Interview: Enter The Anime Director Alex Burunova

by Zac Bertschy,

This week, Netflix dropped a new documentary – referred to by the company's marketing as a “Netflix Special” - that purported to explain what anime is, featuring narration and exploration by filmmaker Alex Burunova, along with interviews with a whole host of creators both in Japan and America – including anime-adjacent producers like Castlevania's Adi Shankar, along with Cannon Busters' LeSean Thomas, and veteran luminaries like Shinji Aramaki, the chairman of Toei Animation Kozo Morishita, and many more. The productions featured in the special largely represent Netflix's corporate investment in the anime industry, functioning both as a commercial for their original productions and a showcase of the talent behind them.

The documentary was met with particularly mixed reactions by the anime fan community – you can read our review of the film here – and we were contacted by the director's publicist for an interview. Having seen the documentary myself, I had a lot of questions about what went in to this production – and was very grateful that Burunova, who is currently filming her first narrative feature in Greece, took the time to answer them.

Below is the resulting conversation.

Zac Bertschy: Who would you consider to be your biggest influence as a filmmaker? Can you tell us a little about your personal journey toward filmmaking?

Alex Burunova: Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, many 90s directors who took risks both with formalism and their themes. I also love Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. They take many chances, so their work feels completely original, something we haven't seen before.

How did this project initially come about? You mentioned in the documentary you had no background in anime - so, respectfully, why did Netflix ask you to produce this for them? How did that opportunity come to you?

I was contracted by Netflix to do a cool interview with Adi Shankar, as they were closer to promoting Castlevania season 2. The response was so positive and the experience so interesting that it created a lot of curiosity. While I was doing research - I realized there isn't a film out there that deep dives with different animation creators. And although I was no anime expert - I wanted to understand each of their creative processes and influences. So I decided to make a documentary special about it. I mentioned this to the NX team during a dinner party that we should take the opportunity of having access to all these legends currently working with Netflix and interview them. Next thing you know - we were making this Special. It's hard to get access to many of the anime creators - without Netflix, this kind of access to different creators across different subgenres of anime would have been impossible.

Were you hesitant at all about approaching the subject?

Very - I knew nothing about it! Like jumping off a deep end. But all the creators turned out to be very nice down-to-Earth people and had a lot of patience and grace when describing why anime is important to them, their influences and how they work. That felt good.

What was your impression of anime as an art form before producing this documentary?

Before producing the special I really had no idea what a diverse art form it is. I knew it is one of the most influential art forms right now - and wanted to learn why.

The documentary opens with a deep focus on Adi Shankar and Castlevania as representative of what anime is, but that show has no Japanese production staff - while it's understandable that Netflix would ask this IP to be presented front and center here, it also doesn't make sense that it would dominate the opening of a documentary called "Enter The Anime" that purports to discover what anime is. Aside from promotional considerations, from a filmmaking perspective, why was that segment right up front, rather than contextualizing it as an anime-inspired American production?

Actually, Netflix had no say in the order of the interviews. I thought it would be interesting to start with 2D hand-drawn style animation (Castlevania), progress into CG anime, stop motion, motion capture and end with 3DCG! There is a big debate on whether anime produced outside of Japan is still 'Anime.' There is no consensus. Anime is a style of animation that originated in Japan. Where it goes from there - I don't know!

A lot of the back half of this documentary seemed like it was assembled from pre-existing promotional materials for Netflix original anime productions, such as Kengan Ashura and Rilakkuma, work that had been made available before in various promotional outlets. Did you work on those original promotional interviews? If not, how did that work from a production angle?

Besides Adi Shankar's, we shot those interviews specifically for the Special. The idea was to create a different vignette for each one that had the vibe of each creator. Kengan Ashura guys were a lot of fun to work with. With them - we went to town (literally). Rilakkuma landed itself to a calmer relaxing coverage. Levius team gave us a crash course on 3DCG, although it might have been too technical for some of the newcomers to anime. Ultraman creators talked about their diverse careers...

In the documentary narration, you continually refer to executive anime production staff as "edgy deranged minds" but virtually everyone featured has worked on an entire spectrum of art, including calm and relaxing shows designed to make people feel good after coming home from work. Why was there such a focus on the "edgy" thing?

Yes, anime is very diverse - it can be slow, pensive, romantic, etc. As a newcomer to Anime (and someone more familiar with Western animation) - it's that edginess that stood out and surprised. I didn't really see that in Russian and Western animation I grew up on. But we do touch base on kawaii culture and really relaxing animation of Rilakkuma, as well as shoujo like 7SEEDS. The edginess is more of an entry into the world of Anime, something that sets it apart.

There's a question asked in the documentary about how a society where people calmly line up for things could also have artists that make art that shocked or provoked - but Japanese people are just people like everyone else and contain multitudes, which is echoed across the entire history of human artistic expression. Why did the documentary focus so much on treating Japanese people like they're a different species from you or I?

To the contrary - the film showcases with examples that Japanese culture is diverse, full of subcultures, characters and personal expression. When alluding to calmness and orderliness of riding a Tokyo metro - we brought up a stereotype of Japan some people might have in their minds. And throughout the film slowly broke that stereotype down over and over again. If you listen carefully, the voiceover narration states "Anime is not one-size-fits-all, just like Japan isn't." And we show it dozens of times throughout the film.

Were you nervous about how this would be received by anime fans?

We always knew that die-hard fans may not be as impressed with the doc, and might get upset because a lot of what we touch on is common knowledge to them and might feel basic. But since our target audience is those who are fresh to the genre, people who might have never seen it, we tried to make it simple and general while still keeping it entertaining.

Of the anime you watched in preparation for this production, what was your favorite, which one stuck with you?

Aggretsuko. I can relate.

Can you tell us about your upcoming narrative feature?

For me as a filmmaker, I'm working on a new film in Greece and it's the opposite of this one: a narrative psychological drama: real people, slow-paced.

One question asking about the notoriously difficult and punishing work conditions for rank-and-file anime industry employees in Japan went unanswered, but aside from that, Burunova answered everything I had to ask. We thank NX on Netflix and Alex Burunova for this opportunity. Enter The Anime is available to watch on Netflix now.


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