Shinji Higuchi, Chief Director of Dragon Pilot

by Kim Morrissy,

Shinji Higuchi has been in and around the anime industry for a while. He's an old friend of Hideaki Anno and the others at Studio Gainax, and participated as a storyboard artist on classic projects like Gunbuster and Nadia - Secret of Blue Water. He also got big into the live action and tokusatsu scene, working on the special effects of Shusuke Kaneko's Gamera trilogy in the 1990s. But his highest profile project in recent years is Shin Godzilla (2016), which he directed to international acclaim.

His latest anime project is Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan, a story about female pilots who work together with dragons in a military base in Gifu. Like Shin Godzilla, Dragon Pilot has a heavy focus on military bureaucracy, and is sure to appeal to fans of the director's work. Higuchi worked alongside Hiroshi Kobayashi at Studio BONES, and penned the script alongside Mari Okada.

Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan will begin streaming on Netflix September 21, 2018.

ANN: How did you first get involved in Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan and Studio BONES?

SHINJI HIGUCHI: Well, originally, I was supposed to work with Mari Okada on another project. We had to put it on hold, but we both had hoped that we could work together some other time, fortunately we all found time for it afterwards. At the time, though I thought we were going to do the live-action films but she said, “Why don't you try doing animation?” And I thought, “Well, I might as well give it a shot.” I'd participated in a lot of anime projects before, but mostly in an auxiliary capacity. For example, Evangelion was Anno's idea. Hideaki Anno, Keiichi Hara, Mamoru Hosoda - all those guys make such interesting works. I didn't feel the necessity to create my own anime. If I was going to make an anime myself, it would have to be something that they could regard as interesting, too. Something that only I could create.

One day, Okada invited me to eat with her, and the Studio BONES president Masahiko Minami was there as well. She tried to introduce me to him, but unfortunately for her, I already knew that guy well from all the times we went drinking together. Minami was an old classmate of Anno's, and we still hang out together. I'd also lent assistance on a number of BONES anime over the years. But I'd never formally joined the studio or anything. Unlike Khara or Trigger where I know everyone there, I didn't know BONES that well, so I thought that I could keep professional distance.

BONES also has a reputation for focusing on the craft of hand-drawn 2D animation on paper, even as the rest of the industry has digitized. That got me thinking: “What kind of animation can only hand-drawn animation achieve?” That's the most important thing to think about with any kind of animated project. Like with live-action films where you have to think about which actors would best convey a character, you have to think about what kind of animation would best convey your vision when you're making an anime.

I wanted to use visuals that nobody had seen before. So when Okada asked me to make an anime with her, I started thinking specifically about what kind of style would work best. As I was deliberating on this matter, I came across Toshinao Aoki's art, not through his manga but through the little illustration and things he posted on the internet. He often held exhibits nearby, so I went to that and was impressed by his artwork. I even bought one of the t-shirts sold at the exhibit, although it didn't fit me. (laughs)

Aoki is a friend of a friend of mine. You see, he had this job drawing the illustrations for Pokémon cards. I also worked on the Pokémon card game for a bit. We had some mutual friends on Facebook, and he seemed like a cool guy, so I thought I could get in touch with him that way. That was how we became friends. After exchanging messages with him for a while and meeting him in person, I thought he was someone I could work with. So we got to talking, and he accepted my idea.

Getting the offer from Okada and deciding to work with Aoki, that was the first step.

When did Okada make the offer?

Shoji Kawamori got on board in 2014, but the first talks about a project began in 2012. That was when I decided that I wanted to do it.

What is it like working with Mari Okada?

As I said previously, we were both hoping to work together. I was really, really eager to work with her. I'm the talkative type. Without awareness, I was always talking about the things I liked about her works. So we worked together. When we'd shoot ideas at each other like a verbal squash match: “How's this idea?” “What about this one?”, everything she wrote appealed to my sweet spot. I asked her why she knew my taste. She said, “You said it yourself.” I came to realize that she was trying to adjust herself to my preference.

That much was what I expected of her, but she'd also take our ideas to their logical conclusions and twist them in outrageous ways. I'm glad she did that.

How did you divide the work of a director with Hiroshi Kobayashi?

You could say that I was Nobita and Kobayashi was Doraemon. When you're making a TV anime series, there's a limit to what you can do alone, and there are schedule constraints, too. So I'd convey what I wanted to do to Kobayashi, and he would work out how to do it in a feasible way.

I focused on writing the script and music, and we both looked over the storyboards and the voice recording sessions. After doing the groundwork together, I generally left the actual process of turning it all into animation to Kobayashi, although I would oversee things and request some tweaking here and there.

Was it your suggestion to accentuate the line art of the CG models and character designs?

No, that was Kobayashi's idea. He wanted it to give the art a nice hand-drawn aesthetic.

Who decided the general aesthetic?

Well, the idea was to capture Aoki's art style in animation. Aoki's character designs had only been adapted into anime twice before Hisone and Masotan, so we had to carve our own path. Kobayashi wanted to bring out even more of Aoki's distinctive style. Also, to reduce the burden on the animators, he decided to keep the character designs as simple as possible. But we didn't want to go too far as to betray Aoki's vision. Juggling the two demands was tough but rewarding.

Did you draw any of the storyboards yourself?

I only drew the storyboards for an episode. I also indicate the musical and editing choices myself, like the timing and which pieces should get played where.

How would you describe your approach to drawing storyboards?

I put most of the ideas I want to express in the script. When I draw storyboards, it becomes a matter of how best to convey those ideas to the audience. No, scratch that, I think it's most important to draw a storyboard that brings out the best in the animators. I don't know how well my vision gets across to them, but they're the ones actually bringing it to life. Even if a cut looks annoying to draw, I'd rather there should be something in it that makes them feel eager about giving it a shot. I'd rather be a motivator there.

The way I see it, the story that the audience experiences is in the script, while the storyboards are like memos to the staff. So it's important to get my ideas across to them.

How did it feel writing about the fearsome kaiju of Godzilla and Gamera compared to the cute dragon Masotan? Why did you decide to go for the cute approach this time?

It was the better approach for animation, I suppose. I think that you're better off depicting a scary creature like Godzilla and Gamera in live-action. If I'd really wanted to depict them but I couldn't use live-action, then I might have ended up doing so through anime. But I'd already worked on live action versions of them. So I decided to change the direction altogether.

Honestly, Masotan wouldn't be that cute if he were in a live-action show. He'd be creepy instead of cute! (laughs) I made use of the “freedom” in animation to make something that wouldn't be in a live-action show.

Everybody thought that I would like scary dragons, so Kawamori designed some cool dragons for me, but that was not what I was looking for. So, I asked (Shigeto) Koyama to come up with another. We ended up with the cute designs instead.

Before a dragon can be piloted, it has to eat the pilot. Why did you decide on that setup?

The dragon designs took quite a lot of time to finalize. Around three years ago, as we were coming up with ideas, the topic of “how would the pilot get inside the dragon?” came up. How was the cockpit going to work? On a basic level, the cockpit is where the pilot manipulates the controls of the aircraft, but it has to work aesthetically above everything else.

As we were discussing the issue, Okada suggested, “Why not make the dragon eat the pilot?” Up till that point, I hadn't been sure about what to do, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. If the dragon ate the pilot, it would solve all the design problems. So basically it was Okada's idea.

Do you think that there's a kind of symbolism in the dragon eating the pilot?

You'll see it if you look for it. The setting may reverse the master-slave dynamic. The dragons may follow orders, but when they eat the pilot, they're the ones with the power.

When I was a kid, there was a picture book I read called Ariko no Otsukai (“Ariko's Errand”). Ariko is a baby ant who goes on an errand, and at one point, she gets eaten by a praying mantis. Being a spirited ant, Ariko keeps yelling “Let me out of here” from the mantis's stomach, but then the mantis with Ariko still inside the stomach gets eaten by a starling . Then, the starling which swallowed the mantis with Ariko inside gets eaten by a cat, and so on. It is like a food chain. Even though she keeps getting eaten, she still survives. Hisone and Masotan is like that, in a way.

Why did you choose to set the story in a Japan Air Self-Defense Force base? And why Gifu in particular?

This was something that occurred to me when I met the people working for the Air Self-Defense Force for Godzilla. They're the most straight-laced. That's because they have a lot of responsibility. If they misjudge the situation, it might cause serious troubles. It might kill many people and mislead the airplanes to crash to the ground.

It occurred to me that even though we have this image of planes flying freely through the air, they're not free at all. The flight plans have to be worked out beforehand, and many have to work behind the scenes. That's why a lot of people at the base don't actually fly; they do all sorts of things to ensure that the handful of people who do fly can do so smoothly.

I figured that people like that would be really inconvenienced by a whimsical creature like a dragon. But because they're the Self-Defense Force, they're obligated to follow any order for the sake of their country. Outside of wartime, there are many things they must still do, like helping people, and all on a low salary because they're public servants. Even if they're told to do something that they don't want to do, they'll put on their game face and do it. That's what's admirable about them. Okada and I got to talking about how interesting it would be to see a story about the Self-Defense Force having to raise and live with dragons.

So the next question became “Which air base to use?” There are around 20 bases with aircrafts, and each base has its own purpose and could have brush-ins with planes from some other countries. Those bases cannot afford to raise a dragon and cannot sustain the realism in the story. But the Gifu base was different from the others because they focused more on giving the aptitude tests and making the manuals to spread out to the other bases than anything else. When there are newly installed aircrafts, the people at Gifu are the ones who test them. It wouldn't be strange to see different types of machinery there. It's also the oldest Air Self-Defense Force base in Japan.

Oh, I didn't know that.

It was shown in The Wind Rises. That was set in wartime, though. All the aircrafts in the story were tested at Gifu.

You're familiar with both animation and tokusatsu. What's the biggest difference between the two mediums, especially in how they pursue “realism”?

Hmm… They both strive for the same thing, but they get there through different means. It's like comparing how you climb mountains to how you swim in the sea. You don't use the same methods in different fields.

I think that the gap between the two mediums is closing. People used to say that anime and live-action are completely different, and while they're not exactly the same these days, there are times when it's harder to tell the difference. For example, detailed animation can convey the same kind of nuanced gestures that an actor in a live-action movie would use. On the other hand, an actor can exaggerate their movements to give a more “anime-ish” impression. There are more young actors these days who are familiar with anime and can do that. Anime is getting better at replicating the look and feel of live-action, and vice versa.

In the past, people used to argue that it was impossible for one medium to be like the other. But these days, on some occasions from my own experience, it feels almost as if animation strives for more realism than live-action does. There are some people who get really particular in getting the animation to look as detailed and realistic as possible. Kobayashi is one of those people, for example.

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