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Interview: The Creative Team Behind Netflix's Sound & Fury

by Cindy Sibilsky,

While anime and country music might seem to be strange bedfellows, in Sturgill Simpson's Sound & Fury (now streaming on Netflix), a team of respected artists from the Japanese anime world assembled to create striking visuals and memorable characters set in a post-apocalyptic nightmare to complement the musician's poignant and captivating new concept album. But when the project, which was initially conceived to be one music video for the main single, morphed into a full-album anime visual art film that utilized the top talents and visionaries in Japan to create something both equally as stunning as it is completely unique, it not only blended aspects from the best of both worlds but sparked a new genre entirely. And now, with some breaking news following the streaming, New York premiere and panel at New York Comic Con, it seems like this merging of these worlds may only be the beginning.

To be fair, none of the parties involved could be considered traditional by any means in their respective fields of success and expertise. Rather -- they are all trailblazers in their own right -- rebels who've paved their ways by going against the grain, time and again, who came together like a merry band of outlaws in some adventure tale. To top it off, the ease and flow of their joining forces only adds to the legend and legacy that surrounded this serendipitous collaboration and collision of stars.

It started with Sturgill Simpson, a rabble-rouser in a typically clean-cut country music world whose rich baritone voice is tinged with just enough twang to suit his Southern roots, but whose roadhouse growl is alchemically mixed with introspective, poetic, sometimes esoteric and psychedelic lyrics juxtaposed with pointed, sardonic criticism and peppered with as much '70s rock as alt-country with a distinctive edge. No wonder he was catapulted to success early on, with a Grammy to show for it, yet remains hard to wrangle or categorize. Sound & Fury, his latest studio album penned and produced in 2017 and 2018, follows the imaginary misadventures of a solo driver on a long and lonely road, reflective of the way one might feel on a long tour, especially at a time when the world seems to be collapsing around them. The sound and lyrics are cynical, aggressive and dripping with a mix of vitriol and swagger that expresses betrayal, heartbreak as well as a general sense of disappointment and let down. One could interpret it on a personal, business or political level or any combination thereof, hence the universal appeal of music. Simpson admits to being in a pretty dark place when he wrote it and was listening to things like old funk records, The Cars, Black Sabbath, hip hop, and a lot of Eminem. Those influences are quilted together with a pervasive feeling of anger and frustration with an underlying tone of lingering sadness. It's no wonder it required some twisted visuals to match!

The album was mostly completed when Simpson approached his friend, Japanese producer Shinsuke Ochiai, after he had played the Fuji Rock Festival. The two were hanging out playing video games (“As grown men in their 40s do,” Simpson joked) and Sturgill inquired if Ochiai could enlist some talents in the anime world to bring the single track “Sing Along” to life while professing his particular love for the specific styles and intensity showcased in Animatrix and Batman Ninja.

Apparently, with the right connections in Japan, it's ask and ye shall receive (possibly more than you bargained for) because, once Ochiai involved producer Hiroaki “Hiro” Takeuchi — who acted as a magnet who attracted all of the elite forces from the very features that Simpson used as a reference — the word was out and the dream team assembled. Batman Ninja Director Jumpei Mizusaki was so taken by the Simpson's Sound & Fury that he refused to do one song — he wanted to do them all!

Mizusaki is credited as writer and the main director -- who imagined Simpson's songs into two-dimensional life and stitched the disparate parts together like a Frankenstein monster -- along with character designer Takashi “Bob” Okazaki (creator of Afro Samurai who last worked with Mizusaki on Batman Ninja). But the list of those involved reads like a Who's Who of the anime world, particularly those responsible for that dystopian, violent vibe showcased in the animes Simpson referenced. Other collaborators included: directors Michael Arias, Masaru Matsumoto, Kōji Morimoto (Akira and Animatrix), and two American animators living in Japan, Henry Thurlow and Arthell Isom, with Takayasu Kuroda rounding out the team as Executive Producer. The result is various interpretations of the album's songs and moods utilizing components of traditional animation with a heavy dose of modern technology, some live-action and lots of CGI effects and CGI-enhanced anime.

The majority of the group were there in person (save Arias and Matsumoto, which is why the focus of this article will remain on the contributors who were present and interviewed) for the New York theatrical premiere and the NYCC panel. During all of the events, they displayed a playful rapport and jovial interactions with each other. The project offered them all a veritable creative playground and posed many challenges. They all discussed it candidly at the two panels and in our personal interviews.

It was pretty astonishing to learn that such an undertaking took only one year from its conception in July 2018 to San Diego Comic Con 2019 a year later where the feature debuted. Simpson acquiesced to waiting to drop the album in order to coincide with the film's release. It's a bit of a wonder the busy team were all available and interested but the project had good financial backing, plenty of creative freedom and a bonafide American rockstar behind it, even if none of them really knew who he was.

Bob Okazaki -- who agreed to the project on the spot when Mizusaki Skyped him into his call with Simpson -- initially thought the musician “Looked like Luigi from Super Mario Brothers with long eyelashes like a Furby toy.” The U.S. born, Japan-based artists Henry Thurlow and Arthell Isom reflected that after having spent so much time in Japan, they'd lost their connection with American culture and were both taken aback by the bizarre prospect of “anime meets country”. Their initial skepticism was retracted when they realized that Simpson didn't sound or look like anything one typically expects from country music and Thurlow noted upon listening, “It's the perfect kind of music for storytelling.” Kōji Morimoto was intrigued by the way Sturgill “seems to challenge himself” adding “I have much respect for him.” Simpson recalled feeling humbled and captivated, calling the whole process “mind-blowing” and still professed disbelief, saying that it was “miraculous” how it all came together.

For his part, beyond penning the music and lyrics, envisioning the general themes and proposing the project in the first place, Sturgill visited Japan six times in the short span of the year of its creation to show his support and commitment in-person as is respectful, customary, and expected in Japanese culture -- something he learned during his time spent in Japan in the '90s while he was in the Navy (which was likely where he first discovered anime). “Mostly it was just showing up, geeking out and a lot of really, really great dinners,” Simpson recalled. Sturgill met the whole team in November 2018 (which was captured in a mini documentary clip screened at the NYCC panel, along with other behind-the-scenes visuals such as early sketches and storyboards). He confessed his disbelief and the surreal feeling of being surrounded by “the Scorseses of Japan with Hiro as the Nick Fury of the group.” When asked what his favorite part of the whole process was, Simpson responded with a chuckle, “When Netflix gave us an instant, no hesitation ‘yes’,” adding further, “I've never worked so hard on a project and that kind of immediate validation was very rewarding.” His hope for the takeaway of such a venture aligns very much with his character and reputation as someone unafraid to shake things up “I wanted to create something that both “inspires and pisses people off.”

Jumpei Mizusaki and Bob Okazaki were responsible for three titles and the main characters. All of the animated personas possess Okazaki's signature edgy, sinewy style -- aimed squarely at the adult anime otaku like a loaded gun that's unapologetically dripping with eroticism and as explosively violent as a ticking time bomb. “Remember to Breathe” is set in a Japanese sword foundry that becomes the site of an unspeakable massacre at the hands of two villainous bigots in suits. It is extremely reminiscent of the scene in Batman Ninja where the Joker and Harley Quinn are disguised as simple Edo-era peasants. The main single, “Sing Along”, continues the story and introduces the character of the lone driver on the road to a slice 'em up, blow 'em up showdown with the forces of greed and destruction and their throngs of ignorant minions. The hero dons a samurai helmet adorned with symbols that form “S&F” and whose twin swords are dubbed “Sound” and “Fury”. It was revealed in our interview that this rebel savior figure is a lithe, spirited female who Okazaki named “Nozomi” (Japanese for “hope” which is what she represents in such a world) though the character is uncredited. Their storyline continues with the sporting and sarcastic “Good Look” that features nonstop dance sequences led by the heroine, villains and their cohorts who are wearing blindfolds, possibly to show their lack of awareness and inability to get a “good look” at anything. It's notable to mention that Okazaki made sure to make a few of the dancers people of color who were featured up front and center (even if they are topless), a practice of integration of some diversity still uncommon in many animes, but something the Afro Samurai designer is known for. The J-Pop style dance routines were inspired by Hatsune Miku, the blue-haired virtual Vocaloid who producer Takayasu Kuroda helped launch the career of. “Best Clockmaker On Mars” concludes that pairs' envisioning of Nozomi's trials and tribulations, with the post-film credits attempting to tie it up in a bow but leaving more of an ellipsis.

Founding partners of D'Art Shtajio (whose studio assists with larger series like One Piece and Naruto), Henry Thurlow and Arthell Isom were brought on as the “newbies” by Hiro Takeuchi, who was impressed with their passion from the first meeting and desired to bring in some fresh views and ideas to the project along with all the heavyweights' contributions. For “All Said and Done” -- a moody, melancholic ballad that stands apart from the rest of the album with a prog-rock psychedelic style reminiscent of Pink Floyd -- Thurlow imagined the song as a story of people held captive “under the oppressive rule of an overlord.” The people appeared to be in a kind of inescapable prison or concentration camp where they were forced to manufacture a sort of nuclear energy source and weapon the size of an iridescent blue pill while muscular guards in skeletal headgear that looked like villains from the 1980s He-Man animation watched over them menacingly. He mentioned his fascination with the turquoise color palette and the reactions of the explosive liquid justified his use of a monochrome tone, causing the world to be awash with an eerie aquamarine glow when the slaves choose to end their own lives in order to take their captors down. Thurlow (who grew up inspired by violent adult-geared animation like HBO's Spawn) moved to Japan over a decade ago to fulfill his lifelong dream to work in anime, following his graduation from Pratt Institute and a few unsatisfying years in New York's unstable animation industry. He may have used some of his own overworked, underpaid and almost slave-like experiences as one of the first gaijin (foreign) animators in the “illegally harsh” Japanese anime industry as inspiration for the oppressed people's uprising. His dedication and hard work seem to have paid off because now both Thurlow and Isom are well-respected in the industry and have their own studio, despite their American origins. In an almost parallel journey, Arthell Isom (who took his initial inspiration from Ghost in the Shell) came to Japan in 2005 right after graduating from the Academy of the Arts University of San Francisco with hopes to attend the Yoyogi Animation Academy in Osaka which at the time wasn't accepting foreigners. He has now been working in the Japanese anime industry for over eleven years, four of them with Thurlow though they've known each other for eight. His piece, “Last Man Standing”, has the rowdy intensity of a roadhouse brawl and Isom saw it as a pre-apocalyptic forewarning that pre-shadowed the following song “Mercury in Retrograde” which carries a sense of regret and lament. He challenged himself to tell the story in first-person visuals from the perspective of a homeless veteran suffering from the effects of PTSD that leave the character (and the viewer) to feel like a pariah unwelcomed and shut out from society as eminent disaster approaches. This decision was a nod to Simpson's military roots. The musician is so devoted to causes to support veterans that his tour of intimate venues, including a sold-out show at Williamsburg Hall of Music in NYC, donated 100% of net proceeds to Special Forces Foundation to provide immediate and ongoing support to Army Special Forces and their families. But Isom might have taken on more than he could handle because he nearly missed the completion deadlines required to get the film into several important festivals.

Another master who worked in nearly complete isolation and required the trust of his collaborators to believe in his complicated and multilayered vision for one of the most melodic, reflective and lyrically potent songs from the album, “Mercury in Retrograde”, was Kōji Morimoto. Director Jumpei Mizusaki was originally inspired to do animation for music videos due to the work of Morimoto and his iconic anime Akira. He considers him to be an honored mentor and “would have accepted anything he did.” Morimoto used a lot of green screen and CGI enhancements to create a gear-headed human (amongst other characters performed by a famous Japanese pantomime artist) who acts as a cog in a relentlessly turning machine. Themes of escape, running away, falling apart and breaking down also provided images to some of Simpson's more introspective words. But perhaps the most unique and striking element of Morimoto's work lies in his collaboration with surrealist hair-sculpture artist Hidenori Nishimura, something he'd wanted to do for a while and the timing happened to be serendipitous. Morimoto and his team worked long hours and late nights to achieve the dazzling spectacle, having only shown Sturgill two sketches before the finished product was revealed.

But despite all of the eye candy, remarkable creativity and extraordinary way that so many distinctive yet diverse elements from such a talented team could come together to tell tales and breathe life into the songs, when all is said and done, there still remains a lingering feeling of incompleteness. But the project was never intended to be executed in the form of a traditional narrative. Rather it's a loose interpretation of the songs from Sturgill Simpson's concept album by each collaborator who was commissioned and given nearly absolute creative freedom for their particular part. That being said, the sense of missing pieces and lack of a fully congruent story were not lost on the creators who expressed a very strong desire to press on and “flesh it out further.” Okazaki wanted to expand upon the adventures of Nozomi and the post-apocalyptic near-future dystopia with more than a nod to the inevitable destruction that the world seems to be heading towards. There is a Statue of Liberty-like figure whose name translates to “1000 Likes”, a commentary on society's obsession with social media, and other such characters he'd love to explore. Producer Hiro Takeuchi emphasized the numerous backstories they want to get more deeply into and noted that all of the right elements are there -- top-notch anime, storytelling, technological advances and live-action elements -- to develop this project into something more. “We just need a bigger budget,” Hiro goads Kuroda, the Executive Producer. That kind of opportunity is most likely in the hands of a company such as Netflix giving another emphatic green light, but Hiro had some exciting news to deliver at the NYCC panel that might bring that dream closer to reality sooner than expected. After running around to give gifts to attendees who asked “good questions” (“Bad questions will receive nothing!” he declared boisterously), Hiro announced that Sound & Fury had reached No. 1 on the iTunes U.S. chart and the official Tokyo premiere was up next, but the most breaking news that may be the key to ensuring a second life for the project and characters -- an original comic collaboration between Takashi “Bob” Okazaki, Jumpei Mizusaki and Jason Aaron was just brokered at New York Comic Con only a few hours before their panel. So it would seem that there is hope for the journey to be continued.

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