The Mike Toole Show
Kawajiri Cavalcade

by Michael Toole,

This holiday season, a true anime classic finally got its due with a high-quality blu-ray release. In the commentary track, the director discusses how he was fascinated with the subject of the film as a child himself, and making a film about it was the fulfillment of his long-held ambitions. Many of us saw this beloved feature as kids and teenagers, and it really opened our minds to the possibilities of animation. Also, a dude with poisonous wasps who lives in his back gets chopped up by a wind-channeling sword in the movie, and it's AWESOME. Obviously, I'm talking about Ninja Scroll, and its director, Yoshiaki Kawajiri.

Taking a look at the biography and filmography of a dude like Kawajiri is illuminating, because not a lot of anime creators do what he does, or take the approach to filmmaking that he takes. But to figure out his technique and why it works so well in his projects, it's important to start at the beginning. Yoshiaki Kawajiri grew up in 1960s Yokohama, and is part of that long boom of Japanese artists and animators who, with few traditional training options, just went straight into the animation business out of high school. He'd done some manga and illustration in high school (none of it professionally) and was convinced that the best way to improve his drawing techniques quickly would be to work as an animator. At first, the plan was to study animation, then return to the manga field and launch his career there. However, as Kawajiri himself has pointed out, once you immerse yourself in a profession where you bring your drawings to life, the idea of going back to static comics loses a lot of appeal.

Kawajiri worked for a few years at Tezuka's Mushi Production, before the company went bankrupt in 1972. From there, he was one of the first hires at a brand new firm called MADHOUSE, and for several years, he worked as as an animator for fare like Aim for the Ace!. His superiors eventually noticed his unique talents-- he was particularly good at hewing close to storyboards and character model sheets. This eye for detail got him promoted to key animator and designer on major projects like Unico and The Door into Summer, and his reliably good work on those productions rocketed him straight to the director's chair for 1984's Lensman feature film.

Well, for that movie, it was more like a director's loveseat, which Kawajiri shared with veteran animator Kazuyuki Hirokawa. Lensman is a pretty curious example of Kawajiri's work - ostensibly based on the novels of science fiction pioneer E.E. “Doc” Smith, it doesn't bear much resemblance to the literature, with major details bent and altered to make the film feel more Star Wars-y. The departure from the source material can perhaps be explained by looking at the scriptwriter, the mercurial Sōji Yoshikawa, or just by virtue of the global public's appetite for space opera during the early 1980s. And while Golgo 13: The Professional was the first feature film to showcase 3D computer graphics, Lensman was quick on its heels, with CG space combat segments produced by the New York Institute of Technology.

Kawajiri didn't just co-direct Lensman, either. Much of the character design and storyboard work is his, as well, and that would really establish Kawajiri as an “everything” director, who plans his films not as sets of separate units (script, storyboard, animation, sound and music, etc.) who fitfully collaborate, but as complete, seamless works that are marshaled by a small, tight-knit team of creative staff. Despite his good work (even when you compare Lensman to his most recent fare, it's obviously a Kawajiri movie), Lensman didn't leave much of an impression. Its screening at the 1984 WorldCon left attendees (and, notably, Smith's heirs) confused and unhappy with the sweeping changes to the original, and a follow-up TV series was cut short before its completion. The film had been gathering dust for more than five years at TOHO's vaults when Carl Macek and Jerry Beck dug it up as one of their Streamline Pictures releases in the early 90s. There's no current legal release of it (even Japan lacks a DVD release), but thanks to Streamline's adaptation, it's not too hard to find in English on the internet.

It would be Kawajiri's follow-up to Lensman that would introduce a ton of American fans to his style. But that follow-up wasn't a feature film, but a short, part of a compilation project called Meikyu Monogatari, or Labyrinth Tales. Labyrinth Tales, or NEO-TOKYO, as it was eventually retitled in North America (thanks, Akira!), is a set of three films by Kawajiri, Katsuhiro Otomo, and chief director Rintaro. It's a charmingly weird title that played well to animation junkies around the world, but Kawajiri's contribution, The Running Man, stood out so much that it was snapped up by TV producer Japhet Asher to be included in his Liquid Television, a weekly TV digest of odd cartoons that aired on the hugely popular MTV. If you're under 25, Liquid TV might not ring a bell, but it had an enormous impact, launching or reinforcing the careers of animation luminaries like Peter Chung (Aeon Flux), Mike Judge (Beavis & Butt-head), and Bill Plympton. The short itself, a futuristic piece about an obsessed auto racer with dangerous telekinetic powers, is absolutely engrossing, and the timing of its TV debut in October 1992 was remarkably fortuitous; even as Running Man was airing around the country, Streamline was ramping up US theatrical releases of Lensman and Neo Tokyo around the country; later, they'd bring to theatres what turned out to be Kawajiri's breakout hit in Japan, Wicked City.

1987's Wicked City was Yoshiaki Kawajiri's first feature project as a solo director, but interestingly, it didn't start out that way. Initially, publisher Japan Home Video had asked Madhouse for a 35-minute OVA based on Wicked City, a novel by the popular Hideyuki Kikuchi. What Kawajiri turned in was a taut, action-packed romp starring a suave salaryman who doubles as a high-powered bodyguard to supernatural emissaries from the human world. He teams up with a comely female counterpart from the demon world to ensure a treaty between the two holds up. The thing is, Kawajiri did such a good job on Wicked City that JHV came back to Madhouse after seeing the 35-minute cut and pretty much said “Look, we know you're finished with this one, but do you think you could double the running time?” Kawajiri obliged; the now 80-minute Wicked City, featuring a tantalizingly weird mixture of bloody action and spooky erotica, was a huge hit in Japan, would make Kawajiri's name as a top action director, create a good relationship between the director and writer Kikuchi, and became one of the standard-bearers for adult-oriented animation around the world.

Unsurprisingly, JHV were hungry for a follow-up in the wake of Wicked City’s success, so Kawajiri was hired back in 1988 to direct Demon City Shinjuku, another supernatural actioner based on a Kikuchi novel. This OVA isn't quite as refined as its predecessor, with notably goofier heroes and villains and a much simpler story, but on a strictly visual level, it's remarkably similar to Wicked City, and makes a good companion for it. Oddly, Wicked City's gone out of print, but Demon City Shinjuku survives in newly-remastered form, thanks to our pals at Discotek. Demon City Shinjuku would be followed on by Goku: Midnight Eye in 1989.

With Goku, an adaptation of Buichi Terasawa's sci-fi manga, Kawajiri was right back in his element, chronicling the tale of a hard-luck P.I. who finds himself in possession of a mysterious cybernetic prosthetic eye, a tiny megacomputer that can seize control of almost any electronics it sees. With that eye, his trusty extendable staff (he is named Goku, right?), and his questionable fashion choices, Goku fights bad guys in a dark Tokyo of the future. Goku represented a return to The Running Man's futuristic, neo-noir aesthetic for Kawajiri, and he'd build on that with 1990's Cyber City Oedo 808.

Listen, you can basically go to Amazon and get Cyber City Oedo 808 for a dollar. I recommend it not just because it's a quality piece of Kawajiri animation and not just because it features an interesting commentary track with Kawajiri and producer Masao Maruyama, but because it's weird stuff, even for Kawajiri. It takes the futuristic, vaguely cyberpunk settings of fare like Goku, but mixes in some strange references to Japanese history, like the weapons that our heroes carry and the feudal practice that utilizes probated criminals as agents of the law in return for reductions to their sentences. OEDO also looks a bit different from typical Kawajiri, with much more fanciful, cartoonish heroes. The dub is an off-the-wall classic, an early 1990s Manga UK joint that involves lots and lots of swearing. At the end of the day, I really appreciate the sheer number of risks Kawajiri took in creating this 3-part OVA-- it's a strange story, its heroes are really atypical (on the commentary, Kawajiri recalls his producers complaining that one of the protagonists, Goggles, is over 40, and also worrying about his decision to make the girl character into an effeminate man instead), but it's still pretty entertaining stuff.

Keep in mind that all throughout Kawajiri's rise as a director, he kept himself busy with a variety of duties for other projects, too. He was key animator on Harmageddon, helping to make that incoherent flick a joy to watch nonetheless. He teamed up again with Rintaro, doing key animation for Dagger of Kamui. He was supervising director on Pet Shop of Horrors, and he did design and key animation work for Time Stranger, Mori Masaki's visually arresting auteur project. He didn't direct A Wind Named Amnesia, but he still got involved, supervising and creating a screenplay based on his friend Kikuchi's novel. Much of these works were made before he became an established director, but he'd continue to do stuff like this after he started directing, showcasing his rare versatility.

In 1993, we got two things from Yoshiaki Kawajiri. One of them was Slipstream, the first part of Leiji Matsumoto's The Cockpit OVA, a tale of aerial combat in World War II. The other one is Ninja Scroll, which is Kawajiri's most important work. This isn't merely so because it's a really entertaining and famous film that made a bunch of money and enjoys a good reputation in the west. Simply put, it's because Ninja Scroll is the most perfect example of the Kawajiri ethos. I've talked about some of the films he's made, but this movie really sums up his approach to filmmaking. Kawajiri grew up fascinated with legends of the ninja; he compares this to an American kid growing up engrossed with cowboys and the old west, so he had long held the idea of a great ninja story in his mind. Kawajiri is an extremely visual director - he writes screenplays, true (he even scripted the live-action Azumi 2), but for him a good film starts with powerful imagery. “I want to share something that I love watching myself,” Kawajiri commented in a 2000 interview on the Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust DVD. “This is my entertainment philosophy.”

Kawajiri didn't just direct Ninja Scroll. He wrote the story and screenplay, drew the characters, drew the storyboards and production art, and supervised the animation itself. Frequent collaborator Yutaka Minowa has described Kawajiri as a “blueprint” guy - after all, once the script is written, the storyboards and production art are done, and the layouts are ready to be fully animated, the movie's finished, right? This “all in one” approach is a signature of Kawajiri's work as a director, and there aren't a whole lot of animators who operate that way. Perhaps Rintaro is similar, but not for so many of his films. We'd see more of that “all in one” approach in Kawajiri's next directorial effort, 1996's Birdy the Mighty.

A lot of you are probably familiar with Birdy, thanks to the much more recent Birdy the Mighty: Decode TV series by Kazuki Akane. Kawajiri's Birdy is recognizably the same characters and story, but remarkably different, with scarier monsters, more kinetic action scenes, and a more focused, taciturn version of the heroine. He directed Birdy, he wrote the screenplay for one of the episodes, and was particularly lavish in his attention to episodes 2 and 4 of the 4-part OVA, handling both storyboards and key animation. Like many of the titles mentioned here, Birdy netted a DVD release, but like many of the titles mentioned here, it's out of print.

After Birdy, Kawajiri would step back a bit for a few years, doing storyboards for Card Captor Sakura here, key animation for Memories there. But he was right back in action in 2001. As it turns out, the anime boom in North America was edging closer to its peak at that point, so he spent much of 2000 directing a follow-up to Toyoo Ashida's classic Vampire Hunter D OVA. Ashida's adaptation of Kikuchi's popular half-vampire antihero was well-received by fans, but the author was dissatisfied with his approach-- so when a new Vampire Hunter D was proposed, who better to direct than his old friend Kawajiri? The resulting film, an adaptation of the novel Demon Deathchase titled Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, is an extremely fun, fast-paced action flick that might be one of the best east-west collaborations on record. VHD: Bloodlust was animated in Japan, but much of the money for its production came from producer Mata Yamamoto's Hollywood offices, with music, sound mixing, and voice acting all coming out of California as well (Bloodlust is one of those deals that was dubbed in English first; in fact, the Japanese dub never came out here!). Even in 2000, the American producers speak on the DVD at great length about Kawajiri's popularity in the west, and his great sense of storytelling. Visually, the movie is remarkably close to Yoshitaka Amano's elaborate illustrations, but the humble Kawajiri refuses to take credit for this, instead pointing to chief animator Yutaka Minowa for faithfully adapting the dunpeal D's looks for the big screen. A decade later, this film holds up wonderfully, and is really overdue for some sort of bluray release.

Even as he was wrapping up Bloodlust, Kawajiri was getting right back into it at Madhouse, handling his first-ever direction of a TV series, the 2001 adaptation of CLAMP's X manga. Given the gorgeous but flawed manga, Kawajiri's X is a pretty good adaptation, albeit one with much less visual luster than his OVA and film projects. There are a few episodes that really have that Kawajiri style-- the first two have it in spades-- but overall X is a good indicator that Kawajiri's visual strengths don't thrive in the budget-starved world of TV animation. He was right back in his element for Warner Bros. Animatrix, a blockbuster anthology that fleshed out the world of its Matrix films. Kawajiri's short, Program, is one of the best on the disc, and let's not forget he also wrote the script for Takeshi Koike's World Record!

When I first heard that a Highlander anime was in production, I was vastly skeptical. The franchise had never produced anything remotely as good as the original 1986 film (the TV series isn't awful, but the rest of the films certainly are), and it just seemed to me that the story wasn't ripe for any more development. I was heartened when I saw the first teaser trailer in 2006, because you could tell right away that it was Kawajiri's work-- the kinetic editing, detailed animation, and great fight scenes were unmistakable. The resulting 2007 DTV movie is a hard nut to crack. It's fun to watch, certainly, but how good is it? Well, it's certainly the second-best Highlander anything, as my friend Daryl Surat has pointed out. When I saw it in 2007, I felt underwhelmed by the sometimes incoherent editing, and this year, I finally figured out why: I wasn't seeing Kawajiri's version.

See, Yoshiaki Kawajiri is a perfectionist. In multiple interviews, he's pointed out that when he finishes a movie and watches the final product, he feels a weird mixture of immense satisfaction at the finer points and dissatisfaction and the stuff he should've done better. His journey as a filmmaker has been about trying to minimize that sense of dissatisfaction. To him, doing so requires a great deal of autonomy; “I tend to be difficult to work with if I'm not given my freedom,” he glibly remarked during a Q&A session at Sakura-con this year. Highlander was his to create, but it was still based on a script by David Abramowitz. When Kawajiri started making significant revisions to that script (the presence of a virus in the movie's story is all him), Abramowitz flew to Tokyo to straighten things out with the director. “Like most writers, I folded in the face of Kawajiri,” Abramowitz later confessed. “We had a difference of opinion, and I yielded; Kawajiri has a great sense of story.” Despite that, the final product on American shelves was drastically different from what Kawajiri created-- noisier and pacier, but halting, and less coherent. Turns out that the producers went ahead and cut out nearly 10 minutes of story, greatly rearranging the film in the process. Producer Galen Walker acknowledged, in a 2007 interview over at AICN, that Kawajiri wasn't happy with the commercial cut, but no problem-- the director's cut would be out on video next year! Yeah, that never came out; only Japan got it. You can pick it up for short money used, if you happen to be in Japan; the disc still has the English dub, which, like VHD: Bloodlust, was the original language version. I still wish we got it here, though. Unfortunately, when it comes to Highlander anime releases, there can be only o-- okay look I am not doing this.

In recent years, Yoshiaki Kawajiri has strayed from the director's chair. He's still storyboarding and animating like a maniac-- the best episodes of the Marvel X-Men and Iron Man anime are his, and he's also responsible for the smooth, consistent prettiness of Chihayafuru, chipping in storyboard and production art. (Try to imagine what that show would be like if he directed it!) He backstopped Takeshi Koike's great REDLINE (at Sakura-con, he praised the movie's visual luster, but complained about how difficult it was to draw such detailed stuff). But at that same Sakura-con, he admitted he's an older dude, and he might just have one movie left in him.

Obviously, he wants that movie to be Ninja Scroll 2. It's weird and unfortunate that we've never gotten a proper sequel to Kawajiri's signature film-- oh sure, there was that mediocre TV anime (Kawajiri didn't work on it himself), and there was some sort of weird comic book adaptation, but all we've got of a true sequel is a sizzle reel that Kawajiri cooked up to attract investors. See, there's a grim little downside to anime success stories like Ninja Scroll-- despite its booming popularity overseas, it wasn't that big in Japan, and the original studio doesn't collect much of the money from overseas video sales. What Kawajiri needs to make Ninja Scroll 2 a success isn't just a studio and some funding, it's savvy marketers and distributors who can get the film to people who want to see it, and get their money back to Kawajiri intact. That's a hell of a trick.

The other issue is the one of creative control; if Kawajiri doesn't have that, he's not going to bother. We can look at his reaction to Highlander, but more recently, Kawajiri was upset enough with his contribution to Batman: Gotham Knight that he had his name taken off it altogether. I could write pretty extensively about Gotham Knight, the vaunted BATMAN ANIME!! that Warner Bros. eventually released with no mention of anime on the freaking box, only a vague mention of “top animation directors.” Kawajiri's name was attached to the project, but by the time it came out, his segment, Deadshot, was credited to Jong Sik-nam, who served as animation director, and his team at Dongwoo Animation. This makes the credits weird as hell-- the entire staff for the film is an assemblage of Japanese studios and artists, but for Deadshot, you just see “animation by Madhouse” and then it goes straight to Jong's team. I haven't been able to get anyone to comment about what happened with Deadshot, either-- Kawajiri will acknowledge that he worked on it, but hasn't said anything else. It's pretty easy to assume that some backseat driving went on, and Kawajiri felt compelled to pull an Alan Smithee. I sure would like to know why, though!

Yoshiaki Kawajiri may not be directing at the moment, but he's still doing good work. In The Tibetan Dog, a Japanese-Chinese co-production that Masao Maruyama's been talking up for years, Kawajiri did the key animation. The great Morio Asaka is directing Chihayafuru season 2, but I'll bet you a dollar that we'll see Kawajiri's storyboards or production artwork work its way in there somehow. But talents like Kawajiri's are rare, so I'm hoping he'll get his crack at Ninja Scroll 2 soon. A director like him deserves it.

Did you grow up in the shadow of Kawajiri's films like so many 1990s anime dorks, or is this all new to you? Do you feel like Ninja Scroll and Wicked City get too much praise, and his best work is yet to come? Do you think the guy is just plain overrated? Sound off in the comments!

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