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Interview: Koji Morimoto

by Deb Aoki & Evan Minto,

Anime director and J-Pop Summit 2015 guest Koji Morimoto is best known for his innovative, dynamic work on films like Akira, and short features in animated anthologies like Robot Carnival (Furanken no Haguruma / a.k.a. Franken's Gear), Short Peace (opening sequence) and the Animatrix (Beyond) and for being a co-founder of Studio 4°C with fellow animators Eiko Tanaka and Yoshiharu Sato. He has also worked on numerous anime series and feature films since the 1970's, including his stints as key animator on Kiki's Delivery Service, City Hunter, Fist of the North Star and many, many more, as well as music videos, including Extra, a collaboration with DJ Ken Ishiii (who was also a guest at J-Pop Summit)

Nowadays, Morimoto, is an elder statesman of anime is largely focusing on independent projects that push the creative envelope of animated films in Japan and beyond. Morimoto took a break from his hectic schedule to meet fans at J-Pop Summit in San Francisco, and be there to answer questions at a screening of his films at the Japan Film Festival of San Francisco, which was also held on the same week.

Morimoto is a slim, wiry and laid-back man in his 50's, who is passionate about his work, but also clear-eyed about the realities of the animation business today. He's also very accessible and friendly. He cheerfully signed books, posters and DVD boxes, and drew a few sketches for happy fans at J-Pop Summit. After his autograph session, Morimoto sat with me and fellow anime journalist Evan Minto from Ani-Gamers and the CrunchyCast podcast to answer a few questions about his ideas and career, and how he's planning on creating a new way for fans and fellow creators to collaborate on his latest animation projects online.

Welcome to San Francisco and J-Pop Summit! I know you travel a lot, but have you visited the Bay Area before?

Koji Morimoto: I've been here a few times, the first time was for work. I was here for Memories and I've been here a couple more times to visit Tsutsumi.

Oh, Dice Tsutsumi! (Former Pixar animator, now director of the Academy Award-nominated short feature, The Dam-Keeper) So was that for Sketchtravel?
Tsutsumi-san's also left Pixar to do his own thing…

Koji Morimoto: That's right. I do see him often in Japan too.

That's great. I know you're a very independent creator -- Do you encourage other animators to work on passion projects or break off and do their own thing away from major studios? Because I know you're very independent. What kind of advice do you give to other up and coming animators?

Koji Morimoto: I do give such advice. I think the business environment for animation has changed quite a bit and, rather than just working in a company, there are many more opportunities for individuals to work as freelance artists and to direct their own works. I do encourage people to do that.

Do you feel like working within a larger animation production company or studio is too restrictive, creatively-speaking? Does it make it hard to do really innovative work?

Koji Morimoto: As far as things goes with the members of the company that I founded, the people who work with me are not just people who come from the animation backgrounds. People who come have experience working with music, painting and web design, they come from very different backgrounds. So what we're trying to do is not limit what we do to just to anime, in the small sense of the word.

I don't feel that restriction, so from where I am working now, I'm able to work in a really fun work environment. After work, we go out to drink and eat and hang out. A lot of times, we think we'd like to own our own pub or bar, or do something fun and different like have our own fashion brand. We hope to expand our activities beyond just making animation.

I feel like the world today demands something more. In anything that you do, you can't do it alone. You need a team of people. So you kind of need that collective atmosphere to an extent.

Evan Minto: You've worked with a couple different studios, obviously with Studio 4°C, which you co-founded, and some other places. How would you compare the work environment and studio culture at those different places? Did that affect the kind of films that came out of these environments?

Koji Morimoto: They are definitely all different. The leaders set the tone, and you have producers that bring something of their own to the equation. They all bring something of their own color and characteristics. In a sense, you have a lot to learn in each place. As I've gone from place to place, I've learned a lot in the process. You see something new in each place and time, and in that journey, you learn to find your own path.

Can you give an example of, the different kind of tones set by an animation studio where you've worked, or are familiar with?

Koji Morimoto: Certainly Studio Ghibli would be an example of a very idiosyncratic studio. Hayao Miyazaki has his own style, and he's kind of an emperor there! (laughs) So everybody abides by what he says. I think it's ind of an interesting environment. But seeing him work, when I was there, allowed me to know that I wanted to be the kind of filmmaker that could incorporate other people's ideas, unlike him.

So what would you say your "color" or management style is like? What's the color or style of your studio?

Koji Morimoto: I try to really listen to everybody's ideas. Whenever there's an interesting project, we'll get together, say, at least once a month, to discuss them. We'll then agree on something, and we'll delegate tasks based on the ideas that are born.

At my age, I've finally understood that these are things you cannot do alone. You need a team of people, you need to work together, and only then can you actually create something that can change the world.

We used to keep everything under wraps until we completed a project in its entirety. But recently we've been tinkering with the idea of opening things up to the public more, like on Facebook or something. It's not the same as crowd-funding (via Kickstarter or Indie Go-Go), but we're looking to get actual participation of more people, to foster the sense that we're making something together. This is a very new way of doing things that we're exploring. We would maybe upload certain artwork weekly to share with fans, which is something we typically don't want to do, but's a process that we're trying to enjoy. It's a new challenge we're taking on right now.

So when you're saying that international fans might be able to provide input about your studio's projects through Facebook and social media, how would they do that?

Koji Morimoto: At the moment there's not a system already in place to be able to allow that, but what we're aiming at is having some sort of platform. So for example, we're looking for music to accompany a title sequence. We can upload the video and then musical artists from around the world can then put some music on it and we can see what works. In order to do that, you need to develop some type of platform, you need programmers. Ultimately, I think what we're trying to do is create a new media that's going to broadcast things in a new way.

Typically, at least today, we think about films on an individual basis. You have this film and you have that film and they are what they are. But say if we were to have a certain piece and we allow people to attach their own music to it. One person can put techno on film A and somebody else can put jazz on the same video and call it B. You can have different variations. You can have ten different variations, a hundred different variations, of the same thing. Maybe we can think of a voting structure where someone's favorite will surface to the top or something. The possibilities are limitless.

Evan Minto: It sounds a lot like Project HAL, where three Japanese schools get the same storyboards and then animate their own version of the same story.

Koji Morimoto: Something like that, right.

Is this something that's just an idea now or something that you're definitely going to do?

Koji Morimoto: We're right in the middle of getting all of this running.

So we could possibly see this sometime in 2016?

Koji Morimoto: By next year you should be able to see something on Facebook, or maybe as early as late this year.

Do you have a name for this project?

Koji Morimoto: Nothing set in stone yet.

What sort of feedback have you gotten on this process, this idea so far?

Koji Morimoto: One thing that we're trying to do is to allow people who are participating this way, contributing their thoughts and ideas to our work in progress the ability to see the work before everybody else. Once the thing is completed, we might also give them an opportunity to visit the studio to provide feedback and additional ideas and suggestions. We listen to them, and if there's something we like, any ideas from them that we actually incorporate into the product, then we're going to pay them a royalty, a certain percentage or something. This is a new thing we're taking on.

Wow, that is very intriguing. So when you're considering projects, what would make a project interesting or not interesting to work on?

Koji Morimoto: Typically, when there are projects that we talk about and we get excited about, sometimes a month later, when we talk about it again, the initial excitement might dissipate. But if it's the kind of thing that will just keeps coming up every time we get together, and talk about a project, then that's something we'll consider more seriously. It's not hard to pick up on this kind of thing. So for example, if we're getting together for drinks and we're talking about an idea… if we're laughing and having a good time when we talk about it, then there's probably something there. I think those are the things that you end up latching on to.

Evan Minto: Do you think that's different from the way ideas come to fruition in general in the anime industry; like at other studios?

Koji Morimoto: I think everybody probably does things a little bit differently, but as far as I'm concerned, I try to create something that doesn't already exist in the world. This is something that comes up a lot when we talk to sponsors. They say, 'Make something we haven't seen before.' I think about the possibility that we might not be around a year later, so that makes me think, 'what do you want to prioritize in your life?' That's usually my criteria.

You have a very long career in animation, so you started out in this industry when most animated films were 80, 90% hand drawn. Now computer-generated animation is coming to the forefront. Do you have any opinions on on CG versus hand drawn animation?

Koji Morimoto: I have no problem with CG whatsoever. Whether it's CG or hand drawn, they're all tools to express something. There's no reason to reject CG on its own, it's just something that's new that you have to learn how to use. They say that when you tame a wild horse you can go the furthest. I think that's true of CG too. It's about finding a way to create a good relationship with that technology and the tool to be able to find new modes of expression and create something new. What do you feel about CG animation?

I like both, but with CG… in the beginning it was very limited, as far as what it could express. It could never be as fluid and human as a drawn line. With hand drawn animation, I can feel the energy of the artist, although CG now is becoming much more advanced.

Koji Morimoto: With CG I think what people are often noticing is that it feels too smooth. I think there's a new undertaking in the CG industry to create more "noise," to make it not so clean, to make it not so smooth. It might take us back to the beauty of films like The Adventure of Sinbad where they used stop frame, stop motion animation. These are things that are very tedious, but if you go frame by frame as opposed to what CG currently does with Interpolation, where you have two key frames and everything between is all smoothed out…

If you go frame by frame it's a very tedious process, but I think you can get at that human touch, the more hand-made quality we're talking about.

Evan Minto: There's also a trend where some animators use lower frame rate CG, like eight frames per second.

Koji Morimoto: (laughs) That would be interesting too, it'll feel more (natural) that way.

Evan Minto: I have a more specific question… You animated a very impressive motorbike scene at the end of Bobby ni Kubittake. I'm curious: how did that scene come about? How was the decision made to animate such an ambitious scene?

Koji Morimoto: Put simply, the director said that's what he wanted to do, so that's what we did. But as I was working on it, I kept thinking 'This is so crazy.' (laughs) It basically came from us talking and sharing ideas; there was a lot of discussion.

Evan Minto: How long did it take to animate that scene?

Koji Morimoto: That was thirty years ago so it's tough to remember, but I think it took maybe about two months or something? My hands got really black! (laughs)

Evan Minto: How does that compare to the length of a normal shot you would draw that was not this crazy thing?

Koji Morimoto: See that was all from key art. Usually you have key art and then you have all the stuff that goes in between. That one was a more direct process.

Evan Minto: So you didn't sent it to in-betweeners? You did all the in-betweens yourself?

Koji Morimoto:
It's like The Old Man and The Sea, you just chip away at it. (laughs)

Is that why it's more fun for you to be a director than an animator now? (laughs)

Koji Morimoto: (laughs) You use different parts of your brain when it comes to drawing key art or drawing storyboards. Even in my own work, I would, say, draw the storyboard by myself and then when I get around to drawing the key art from my own storyboards I'll be thinking, 'What kind of a stupid storyboard is this?' (laughs)

If it's my own project and we're running out of time, then I'll look at the schedule and I'll be like, 'All right, I guess we'll simplify this a little bit and find some short cuts…'

A good manager understands their employees' pain. (laughs)

Koji Morimoto: But when you're creating work, you can't always look for the easy way out. Certainly I think the job of a director is to push the envelope, to keep coming up with ideas that make your employees go, 'No that's crazy, we can't ever do it!' But when people say that, it inspires me, it motivates me.

So speaking of inspiration, at the recent Japan Animator Expo, there were a lot of short films screened, so I had two questions about that. One: do you think there's a future for short films in Japan? And two: were there any standout talent that you thought was really impressive?

Koji Morimoto: I do think there's a future for animated shorts, particularly for cellphones. If you make a short film that's three minutes or something very short, that you can easily watch it from your phone on your commute. Things that might be like… the Jiro Akagawa type of touch, things that can easily be seen in a short time, I think there's a future for that.

I thought it was interesting when you talked about making "anime that changes the world." Do you think that's possible?

Koji Morimoto: There are films that I've worked on and some films that I've seen that other people have made that have impacted me greatly. It's not related just to animation but movies too, both long and short, these things can have an impact. There was a Chinese film called "Bokutekki" [? unclear if that's the title] I'm not sure what the English title was, but a Chinese animation film, there was Fantastic Planet, which was a French anime film, or David Lynch's Eraserhead, or Tarkovsky films. These are films that change the way we look at the world. When I talk about changing the world, I'm not so much talking about this massive change from just one movie, I'm talking more about on an individual basis. Helping people to see the world in a new way. When you make changes in each person, collectively you can create something that maybe helps change the world a little.

You can catch up on Koji Morimoto's latest projects at his official website:  KojiMorimoto.com

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