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Poupelle of Chimney Town Sets Its Sights on The Sky and Beyond

by Kalai Chik,

Akihiro Nishino's best-selling book turned movie, Poupelle of Chimney Town, follows a starry-eyed young boy, Lubicchi, who spends his days cleaning chimneys hoping to one day see “stars” through the smoke. This interest was instilled in him by his father, who spent much of his time talking to the townspeople of the stars through kamishibai, or paper play. However, no one believed him as the town and the sky are always gray from the smoke. Although his father mysteriously disappeared one day, Lubicchi never gave up on the hope to see those mysterious lights in the sky.

On Halloween, he meets a garbage person named Poupelle, who is a literal sentient anthropomorphic pile of rubbish given life. Together, they slowly inch towards the answer of whether there are stars or not. Yet, general disbelief from the townspeople and hostile Inquisitors, the town's police force, leave Poupelle and Lubicchi isolated in their search. In a surprising turn of events, the duo begins making progress when they receive help from an underground resident.

The movie opened in theaters on December 30 in New York and Los Angeles, and will premiere nationwide on January 7. Originally, the movie's English dub premiered at the Animation is Film Festival in late October last year, where creator Akihiro Nishino surprised the crowd by announcing a sequel for the movie at a virtual Q&A.

ANN spoke with director Yusuke Hirota through Zoom and creator Akihiro Nishino in person at a recent press event to talk more about Poupelle.

(For director Yusuke Hirota) As this is your directional debut, how did you collaborate with Akihiro Nishino on adapting his book to a CGI movie?

Even though the movie is based on a picture book, Mr. Nishino had already written the script since he wanted to make a film in the first place. The picture book was coming from episodes and shots from the script. When they decided to move forward with producing the film, they developed from there. But the visual references are from the book.

I read that the books didn't have the entire plot because Mr. Nishino was always planning on making this a movie first. That said, he had a different team for the book and the movie. Did you reference any of that material from the art exhibitions for world building?

The picture book was a great reference. However, the visuals for the film were made from scratch. It's difficult delivering 250 years of history for this town into a movie. I discussed with the production designer, Mr. Sato, for this film. For instance, where Lubicchi lives, and the design for the town.

How were actress Mana Ashida and actor Masataka Kubota chosen to play Lubicchi and Poupelle? What was your experience working with them like?

Let's start with the character of Poupelle. He's not perfect; he can be pretty weak at times, but at the same time, somehow being together with Lubicchi gives him courage. I thought, who can pull off all that feeling well? I watched a lot of TV variety shows and came across Masataka Kubota. As for Lubicchi, he believes in the stars behind the clouds. But he needed to have a specific tone for his dialogue and his character. Now, who can pull off the dialogue and words organically? Who would be perfect for this character in Japan? Eventually I concluded that it would have to be Mana Ashida.

Those two are great actors. Without me having to give them a lot of direction, they already understood who the characters are and were so deeply invested in them. Poupelle is a fictional garbage man, right? You wouldn't know how he would speak from just that image. But Mr. Kubota did a great job building that character from scratch, and he perfectly understood the character.

Your previous Studio 4°C work, Children of the Sea, had a beautiful blue pallet given its setting around the sea and aquatic life. For Poupelle, it's a very colorful city despite it being a smokey place. Although you have plenty of visual references from the book, how did you use color to bring Chimney Town to life?

The Chimney Town is covered in smoke all the time. It's dark and gray. When it comes to how to deal with the smoke, if I only focus on the smoke—trying to make it all dark and gray—there would be no contrast. I would say contrast is the key point to color. I was very careful in figuring out how to use light in every shot, while making adjustments shot by shot. There are people who live in this dark world, and despite the atmosphere, they are actually having fun living there. I wanted to express a cheerful feeling within those people who live in the town. The signs that you see all over the town, as well as the buildings and clothes, are all rather colorful and contrasts with the dark grey.

During Animation is Film Festival, Mr. Nishino hinted at a sequel to Poupelle. Is there a sequel still in the works?

Formally, I haven't started yet. But I think Mr. Nishino has.

(For creator Akihiro Nishino) You've gone through a very unusual route for both the movie and the publishing of Poupelle of Chimney Town. You've done art exhibitions, crowdfunding campaigns, etc. and that's very different from the usual route to publishing a book to the movie. Now that you've released the movie, how do you reflect on your journey?

Truth be told, the movie script was done first. However, while gathering all the moving parts for the script together, it became a stage drama that was the first thing to be shown to an audience. It lasted for about three months and I was seeing the audience's reactions while I was putting together and improving the pieces for the script.

So about three months after, the script finally became one put-together piece. But even with a completed script, if you immediately try to make it into a movie, no one would be interested. No one would be interested in something that isn't a pre-existing IP. In Japan, you often see movies based on popular dramas, books, or manga but nothing for original works. People typically wouldn't be interested in seeing something like that. Which means I had to address that first.

Slowly I had started building out the pages one at a time, and that would eventually become the drawn book for Poupelle of Chimney Town. The whole process took about 4-5 years. I thought a picture book was a good product, but I needed to spread awareness for it. In order to do that, I released all the pages for free hoping to reach any and every person that would read it. A lot of people did end up reading it. Then I hosted solo exhibitions for the book across Japan and started selling printed versions of the book as a souvenir for the exhibition, and that's how I began selling the book. Steadily, different regions would be asking to sell the book and that would continue on to perpetuity until it reached a ton of people to get interest in a film adaptation.

That whole journey, to summarize, took 7 years to get to where Poupelle is now.

You've spoken about how the plan was for Poupelle to become a movie from the start, but how were you approached about a movie adaptation by Studio 4°C?

Before this movie was created, we had about a year long discussion in terms of what would be the foundation of this movie because we had to create this town, the Chimney Town. Since it's a fictional town, it is a very challenging thing. You need to think about what kind of food the townspeople eat or what kind of laws govern them. Because there is no light coming in, what are the kind of problems that can be caused by that? What are the benefits and disadvantages? Those are the things that we had to think about, and in order to do that we spend about a year discussing that.

Before you worked on illustrated books, you used to do comedy, specifically manzai in a duo called King Kong. Poupelle and Lubicchi are somewhat of a traditional boke and tsukkomi pair. Would you agree? Did that naturally happen while you were writing the story or was that planned from the start?

Since I have a long experience as a comedian, there are elements that incorporate into the story that are related. But that is especially true for the character of Scopp. He's a character that talks a lot; like a blabbermouth. in Japan when you're creating this screenplay, you're writing the descriptions and how you want to represent this character. In the case of Scopp, yes, he talks a lot, but there are more between the lines. Such as what kind of mistakes would he make? You wouldn't be able to tell just looking at these descriptions.

So, what I did was that I gathered all the animation artists, along with director Hirota in the studio and physically acted out Scopp with my handmade costume. He's inside a car-like thing, which I made from cardboard, and I acted out in front of them while talking fast and gesturing. It was like performing in front of an audience of adults who quietly watched as I scrambled around. That's where I was able to use my built-up experiences as a comedian.

Personally, I cried whenever Lubicchi was reminded of his father when he looked at Poupelle. When you were writing the story, was there anything specific you wanted to focus on when it came to family?

Interestingly enough, the base of the story was actually around my relationship with my mentor. There's something that this mentor has told me that I still cherish until now. “You have to believe in your ability, fully, until the end.” Because otherwise the people around you—your staff, the audience, your friends–will not follow you. Even if there's nobody around you, you need to become the first person to believe in yourself.

Bruno and Lubicchi's relationship is my relationship with my mentor. As I followed his words and believed in myself, I started to receive the support of staff and friends, and was able to create the project and make it bigger and bigger.

In previous interviews, you mentioned that Poupelle comes from a very personal place as people would dismiss your dreams and aspirations as impossible when you first started publishing this book. And now you've not only promoted Poupelle across the world as a book but also a movie. How do you view your critics now?

To those who criticize me, I don't have many feelings for them. But I was worried about the people who are around me that were also blamed because they were around me. The cultural difference in Japan is that in Japan, when you become successful, people criticize you and attack you and the people around you. It's okay if they do that to me, but it started to move beyond me.

People around me were attacked and I wasn't happy with that. I felt sorry that that was happening to them. Little by little, when the story became somewhat popular and appreciated, I think that I was able to give back to the people around me for putting up with all this criticism.

How did you work together with Lozareena to create the ending song? Within the song, it tells the whole story of the movie.

What's interesting about Poupelle is that we had the song first. I was playing this melody and I thought, “Oh this sounds good.” I use that to construct the story. The music was composed way before the movie, and after I made the song, I met Lozareena. There are different standards to how you would call a singer good or bad, but her voice is very attractive. I thought “She's something different and her voice really matches with this fantasy world.”

At the time I decided that if I ever make the movie, she is going to be singing the ending song. However, at the time, she was an unknown singer. I had to make sure that she gets featured as the singer for the ending theme song because, oftentimes, the people who are involved with the movie want to book a big-name singer. You can use the person for promotion and have them appear on TV singing and such. But I really wanted someone who really matches what I wanted to deliver with this film. She was it.

During the Poupelle Q&A at Animation is Film Festival, you mentioned talks about a sequel. Is that still in the works?

Yes, that's right. I did say that. There will be Poupelle 2, 3 and more!

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