Interview: Shinji Aramaki

by Heidi Kemps,

Shinji Aramaki is a true anime legend. After joining Artmic in the early 80s, the young Aramaki went on to contribute mecha designs for numerous series like Mospaeda and Bubblegum Crisis. He eventually graduating to the director's chair for early overseas otaku darlings like MADOX-01 and Genesis Survivor Gaiarth, and continues to enjoy great mainstream success with the Appleseed CG anime features and Starship Troopers: Invasion. His recent Captain Harlock CG movie, along with the prequel feature Appleseed Alpha, have both hit North American shores recently. We sat down to talk with him about these features – and about some older work that very few people know as his.

This year in the US you have two major films out: Appleseed Alpha and Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Both became available around the same time to a US audience; do you see any similarities between these two films, thematically?

I think it's simply coincidental if you're seeing similarities between the two. They're pretty different, really – Harlock is a space fantasy adventure, and Appleseed is near-future sci-fi. The CG style – realistic CG – is similar for both, but I feel that's the deepest the connections run. I was actually quite surprised when I heard they released in the US at the same time! *laughs*

How do you feel about the state of Japanese CG animation? It still isn't as widely used there as it is in other countries; do you think that will change in the coming years, or will it always be something used sparingly?

Absolutely. CG has been used for a while for animation in North America and Europe, and those films have really caught on worldwide. I feel like Japan tends to like the “hand-drawn” look a bit more, though.

On that note, what are your thoughts on Gen Urobuchi's new project?

Expelled from Paradise, right? I think it's extremely interesting. There is a movement towards CG animation in Japan, and this film is trying to use CG while keeping a hand-drawn look. I know that the people working on the movie are really enjoying it. I think if it's a hit, it could really open the door to some new approaches to animation. I'm quite excited for it.

What was your creative goal with Space Pirate Captain Harlock? What sort of story did you want to tell?

Well, if you look at the original work and compare it to my film, you'll see that there are some rather significant changes. The thing is, Harlock is a story about fighting for freedom, right? But when Leiji Matsumoto wrote Harlock decades ago, the concept of fighting for freedom was very, very different than it is in the world today. The situation around the world has changed so much, and in Japan too – like with the Fukushima earthquake. I wanted to express the same sort of story to a very different time and generation.

Were you a fan of Harlock as a kid, and did you always want to make a film in that universe?

Of course! I really loved the characters of Harlock, and I've always wanted to work with them.

Captain Harlock is the second most expensive movie Toei has ever made. Had you ever worked with a budget like that before, and did you find it creatively freeing?

Oh, I was absolutely delighted with the bigger budget. I wanted to make a film with spectacle on par with what Hollywood has to offer, so having extra money to work with was definitely a boon in that regard!

What would you say were your chief visual influences in Captain Harlock, aside from Leiji Matsumoto? Did you draw any visual influences from other science-fiction and action movies?

Actually, when I was working on the movie, I actually met with Matsumoto-sensei a few times. He gave me a great deal of advice. But really, I think the strongest influence were the original Harlock anime themselves. I took so much away from them, and used many of those themes and motifs in the movie.

How many more Appleseed films do you think you have in you? Do you want to continue making them, or is this it?

At first, I wasn't sure where to go with another Appleseed, but as you know, this one turned into a prequel using a specific part of Shirow-sensei's manga. I think, if I got a chance to make another Appleseed, I definitely would. I can feel the desire burning in my heart! *laughs*

I wanted to ask about your early design work on American cartoon series like Pole Position, M.A.S.K…. these designs were contracted out to Artmic. How did you feel when you got this work, and what was your reaction to some of the things you were asked to do?

Oh, my, this was over thirty years ago… yes, we were asked to do some work for a particular studio, so I wound up going to Los Angeles. This was my first time in the United States, and at that time, going to the US was like going to this magical place you'd only heard about in storybooks and such. I was very surprised when I was asked to go to the studio offices. I mean, it was just lil ol’ me, some young upstart designer, being asked to come out there! I got to see the American production process firsthand, and I wound up learning a lot.

Would you say it was this work for US studios that established you as a mechanical designer, then?

Hmmm, I wouldn't say that. I mean, I'd already done work on Mospaeda by that point.

Do you have any particularly interesting anecdotes from that time?

I remember being summoned to the ABC network to come to the US for a week. I did about two or three days’ worth of design stuff, and then spent the rest of the time in my rental car, driving all over LA and picking up lots of stuff for the people back home. *laughs* What I loved most was the opportunity to see Hollywood. That's really a dream when you're coming from Japan, it just seemed so very far away, especially back then. I also got to visit the factory where they were making the toys.  

So did the studios bother to give you descriptions of the actual shows you were working on, or did they just say “draw a car” or “draw a robot?”

Actually, it was very clear. For one design in particular – a supercar – there had already been some work done, but whoever had been doing it had been removed from the job for whatever reason. But yes, it was always very clear what I was being asked to do.

Why do you think overseas animation work stopped being subcontracted to Japan in the early 90s?

I think the big factor was cost. The talent was there, but you had a very sharp decline in the value of the dollar against the yen. Animation studios from other countries like Korea were also starting to become a lot more competitive.

What are you working on next? Do you have a dream project?

I am certainly working on several things, but due to various circumstances, I can't really say much about them! I also have a few dream projects, too… which I also can't name because of reasons. But I want to continue exploring CG animation. One thing I'm particularly interested in is the Oculus Rift. I don't know if I'd want to do a game for it… maybe a movie with game-like elements? There's a lot of possibility there.

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