of photographic plates and careful experimentation. The physics of intangible matter is beyond imagining, but you can at least get a sense of the form of this unthinkable, holy substance. To paraphrase Lev Landau’s wonderful words: “Physics has allowed us to calculate the unimaginable.” Niels Bohr described the quality of a discovery with the words: “An idea not crazy enough to be something true”. In other words, the physicist is one who calculates the unthinkable. Mathematics becomes more and more abstract, and logic ceases to be pure logic. These concepts merge when it comes to the act of creation. Basho would translate everything he had seen and felt into his verses. Essentially, he would grasp the world with his poetry, and the world would become substantial in order to convey something invisible to the eye.
When you compose a frame, you inevitably think about these things. But I was still unable to achieve the intonation I wanted. That’s why, despite the fact that the Japanese accepted the film, I began to make a different version of the main episode, the meeting of Chikusai and Basho. I doubt the producer would agree to remaking the whole piece, as doing so would take money and time, and I’m not even sure that the new version would be what I wanted this time either. The eternal problem in art (including animation) is taking the risk of following your instinct in seeking the right intonation, and not caring about money (which is of no value compared to your answers). To be exhausted with suffering and apprehension that the final result is on film and no editing knob can save it. You cling to false hope, pleasant self-deception. (Can you admire a ragged wound when you bandage it?) Wave after wave of anxiety washes over you. You begin to see the true value of your work only upon examining it as a whole.
You must feel the wind that rustles the rusted leaves, that travels through space rearranging the fallen leaves. Every leaf harbors the energy of the wind. With a creation it’s like with a stove: you’ll get burned if you don’t hold onto the viewers strong enough. With a stove there’s clearly an energy present; but what about when two people meet? Their communication attaches itself to your life. They become your every step. They inhabit your thoughts. They are the continuation of your suffering. The energy of discovery happens here, during the filming, during the endgame and not during the writing of the script. In poetry your creation is the product of hours of madness and a drop of ink. It’s the same in film, but only with more money. A writer takes a pen and writes a line. If it’s bad, he crosses it out and writes a new one. But in cinematography, to make a line you need lights, cameras, time, film, and so on and so on.
You say that you couldn’t find the right intonation in the main episode. Could you be a little more specific about what went wrong?
Maybe I should retell the episode first. Chikusai is having a walk, listening to the trees, and kicking about the fallen leaves when suddenly he sees a stranger doing something important to him. Chikusai approaches the stranger. What’s it to him if it’s Basho or not? You can even presume that he doesn’t know who Basho is. Normally the two wouldn’t be able to meet, for one because one is a fictional character, but also because these two lived in different periods. I already mentioned how the Japanese were surprised to see them meet. They said that nobody had thought about such a simple situation. Clearly I happened upon this idea thanks to my ignorance and freedom from the burden of historical facts. I just knew that Basho mentioned Chikusai in his verses. That’s why Basho and the holy fool Chikusai exist on the same level for me.
Of course, they are also formally united through their poverty – both of them have holes in their kimonos, which they present to each other. But in reality the interchange between them happens on a different level. By no means is their meeting limited to the physical. Yes, they wear rags, but this shabbiness must be funny and should not evoke feelings of sorrow and compassion in the viewer. The essence lies in this ordinary exchange between two ordinary human beings who have a taste for life and the aspiration towards harmony. And despite the fact that Basho is a master poet, he preserves his sense of humor towards his clothes and confrere.
He doesn’t have the pride that often accompanies with such talent.
Does the person who wrote these lines have pride?
"Perhaps the wind
will whiten your bones,"
breathed the cold into my soul.
Does this verse reveal room for pride? There is no place in his heart that would let in pride, not even for a moment.
But returning to the subject. Chikusai sees this strange fellow we call Basho and observes how the stranger is seriously engaged in his louse hunting. Chikusai is fascinated, like a small baby. He sits down and helps Basho in this serious matter. Then when Basho finds holes in his clothes, Chikusai also finds some in his. In the end, they start showing off the holes in their clothing – who has the biggest one? Chikusai acts like he is also a traveler, and brags like one. Then, having exchanged hats, they separate. Chikusai sees that Basho’s hat is completely useless and his is better, so he gives his hat to Basho, taking Basho’s hat and putting it on. The wind starts to blow, steals the hat and bowls it along the road. Chikusai runs after it trying to catch it. Finally he catches it with his stick, sees that the hole has gotten bigger and throws it towards the sky. A gale force wind blows his hat around for a while. Meanwhile Basho has gone in the opposite direction and he’s attacked by a powerful gust of wind and leaves that messes up his clothes. But he goes on.
Anyway, that’s the story. When I spoke about the intonation of the film, what I meant was that I think I didn’t achieve the needed subtlety in their buffoonery, which was intended to have the effect of intensifying the feeling of fate – the fate of the creator, the fate of a simple traveler, of a simple man who embraces nature and can die at any given moment in its embrace. I wanted to create the effect of going from a naive, comic situation to a tragedy. I even used sound to achieve this effect. When this powerful wind arises and practically rips apart their clothing, you hear a monastery bell. At first I wanted it to ring just in the background, but in the end I put it in the foreground. The bell strikes with full power, like the blow of fate.
|storyboard of the meeting between Basho and Chikusai|
Why the tragedy? Isn’t it enough that the two met, despite it being impossible? Why does everything have to be given tragic proportions?
But at the same time the two are at the mercy of the elements. “Kings are powerless in God’s element.” What about poets then? They are higher than kings, but all are equal in the embrace of the elements. Basho’s last verses are all tragic. He would write that death was near and he was free and captive at the same time. He can only laugh at his rags, but there is something more – something that is connected to memory and death or to what we call “a poor soul”. You can’t say it more precisely. The phrase “Blessed are the poor souls” is true.
In the first centuries of Christianity, two monks lived on Mt. Sinai in a small monastery. One was always praying and crying for his sins. The other enjoyed life and thanked God for his mercy. When both died, both having lived a righteous life, the other monks didn’t know what to think. Which of the two was right? Then the father superior had a revelation: All the paths that lead man to God are right. It’s well known that Saint Seraphim of Sarov greeted everyone with the words “My joy”. Constant grief for your sins doesn’t imply a constant low spirit. Those humble “poor souls” have the same attitude toward life as they do towards death. A tragic point of view is something a simple man might have, whereas Basho was a monk, an ascetic.
I agree but nevertheless, not long before his death, his verses became truly tragic.
To grieve hearing a monkey’s scream!
But do you know a baby’s cry
thrown on the autumn wind?
Or here’s another one: [this is Basho's death poem, his last]
Sick on a journey,
only my dreams will wander
these desolate moors.
You get a feeling of both grief and dignity in his portraits...
Absolutely. I read an interesting anecdote once. One day an Aztec ruler was being burned alive by the Spanish. Sitting near him was his servant, who was screaming his lungs out. The ruler asked his servant: “Why are you screaming? You can see for yourself that I’m not in a pleasant situation myself.” It’s natural that I would want to represent this hidden dignity in my film with humor. Chikusai understands that his presence amuses Basho. And when they are changing their hats, Chikusai roars with laughter, while Basho is just slightly smiling. But I just couldn’t find the right pose.
Maybe instead of a Japanese pose, Basho should have gotten on his knees like a Christian monk praying? After all, ascetics are always praying, even when they are sleeping or talking.
But I don’t know how to do it. I wouldn’t want such an obvious emphasis on the pose. I tried to draw it, but I would always find something wrong. There was always something wrong or unnatural or fake.
In that sense, is there any parallel between Basho and the traveler in “The Tale of Tales”?
He is in a different light, a different space. He’s different. The traveler isn’t necessarily a tragic figure. He doesn’t expect some robbers or other dangers, he just travels. He is free of convention and as free as a human can get whilst walking on a warm autumn road and being sure that nothing can harm him. Basho’s way involves some kind of intense and dramatic effort. Basho’s image is probably closer to a Russian ascetic who has voluntarily thrown himself into a different life. Basho is a poet and at the same time a monk.
What exactly is the different between the poet-monk Basho and the Poet from “The Tale of Tales”, who sits at the table in front of the shining paper?
First of all, the two find themselves in different ‘elements’. Basho is in the element of restriction and self-restriction, while the Poet, like the Traveler, is a stoic and a hedonist. He loves life in all its manifestations.
A stoic and a hedonist in one person?
Yes, because a stoic can suppress his desires and at the same time live in reality. John Galsworthy has a story called “The Stoic”, where an old feeble man orders a dinner of good wine and the finest meats. He truly enjoys the meal, because it’s the last thing he possesses. A man who lived an austere life, deliberately refraining from worldly pleasure, organizes a wonderful feast at the end of his life. In this way he creates a bridge between the pleasures of the world and its madness. The Poet is the same. And like all poets, he can restrict himself at the same time. Like Brodsky, who knew that he had a bad heart, but still smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. [Joseph Brodsky, “Russian poet and essayist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature (1987)” – Wikipedia] He just couldn’t stop even if it would prolong his life for a few more months. This act was a part of his poetic system. Or for example, he would enter a restaurant and order everything prohibited to him. For him, this represented the pleasures of life, its zest.
Basho was different. He restricted himself completely. He was a poet and had a large circle of friends, admirers and students who would happily have supported him so he could lead a peaceful life. But it’s hard to imagine that his talent would have blossomed under such circumstances. As I understand it, he cut himself off from everything that would have harmed him as a poet. There’s this one painting where the students are seeing off Basho in a boat. They throng on the shore while he sits there with a pouch and a staff in his hand, a proud expression on his face, looking exalted - just like Jesus. Even the way the edges of his sleeves hang down bring to mind a Russian icon. Here he is the epitome of a great man.
Basho has a very subtle sense of humor.
The cold penetrates my bones.
Maybe I should ask the scarecrow
for a pair of sleeves!
Hear me merchant!
Want to buy a hat?
The one in the snow.
On the way!
I will show you how the cherry blossoms in distant Yoshino,
you old hat of mine.
While I was preparing for the film, I was taken to a town where Basho would often stay at one of his friend’s places to sleep. They rebuilt the shack where he used to sleep. They showed me one of Basho’s drawings: a drawing of reed or cane. Just a few strokes of the brush and the paper comes alive, as if the characters had seeped into in the paper’s structure. All of the Japanese are painters because drawing Chinese characters trains the hand. The essence of drawing these characters is such that every time they show me something or draw a scheme I’m in awe of the pencil’s movement. In Basho’s case there is also his poetic thinking. It’s obvious that, on a subconscious level, the sense of sound is fused with the sense of the physical in the great poets (Pushkin also possessed these abilities). I was also shown a drawing where Basho graphically represented the snoring of a man. It was so funny! This kind of graphical representation of the abstract is somewhat similar to what the painters of the 20th century did, but they did it seriously, whereas here you have a sense of humor, without the tragic element. You could write a whole article about this drawing, about the concept of poetic vision. Mayakovsky once wrote: “Burlyuk came madly climbing from his screaming, torn eyes.” So visually expressive!
But you weren’t hired to make a Japanese film!
No, I wasn’t. From the very beginning I said: “Franya, let’s use the least amount of detail possible for the costumes. Aim for a vague image. The point isn’t to accurately portray the sleeve of a Japanese kimono. We’ll fail if we insist on ethnographic or local accuracy. Detail must be blurred to the point that only the stain remains, like Kandinsky, where the color is more important than the details. But at the same time, the color must not dominate.” I remember how we would sit with Francesca and make the colors. The colors weren’t working, weren’t fusing with the models.
And then bang. Everything fit. A short deep-brown shirt, a long, gold-ish kimono for Basho and a dirty, bluish one for Chikusai. Then I said: “Franya, we used a classic color scheme, just like Rublev’s Trinity.” It had the same blue, gold and deep-brown. We came up with many variants, but why did we choose this combination? The situation wasn’t similar – there was no castle, or castle rock supporting the cup. And then suddenly everything sparked and a fire ignited – just like when a strong wind blows a conflagration, expelling a stream of air that speeds up the fire in a self-perpetuating cycle. When this happens in film, instead the fire begins to produce more and more details. The color stains begin to expel a frantic energy. Rough, dirty, offhand images gain purity and lucidity. I’m not talking about color anymore, but about something stronger than color.
All the fuss over the image evaporated the moment this harmony materialized. The next phase of the work was the animation, that’s why the movement of the color masses is important. But here, you have again a double task: You must develop the movement of the characters, and support it with color movements. The balance between these two elements is important. The challenge is that the action must not lose itself in a kind of plastic illusiveness. It shouldn’t be empty. It shouldn’t be distracting. The balance between these two elements mustn’t weigh upon the characters. The color mustn’t shout like a street market vendor, “You there! Get over here with the rest of these colors! There isn’t enough for everybody!” The challenge lies in the fact that every action, every gesture, must be absent unnecessary accents, shouldn’t overwhelm the viewer or distract attention to the screen. It’s a real challenge to construct the mise-en-scene of two characters in such a way that their every movement plays out over a sort of unseen grid. The result of this is what creates the ‘intonation’ of the film.
|working table - Basho|
You didn’t use any specifically Japanese elements in the film. Only the woods, the sky and the fallen leaves. You once said that when working on “The Overcoat” you deliberately avoided using historical elements or topographical signs like street signs so the viewer wouldn’t be able to identify the location. In the film about Basho, you not only avoided showing elements depicting the Japanese way of life, you even refused to adopt the basic Japanese drawing style, the way rocks and water and so on are drawn.
We refused to use the obvious stylistic elements, but nevertheless there is a Japanese feeling to the ‘drawing masses’ in the film. Kandinsky wrote that even belonging to a certain nationality can be represented at an abstract level. Every developed culture has its own color scheme. For example, Greece’s colors are white, black and brown. Russia’s are red, blue, gold and white. When you see Japanese landscapes, the color masses are very clearly delineated. The whole effect of the drawing makes you think: “Maybe time did all this. Maybe time dipped this piece of paper into the wind and streams and rain, spilled a little fog here and there, a little mud.” Even though we talked about the French, about Corot’s landscapes and how he drew the wind, we had this general feeling about the surrounding scenery. Corot has a famous drawing of the wind. When we finished filming, I suddenly realized that the film is really similar to that particular drawing. How could this be? Why? Well, it’s only natural! At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the French themselves were fans of Japanese art. Émile Zola introduced French artists to Japanese prints. As a result, the impressionists began to see things differently. The impressionists weren’t the only ones influenced. Van Gogh also saw them. The blooming apple-trees – that’s Japan. I believe Cézanne was also influenced, and Lautrec, and many, many others.
You see, to me this kind of (often unconscious) cultural interchange is more important than trying to understand the specifics of a certain culture.
So you weren’t out to express a Buddhist or Zen Buddhist view of the world?
No, I wasn’t. At least, these idea didn’t influence my creative process. The character’s behavior must express what I didn’t formulate. I mean, what kind of idiot would go and listen to the trees? A French doctor would visit his patient only with a practical goal. He collects the urine in the test tube, checks the patient’s pupils and tongue, feels the pulse, writes out a prescription with an intelligent look on his face, and then proceeds to fleece the money off his patient - all without any hint of emotion, except maybe for the money part. The Japanese doctor, on the other hand, would speak at length about chrysanthemums, about the snow, about how many moons have passed since he first met the patient. He recalls how the drops of dew trembled in the rays of the sun. In this way the doctor tears the fantasy from the passing body. The disease, distraught by the lack of attention, loses its memory and fades away.
So in reality, your movie is in fact somewhat Japanese.
I believe so. In any case, the Japanese said that if they hadn’t known that a European had made the film, they wouldn’t have believed it.
And what about their ecstatic, even religious, contemplation of the tracks on the first snow, of the frozen waterfall in the fog, the blooming tree bathed in the sunshine? These serve something the same role as our icons. Were these things also important to you?
No. It would have been disingenuous of me to pretend that I naturally felt these Japanese expressive symbols. For me, what was more important was to be in a state of mind were I could readily answer why I like Japanese poetry, art and philosophy. But at the same time, I will never be able to create an ikebana. Well, maybe, if nobody is around I could do it, but in public I would get scared and probably do something awful. With this film it’s same – if I’d have attempted to show off by flaunting some kind of touristy Japanese chinoiserie, I would have been laughed at by the Japanese themselves. I once brought to Japan some drawings made by a painter for a story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. My friend, Saitani-san, was indignant: “What is this? This is all China!” That’s why I would never have succeeded if I had tried to work with explicitly Japanese motifs.
When Francesca was drawing the trees, I didn’t bother with whether they were European or Japanese. I just knew that the wind must be here, and the stream there. Even when we were filming the scene with the hat, I didn’t make any attempt to study Japanese prints closely, in spite of the fact that I had a lot of reference material at my disposal. I intentionally refrained from doing something Japanese, but nevertheless I understood the fact that it must have a Japanese coloring, a Japanese wind. Francesca and I were trying to distance ourselves from the obvious symbols and come up with something more subtle.
But the characters themselves had to be recognizable...
Yes, that’s why it took a long time to work out their faces. It was especially hard in Basho’s case, because many variations of him exist. There are no detailed portraits, but it is known that, say, one painting is probably more accurate than another, and these two are so different as to practically look like two different people. But this had the effect of freeing me from a lot of background work. The face concealed by time can be reconstructed through the creator’s work. We can visualize Rublev’s face through his paintings. In this case, we weren’t striving for an accurate representation. A film about Pushkin would be harder to make because we know what he looked like. It’s even harder in Gogol’s case, because we have photographs of him. Rublev’s appearance is lost in the fog, and his own drawings of himself are the only way to reconstruct his image. But not every painter is able to draw a poet. We can paint his exterior, but not all painters can evoke the small details that cannot be seen by a normal eye. It was extremely challenging to find Basho’s image.
In your film he has a big, heavy head, like Socrates.
You see, he has to feel physically present to the audience. It’s like when you see the neck of a boy covered in a ragged shirt thrown over his gaunt shoulders. On looking at him, you feel a powerful wave of pity. But suddenly you see his face, filled with dignity and hidden humor, and understand that his poverty is precisely what gives his face those traits. It’s enough to uncover just a little of Basho’s shoulder and you suddenly realize that he could have been a slave in Greece, a convict in Russia. He could have been a prisoner in a concentration camp, or equally well a fool at some royal court who was allowed to speak freely and remained free, like Socrates or Diogenes. It’s this situation when a man becomes invincible not because he isn’t afraid of death, but because he is so in touch with reality that nothing can move him; he has become one with reality.
I was filming the scene where Chikusai is sitting next to Basho, and was silently horrified. When we finished the scene, I just couldn’t watch it. It’s always like this. At first I just can’t watch it. Then after a while I get used to it. Not because it’s good or bad. I just get used to it and can’t evaluate its merits. The results don’t match the concept. When we finished the scene, which we shot in a silent delirium, I could barely sit still. As I watched the scene, I could see it physically, but I felt nothing.
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)
Ran across an interview with Keiichi Hara, so I thought I'd translate it, just to see if I could get a feel for his voice, though there isn't much of anything by way of new information in the interview. Original interview from here.
I hear you've been warming this project for years.
I first ran into the original story about 20 years ago, back when I was working as chief director of the TV show Esper Mami. Few projects at the time were original, instead always focusing on adapting popular comics. I didn't think it was a good thing for the industry to keep going in that direction, so I took it upon myself to buy a few books on my own tab every week and read through them to look for a potential interesting project. Kappa Uproar by Masao Kogure was the one that I found at the time that seemed to have the most potential as animation. A baby kappa born in the Edo period comes back to life and experiences life in our own times. I thought the situation had a lot of possibility. Unfortunately it took me 20 years to finally get to the point where I could actually do the project. The author, Masao Kogure, passed away earlier this year. When I'd met him before, I had mentioned that I wanted to change the story a bit to make it into a film. Instead of asking me how I was going to change it, he just said, "I'm just happy that the book will be coming back to life, so I'll leave it up to you." The film was completed at the end of last year, but sadly Masao Kogure passed away before I had a chance to show it to him. I still tremendously regret that I didn't have a chance to show it to him.
There's a gap of 5 years between this film and your last film, the Warring States Shin-Chan film.
I didn't actually do much during that time. I wrote a script someone asked me to write and gave some ideas for an SFX movie, but none of those things came to fruition. I was glad that people were asking me to do these things, but at the time I was still employed at Shinei, so I wasn't exactly free to just do as I pleased. Coo had been on my mind constantly ever since I started working on Shin-chan. Every time one of the films ended, I thought, "Now is my chance to get started on Coo." But then I'd be forced to start working on the next film - over and over again. So in the end after Warring States I just decided to put my foot down and shift to working on Coo. People who'd seen my Shin-chan work asked me if there was anything else I'd like to do, which made it a lot easier to set to work on it. In way, it's thanks to Shin-chan that I was able to do Coo.
The film touches on some environmental issues.
I look at the yokai (traditional Japanese monsters) more as minorities than monsters. Many ethnic groups have been persecuted and marginalized throughout history, but nobody has ever even seen a kappa, so thinking of kappa in terms of a minority helped me come to grips with how a kappa might have felt in Coo's situation. So in a sense there is a bit of overlap with Native Americans. People move into the area inhabited by the kappas, use the land to their own ends, and drive out the kappas. In that sense it's a parallel with what happened to the Native Americans.
The scene with the family on the Tokyo Tower is kind of similar to the scene you did in the Adult Empire Strikes Back movie.
Actually, it's the other way around. I already had the idea to use that scene in Coo when I started making Adult Empire, and I just borrowed the idea in the Adult Empire film. Then I came to Coo and was in a bit of a fix since I'd already used the scene in that film. But I decided to go ahead with it anyway. I just accepted that the Tokyo Tower would be this recurring theme in my work.
Who do you want to see this film?
20 years ago when I first came up with the idea for the film I was thinking it would be for kids, but after years of working on the Shin-chan films I changed and wanted to make films that not only kids would want to watch but also adults. So I'd like kids to watch it, but I'd also like people of my generation to watch it. I'm satisfied enough with the results to be able to say that. It's been about one full generation since the original story was written, so I'll be happy if moms and dads who read the story back then come to the film with their kids and it brings back some memories.
What's your next project?
Right now I'm feeling really empty after having finished this project I'd been working on for 20 years. I don't know what to say whenever somebody asks me what I'm doing next, because it'll take me some time to get over that feeling. It's not like I've got a spare project I can just pull out of the drawer. Coo was everything. I'm freelance now, so I'd like to try my hand at various things if people want me. I'm also interested in live action. But I'm well aware that it takes more than enthusiasm to get a project done. In any case, in the coming days I'd like to focus on creating dense drama, so I'd like to continue to direct feature films.
(Actually, I found a few more interviews, so I'll probably be translating them as well soon.)
It's been a while since I've translated an interview, and I recently found an interview that fairly made my eyes bug out, so I thought I would translate it. It's an interview with Mitsuo Iso, and the only one I've ever seen at that. I'm not sure what magazine it was published in, but it must presumably have been published around 2003, because the interview is all about episode 15 of RahXephon, what might be considered Iso's "debut" of sorts, at least in terms of directing and storyboarding.
Iso had up until that point been known mainly as an animator, with the only non-animation work to his credit prior to RahXephon being prop design and weapon design in Magnetic Rose and Ghost in the Shell in 1995 and co-writer of episode 13 of Evangelion in 1996. Iso's involvement on RahXephon was at the very least a major turning point for him, an experience that must have wrought major changes in his approach to animation.
More accurately, his approach in this series - he handled 2D digital effects combined with traditional animation - was simply the culmination of his work over the previous six years. After his involvement designing and writing in 1995 and 1996, you can sense changes overcoming his animation style, making it become more comprehensive, more cinematic and honed down to the minutest detail. This is what leads to his taking his work to the logical next step with 2D digital processing of his animation in Blood and so on. This then leads directly to RahXephon, in which he handled various manners of digital processing throughout the series. This is the only instance I can remember of a TV anime having a separate post for digital FX.
After his work on this series, Iso pretty much disappears from the scene as an animator. Rumors in the intervening years had it that he was working on something big, but only now has it become known that this was true, and so it's an ideal time now to look back on RahXephon, the series in which he experimented, learned, and tested many of the things that will presumaly be built upon in the upcoming Denno Coil.
Bringing RahXephon Alive:
The Digital Artistry of Mitsuo Iso
How did people in the studio react to your being put in charge of digital processing?
They seem to have interpreted it to mean that I was retiring from animation because animation was becoming too hard for me. (laughs) But to me it was just the opposite - I took the job because I viewed it as a new challenge. There's this conception that digital takes more time and money to do, but I feel it's the reverse. People tend only to think only of 3D when they talk about CG, but I've used almost no 3D whatsoever. I actually view 2D as by far superior.
By 2D, you mean essentially animation in the style of traditional cell animation?
Yes. Coming as I do from a background in traditional animation, I find that it is much easier to manipulate the parameters of the frame in 2D. To me, what makes animation come alive is interesting movement and effective use of the frame, yet I find that these are aspects that have proven difficult to handle sufficiently well in 3D.
When was it that you began to implement digital processing in your work?
The first time I used Aftereffects was in Blood: The Last Vampire. Taking hints from an approach that had been devised by Hisashi Ezura for the film, I devised a way of digitally processing the handling of light. In RahXephon, I built on this approach by coming up with a new way drawing an effect: I drew the component elements of the effect myself, and then manipulated these basic elements through multiplication and pasting to achieve the final effect. What I learned from the experience was the importance of instinct for knowing how best to arrange the material. That instinct - knowing how big to make a certain element, or how to finesse a certain movement - is something that you can only acquire through experience with 2D animation.
What prompted you to decide to singlehandedly bear the burden of all of the critical production roles in episode 15 (writer, director, storyboarder)?
What is the single most time-consuming element of animation production? It is having to mold your work around the ideas of another person. In assembly-line animation production, each person has their specialized task, and your duty is to transform the ideas in the head of another person ahead of you on the conveyer belt into visual form, which is very difficult. I talked with the director and was given permission to handle all of the tasks. This facilitated my work by permitting me to handle everything how I felt it needed to be handled. This made the entire process much more efficient, as I was able to visualize every step of the way from script to animation to photography right as I was formulating each scene. As the director, I was also able to handle the processing, meaning that I could deal with retakes promptly, and I was able to do a drawing on the spot when I saw something was missing. The result was a dramatic savings of time and labor. This episode was on schedule and below average in cost (drawing count), and this additional hidden economic benefit of this method is something I would like to draw attention to.
I'm reminded of Hoshi no Koe.
I was very interested to hear that films like that were being made. Although this method may not necessarily be the most appropriate one for every type of visual or for every type of story, digital offers tremendous potential, so I'm surprised that more people haven't taken it up. Not to rush to a conclusion, but perhaps what's happening here is that this episode came along right at a time when people were beginning to feel that a certain something was missing from the typical style of animation production, and filled in that hole.
Any closing remarks on episode 15?
I want to thank key animators Kazuto Nakazawa and Takeshi Honda and co-animation director Yoshiyuki Ito for their tremendous help in this episode. Pak Romi's performance as Isshiki was magnificent. I'm very grateful. If there's anything wrong with this episode, blame it on me. (laughs)
Simply put, I'm not out to become a director or a screenwriter. I just want to make animation. If I'm doing all of this, it's because I found that it was necessary to do so in order to be able to make animation the way I feel it needs to be made. I'd be happy if people could see the inherent potential in this approach. In closing, I wish more people would see the beauty of hand-drawn digital, and join me in making this kind of animation.
It's been a while since I've run across an interesting interview, and I've been eager to see Gisaburo Sugii's On A Stormy Night for a while now, so I thought I would translate the interview from the official web site arayoru.com with the animation director of the film, Marisuke Eguchi, who was also the animation director of Gisaburo's masterpiece, Night on the Galactic Railroad. His enthusiasm for his job was vicariously invigorating as well as refreshing to me personally, tending as I do only to focus on the animators. He has genuine enthusiasm for his art, knows how to transmit that to his animators, and clearly put the commensurate effort and thought into coming up with these characters, which are among the most interesting I've seen in a Japanese animated film in a while (at least judging by the stills I've seen) so I am looking forward to seeing how they look in motion.
I'm especially eager because of Gisaburo's concept for the film. At the opposite end of the streamlined simplicity and minimalism of line of much of the great animation being made now in the country, here Gisaburo the iconoclast comes up with his own original approach to the animation, as usual. Here his goal was to create a dense texture for the characters. This was achieved by stacking several layers of independently moving fur over the basic outline of each character, or as he explains:
"To animate these characters the first thing that occurred to me was that they couldn't be drawn with an ordinary, flat-toned drawing of a wolf and a lamb. They had to be drawn in a way that would emphasize their predator/prey relationship so that the audience would feel the unnaturalness of their friendship. This being the much-touted digital age, I put the challenge to animation supervisor Tsuneo Maeda of coming up with a way of digitally creating a feeling of texture for the fur rather than having usual flat coloring.
What Maeda came up with was to cut up the body into different parts. First there's the outline of the body and the fur. Those are separate. Under those we add a bit of "noise" and then some pieces to add shadows. The result is that unlike in normal anime here the body and fur are different colors.
So for example, most of the time Mei is made up of at least 3, usually 4 or 5 layered drawings, which is more than twice the usual 2. And since Mei and Gabu are different colors, that works out to about 8 drawings when they're on the screen together. So the total count for this film is probably something on the order of 130,000 or 140,000 drawings, though we haven't actually bothered to count. That's about twice as many drawings as your average anime film, which might have on the order of 70,000 drawings."
Let's start from the beginning. When were you first approached to adapt the story into film?
Last year... Actually, at the end of the year before that.
What was your first thought for the characters after reading the book?
Well, what usually interests me the most is first to hear what Sugii is thinking.
So he suggests a general direction and asks you to see what you can come up with?
That's right. My first question was whether we were going to go with a realistic animal form or not. My debut was Night on the Galactic Railroad, where the cats stand like humans. Coming up with characters standing like humans would require a completely different strategy than coming up with characters with a realistic animal form. So that was my first question. His answer was a realistic animal form, and that's when I started thinking about the characters.
Did it take you long to come up with the characters?
It took less time than I expected. As a director, Sugii tends to want to come up with a new way of doing things for each project. Something people have never seen before. His approach this time was to use "matiere" - individual pieces of textured material. So I tried to find a method that would be most conducive to creating a feeling of texture in the final product. Naturally coming up with the actual characters presents its own problems, but the bulk of my time was spent testing different ways of creating a texture that would be unique to each of the characters.
Did the director have any specific requests?
Not this time.
He left it up to you?
Pretty much, yes. The first design idea I drew was actually fairly realistic. Gisaburo's comment on it was, "We could go with that." So it was back to the drawing board.
I don't understand.
Well, when I'm conceptualizing the character, I go through reams of drawings as a way of asking myself the question: "Am I OK with that?" Literally boxfulls of drawings, testing all the different possibilities. Those first designs I showed him were the first ones I drew in the first few days, just testing the waters. His comment was his way of saying: Would you really be satisfied if we had to make the movie with those designs? Maybe you should give it some more thought.
As the director I don't mind, but you might not be satisfied with that, so you might want to give it a bit more thought...
I think that's what he meant. That was really the first design I'd come up with in the first few days, so I had no intention of going with that design. When you're desigining a character, it could go any number of ways - from the super-realistic to the hyper-cartoonish - so that first idea was just my way of testing the waters. Seeing his reaction at the beginning of that designing process.
So the final design was completely different?
Completely different. For my second idea, I thought about the concept of the film - "matiere" - and modified the design appropriately in that direction. At that point my mentor, Tsuneo Maeda, said that he might be able to figure out a way of creating the movement of the hair using digital technology, and I started to get a sense of the direction we were headed.
So that technique was an important factor in deciding on the final design?
Yes. I naturally gave a lot of thought to coming up with a design that would hover midway between the realistic and the cartoonish, but I spent a lot more time thinking about the problem of how to create a feeling of texture in the final product.
From that point on, what gave you the most trouble?
When I started out on Night on the Galactic Railroad I was still a kid, so it felt like I'd given birth to a child when the film was done. Many of the people working on this film were also kids with very little experience, so they were very lucky in a way to be able to work on a film at so early a stage. I wanted those young people to experience that same feeling. I wanted each and every one of them to feel that the film was their child. In the end many of them made tremendous progress, to the point that they could look after their drawings completely on their own, which made me very happy.
So they really got into it?
That's right. Normally in an anime movie you don't have just one animation director. That's not enough in this day and age. Normally you have a chief animation director and three or four veterans working under him - sometimes even another person to check the layout. But here there was only me. I couldn't do it on my own, so the only answer was to raise my "children" to the point that they would be self-sufficient. And luckily it worked. Everybody set to work and really fell in love with the characters, so I was sure that things would work out.
And so a 107-minute film was born. What were your impressions watching the finished film?
All we can do is do our best while working on the film. Afterwards we can wish we'd done things differently, but the important thing is to get as much into the film while we're making it and do our best not to have any regrets.
What's your advice to young people who want to do the kind of work you do?
It's a wonderful job. Just draw as much as you can. Everyone draws when they're a kid, but most people stop after a certain age. Those who don's stop are the odd ones... (laughs)
Did you draw a lot as a kid?
Yeah. I think you've got to if you want to survive in this line of work.
Often when a film is completed, it takes on a life of its own. What do you hope will happen to that child in the future?
I hope people take good care of her. It may be presumptuous of me to say so, but the labor pains were considerable. Gabu the wolf I understood. I could see why he behaves the way he does. But I just couldn't get into the mind of Mei the goat. What do you think attracted Gabu to Mei? (laughs) I couldn't figure it out. If I can't get into the mind of a character, I can't draw him, so that was a big struggle for me.
Gabu is a predator, so he should be Mei's enemy, but he decides to be his friend. I'd say it's almost kind of stoic...
Exactly. Early on we had a lot of discussion about this topic. In the end what provided the key was Marilyn Monroe. Tsuneo Maeda and I would go out drinking and we'd exchange ideas. So once I confessed, "I just don't get Mei." I could draw him, no problem. I'm talking psychologically. I didn't understand his motivation. Well, there's a point in the original book where Mei walks a certain way waving his fanny. Maeda asked me who it reminded me of. Being a Marilyn Monroe fan, I responded: Marilyn Monroe. (laughs) "Then think of her when you draw Mei," he told me. From that point on I felt I could draw Mei with confidence. I felt I wanted to draw him as cute as possible. But I must say, goats aren't the cutest animals...
I know what you mean. Sheep are cuter.
Did you study goats?
Till I had it up to here with goats. But I really wanted the children watching the film to find the characters cute.
Aren't goat eyes...
Horizontal. Yeah. I tried drawing the eyes that way, but it just didn't feel right. For me, if I can visualize a single scene, the rest tends to follow in a torrent. So Mei walking in front of Gabu is actually Marilyn Monroe swaying her hips in Niagara.
Marilyn Monroe swaying her hips.
Absolutely. It was the goat version of the Monroe walk. Of course, most of the young animators were like, "Marilyn Monroe? Never heard of her." So we borrowed some videos, did some studying, and Marilyn Monroe it was.
Were they as convinced as you?
It probably took a little time to sink in because they had to practice it a few times before they got it right. But once they got it, it was downhill from there. So don't forget: Goat version of the Monroe walk.
So once you'd gotten the hips down, did the ears and eyes and the rest sort of follow naturally?
No, the design itself was already complete by that point. It's just that I wouldn't have enjoyed drawing it if I hadn't found that mental key. Once I discover the key to the character in a single scene, everything else follows, and it changes the character's whole range of expression. Once each of the staff finds their key, they get excited about drawing Mei, or get motivated to draw Mei as cute as possible, and they get that much more into the character. By that time I can tell just by looking at a single drawing that someone has "got it". So what my job as the animation director consists of, really, is motivating the staff to get excited about their work, then adding a dash of my own excitement to get the right balance so that it melds perfectly with what the background and the photography people want to do. It's figuring out how to combine all that energy.
So if someone were to ask you: What is the job of the animation director? You would say...
The director of the drawings. Simple as that. In other words, establish the direction for the drawings among the animation staff - draw Mei as cute as possible, draw Gabu kind of scary but likeable - while at the same time listening to what the staff want to do. That's the job of the animation director. That's why I love this job. (laughs)
Now that this is over, what's next? Any plans yet?
Yes. I have several ideas in the planning stage.
I look forward to it. Thank you.
Related: Gisaburo Sugii vs. Hiroshi Masumura
I'M NOT AFRAID OF DEATH
Nekojiru had attempted to commit suicide in the past.
Like my wife Saki, Nekojiru was a proud woman with her own view of the world.
Saki was a left-hemisphere type: logical and thoughtful. Nekojiru was a right-hemisphere type: temperamental and turbulent. It was like she could see things other people couldn't. We may have gotten along because we were both right-hemisphere types with a schizophrenic streak.
Nekojiru's husband, Hajime Yamano, on the other hand, is level-headed, sensible, cool.
It comes as more of a surprise that someone like Yamano could have created the sort of deranged manga he has.
The creator of the more recent version of the manga, "Nekojiru y", is in fact none other than Yamano.
Yamano uses this name when he draws manga using Nekojiru's characters. Nekojiru y's manga may look like Nekojiru's manga on the surface, but underneath it's a world apart.
Nekojiru often got depressed and spent her time holed up in her room playing Final Fantasy.
I don't play video games, but I once played a fighting game with Nekojiru and she tore me to shreds. She laughed when she saw me getting irritated because I couldn't figure out the controls: "You're getting all mad!"
What caused Nekojiru to become closed in on herself?
I've given the question a lot of thought, and the best answer I can come up with is that it must have happened when she was living with her family. By the time I met her she was already completely shut off from the outside world.
Nekojiru was seeing a psychiatrist. She had been diagnosed as manic-depressive.
I remember her saying on several occasions, "I'm not afraid of death."
Near the end of the publishing bubble, between 1992 and 1994, sales were still pretty good. I had it easy, putting together books for fun, getting royalties on the sales, and then in turn using the royalties to have more fun.
Nekojiru was still free to work at her own pace, so there was a relaxed atmosphere about her work.
We got together more often to have fun than we did to discuss work. She never seemed depressed when she was with me, but she may have just been hiding it.
Things were going well and everybody was still alive, so it was a relatively happy time for us.
Listening to our favorite music, having a bit of fun with drugs every once in a while, chatting about everything and nothing... time flew by.
Around this time, dreams of making it big may even have taken root in Nekojiru.
Buoyed on the waves of the publishing bubble, Aoyama had his own small but intensely devoted following, and in a sense was the most successful of us all.
But there would come a time when Nekojiru would sell more books than even she could ever have imagined.
And that was the beginning of the end for Nekojiru.
Suddenly in the mid-90s, Nekojiru's popularity took off.
The nation was swept by Nekojiru fever. The epithet abunakawaii was coined to describe the special appeal of her work: Cute + dangerous.
The simple forms of the characters must have been a big factor in the sudden popularity. I also believe that to a large extent her work was accepted only because of its naive, childish drawing style.
Abunakawaii. The perfect word to describe Nekojiru's manga.
It's particularly apt for the early works, with their innocent cruelty. Nekojiru herself even fit the bill, with her unfeigned innocence.
From one moment to the next, Nekojiru was a star. Gone were the days when we could spend all night chatting and listening to music.
Saki and I had married by that time, and Nekojiru and Yamano were so busy they didn't even have time to sleep.
With the sudden popularity came the need to produce her manga in large quantities, and that was something that was not in Nekojiru's character.
It now became a battle with deadline after deadline, and eventually she became overworked.
Work came no longer just from Garo but from Tokyo Electric Co. and everywhere inbetween. Asking someone to mass-produce what were essentially personal whimsies thrown off for fun was misguided and inherently impossible, but she managed to do it anyway. No doubt this was partly Nekojiru's attempt to ingratiate herself with the big magazines.
Neither Nekojiru nor Yamano could turn down work. They accepted everything that came. After years of scraping by, the logic of poverty had led them to the conclusion that it was wrong to turn down work. I remember thinking they should be a little more selective about the offers they accepted.
When we speak of the manga artist "Nekojiru", in fact we're referring to two people: Nekojiru herself, of course, but also her husband and collaborator, Hajime Yamano. You could summarize the situation by saying that the ideas of the right-brained Nekojiru were arranged in dramatic form by the left-brained Yamano.
For the most part, the stories are based on dreams or things actually seen by Nekojiru. When things seem a little too strange for reality, it's probably because they're based on one of her dreams.
The line between reality and dreams seemed blurred in Nekojiru's mind. This special way of seeing things is behind the unique version of the world in her stories.
The encounters with strange people in her stories were a mix of reality and fiction. Yamano surely helped to mold Nekojiru's ideas into concrete form, but the division of labor is not at all clear. Their collaboration consisted of the delicate tightrope act of translating the fragile madness of Nekojiru's ideas into a concrete form that anybody could understand. Like siamese twins, there's no way of saying where Nekojiru ends and Yamano begins. In every story by Nekojiru there's always more or less Yamano mixed in.
But some stories do seem more purely Nekojiru. I think it's fair to say that her unpaid early work for Garo or for me - the work collected in books like Nekojiru Udon and Jirujiru Nikki - is high proof Nekojiru. Here it's obvious she was coming up with the stories quite freely.
On the other hand, you can sense that Yamano must have done the great burden of the work in the stories that they started having to churn out in large quantities only a short time later. With new publishers came new restrictions, and the stories had to meet those restrictions. It gets particularly striking with serials like Neko no Kamisama, where it's clear how far they've had to go to accomodate the major publishers. The more they had to do so, the more effort Yamano had to make, so the more his style came to the fore.
Stories like Invisible, written by Yamano based on the dream notes left behind by Nekojiru after her suicide, are clearly more Yamano than Nekojiru. Though identical on the surface, Nekojiru and Nekojiru y are not the same. It's as if, shorn of his siamese twin after the death of Nekojiru, Yamano had continued to publish under the name of the half-entity Nekojiru y.
Reading the collection of early works that is Nekojiru Udon could very easily become a traumatic experience for a delicate soul.
Two cat siblings go around randomly killing whatever rubs them the wrong way. Whatever they dislike, they kill. The cuteness of the cats lures us into accepting their casual cruelty. It's an outlook that seems to bespeak at the very least an ounce of self-hatred, if not outright hatred of the entire human race.
Whenever Nekojiru was talked about in the press, she was usually described in terms something like these: "A mangaka with a cult following for her manga featuring cute cat characters commiting casual acts of cruelty." Casual acts of cruelty. If you think about it, it begins to seem like a despaired expression of resignation in the face of death; as if she were saying to people, "We're all going to die anyway."
Suddenly the public goes crazy for Nekojiru's work because it's abunakawaii. Short of reducing her work to such a simplistic formula, how else could hundreds of thousands of people suddenly have wanted to associate themselves with a story with such a dangerous message? Rather than relating to Nekojiru's message of "We all die", clearly most people were simply reacting to the powerful aura emitted by her simply drawn characters. In the end that was the element that gained her a broad readership.
All of Nekojiru's early work has a the same uniquely "trippy" feeling. You could almost call it psychotic. I liked to refer to these early works as "Natural acid".
In a sense it feels like Nekojiru used her stories to play family. I don't know anything about her family, but she didn't give the impression of being a family person. It seems probable that the family in her stories wasn't based on her own family, but was a sort of ideal family that Nekojiru wished she could have had.
In all probability, the character Nyako was her, and the character Nyasuo was Yamano. Nekojiru did have a real younger brother, but it seems unlikely that Nyatta was based on him.
Nekojiru Kenbunroku (Nekojiru Travelogue), included in Nekojiru Shokudo (Nekojiru Diner), has Nekojiru travelling to various places and giving her impressions. In typical Nekojiru fashion, wherever she goes, she says it sucks. But the editors really do only send her to places that suck. It's like they're doing it deliberately to get her to say bad things.
Did they really think Nekojiru would enjoy going to a popular theme park?
Jirujiru Ryokoki - Indo Hen (Jirujiru Travelogue - India) more effectively channels Nekojiru's unique viewpoint onto a real situation, and is perhaps her most accessible book. It's a book I'm very fond of because it bursts with the romance of travel. She also drew an account of her experience of tasting banglassi (yogurt with cannabis) while in India.
The real Nekojiru comes through in her late book Jirujiru Nikki (Jirujiru Diary).
Many of the pages depict things supposedly seen by Nekojiru in her daily life, such as a woman shitting in the middle of the road. Sometimes you have to wonder if she really saw all of those things.
Perhaps they were things only Nekojiru could see.
THE LIQUID ROOM
On February 1, 1997, Nekojiru and I went to see Aphex Twin live in concert.
My memory of the event is as clear as if it had happened yesterday.
It was at the Liquid Room in Kabukicho, Shinjuku. The room was packed to the brim. There wasn't even room to move.
DJ Cylob was the opening band. I asked Nekojiru what she thought of the music.
"It sucks. Hurry up and get off the stage."
Unusually for the club, about a third of the audience was sitting on the ground. Nekojiru pushed and shoved her way to the front of the stage to be near the DJ booth. Little old Nekojiru was practically tackling these big guys, pushing them out of her way. Though small and frail, she could muster tremendous power when driven.
Finally Cylob left the DJ booth. Two songs from Mike (μ-sik) & Ritchie's album started playing on the speakers. Richard was on.
It's hard to say whether Aphex Twin's music is for dancing or for listening. The dance floor was split about evently between people dancing and sitting. There may even have been more sitting. Nekojiru was moving her body to the rhythm in the first row. Her eyes never left the DJ booth for a moment.
Richard, on the other hand, stood hunched over the turntable the whole time. His long hair fell down and covered his face during the entire performance. Fuck the audience, he seemed to be saying.
Two teddy bears were duking it out behind Richard throughout the show, a photo of Richard's face taped over their faces.
After about an hour Richard abruptly left the stage. Nekojiru immediately left her spot and walked over to where Yamano and I were sitting near the back of the room.
"I've had enough. Let's go."
The party was supposed to go all night, but Nekojiru wasn't interested in the other DJs.
"How was Richard?" I asked.
"I couldn't see his face the whole time, but it was nice. I liked the teddy bears."
Nekojiru was always like that - short sentences, to the point. She could sound curt if you didn't know her, but she was actually the emotional type. Coming from her, a comment like that meant something like, "OMG, it was so fucking amazing I almost wet myself!"
In other words, she had fun.
During the last few years of her life, Nekojiru's workload had increased to the point that she was really and truly overworked.
By this time it was no longer about drawing for fun; it was about making the deadline no matter what.
In books like Jirujiru Nikki and Neko Kamisama, Nekojiru often simply transcribed stories she'd heard from other people.
"I deleted a whole book's worth of data from my PC," I lamented to Nekojiru once. Later the story turned up, word for word, in Nekojiru's manga.
I once sent a part-timer to go on a company outing in my place because I was too busy, and as an omiyage he brought me a plastic pouch of dried seaweed - the regular kind you can find at corner stores everywhere, to sprinkle on breakfast, with five individually wrapped portions inside(!). That story also found its way into her manga, word for word.
Overworked, Nekojiru had run out of ideas. But she had deadlines to meet, and did the best she could manage. She had a strong sense of responsibility, and always found a way to come through in the end. More than once she found herself cornered by several deadlines and had to push herself to the brink of collapse to finish everything.
Once I was at my office late at night and I heard a knock on the door.
"Can I sleep here tonight?" an emaciated and exhausted-looking Yamano inquired.
Yamano hesitated. Apparently Nekojiru had attacked him with a boxcutter in a fit of rage.
I had Yamano lie down on the couch and brought him a glass of water.
It was hard to break the awkward silence.
The phone rang. I picked it up. It was Nekojiru.
"I knew he'd be over there. Put Yasuo on the phone!" Yasuo was Yamano's real name.
"I can't. He's sleeping right now."
I tried to calm her down, but nothing worked. "Put Yasuo on the phone right now! He ran out on me, so go wake him up and put him on the phone!" She was furious. Her nerves were completely shot.
Things like this happened all the time when the work got overwhelming near deadlines. Two people working as closely as they did were bound to break under the tension sooner or later. Usually it started with Nekojiru having a fit of rage (or more accurately, physically attacking Yamano).
As I looked at Yamano splayed out on the couch, visions of Nekojiru "training" her cat, Nyansuke, danced before my eyes.
I refused to let Yamano go home out of fear for his safety.
Before long, dawn broke. The sparrows began singing and the newspaper delivery truck passed by outside.
Nekojiru must have calmed down by now.
Yamano finally went back home to Nekojiru. "Nekojiru needs me," he said as he left.
Looking back on it now, the root of all their problems was the poverty that convinced them that they had to accept every commission once their books began selling.
If they had been in a position to choose their work, Nekojiru might not have died so soon.
"You guys need to take a break."
One day in 1998, at a time when Nekojiru and Yamano were in the midst of their hardest periods, my wife Saki and I paid a visit to the Nekojiru residence.
It was about three weeks before Nekojiru's suicide.
We sat together relaxing, listening to music. Nekojiru had a pair of speakers especially made for techno music, in the shape of a dodecahedron with speakers on each face. The high-hat came through particularly clearly on these speakers.
Nekojiru said little and sat still, completely focused on the grating sound of the high-pitched techno. Yamano, exhausted from the long days and nights of work, seemed pained by the harsh sounds.
Concerned, I suggested, "Let's listen to this," and put on some ambient dub. Yamano seemed releived, but Nekojiru, who preferred faster, more aggressive music, seemed displeased by the more mellow music and sulked in her corner.
Already on edge from lack of sleep, the psychedelic trance only seemed to serve to put her more on edge.
Nekojiru seemed to be in an unusually bad mood that day.
Suddenly I became uneasy when I remembered how she was prone to saying, "I'm not afraid of death."
As we left that day, Yamano and Nekojiru watched us for a good while from the porch. I can still remember the pleading, spent expression on Yamano's face.
"Don't go! Stay a bit longer! Don't leave us alone!" his eyes seem to beg.
After we left, I suppose they went back to work.
But they were already at the end of the line.
PEACE IN DEATH
"Chiyomi is dead. She committed suicide. You were one of her few friends, so I wanted to tell you right away."
I learned of Nekojiru's death by a phone call from Yamano.
They discovered her late, and rigor mortis had already set in. I learned of her death only a few hours after she was discovered.
When we received the call, my wife and I were in Shinjuku and thinking of going to the Imax. Yamano's call was a shock.
Yamano did his best to remain calm.
In the back of our minds we all had the vague notion that this might happen one day, but we never imagined she would actually go through with it.
The movie was put on hold and we ran to Yamano.
At that moment I was more worried about Yamano than about Nekojiru. I couldn't imagine the shock of losing one's wife to death. At the time I thought the most important thing - more important than mourning Nekojiru's death - was taking care of the person left behind.
Nekojiru's expression was calm. There was no trace of suffering on her face. No trace of regrets, of clinging to life. She seemed completely at peace.
It made sense to me, but it was also slightly terrifying.
A CD and a video of Aphex Twin were placed in her casket.
Aphex Twin's Ambient Works II was played at her funeral.
Nekojiru had written to do so in her will.
Having attempted to commit suicide in the past, Nekojiru had written wills on a number of occasions. Her last extant will in fact dated from several years prior.
However, at Yamano's discretion, not everything was done according to her will.
Nekojiru didn't want a gravestone. Yamano thought her family would want a gravestone so that they could visit her grave, so he had one made. But as if in a last act of defiance, the gravestone remains nameless. A single Sanskrit character decorates Nekojiru's gravestone.
Yamano told me once what it meant, but I've forgotten.
One line in Nekojiru's will reads: "No discussion of possible motives."
Yamano has for the most part refused all interviews.
At the time, the sight of Yamano was so painful to me that I almost couldn't bear to look at him.
5 years later. To think that now I stand in his position...
THOSE WHO CHOOSE TO DIE AND THOSE WHO CHOOSE TO LIVE
Suicide hurts the people left behind.
Nothing can describe the pain, or erase it.
Yamano only managed to endure it.
As the "Nekojiru" unit became popular, they became increasingly busy, until they became as inseparable as siamese twins. Nothing could separate them. To separate them you would have had to rip them apart. To do so would be to discard them, and you don't just easily discard a human being.
For a couple in a relationship as close as Yamano and Nekojiru, the pain of losing that other half must have been unbearable.
After Nekojiru's death, the abandoned half of the unit continued to release work in the Nekojiru series under the pseudonym of "Nekojiru y". Nekojiru and Nekojiru y look identical on the surface, but deep down they're completely different. Not in the sense that the former was hand-drawn and analog where the latter is digitally drawn; but in philosophy. Nekojiru chose to die, and her work clearly reflects her longing for death.
Yamano chose to live. That difference is immense, and reflected in their work. Yamano's work is completely lacking in the dangerous, trancelike mood of Nekojiru's work.
Many readers may have discovered the world of Nekojiru through Yamano's work done following the death of his siamese twin, but those who read Nekojiru from the beginning may feel something is lacking in the new work. The longing for death is completely absent in the new work. It's what I suppose you would call "healthy".
Yamano has become healthy again. That's why he no longer draws the sort of vicious manga he used to draw. He's grown beyond negativity.
When my wife committed suicide six years later in the fall of 2003, I found a pillar of support in another person who had lost his wife to suicide: Yamano. He understood my feelings of instability at the time. As I was teetering on the edge of mental exhaustion, he pushed me in the right direction.
Yamano had managed to overcome. That was a great comfort.
KILL OR DIE
Nekojiru's suicide made big headlines.
Almost certainly in no small part because it came so soon after the death of hide of X-Japan, Nekojiru's suicide was also given superstar treatment.
On May 28, 1998, the Shukan Shincho weekly wrote:
"There has been idle speculation that her suicide might be a copycat of hide. However, as far as I know she wasn't a fan of hide. Besides, she wasn't the type to copy other people."
The person the manga magazine editor was referring to in this quote was the mangaka Nekojiru. His point: The only similarity was that both seemed to have a bright future ahead of them.
Nekojiru began drawing manga after marrying the mangaka Hajime Yamano. She quickly gained a reputation for her style of manga that succesfully breached the gap between cute kittens and cruelty. After handling a television ad for Tokyo Electric, she looked to be on her way up.
The editor continues, "As anyone will realize if just they read her manga, beneath the surface cuteness was a self-destructive, pessimistic attitude towards life and death. In recent work she dismissed the earth as bound for annihilation, and laughed about how she almost went out of her mind after eating a magic mushroom in Bali. She was clearly teetering on the brink."
If only we could all be as uninhibited as Nekojiru's cats...
What could have made Nekojiru want to die?
Overwork was certainly a factor. Dealing with the big publishers must also have been a source of stress. Then there's her predisposition for depression.
But it's impossible to disregard the obvious signs in her work: The recurring theme of death's inevitability; the obvious disregard for life.
Nekojiru was the purest person I knew. My wife called her "authentic". Pure, authentic, natural acid, psychotic, shamanic. Words that spring to mind when I think of Nekojiru. It must have been impossible for someone of her purity and innocence to live in this world.
In the eight short year that I knew her, Nekojiru didn't change the slightest bit in terms of appearance or behavior. Most women would grow from childhood into adulthood, but it was like Nekojiru refused to grow old.
They say sales of Nekojiru character goods exploded after her suicide. Dying made her a hit. Nekojiru probably wouldn't have cared one way or another.
In any case, the living can never know what motivated the dead to take their lives.
I'm surprised she even made it to the age of 31. If she lived as long as she did, it must have been because of Yamano.
In the end, she wanted to die, so she died. That's all we can say for sure.
No attachments to life: Endearing though this trait of Nekojiru's might have been in one sense, it was terrifying in another. I'm the kind of person who wants to live as long and as enjoyable a life as possible, so I've always been somewhat scared of people who aren't afraid of death. But Nekojiru had lived long enough. Apparently she no longer needed this world.
She wrung herself dry in a furious fit of work over the span of a few years, and went out in a puff of smoke. It's so elegant it's almost scary.
Perhaps she was trying to tell the world about herself in her books all this time.
Kill or die: Given only one choice, the answer was obvious.
MEMORIES OF A RAVE
I'll never forget this memory of Nekojiru.
At a rave once I collapsed due to a combination of exhaustion and drug overdose. I needed an ambulance.
Seeing that I could barely stand, Nekojiru called the ambulance, made sure I got on safely, and waited worriedly for me until I came back from the hospital.
Other friends who had accompanied me to the rave, including Masaki Aoyama and Osamu Tsurumi, had disappeared by then, presumably fearing possible arrest.
Nekojiru wasn't afraid of dying, but she was afraid of a friend dying. She was selfish but caring.
Together we left the rave and joined Yamano at an onsen.
As I returned to my senses lying on the floor of a private room in the onsen, I was thankful to be alive, but also incredibly lonely. Tears began rolling down my cheeks. It's embarrassing to admit, but I couldn't stop crying.
"Why are you crying?" Nekojiru came to my side and asked with a worried expression. She stayed by my side for a while.
Perhaps she thought I might commit suicide if she didn't stay by my side.
"Are you all right?"
I had my arms over my face so I couldn't answer.
How could you have done something like that to yourself when you could be so caring about others?
I ask Nekojiru and I ask my wife.
How could you leave behind the people you cared for?
Part of me doesn't want to accept the selfishness of their act.
Nekojiru suddenly found her books selling. She probably didn't want to, but she had to accept all of the commissions that came her way. She worked hard and probably made a lot of money. But she didn't care about the money. She cared just as little about life. She predicted I would die at 35. Perhaps that's why she liked me - because she sensed in me another soul on the verge of death.
But I just act crazy. I don't want to die.
May 10, 1998.
Nekojiru is dead.
Cause of death: Suicide.
Born: 1967. Height: 153 cm. Weight: 37 kg.
Plain looking. Short-cropped hair.
She was she first suicide I knew.
Coming as it did right after the suicide of hide, lead singer of X-JAPAN, also by hanging from a rope tied around a doorknob, some fans and press speculated about the possibility of it being a copycat suicide.
I wanted to get down on record a few things I knew about Nekojiru.
Nekojiru as I knew her: A close friend, gone forever.
I first met Nekojiru in 1990.
I was just starting out as an editor and a writer. Things were going great. I was full of spunk, fascinated by everything, exhilirated by my work.
A movie nerd approaching thirty, I was free of worries, dabbled in drugs, and felt totally open to life.
One of the magazines I read at the time was Garo.
If I ran across a manga I liked, I'd call the editors to get them to introduce me to the artist and get him to draw illustrations for my magazine.
Takashi Nemoto and Hajime Yamano were favorites from Garo. I knew both personally and commissioned work from them often.
At the time, Hajime Yamano drew manga about poor, stupid losers in a gritty, realistic millenial theater of desire.
His way of relentlessly exposing the insignificance and smallness of the human creature in his manga in a despaired, nonsensical tone won him the ire of sensible people and a cult following.
Self-styled renaissance man and misfit, reading a manga artist like Yamano was for me a healing activity.
"Exactly... That's exactly how it is..."
A common refrain when I read Yamano's manga.
Years after his manga had stopped appearing in Garo in the 90s, one day Garo published a piece signed "Yamano + Nekojiru Mama". It was Nekojiru's debut.
The title: Nekojiru Udon.
A father cat barges into an udon shop holding a kitten in his mouth, and asks the udon seller to neuter the kitten. The udon seller is taken aback at first but finally grabs a knife and stabs kitty. Kitty dies. A customer walks in and places an order: "One kitty udon." The Udon seller perks up: "Comin' right up!" The end.
Cute cats doing gruesome things.
The characters were drawn with a wobbly, hesitant line that gave it a curiously powerful impact you didn't get from better drawn work. I remember being slightly dazed for a while after reading the manga.
"Wow, Yamano-san has started up again."
Right away I knew I wanted him to draw a crazy cat manga for my magazine, so I gave him a call.
Our meeting took place the next day in a cafe. He had brought his wife, whom he introduced.
She was thin, short, boyish. The type of character you'd expect to see in a Moto Hagio manga.
"Actually, that cat manga was drawn by Chiyomi (Nekojiru's real name), though I'm helping out a lot. It's a joint effort."
Nekojiru seemed a bit shy that day. But she left a good impression on me.
"My wife is usually pretty blunt with most people. She'll say it right to your face if she doesn't like you. So I just hope the meeting goes well..."
Despite his fears, Nekojiru and I hit it off right away.
We got together relatively frequently after that, but I don't remember seeing her wearing a skirt during the whole time I knew her. She probably didn't own one.
Plain was the perfect word to describe her.
Following her debut, Nekojiru quickly established a strong base of support among a handful of people in the industry. One music writer I knew told me, "I interviewed her once, and it was love at first sight."
Nekojiru was like a fragile little animal in need of someone to protect her.
But behind this endearingly feminine side lurked a curious darkness. Something strange and dangerous had taken root in the depths of her soul. I was speechless when I realized the chasm of opaque desire that separated us.
TAKING UP ARMS
"I want a knife."
Nekojiru occasionally mumbled this under her breath.
Nekojiru was apparently gripped by a compulsion to arm herself with a weapon.
She would stand there in her army jacket with a completely serious look on her face and say: "I want a knife." What she wanted, really, was something to protect her from the world.
Once I got to know her, I felt I understood better how she could have come to the point of wanting to arm herself with a weapon.
To Nekojiru, the world around her was a dangerous place full of awful and repellant people and things. She couldn't let her guard down for a moment, so she escaped into her own world. When even that wasn't enough, she wanted a knife.
There were a few other special things about Nekojiru.
She was unrelenting in her criticism of others to the point of selfishness.
She could hardly eat anything. No fish, no meat. At restaurants, she would only order soup.
Once when she came to our house, my wife offered her an avocado.
"Try it. It's good."
Nekojiru seemed mystified by the strange fruit.
Nekojiru took a bite of the avocado.
A moment later, pieces of avocado were flying across the room.
Nekojiru was perfectly satisfied with food you could suck from a straw.
It's not that she was picky about food. She just didn't care about food.
In the end, she didn't care about living.
And, like my wife, she wasn't picky about gender in matters of love.
Nekojiru's first love was a young woman.
In her later years, she was on good terms with my wife.
We'd drop by her house often as newlyweds. It wasn't long until they were good friends.
We visited each other at home, and we talked on the phone.
You could sense that Nekojiru had only accepted my wife because of me. And to my wife, Nekojiru was like a family pet. She was constantly petting Nekojiru.
Seeing them glued to one another was prone to give rise to misunderstandings. They were like two young maidens in a film by Renoir - dazzling, beautiful, and erotic.
And now both of them are gone.
FLASH OF INTUITION
At one point I contracted Nekojiru to draw two pages of manga for a travel magazine I was editing.
I sensed it was best not to make too many demands, so I left it up to her to decide on the content. My sole request was for something in the vein of her debut; something with cats.
I was reassured by the knowledge that Yamano was in fact the co-creator and manager of the cat manga.
"After all this time I'm still amazed that she gave you the OK. Usually she never does." Yamano confided later.
Why Nekojiru gave me the OK, why she accepted me, I don't know. Usually she rejected anyone who approached her, and accepted only the people she had picked.
By some miracle, I was among the elect. Perhaps it was because we were both right-hemisphere types. Or perhaps because she sensed a kinship with me due to my childhood traumas.
I had some serious traumas regarding my relationship with my parents.
It was like Nekojiru's laser vision had bored right through my surface layers and into my soul.
That intuition impressed me. I was fortunate enough to bear witness to several other instances of her intuitive prowess as time went on, and came to look on her as something of a shaman.
One day I got up close and personal with the shaman in Nekojiru.
It was back when I was living in an apartment the north side of Tokyo, drowning in hard drugs every day. One day Nekojiru informed me:
"You'll be dead at 35."
I went completely pale.
Why am I going to be dead at 35? A drug overdose? A hit and run? I don't want to die.
I couldn't stop thinking about her ominous prediction.
She had seen the shadow of death hovering over me.
But her premonition, it turns out, had in fact been directed at herself.
Why did Nekojiru, a shy and antisocial person, warm to someone like me?
I also enjoyed talking to Nekojiru.
Nekojiru had almost no friends, and she spent most of her time alone. Exceptionally, she was friends with an Israeli stallholder. She couldn't speak a work of English, but they got along well.
Nekojiru didn't have any salaryman friends, and she didn't seem to want any. She was strict about acquaintances, and hard to please. For some reason, an Israeli stallholder and a freelance writer were OK.
When I asked her what she thought of the manga-ka Takeshi Nemoto, she was respectful:
"He's a sempai who draws interesting manga."
Not so much a friend as an elder she respected. Nemoto himself had a good eye for judging people, and he had seen her potential since even before her debut.
After her debut, as before, Nekojiru was unconcerned by the business side of her work. She had no interest in worldly ambitions like making money and getting famous.
But a humble woman she was not. I knew nobody as unpredictable or as selfish as Nekojiru. She knew exactly what she wanted, and took it.
Garo didn't pay for manuscripts, so anyone who drew for them knew not to expect remuneration.
Having only drawn for the pages of Garo, Nekojiru later confided that she was grateful to me because I was the first person who had paid her for her work.
I had become something of a big brother to her.
Yamano was a father and a mother to Nekojiru. She addressed Yamano as mom, and she addressed me as big brother.
We were like a real family.
It was short-lived, but it was real.
Nekojiru, Masaaki Aoyama and Saki Tatsumi. All three knew one another. All three are gone.
I eventually asked Nekojiru to draw manga for Abunai 1-go, a magazine Aoyama and I edited.
That's where Nekojiru got to know Aoyama, which is what led to him writing the afterword of her book Nekojiru Dango.
However, that had been arranged by the publisher. Nekojiru knew Aoyama through me, but they were never close.
In the early 90s, Nekojiru still wasn't too busy, and she was able to work at her own pace.
At the time I was in the habit of going over to Nekojiru's house and spending the night listening to techno/trance music. After discovering techno music, we often went out dancing at dingy clubs frequented by foreigners, or to Goa trance rave parties. We really loved the scene.
I'd go over to Yamano's house and the three of us would spend the night talking and tripping to the music.
This was before Saki and I got married. Nekojiru and Saki would drink, I would smoke weed, and we'd spend the night "music-tripping".
At the beginning I had to explain everything to them: "This is dub. It evolved from reggae. It's perfect with ganja." or "This is German Trance. It's all weepy sounding, with tinny synth."
Wrapped up in ourselves, we sat around all day doing nothing, just listening to music.
Sudden barks of vacant laughter, followed by endless reams of useless music trivia, and talk about our favorite artists, life and death.
Time flowing before our eyes , we were passengers on a ship of time bathed in a rain of music, riding into the light.
Seen from the outside, we must have looked like a bunch of degenerates.
Fearful but confident, at one with the universe, filled with ecstasy, we spent psychedelic days and nights dancing as if possessed. Worries about the future disappeared momentarily.
Nekojiru was open to just about anything at the beginning, but soon enough she got to know the music and developed preferences - "I like the faster stuff" or "I like the more screechy sounding stuff".
Finally, after listening to various things, she said her favorites were Aphex Twin and Hallucinogen, a Goa trance unit.
Hallucinogen is one of the best Goa trance units for tripping to LSD.
The only drug Nekojiru did while listening to music was Jack Daniels.
She couldn't stand the more melodic, emotional, weepy types of music.
The music of one of my favorite artists, Jam El Mar, seemed to please her at first, with its drugged-out sound and complex musical structures, but she later did a 180 and said she hated it because it sounded too "gay".
Near the end we usually wound up listening to whatever Nekojiru wanted.
Goa trance being dance music, I would often move my arms to the music, and I remember Nekojiru staring and looking very amused whenever I did.
Nekojiru never danced. She was the kind who sat still and went into herself.
I remember once, when we were listening to music, Nekojiru was in a particularly good mood and gave me a gift of a religious painting she had bought while on vacation in India, even though she was fond of the picture. She could be generous that way. We used the painting for the back cover of issue 2 of "Abunai 1-go".
Nekojiru went on vacation to India in 1994. I had said I wanted to go with her, but I wasn't able to get time off, so she went alone with Yamano.
In Benares she saw holy men called Sado who would sit around all day smoking cannabis. "Why can't Japan be that laid back?" she asked me.
Nekojiru had never done drugs in Japan, but she tried cannabis in India and rather enjoyed its gentle intoxication.
Unsurprisingly, the reason Nekojiru got together with Yamano was because of his work in Garo.
Nekojiru personally came knocking on his door and forced her way into his life.
She had just graduated from beauty college, so she was around 18 or 19.
Though practically a shut-in, Nekojiru had made up her mind that she wanted to help Yamano with his manga. The problem was, Nekojiru's drawings looked nothing like Yamano's. Yamano's manga was drawn in precise detail, but Nekojiru could only draw simple figures that looked amateurish, almost childish. But her drawings nevertheless had a mysterious appeal.
Yamano had sensed something special about her drawings, so on instinct he collaborated with her on a story, just to see what would happen. That was how Nekojiru's debut came about.
From that point on, every once in a while she drew new episodes in the Nekojiru Udon series, and I commissioned one-pagers and illustrations from her for my magazine.
This was in the early 90s, before she had to worry about deadlines.
The stories were about Nyatta and Nyako beating a dog for no reason, or seeing a homeless bum getting drunk on a bus, running to tell their dad, and the homeless bum puking on dad... I enjoyed them because they were true to Nekojiru's feelings.
The editors asked me to "make it more accessible," but I sensed that these cats had real potential to take off, so I let her do as she pleased.
Before becoming famous, Nekojiru lived an irregular lifestyle, staying awake for thirty hours at a time or sleeping all day. It must have wreaked havoc on her circadian rhythm.
Nekojiru had a cat. Her way of training her cat was a bit hard to stomach. When he did something he wasn't supposed to do, she lashed him with a whip. She sometimes used an amount of force with her cat that was clearly animal abuse. As a result, the cat didn't listen to Yamano or I, but never failed to follow Nekojiru's instructions.
Nekojiru could be surprisingly persistent when she wanted something or someone.
Usually nobody interested her, but when someone did, she was unstoppable.
"I once forced a guy I liked to take my student notebook," Nekojiru told me.
Her first target was the lead singer of the funk band EP-4, Kaoru Sato. The second was Yamano. Later in her life she even fell for Aphex Twin.
Looks were important to Nekojiru. Richard D. James, AKA Aphex Twin, though not handsome perhaps, has a sort of boyish good looks. His music was very personal - beautiful at times, violent at others. His music made you wonder, "How much of this is planned out, and how much of it is pure instinct?" It was playful and free, not to say random.
Nekojiru fell for Aphex Twin through his music. Her feelings had become quite serious by the time the Richard D James Album came out. In accordance with her testament, they were joined forever in Nekojiru's casket.
Though Nekojiru could be aggressively go-getter with people she liked, most people interested her no more than food did. Her disinterest was impartial - pop stars mattered no more to her than did fans of her work. She was unpleasant to everyone equally; pure in her selfishness. She liked few things, and expressed her feelings concisely and emphatically: "I don't care." "I don't like it."
Despite a recommendation from Hyde of L'arc-en-Ciel on the cover of one of Nekojiru's books and widespread suspicions of her suicide being a copycat of X-Japan lead singer hide's suicide, the fact was, Nekojiru wasn't interested in pop stars like them. She could be just as much of an idol worshipper as anyone, but her idols weren't the popular kind. She had her own clear set of preferences that had nothing to do with popularity or musical quality.
"I love Jack Daniels nya~~!" read a line in her manga. Nekojiru loved to drink.
Once when we were at a restaurant, Nekojiru got drunk, and when the owner brought out a dish of grilled sweetfish on the house, Nekojiru became furious and made a big scene because "We didn't ask for it."
Otherwise, things rarely got out of hand when we got together to drink at Nekojiru's place in the early 90s.
But by 1997-98, at the peak of her popularity, Nekojiru had started to drink heavily.
Nekojiru had one other defining trait.
She couldn't lie. It was physiologically impossible for her. That's why she said it loud and clear if she didn't like something.
Once we were eating with a friend at a sushi bar that we frequented because we often came up with interesting ideas there. As we sat quietly eating, suddenly Nekojiru blurted out, "This roe is disgusting. I bet it's fake!"
The noisy restaurant went dead silent. The cook stood rooted to the spot in front of us, knife hovering in the air in mid-chop. Taken aback and uncertain what to do, I froze up.
Once the initial shock had worn off, the cook was able to respond, "I can assure you it's real..."
To try to save the situation, I gave it a good laugh to try to pass it off as a joke.
Nekojiru was always honest - sometimes to the point of rudeness.
Once she called up the editor of a major magazine in the middle of the night to make the following request: "I want a different liaison."
"Why?" the editor asked.
"Because he's fat."
The editor couldn't believe his ears, so he asked again and again for the real reason, but she wouldn't give any other reason.
Without solid justification for doing something so drastic, the editor must have been quite put out. In the end, I think she got her request.
Nekojiru could be impulsive in an endearing way, but also self-centered. But she didn't do it to be mean. She didn't have anything against fat people. Her body seemed to experience a kind of sympathetic resonance and began to sweat uncontrollably whenever she was around them. She was unable to cope with the slightest stress that others could easily endure.
She was a too sensitive.
I imagine the editors of the big publishing houses must have had their share of problems with her. Kid gloves must have been the order of the day.
Can't stand most people, gets depressed when she has to be around people she doesn't like... What a small-minded, unkind person she must have seemed from a distance.
Natural and ingenuous to the point of arrogance, Nekojiru was baptised the "Child Queen" by Yamano. The title fit her to a tee - pure and easily hurt, without the immune system to protect herself, yet haughty, turning her nose up at this and that.
After molding her environment in her own image, all that was left for her to do was to shut her eyes and turn inward.
To be continued. Translated from Jisatsu Sarechatta Boku 自殺されちゃった僕 by Yoshinaga Yoshiaki 吉永嘉明 (11/25/2004, Asuka Shinsha), a book describing in simple, direct words three of the author's acquaintances who commited suicide within the last seven years: Nekojiru, Masaaki Aoyama, and his wife.
PA WORKS: Maybe we could talk a little about the different animation 'tasks' you've gone through over the years.
Inoue: It's hard to remember specifically, but what basically happens is that whenever I'm feeling stuck, I don't have to go looking for a task - the task finds me.
PA WORKS: Kosuke Kawazura here, one of my key animators working on GITS: SAC, once approached me with a certain drawing and said, "I can't draw this." What exactly was it that was giving you trouble?
Inoue: That can be hard to express in words.
KAWAZURA: I figured out what it was - my drawing skills.
Inoue: That can be a pretty painful thing to go through, not being able to improve your drawing skills - not being able to draw things the way you want. But, strange as it may sound, that can actually be the first step to getting better. You've got to feel dissatisfied with your drawings, or you won't improve. Figuring out how to do that can be hard. One thing you can do is to find someone who draws the way you're trying to draw, who draws a certain pose just the way you want to draw it. That can help you to find the way out. Though it's not good to just cheat and use that to learn shortcuts to make your drawing look passable. (laughs)
Another technique is to accept the fact that you can't get that one drawing right for now, and be satisfied with getting the surrounding drawings down. After all, the whole point isn't to draw the hardest-to-draw pose. What should concern you is making sure that you get the overall movement down as you wanted. Being stubborn about it and getting held up by one drawing isn't a good thing. Animation isn't illustration, after all. So long as it moves the way you wanted it to move, then that's all that matters. If you get hung up on drawing it the way so-and-so draws it, from this difficult angle, no matter what, then any lack of drawing skill is going to be painfully obvious in the finished drawing.
Because in animation, there are any number of ways of getting a similar result. You don't necessarily have to draw this complicated split-second slice of an action to achieve the same effect. It's not a contest to see who can draw the most difficult drawing. There are plenty of people who don't necessarily have the best drafting skills, but they can still achieve incredible results with the movement. I for one probably couldn't beat Hiroyuki Okiura in a straight drawing contest, but I don't let that get me down, because what's unique about animation is that, if you figure out a style suited to your skill level, then you can create movement that achieves a comparable effect.
If you've got to finish the shot by tomorrow, and you're stuck on this one drawing from this hard angle, then that's no time for being stubborn. You've got to settle for passable. Any other time, you can go back to being stubborn. It's important to have that determination to draw a drawing a certain way no matter what. Drawing skill comes as a result of that process. Even if you can't draw it as well as you want, you're definitely getting better by trying. If you're not struggling to draw a drawing right, then you'll never get better. It's important to have that determination to get better no matter what when you're young, because that's how you improve. Of course, it's also important to learn when to give in and move on, as contradictory as that may sound. Both are important.
PA WORKS: Aside from drawing skills, there's also the pursuit of movement. I once heard that Mitsuo Iso went through all of your animation in Gu-Gu Ganmo one frame at a time.
Inoue: I think he's reading too much into my work. He's too smart for his own good.
PA WORKS: The fact that he should have gone so far as to invent his own personal style of animation that he calls "full limited" would seem to suggest that he had a strong conviction that the current way of drawing animation didn't allow him to create the kind of movement that he wanted to create.
Inoue: That's something you're either born with or you're not. Mitsuo Iso's really a special case. Of all the people I've met, he's a genius among geniuses.
PA WORKS: And yet I think even he's not satisfied with his work. Provided you're not someone who's convinced of his own genius, I think most people have an awareness of their problems.
Inoue: Absolutely. And nobody moreso than people who are already considered 'good'. I for one have almost never been completely satisfied with movements I've made. It's precisely the desire to be more satisfied with my work that acts a major motivation to keep working. Some people might think it'd be horrible to never be satisfied with your work, but it's just the opposite - that's what keeps you going. There's nothing more thrilling. Maybe there are some rare cases of a true animation genius who gets so good that he's satisfied with his work and loses that motivation, but hardly anyone is that good. I really think that's a lifelong task - getting better, getting to the point where you're satisfied with your work. I don't mind one bit feeling like something's missing all the time, because it means I can keep working without getting tired of my work. I wouldn't have it any other way.
PA WORKS: Maybe it's just that I've gotten better at judging animation, but I'm almost never really surprised by a piece animation anymore. Many say animation has lost a lot of its power since the old days.
Inoue: I think people nowadays are just afraid. They're afraid of angering the director, so they play it safe. It would probably help if companies would set up situations that would actively encourage people to be freer with the animation, to do more with it. I also think that to a certain extent information has made people a little lazy. They know how it's done, but they don't have the drive to try their hand at actually drawing it. They know smoke twirls, but they don't feel an overpowering need to draw it. People who can draw it draw it, those who can't don't. I think a divide has sort of grown between the two. Lately scenes seem to tend to get assigned based on just what you're good at. You hardly ever see a girl getting assigned a mecha scene, for example. Well I think they should. Give them a scene full of really complicated effects.
PA WORKS: Freelancers won't do it if they don't want to. You can't force them. One told me he didn't want to draw a scene because it had a mechanical pencil in it.
Inoue: (laughs) "But I can't draw mecha. There's a phone in that scene. Phones are mecha too."
PA WORKS: I'd like my key animators to be able to draw anything, regardless of preference. Just because one guy likes drawing crowd scenes doesn't mean that's all I'm going to give him.
Inoue: I used to hate drawing smoke.
PA WORKS: (laughs uncontrollably)
Inoue: I'm serious! Until Akira, for the longest time I couldn't get smoke right no matter how I tried. I actually had an inferiority complex about it. Then around the time I was working on Roujin Z I happened to run across a copy of some smoke animation by Mitsuo Iso, and that gave me the hint I needed.
"If I draw this part like that, it'll have the right form". Up until then smoke used to be a big lump with a bunch of bumps for shadows, which didn't have any feeling of three-dimensionality at all. Without a drawing that feels three-dimensional, how are you going to be able to create movement that feels three-dimensional? I was stuck because I couldn't figure out a way over that. Anno's smoke didn't do the trick for me. His smoke was well drawn, but it was lacking in refinement somehow. Iso drew shadows that had a refined form. The second I saw the way he drew the shadows, I had a eureka moment. "That's it! You draw the outline of the smoke this way, but the shadows you can just draw like this." I figured out that if you draw the shadows as little depressions in the cloud, it gives the overall form a feeling of three-dimensionality, and it makes it easier to animate.
I tested it out in Roujin Z and Hashire Melos, but it took me a while to learn how to do it well. Once I finally got the hang of it I actually started liking animating smoke. If I had gone on avoiding it all this time just because I didn't like drawing it back then, I might still not know how to do it. That's how it works. I knew I had a problem drawing smoke, so I was able to figure out a way over the problem pretty quickly once I saw Iso's work. You've got to really feel cornered, to the extent that you almost don't want to draw it anymore, before you can make progress sometimes. Whenever you're cornered, if you put up your antenna and wait impatiently enough for a hint, you'll usually find something.
PA WORKS: Yesterday you talked about how you try to keep your personality from showing up in your work. "I can't hide my personality completely, but I try to keep it from being distracting." You're one of the few people who thinks that way.
Inoue: Well, in my case it's just that I don't have that much inside that's itching to come out. But there seems to be a feeling these days that if it's not individualistic, then it's no good. Individuality isn't something you force out because there's pressure on you to be individual. That's not the real thing. Individuality is something that comes out whether you like it or not after you've been working for years and years to develop your skills. What I was trying to say is that you shouldn't feel frustrated if you're having a hard time forcing out your individuality. Something about that worries me. You can see that struggle especially clearly in kids who've just graduated from art school, where they've been educated to try to find a personal means of expression. I think it'll only wind up being a burden if they come to animation feeling pressured to come up with some new, personal approach to the drawings or the movement. Because, comparatively speaking, animation is hardly the line of work most conducive to personal expression. Say you start working as an inbetweener - you're going to have pretty much zero opportunity for personal expression while you're doing that. So I was just trying to say "Keep your cool". After ten years as a key animator you'll find that your work will be full of personality without even trying.
PA WORKS: You know how animators prefer certain character designs? It's so hard finding animators these days that before I accept work now I give some thought to how many people the character design might attract.
Inoue: The animator shortage has reached the point that each animator gets a lot of requests, so naturally they're going to choose the designs they prefer. It's interesting because that has even started to influence the kind of designs the production side tends to choose.
PA WORKS: Whenever I look through magazines, honestly I'm struck by the gap between the design-as-product that I'm seeing and the kind of designs that animators go for. My reaction is, "I have to work with that?!"
Inoue: You shouldn't let that concern you. If the customers demand a certain thing, then the production side has no choice but to pass on that demand to the production floor. People know what they're getting into when they enter this line of work, so I think there's no need to worry excessively about it. To a certain extent there's even a kind of pleasure in putting up with certain things to eventually do what you want.
PA WORKS: That may be the ideal, but the fact is that animators today have reached the point of exhaustion from constantly having to force themselves to put up with those things. They may understand the principle, but in the end, constantly having these things forced upon them from the top down only has the effect of wearing down their motivation.
PA WORKS: I think many people enter this line of work simply hoping to earn enough to put food on the table. Nobody becomes an animator to get rich. If you want to improve that situation - so at least people think they might be able to earn enough to buy a house and not just scrape by - I think people have to start thinking of themselves more as workers in this sector of industry, so to speak. Company policy should do something to reinforce that consciousness.
Inoue: But people today are definitely more concerned about the pay than before. In my day I never worried about whether I'd make enough to eat, because I saw that other people were eating, so I assumed I could too. I was just happy to be able to work in animation, so I didn't care if I even made enough to eat - I loved it that much. That might not have been a good thing. I probably should have thought about it more seriously, as a way of earning a living. Anyway, I get the feeling there's already more consciousness of what you're saying than there used to be. People have a stronger consciousness of wanting to work in animation and get a good pay for it. But as to whether they're putting in the commensurate effort, I'm not so sure. There's a feeling of wanting more pay for the same amount of work. It's accepted without question that the unit price is in animation today is too low. It's certainly low, but to a certain extent it feels like they're hiding behind that as an excuse for why they're not earning enough. The unit price is much better than it used to be.
PA WORKS: Meaning it's more a lack of horsepower?
Inoue: Well... There are people even today making a good living doing piecework, so if you do the same you should be able to earn the same. But it's definitely true. The unit price today is extremely low. It's anything but high. But then is the answer to demand that the unit price be raised higher and higher? I think that would only make the situation worse.
Say you raise the unit price. As a result, you don't have to do as much, so you do less and less. But then it starts spreading around that the unit price is too low again, so people start asking for a higher unit price, and the unit price gets even higher. The end result is that productivity only keeps getting lower and lower. It's hard to find the perfect balance.
PA WORKS: Hardly any of the GITS: SAC key animation was turned in any faster despite the higher unit price, at least compared with the regular "low" unit price for TV key animation.
Inoue: To them, that's probably the right price to earn a living at their natural pace. Not higher, just right. Even if they were to draw more just because the unit price was a little higher, they still wouldn't be able to get by. I'm guessing that's what it is - they can't make a living at the normal price, but at the GITS: SAC price they can finally make a living at their own pace.
PA WORKS: But I'm not just talking about the balance between turnover and unit price. What I'm talking about is key animation so bad that it has to be totally redone by the director and the animation director. Some might say that's what the director and animation director are being paid for, but at the very minimum we have to be doing the kind of "amalgamated work" that Isao Takahata talks about, otherwise the situation gets totally out of control. There's a phrase that was invented recently to describe when the animation director is overloaded: killing the animation director. Well, the situation has gotten to the point that we're not just killing the animation director - we're even killing the director. There's a real sense of impending crisis, like it's almost gone beyond our control. Japan has built up a great store of animation knowhow over the last few decades, and we've got to transmit that to the younger generation.
PA WORKS: The production costs are set beforehand, so the only way we can raise the pay is if the show's a hit and we get revenue from that. I'd like the company to give the staff a taste for that, sort of as a way of bringing out a more proffessional attitude. But to do that, we have to become a player, a company that can produce results. It was so nice when I was just another worker and didn't have to think about any of this stuff. (laughs)
Inoue: It's always nice to have a guarantee in place like that. If the series hits a home run, then that bounces back on you in the form of 'success pay'. Of course, I don't think that accounts for even half of people's motivation to do good work. But I don't think it would necessarily be a bad thing if people came in just for that reason. That aspiration to make a hit is something that's been missing lately. If a series does hit it big and that doesn't even slightly bounce back onto the staff, and on top of that the pay is low, it's hard to feel motivated. We'd be getting closer to the ideal situation in commercial animation if a show were popular on video or in the theater and that were to ricochet back onto the staff. We've got to try to figure out what people actually want to see, even if it's a little forced for now. For the longest time it felt like the industry didn't even give the slightest thought to what actually interested people. Say you're doing storyboard on a gag anime. When you're given the script, ask yourself: Is this script funny? Did it make me laugh? If not, what can I do to make people laugh with my storyboard? Of course, it sucks if you make people laugh with your storyboard the pay only comes back to the writer, but we've got to take it one step at a time. At the very least it would be a healthy improvement if the people involved in the production were to become the ones to profit from any popularity of their work.
(turning to animator Kosuke Kawazura) You're not in it to get rich, right? You just want to earn enough to get by respectably well?
KAWAZURA: Actually, a lot of people coming in these days do seem concerned about living a good lifestyle.
KAWAZURA: Personally, I'm just happy to be able to be working in animation.
Inoue: That's how it was with me. I spent years just scraping by doing piecework, though suddenly now I find myself at a fixed salary. It's normal to want to live as well as other people. If anything it's unhealthy seeing all this wealth all around you and not being able to touch any of it.
KAWAZURA: Some people are doing pretty well for themselves.
Inoue: Absolutely. Some people are working their asses off and making a lot of money. So it's not impossible. It's just become polarized. And what's more, back when I was starting out the people making a good living were the ones pumping out low-quality key animation by the bucketfull, but now you've got people like Norio Matsumoto drawing huge amounts and keeping it all extremely high-quality. Don't just shrug and say, "Oh, they're special" and give up trying to figure out how they do it. Ask yourself, "How could I draw that much that good?" That's my own 'task' right now - figuring out Norio Matsumoto's secret. (laughs) He's got to have some kind of secret.
PA WORKS: Drawing by intuition? I know he's really fast.
Inoue: Really fast. It feels like he doesn't do any sort of planning. I go through with a light line first to get down the basic shape, but it feels like he just gets right to the drawing and does it all in one go. Otherwise I don't see how he could draw that much. And yet it always feels like he took his time. Mysterious.
PA WORKS: I know you work on a fixed salary for films, but what surprises me is that someone of your skills still does piecework, with a fixed price per shot. The upshot is that you earn less per key, but still have to draw just as much. You've already done so much to contribute to raising the quality of films and keeping them on schedule, so why don't you focus on salary work, which would allow you to do less volume and focus on raising the quality?
Inoue: Well... the reason is simple. I just want to draw as much as possible. You're right that if I did that, I'd make more per drawing, and then I'd be able to spend my time more as I wanted. But would I use that extra time to focus on improving other areas? No. Because in the end all I'm interested in is drawing as many good shots as possible. I've never even thought about the money. If you do it the right way, the money will follow. That money would have absolutely no effect on the way I do things.
PA WORKS: What's your biggest problem when you're teaching the techniques to younger animators?
Inoue: That's easy. Figuring out how to clearly convey the information in my head. Finding the right wording.
PA WORKS: What about the fact that studios aren't set up for that sort of thing? And attitude, experience, that sort of thing?
Inoue: Naturally those are also issues, since my audience consist largely of young people. But in the end the main problem isn't out there, it's in here. It's never being able to find a clear way of organizing my thoughts. Reading books like The Animator's Survival Kit by Richard Williams and The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, I'm always amazed how they can verbalize the absolute minimum of necessary information about animation in the clearest fashion. Not just amazed, but embarrased at my own inability to do so.
PA WORKS: I understand that you've never been in a position to educate people in a work situation.
Inoue: That's right. I've never even trained inbetweeners. I never did anything like that even when I was at IG.
PA WORKS: IG has people like Takayuki Goto and Kazuchika Kise to do that, and at Junio you were out of the studio most of the time. What if you were to finally be put in charge of a workplace like that, so you were responsible for maintaining the level of animation quality?
Inoue: With me as the animation director? I don't know. I never do animation directing, and I've never even taught new key animators, so I think it might rub some people the wrong way.
PA WORKS: I hope it'll happen someday. I don't mean lecturing. I hope someday you can have a place of your own where you can finally settle down and help train the next generation. But I know there are a lot of films that still need you, and you yourself still have a lot you want to do.
Inoue: And I don't think I'm going to run out of things I want to do until the day I die. So I just can't picture myself ever reaching a point where I'm satisfied enough to give that up to focus on training people. People might say that's selfish of me, but it's my entire reason for living, so it's a little hard to give that up. I wish I could just say, "Hey, just do like I did" and be done with it, but if I say that, it'll be like saying that the people who are already good can get better and everyone else is on their own, which isn't right. That's the reason I've been taking time out recently to take on responsibilities unrelated to work, like lecturing. I want to say that sort of thing isn't my responsibiliy - because in the end all I really care about is leaving behind proof of my existence - but still, it's lonely not having anyone to compete with. That gets to me. There may be some, but they're definitely fewer. So it's a tough call.