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Katsuhiro Otomo at Platform International Animation Festival

by Justin Sevakis,

California Institute of the Arts' downtown center for the contemporary arts, a section of the famous Walt Disney Concert Hall known as REDCAT, was the setting for a sold-out evening with manga artist and director Katsuhiro Ōtomo, as part of a new annual animation and art festival entitled Platform. The night would be his first public appearance in North America in 15 years, and the school would be presenting Otomo with the first ever Platform Lifetime Achievement Award.

The crowd, made up mostly of animation students and CalArts alumni, cheered loudly for Otomo, who was brought out briefly for an introduction before his new short film was screened: a 12-minute short entitled "Combustible (Hi no Yōjin)," which will be released later as part of an omnibus feature film entitled "Short Peace". A review of the short is below.

After the screening, animation historian Jerry Beck introduced a clip reel of Otomo's work. Referring to Otomo as one of the "very few game changers in the history of animation," he credited Akira as having changed the entire perception of the art-form worldwide. The clips presented included several from Akira, the Cannon Fodder segment of Memories, Neo-Tokyo (namely his segment The Order to Stop Construction) and Steamboy.

Otomo was then presented to a round of applause. Along with an interpreter, he sat down with Beck for an interview. The first question was, where did it start for him, in terms of influences?

"I used to love manga as a kid, and wanted to become a manga artist, and when I was in high school I got into movies as well. But being a director was quite a lofty goal, so I decided to become a manga artist instead. The world of manga, as created by Osamu Tezuka in Japan, had its methods rooted in filmmaking, so the two weren't so different. He was able to move onto making films from that point, as well."

Beck noticed a thematic pattern in Otomo's work, of tradition versus new technologies. "I've tried to present both sides. I like new things -- movies, music, technology and such, but there's value in the past as well, so I try to be even-handed."

As for the new film, Combustible, is this the sort of image he had of old Japan? "I really wanted to describe the Edo period in a movie for a long time, but it's not easy to bring the Edo period to a feature film. Hence, this short project."

Beck mentioned an earlier conversation with Otomo, where he said it'd be easy for him to get funding for a new Sci-fi film, but that really isn't what he's interested in. "Well, sure," Otomo replied, "but it's not like it'd be easy to get funding to make Sci-fi either. Recently it's become very difficult to make sci-fi films as well." Reflecting on his past sci-fi work, he quipped, "the biggest challenge is that, 20 years ago, no sci-fi had people using cell phones, and now everyone has one. Something so basic to our everyday lives, and we got it wrong. Trying to imagine the future is really tough."

What were his influences in making The Order to Stop Construction? "It's a long story. It was from a novel originally. It was the first thing I directed, and the project also involved Rintarō and Yoshiaki Kawajiri's work as well. At the beginning we discussed picking up the stories from short novels, but the other two ended up changing their minds, so I was the only one left adapting fiction."

As for Akira, was there an immediate demand to bring it to theaters, even before he were done with the manga? "Yes, I was asked to make it, because at the time there was a huge animation production boom. During the manga writing of Akira, I was asked to make it." Was it given a bigger budget, or was it special in any other way as a production at the time? "We had a huge budget. I don't remember how I got so much to work with," he laughed. Was it a big hit in Japan as well? "It wasn't a huge hit, really. That's my opinion, but I don't think it was such a huge hit," he said with a grin.

What happened afterwards? Did he have lots of producers knocking on his door? "I had quite a few offers, but I had my own list of things I wanted to do. I wanted to make a live action film, and someone asked me to direct one, so I did. And then someone asked me to make Akira 2, which I didn't want to do. And then Steamboy came a long. And that took many years."

Was he familiar with the Hollywood remake of Akira that 's in produciton? "Huh?" he mimed, to the audience's amusement. "Nope. I work on manga, and I work on animation. There's no need for me to be involved in that."

The floor was opened up for audience questions. The first one, after a few false startts, ended up asking his opinion of Looper: "I was really floored by it." When informed that the director of Looper, Rian Johnson, is a fan of Otomo's, he said he'd like to meet him. "Is he here?" Beck asked the audience, but there was no response.

The next question was about Freedom, asking if the project was born out of any substantial interest in space exploration in Japan at the time. "Actually, I wasn't the director of Freedom, that was Mr. Morita. So I have no idea."

Would he say that there's anything missing from animation today? What would he like to see more of? "There's a lot to be desired in Japanese animation right now. We have a ton of animation, but it's not easy to come out with something original in that world."

On the work of French comic artist Mœbius: "Oh yes, I love Mœbius. There was a time when we discussed working together on something, but unfortunately, that opportunity disappeared."

What was it like to work on the script for the feature film version of Tezuka's Metropolis? "When I worked on the scenario for Metropolis, I was very mindful that it was one of his very early works, so he always regarded the layout and the work in general as incomplete. So I wanted to fill in the cracks and bring it up to date."

A question about inspirations behind Akira reminded Beck of Otomo's earlier answer: he found one in Gigantor (Tetsujin 28). "I read it a lot as a kid. But you really can't tell that from the resulting work, can you?" Otomo chuckled.

Why is it hard to tell historical stories? "We've been watching a lot of period films since the early days of Japanese film and TV. So when I go to research the Edo period, most of the the material is from other directors. Avoiding all of that and coming up with new imagery is very hard."

Is there any fundamental question he tries to answer with his work? "That I want to enjoy life. But I don't have that much time left for that."

A question about his current manga project: "I don't want to tell you about the story yet, but it takes place in the Meiji era."

Of all his characters which does he personally identify with the most? "It's very hard to say, because they're all part of me."

Do you have any words of advice for any of the artists here? "Please do your best, because being an animator is one of the best jobs in the world. When I was a kid, my father asked what the hell I was doing in animation, because it wasn't a great job. But it is a great job, so please do your best at it."

What makes Japanese-made anime so special? "What I believe is that, Miyazaki and Oshii for example, both have created their own personal worlds within their animation. I guess you could say that I have too. I don't think we could get a job in the United States, because we don't listen to other people."

What kind of stories do you want to tell in animation and manga these days? "I have lots of ideas and lots of projects that I want to work on, but we haven't decided which ones yet."

How much is he aware of how influential his work has been to American filmmakers and animators? "I have no words to answer your questions. I watch a lot of American movies, and all of my films reference them, so it's all just one big conversation, I guess."

Is there anything that's difficult to translate from manga to anime? "The basics are the same, but what's difficult bringing manga to anime is the time limitation. Cramming everything into 2 hours is the hardest part."

In making an epic like Akira over many years, does his intention with the work change over the time it's being made? "It doesn't change much, because at the beginning I storyboard everything out in advance."

Would he ever want to make a Samurai movie set in the future? He doesn't answer this one, but rather joins the audience in giggling at the question.

On the style of art in Combustible, Otomo commented, "we researched a lot about the history of Japanese art, namely the emakimono tradition. How we pass the image in front of the screen is all coming from that research."

How long did it take to make Combustible? "About one year." What was his favorite part? "When you see the fire, in the eyes of Owaka, is my favorite part."

What is his favorite stage in making a film? "Maybe the planning stage, before development."

Otomo mused on the progression of computers in animation, and its making available of new techniques. "Memories was the first time computers were used in Japanese animation."

How many animators worked on Combustible? "There were 5-7 key animators."

Difficulties in understanding the audience from the stage area, along with having to go through an interpreter, resulted in some confusing moments. A long question about aspects of humanity portrayed in his work got an amusing but non-sequitur response: "Uh, no. I don't have a driver's license."

So much of your work is about the destruction wrought by technology? Are you scared of technology in some way? A traumatic experience in your life, perhaps? "You might think so from my stories, but no, I'm not scared of technology."

What living Japanese animators do you admire most? "My favorites are all the old ones, from back in the 1950s."

With time running out, Irene Kotlarz, founder and director of the Platform International Animation Festival, then presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to Otomo, a brightly colored James Jarvis model representing the God of animation. (It also has 8 articulated arms.) Otomo thanked the festival and bowed, bringing the evening to a close.

Combustible (Hi no Yōjin) review

Taking place in Edo in the 18th century, Combustible is the story of Owaka, the daughter of a merchant family who leads a lonely childhood, save for the friendship of the troublemaking boy next door Matsukichi. Matsukichi is fascinated by fires -- when they occur, they often take out whole neighborhoods in that era, and the brave tattooed men in the fire brigade are tasked with pre-emptively demolishing buildings around the flames before the damage travels too far. Matsukichi gets a tattoo, and having been disowned by his father, he joins the ranks of the firemen.

Owaka, however, is not so lucky. Her parents are busy arranging a marriage for her. Miserable to the point of desperation, and pining for Matsukichi to come rescue her, she accidentally starts a fire of her own.

The storytelling in Combustible is nothing new -- in fact, it has its roots in classic Japanese literature of its day. What is new is the novel combination of traditional emakimono -- the long panoramic scrolls from which manga is descended -- and new digital animation techniques. In the beginning the effect is subtle: the story begins as a pan across one such emakimono, which slowly takes on three dimensions and subtle movement, until we are thoroughly engrossed, and the only the dimmed silk embroidery that letterboxes the screen remains.

Though the tale of youth trying, with varying degrees of success, to break free of their societal constraints is nothing special, Otomo makes it compelling through heavy use of atmospherics and a quick pace. That is to say nothing of the fire itself: explosive, terrifying, and so fast that it's hard not to think of cities of the era as one gigantic death trap. It's awe inspiring for its sheer scale and audacity, as much so as any huge towering oddity Otomo has constructed to this point.

Although its short running time precludes the viewer from having a strong emotional connection to either character, Combustible nonetheless makes an impression. The story is familiar enough that it feels as if we're being told a particularly exciting fairy tale, and even if we know from the onset how it will end, we still dare not look away. -JS

Photos courtesy of Fumi Kitahara, The PR Kitchen. Combustible © "Short Peace" Committee.

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