Interview: Studio Ghibli Production Coordinator Hirokatsu Kihara

by Kyle Cardine,

Hirokatsu Kihara, a Studio Ghilbi production coordinator from 1985-1990, holds an exceptional amount of knowledge about the studio's early production history with credits most famously to Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, and Kiki's Delivery Service, and he was on-hand for an excited panel audience at Otakon 2018. “You have no idea how lucky you are that you are here,” said Kihara. “I hope my talk will be inspiring for aspiring creators.”

With this year being the 30th anniversary of Totoro, Kihara was curious if anyone had any questions about the movie. “Did you know how popular Totoro was going to be?” one person asked from the back.

Kihara would never answer this question. But in the process, he would tell you things he knew you would much rather learn.

Kihara has been traveling quite a bit to anime conventions in the last few years, giving talks in London, Boston, Montreal, and now Washington, including a panel at the Library of Congress. Kihara's panels are primarily about him showcasing his book of Studio Ghibli production materials filled with storyboards, cels, posters, backgrounds and much more from Nausicaä, Laputa, Totoro, and Kiki's. Before he presents, he absolutely demands that no one take photos as the materials are all his personal property and the copyrights are owned by Disney.

But there is always a sense of preservation with Kihara's presentations. “Back then the studio's job was to make a film. So when it was complete, this was all waste,” said Kihara. “Can you believe that? They would put [the production materials] in the trash. At the time I thought 'No, this is wrong. This must be preserved.' People may not care about it in two or three years, but five, ten, 15 years down the line this is going to be worth it. It should be used for future animators to study from. I really want inspiring creators to see the real thing.”

The presentation included the first test cel poster for My Neighbor Totoro, character sheets for Medium and Little Totoro, original storyboards for the opening scene that was later deleted, among many other items. He also claims that he is the inspiration for the Catbus. “The character design was made before, but the problem was the acting,” said Kihara. “Miyazaki said 'Since the catbus is always laughing, you're the model!'”

Kihara also showed the original Studio Ghibli logo art and emphasized how unique it was to own such an item. “I was invited to Pixar once and met the directors of Monsters Inc. (Pete Docter), The Iron Giant (Brad Bird) and The Good Dinosaur (Peter Sohn). They came to see me!” said Kihara. “The top staff at Pixar were most impressed by the Studio Ghibli logo. Even at Disney they haven't seen who drew the original art of Cinderella's Castle for the Disney logo. But you're seeing [Ghibli's] original logo here.”

One person at the Saturday panel said Kihara showed Miyazaki's self-portrait from the late 80s of what Miyazaki thought he would look like in 30 years. It was him in a hot rod with a speech bubble that said “You ready to rock and roll, baby?”

At one point Kihara began to describe that in animation “time is color.” Puzzling at first, he showed two images of a lake featured in Nausicaä, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, to emphasize how the color of the lake would look different at different times of day. It's when seeing production materials like this where something clicks in your mind and you begin to understand just the amount of detail Miyazaki requires and demands of his staff.

Kihara does not stray from speaking about the rough working relationship he had with Miyazaki. “Miyazaki requires communication; A special understanding of his work,” said Kihara. “Before animating, you make a storyboard. Not all directors are like this, but he shows the storyboard and asks 'What do you think?' He demands a correct answer. For him, you must produce a correct answer.”

It is also the information that Kihara was forced to remember during production that he can still say off of the top of his head today: There are 75,000 sheets of animation, 1,847 cuts, and 385 colors in Laputa. 55,000 sheets for Totoro, with the ending having 19. 75,000 sheets for Kiki's. “Miyazaki would ask 'Where's card 356? Who's working on card 125? When are the key frames for card 5 going to be finished?' You have to have these off the top of your head,” said Kihara. “If you're checking your notes, you're not cut out for the job.”

“You have to be studying the sheets every day all the time,” said Kihara. “But sometimes he doesn't know the right answer so you need the right answer hidden inside you.”

Despite this, Kihara said Miyazaki also demands a sense of creativity and individuality. “He requires that you have a deep understanding of the characters and the world. But I continued to work with him for five years straight. It's a miracle I was able to produce the right answer for five years,” said Kihara. “Besides understanding the story, he'd ask 'What is Totoro going to do? What is the Catbus going to do now?' The correct answer is to be highly individual and to be creative. If someone says 'oh, does that really matter?' or they don't know, he doesn't need that person.”

It was the same weekend of Otakon when excerpts of The Ghibli Textbook #19: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya started to come out, where producer Toshio Suzuki seemed quite damning about his characterizations of the late-director Isao Takahata. Stories of Miyazaki's harsh work attitude have long been known, but reading that these problems were studio-wide leaves a different taste now. Listening to Kihara, you can feel the stress in his words, but there's also a tone of great respect. It's maybe something that only Kihara, or anyone else with a direct work relationship, can truly understand.

“[Miyazaki's] thinking was way beyond us. He had the leadership skills to bring us together. But he is scary when he is mad. Extremely scary,” said Kihara. “Sometimes I have nightmares still even now. I don't know who you'll grow up to be, and I understand the hardships people have, but I hope you won't try to run away from your troubles. No matter what you do, working hard is best done when you're young.”

ANN had an opportunity to sit down with Kihara for an interview on the Saturday of Otakon.

ANN: First, you've been to a lot of American conventions within the last two years. How has it been? What has your experience been like?

Kihara: My experience with American conventions is that it's more about how Japanese anime, manga, and games are being enjoyed here rather than the experience of talking in panels and whatnot. I feel the way in which Japanese anime, manga, games are being enjoyed here is a lot more frank, positive and there's way more people. Almost to the extent of being carnival like. In past years, I've been to Boston and now Washington, and I feel that I have actually learned many things about how we should be enjoying things. I've actually been testing my theory out in the panels and I was right: What people want is not just to gain knowledge, but to also enjoy things. That is the education I actually got from you in America.

What I have come to understand by coming to the US is that the way I do panels here is much more closer to the way Americans do stuff. If I were to do the same back in Japan, people would say “Oh, that's guy's too loud. He's not serious enough.” I feel like here in America people actually see the value in not only what's being presented, but you yourself as a person. I feel like I'm able to put in a bit of wit and humor inside my panels. I don't think I'd be able to do that in Japan. As far as my personality, maybe I'm more cut out to be here in the US. Maybe that's why I like to go where a lot of other people are and talk about things in the US.

I can see in your panel that you're an excellent storyteller.

Kihara: I believe I am one of the first generations of people to actually go from an Otaku to being a professional. What I gather from that is, I know what people actually want. The people that come here, what they want is right on their faces. I can see that. At Anime Boston, there was a panel of 300 people standing up and giving a standing ovation. That was proof to me that this trait is not something bought or obtained. It is courage that the fans and Boston have provided me. I believe that I'm going to be brought to many other US conventions because of that. I've been to Boston twice, Montreal, and now DC. During this convention, there have been several people who have approached me and said “Do you want to do a panel at our library or town?” I do believe that is proof that what you said was right. That you were not mistaken. It's proof that it works.

I believe that the way people in the US have fun is a lot more sincere. I believe they are a lot more open in saying “Wow! Oh my god!” or they're tears and say “Please come again!” Staff believe sincerely that I'm going to be here again. Those words and actions are very important. In Japan, this would never happen because people would say “Oh, that was good” and there would maybe a difference in how they clapped, but they rarely say it to me directly why it was good or how it was good. I also believe that it's similar to how I enjoy things. Like “This is awesome! Turn the page! Oh, don't show me that!” I feel that I discovered I might be closer to how you're supposed to enjoy stuff here in the US. I believe from a Japanese perspective it's wonderful to have all those passionate people around the US acting out their passions. Being truthful with their passions is a lot better. I believe, in a way, people in Japan might be a bit wasteful with how they enjoy things because all that's there is kind of a summary, and not an exact reaction. Being open minded or being your true self here is understood better because people understand that you are not trying to lie about what you are, and people accept you for what you are. I believe that communication is a lot happier here. Maybe I should think about staying in the US really.

I have to ask you at least one Ghibli question. Last time I saw you in April, it was four days later that Takahata passed. What is your favorite Takahata story?

Kihara: This is a story about Grave of the Fireflies. Back then, Grave of the Fireflies was shown at the same time as My Neighbor Totoro. That's kind of crazy if you think about it now - one company showing two brand-new animated movies at the same time. Grave of the Fireflies had three different cuts of the same scene that did not have color. It was, by technical standards, unfinished. It was part of the scene where the brother's hand is lighting a match and setting his sister's body on fire. This captures what I believe is a sincere depiction of the person Takahata was. For this one scene, there were many iterations - "should it catch fire immediately?” or “are there some strikes before the match catches fire?” Or maybe the fire would be set in the morning or there would be a pause. There's all those “maybe” iterations, possibilities, different cuts. I believe the fact that Takahata made all those iterations over and over again, just for that one scene - that captures the essence of the man. It's sad, because all people know now is that there were three cuts that were animated but not colored that nobody's ever seen. I will be putting this story in one of my books called “Futari no Totoro.” This story will be added in at the end because Takahata passed days after I finished the final draft. Please spread the word about this book and Takahata-san's memories.

Thank you to Hirokatsu Kihara and Otakon for the opportunity.

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