What's Up Doc? Irabu's Office director Kenji Nakamura

by Georgia Blair,

The acclaimed director of Welcome to Irabu's Office and C, Kenji Nakamura discusses inner life, dreams and the thresholds of fantasy and reality. (Interview by Bill Craske)

A psychiatrist recalls to a colleague a Freudian slip he makes the previous night while at dinner with his mother. 'What did you say?' enquires his colleague. 'I meant to say please, pass me the butter, but instead I said, you miserable bitch you've ruined my life.'

Welcome to Irabu's Office is less a greeting than it is a belated acknowledgement of immersive environmental chaos. In this domain the origins of the highest anxieties demand excavation via treatments best described as redefining most medical orthodoxy. However, the imagery doesn't so much underscore the situation as virtually determine it.

Director Kenji Nakamura sustains each case's unique process of healing in adherence to the time frame of the episodic format and yet the scenario itself eschews the traditional cause and effect or symptom and diagnosis resolutions associated with western medicine or TV shows slave to that premise merely by virtue of its elaborate animation. Imagine Lewis Carroll allowed free reign with a can of paint in Tokyo.

The saturation and blush of colours hardly diminish the sense of foreboding. For Irabu, who appears in at least three separate guises, there appears to be no problem too perverse and no psychological gash too deep since his special aptitude is often geared around deepening the perversion. This Felliniesque impresario, with a penchant for costumes, stands at the epicentre of a lysergic domain patterned in polka dots, inhabited by cardboard cut-outs and fanciful visual non sequiturs. It's a trip where the objective shifts to incorporate both subjective meanings.

Siren Visual: German critic Petr Kral once described the animation of Tex Avery as a "lucid delirium". That would seem like an appropriate description of the vivid visual aspects in Welcome to Irabu's Office. What were your priorities in designing the look of the animation?

Kenji Nakamura: I've taken the inner psychological world, which is a rather serious theme for a TV anime and I've kept it serious but I've tried to brighten up the visuals. I wanted to express the reality that some people experience – a world where realism and dream coexist, by applying unrealistic colours to the mundane cityscapes of Tokyo. Regarding the characters, generally in animation the actors provide voiceover [for] the illustration of the characters. However in this case we took the actual footage of the actor acting the role as well as the illustrated characters to create a dissociated unity between the 'actor' and the 'anime character'.

SV: Narrative based surrealism usually works within a uniform stylistic approach. What were some of the choices you thought might work in bringing the world alive on screen?

KN: Personally I'm not really conscious of any surrealism. The approach adopted to create the world of this story is to incorporate real images into the symbolised world of animation. It's so we can portray a world where the boundaries remain ambiguous – where we can depict for example, a world at the threshold of reality and fantasy.

SV: Given the narrative flexibility the format offers for creating a unique canvas in which to create these very stylized worlds are there any limitations placed on the filmmakers aside from the duration of each episode? Is the visual framework of each title dictated by the novel, the director's vision or the resources on hand? How is the style arrived at, initially?

KN: At the initial stage I think about it on my own. Then when I'm ready I throw it out there to my staff and get their reactions and feedback. We make drastic changes [if needed] during that phase.

SV: How closely do you observe the visual cues of the book? How do you decide if something is not working?

KN: I think and think and think about it until I am satisfied.

SV: Much of modern anime is about the dematerialisation of the human body, the fragmentation of physical and psychological form. However, in your work, your use of live action reverses this by scrambling two dimensional shapes and figures with the three dimensional. What is it about mixing formats that interests you?

KN: Well it's a novel ration for combining visuals. Through this I hope to achieve a new visual language.

SV: The self-reflexive use of cameo appearances by members of Fuji TV throughout the series continues the theme of subverting artifice which is itself an artifice. How did the idea for getting members of Fuji TV to appear come about?

KN: I thought it needed an element of persuasive power and humour to help explain it, because the theme of the work is quite heavy and difficult to explain. We asked Mr. Fukui – a noted announcer – to appear because he was able to bring both these attributes to the production.

SV: Kuchu Buranko is based on the book In the Pool by Hideo Okuda. The book details five patients in their desperate quest for help, but the animated series tells the stories of 11 patients. How did you come to develop the additional six stories? Has there been any feedback from Okuda on the animated interpretation of his book?

KN: The author of the original novels had said that he would leave animation to us. The last episode was based on the research we did at medical centres but all the other stories are from the original novel or based on stories from the novel. However we have incorporated all the actual feedback we've collected from psychiatrists and clinical psychologists in all episodes with respect to the original novel.

SV: Do you think the concept of noitaminA facilitates a greater freedom in the way visuals and symbolism can be represented? What is more crucial for you when developing a visual language of the world inhabited by the characters of Welcome to Dr. Irabu's Office?

KN: I think there is greater freedom and I consider it to be a concept as well as a brand. I hope to be able to better express through visual images the things which tend to become fixed and lose their precision when expressed as words.

SV: Welcome to Irabu's Office in many ways – both formally and thematically – is a strange beast.

The hybrid animation, the often disorientating use of character and location, not to mention the self-reflexive even cryptic injokes makes it a sui generis entry in the genre. Do you anticipate that it might eventually become synonymous in years to come with how people perceive the noitaminA brand?

KN: I would be surprised if it became synonymous but I do believe that this work is like no other.

SV: The visual codes are enigmatic to say the least. Do you expect there is a greater acceptance in the Japanese market for psychedelic concepts and imagery? What are some of your own filmmaking inspirations?

KN: [Welcome to] Dr. Irabu's Office is unique even in the Japanese market. I am inspired by the world through which I move from the moment I wake up in the morning to when I go to sleep and then also by the strange world I am in whilst I am asleep.

If you would like to know more about Welcome to Irabu's Office you can read our review on this title. We would like to thank Kenji Nakamura for this interview, and Bill Craske at Siren Visual for conducting the interview.

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