How has your experience been of working as an art director on some of Japan’s most enduring animation films, like Laputa:Castle in the Sky, Grave of the Fireflies, and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time among others?
A. It’s been a great experience working as an art director for these films. There is always lots to learn and new challenges while working as an art director, which I enjoy.
Q. What kinds of challenges did you face while working on some of these films?
A. There were always different challenges for each film. Here is the story from Grave of the Fireflies. As the art director of the film, I visited Kobe [a city in Japan] to collect reference material together with [Akiyuki]Nosaka [writer]and [Isao] Takahata [director]. During the preparatory stages of the production, I had to paint the flames and smoke for the air raid scenes, including the colours and patterns of the sky. So, I had to study those under the supervision of director Takahata. He sometimes had to paint through tears, and often felt that I could not stand to paint all that. Nonetheless, I made such a superb reconstruction of the rows of houses and nature landscapes of the era that when Nosaka saw the movie, he shouted out, “This is what animation is all about!” It was an especially memorable movie for me as well.
Q. You think animators are undervalued in comparison to mainstream artists?
A. No, I don’t think so.
Q. Switching from a career in architecture to full-time animation must have been a big step. How did it come about and were you ever apprehensive about making this big shift?
A. I wanted to become a photographer to begin with. I went to an architectural school for study at night because I had to work daytime for a living. I have been interested in animation since I was a teenager.
While Director Hayao Miyazaki was working on Future Boy Conan , NHK’s first animation series, he resigned as an art director. When they were searching for a new art director, I was introduced to director Miyazaki by my mentor. “I know a guy. He is not very good, but has stamina,” my mentor told him. When director Miyazaki asked me to help them out for 2-3 days, I replied, “Alright, if you don’t make me pull all-nighters.” However, I started pulling all-nighters from the very first day of joining the production.
“If a background is really good, the viewers can ignore it and just immerse themselves in the world of the movie. If it’s bad, they can’t help noticing it, and lose their concentration.”
Q. You are also famous for your highly detailed background art. What inspires you to hand-paint those realistic backdrops?
A. If a background is really good, it’s taken for granted. If a background is really good, the viewers can ignore it and just immerse themselves in the world of the movie. If it’s bad, they can’t help noticing it, and lose their concentration.
Q. Most of the illustrations done by you are only visible on the screen for a few seconds. But exhibitions, like the one recently held at Delhi’s Japan Foundation, highlight your work more effectively. So how different is that experience of displaying your work in exhibitions, in contrast to when these illustrations appear fleetingly in animation films?
A. Exhibitions like the one at the Japan Foundation let the audience focus on the background paintings, which usually aren’t focused in the animation film. I hope it’ll be an opportunity for people to notice what kinds of works and efforts are there behind these scenes, which is good to develop a deeper understanding of animation films.
Q. What are your thoughts on the larger debate of digitally-painted versus hand-painted work, with the former lacking in “human touch”? The growing inclination of young animators towards digitally-painted work is known to all. Do you as an animator, who prefers painting by hand, think that his wider digital wave is a cause for concern?
A. I personally feel that painting by hand is better than using some other devices. I’m not good at using the digital devices as such, although I have tried. So that’s it.
Q. Could you take us through some of your upcoming projects?
A. I’m working on Goto-Hyakkei; Hundred Beautiful Scenes of Goto as a lifetime’s work. Since I left Goto [an island in Japan] after graduating from junior high school at the age of 15, I’ve missed my hometown a lot.
I realised how wonderful the place is.I thought that I need to reacquaint myself with Goto. I wished I could show the world the appeal of Goto through my paintings. There are many such views interweaving into beautiful scenery, and I wish I can relay the culture of Goto to the future generations.