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Interview: The Reflection's Hiroshi Nagahama

by Kyle Cardine,

If you were to ask Hiroshi Nagahama how he cultivated such an extensive resume, he might just say it was a little bit of luck and his habit to say “yes” to just about anything.

Taking a look at Nagahama's work, you will notice quite a range in projects: From comedies like Detroit Metal City and the first adaptation of Fruits Basket, fantasy-action series like Record of Lodoss War and Revolutionary Girl Utena (which, according to Nagahama, Ikuhara disagrees with the English title translation. That in a bit), to slower, intense series like Mushishi and Flowers of Evil, Nagahama's artistic flexibility has led him to work on many mainstay titles. Also as an unabashed fan of American comics, Nagahama would fulfill a lifelong dream of working with Stan Lee in 2017 when he directed The Reflection, another work with quite an experimental style.

It all started when Nagahama watched Wicked City when he was in high school. “As I was watching, I didn't think of it as anime,” Nagahama said. “I was just surprised that I was watching it like a movie. It left a strong impression of what animation is capable of,” adding that it was the first time he watched the end credits of a movie. Seeing that it was a Madhouse production, Nagahama made it his goal to join the studio.

Nagahama started his career working on Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl and Record of Lodoss War, even working between the two at the same time. As a starting animator, Nagahama said he gained a reputation for being dedicated to his work, even if he didn't make enough to eat.

“At that time, I got 160 yen for one Yawara cel and 210 yen for a Lodoss cel,” Nagahama said. “For that 210 yen, one cel I worked on was a large dragon. I worked on [the dragon's] scales for days.” But because of his hard work on Lodoss War, he says the character designers Yutaka Izubuchi and Nobuteru Yuki still take care of him to this day.

After building his key animation skills working on Battle Angel, Nagahama decided to leave Madhouse. It was then Shinya Hasegawa, Nagahama's former animation school classmate, reached out and asked him to be an animation director for a new project with another up-and-coming director named Kunihiko Ikuhara. Nagahama's first assignment was to make some image boards, so he drew "The Forest of Duels," Anthy's greenhouse, the school, and the student council's tower.

“I met Ikuhara at the studio, and he's sitting back on a sofa,” Nagahama said. “He stands up, says ‘I'll be right back’ and I heard him make a phone call. He came back and said 'You're in charge of the art design.'” Shocked by Ikuhara's proposal, Ikuhara then told Nagahama he was also the animation director and in charge of the conceptual design. “I guess what I created just fit perfectly with the image Ikuhara had in his head,” Nagahama said.

Ikuhara would later tell Nagahama he had issues with how Utena's title was translated in English. “[Ikuhara] told me it's not about a girl who causes a revolution. She's not Joan of Arc,” Nagahama said. “It's about a girl's revolution. All girls' revolutions. It's about a freeing of a set destiny and whatever that path is. If you look at the title in Japanese, it's not 'Kakumei Shojo,' it's 'Shojo Kakumei.' The translation should be Girls' Revolution Utena.”

After finishing Utena, Nagahama would meet the director Akitarō Daichi while working on Sexy Commando Gaiden: Sugoi yo!! Masaru-san. Daichi later recruited Nagahama to work on the first anime adaptation of Fruits Basket, telling him that he had two days to work on the storyboards for the opening animation of “For Fruits Basket” by Ritsuko Okazaki.

Okazaki would pass away in 2004, but Nagahama said her influence still stays with him every day. “It doesn't feel like a traditional opening,” Nagahama said. “She believed if you put everything you have, all the love, into what you're working on, that feeling will reach someone else. She kept telling me that all those feelings will reach the viewer.”

Nagahama would officially start his directorial career with Mushishi (a title he always intended to be his debut), go onto direct Detroit Metal City (which he claims Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe directly helped him get in the job) and then move on to one of his more contemporary titles, Flowers of Evil (but not without a little negotiation).

Nagahama said a producer from King Records reached out and asked him to make an anime adaptation of Flowers of Evil, but Nagahama replied: “what this manga conveys to the viewer could not be conveyed in animation.” After a month or so of trying to convince Nagahama, they would meet for drinks in Shinjuku. The producer asked once again what it would take to make Flowers of Evil an anime.

“I told him 'It's not that there's no way, but there's no way King Records will allow it to happen,'” Nagahama said. “It's expensive. And it might get a very negative reaction from the viewers.”

“Just tell me what you want!” said the producer.

'We rotoscope it.”

And according to Nagahama, the producer said it sounded great and approved his idea.

“I still don't know how we made it happen or how I made [Flowers of Evil],” Nagahama said. “I have partial fragments of a memory of making it. I only have images that have nothing to do with animation, like looking through the lens of a camera. All the live-action footage we used to rotoscope, I remember. It was very hard but fulfilling.”

When asked about the future of any Flowers of Evil adaptations, Nagahama said the ending was purposefully left open-ended for future work. “If there's enough interest, King Records will let me make more,” he added.

If you saw Nagahama at any point over the weekend, you might have also seen him wearing either a Spider-Man or The Reflection t-shirt, the latter his latest directorial project. Nagahama said he grew up reading American comics as a kid, even now preferring American comics to manga. Nagahama emphasized how much it meant to him not only working with Stan Lee but also having a show where they were both credited at the top.

“My first decision was to make it look like printed paper," Nagahama said. “The concept was that you could take what's on the screen, print it out, and it would look like a comic book. Maybe it was too soon for Japan. It was very difficult for the animators.”

Nagahama also took the chance during a panel to praise Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, not only because of his lifelong passion for Spider-Man, but because of how the style carried itself throughout the movie. “Seeing that made me think we could make The Reflection a different way."

Nagahama added they still have a lot of materials they can work with for future The Reflection stories. However, when Stan Lee died in 2018, those ideas were put on hold. “We're talking with Lee's company to create more. I hope it becomes a reality.“

Anime News Network later had an opportunity to sit down with Nagahama for an interview at the convention.

What are you up to recently? What are you working on?

Nagahama: I was episode director for Episode 10 of Rinshi!! Ekoda-chan. There were 12 episodes and for each one there is a different director. It had very modern graphics. Mine was kind of like muppets. The audience thought they were looking at monsters. That was our objective and I wanted to create something unique and special.

I went to your panel about American comics and was very impressed. What was your first experience with an American comic? When did you realize that it was different than Japanese comics?

Nagahama: When I was 10-years-old, I bought the fourth volume of Spider-Man. Iceman from X-Men was a guest in the issue and I noticed the skull texture and muscles looked realistic. I was moved by seeing that people could make art like that. In Japanese anime and comics, like Kamen Rider and robot anime, there's usually one villain per episode and they will always blow up and die. In the next episode, there's a new, different villain that shows up. In American comics, villains will fight, lose, get captured, break out and then the cycle continues. Sometimes the villain will remake their suit and that drama continues. In Stan Lee comics, the setting is like New York, Los Angeles or places that we know in real life, so it's as if the characters are here in our world. That was the main difference I noticed compared to American comics.

I know you're a fan of American comics, but in America, My Hero Academia regularly is at the top of sales lists and outsells Marvel and DC. Why do you think Americans are reading My Hero Academia more than Marvel or DC comics? Especially because My Hero Academia is influenced by Marvel and DC.

Nagahama: To be honest, I don't really know. For Dragon Ball, One Piece and Naruto, Japanese people didn't anticipate that those titles would be big overseas. It's a sign that Japanese manga is accepted in foreign countries. I could say the opposite is true too: American comics didn't click with Japanese people at first, but compared to 20 years ago, more people in Japan who recognize Spider-Man and Batman. So after Japanese people started to accept American comics, and American people also started to like manga, Americans might think things like My Hero Academia are interesting because it feels like an American comic.

At Sakura-Con, you said that your next project will premiere in North America first. Do you have any updates? And why North America first?

Nagahama: An American company actually offered that job to me. There will be an announcement coming soon. When you see my name next time, that will be it. Really soon!

Who approached you?

Nagahama: I'm not sure I can say yet!

[Note: It was later confirmed at Crunchyroll Expo Nagahama will work on the adaptation of Junji Ito's Uzumaki horror manga for Adult Swim]

You and three other people (Kiyotaka Waki, Yoshiaki Kyogoku and Shoichi Hotta) at Otakon have talked about the influence of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I'm surprised because that's four industry people in the same weekend saying how much they like this movie. Do you think Spider-Verse will have future influence on anime?

Nagahama: Definitely. My overall thoughts may be different than the other three, but I've read Spider-Man since I was 10 years old. It's really close to me. After I saw Spider-Verse, I realized how much of a direct and deep understanding I had of the series. Not only is Spider-Verse great, but it was also a new and revolutionary approach.

I just want to make sure first it is ok I ask this next question: May I ask about Kyoto Animation?

Nagahama: Of course.

How are you feeling? What can the anime industry do to recover from this?

Nagahama: I was so shocked when it happened. The lives that were lost were in the same position I was 30 years ago: You go into the studio, do your job, but you don't really have an official position. Like if I died there, then I wouldn't be here today talking with everyone in Washington, D.C. In the anime industry, everyone had that same feeling of “that could have been me 30 years ago.” It transcended sadness or anger. After thinking about their families and what their futures could have been, I couldn't find the words. I don't know what the industry can do now, but the people who lost their lives won't come back. We can't do anything to replace the family's anger and sadness. The last thing I'll say is I came to this event because the incident happened. I came here as a mission to be there for everyone. To see and hear that in person and then go back to Japan is what I should do now. So I want to thank you for asking that question.

Our thanks to Hiroshi Nagahama and Otakon for this opportunity.

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