Copyright by Studio 4°C

The Indispensability of Japanese Animations 0

Interviewed by Elīna Zuzāne

Japanese animations tend to go hand in hand with the global pop culture, but the exhibition Imaginary Spaces and Urban Visions. Highlights of Japanese Animation, which is on view at the Kumu Art Museum (Tallinn) through May 18, 2013, doesn’t fall into this category. Having previously visited such cities as Berlin, Dortmund, Barcelona and Madrid, Tallinn is the exhibition’s fifth stop and its first museum appearance.

Setting its focus on the concept development drawings and background images of the most influential science fiction anime productions from the 1990s, the exhibition comprises the gems by six outstanding anime artists – Hideaki Anno, Haruhiko Higami, Koji Morimoto, Hiromasa Ogura, Mamoru Oshii and Takashi Watabe. Intricate drawings and flawlessly executed paintings fill the spacious galleries of Kumu Art Museum giving the viewer an opportunity to evaluate the possible scenarios for the future of the human race. The exhibition, however, talks less about the tales visualised through the animations, but more about the process of animating. Instead of looking at the digitalised future, it takes a glance at the past, when anime was still drawn by hand.

Berlin-based curator Stefan Riekeles

To learn more about the production process of Japanese animations spoke to Stefan Riekeles, the curator behind the Imaginary Spaces and Urban Visions. Highlights of Japanese Animation exposition. 

How did the idea for this project originate? 

It started when I went to Japan. (Laughs) It was in 2005,but in 2007 I went there to research the animation industry together with David d'Heilly, the co-curator of the show. That’s when I got to know some of the artists that are represented here and only then I understood what they are doing. Back then I was not really interested in all of this. Anyway, through some coincidences I met these guys and I was really surprised to see these curious and crazy drawings. Later I found out that there is a group of people, who were influential in the 1980s and 1990s in the animation industry, and that lead me to the exhibition we have today – the Japanese style of anime. 

I remember that at first I met Koji Morimoto. I knew his work, but at the same time I knew nothing. In 1995 I had seen his animation “Extra” – music video for Ken Ishii's song, a techno track. At the time I was still in school and it was the peek of Acid Techno wave. 12 years later I met this artist in Tokyo, but by that time I had forgotten all about the video. It was only when he showed me his work, which included “Extra”, I understood who I was sitting next to. I was really amazed because he was the person, who I was once really fascinated by. From that moment on we immediately had things to talk about. Later on he introduced me to his friends, one of which is Katshuiro Otomo, who did Akira. I sat with these two guys in the bar and it was just fun to talk to them. Only later I understood that it was a special evening, because that night I met one of the most famous animators.

I loved these really passionate guys, but at the same time I was really interested in Tokyo as an urban structure. That’s when I started to realise that these people live in Tokyo, they draw Tokyo and they talk about it all the time. So that is how I decided that I want to do a project about Tokyo, which would somehow involve animation. That’s how this concept came about. 

What we want to do in this exhibition is to show a degree of believability. How far can you go for the people still to believe that what you are telling them might actually be real. 

I think it is a difficult task to achieve with an animation. People might believe a movie, because it can look like real life, but animation is already executed in a way that it appears as phantasy. 

Yes, but that’s why it’s so interesting to do this exhibition.  We want to show that it’s not just a phantasy. These animations feel like documentaries. These are not fairy tales. They have a very realistic taste. It doesn’t feel like phantasy. It feels very heavy. These are cinema films, which have been made for the grownups. It would be very boring for children to watch these. (Laughs) There is also a lot of shooting going on.

Hideaki Anno. Copyright by khara 2009

I guess the shooting scenes would be interesting for little boys. 

Yes, but the boys, who watch these, are usually about 25 years old. They also enjoy the nonviolent sequences. 

We are watching a scene from the animation “Patlabor” (1989). Directed by Mamoru Oshii.

This movie tells the story of how the redevelopment of Tokyo changes the identity of people and the way they live. Now we can see a sequence from the Ghost in the Shell. It is more exotic as it takes place in Hong Kong. Even for the Japanese audience this looks a bit strange. Oshii wants to put distance between the film and the immediate surroundings of the audience. At the same time he wants it to seem real. The sequences that we show in this exhibition illustrate that the background is actually the main character. It is very cinematic.

Does it mean that the animators aim to mimic cinema? 

It is a certain taste. Oshii is also shooting live action films, but in animation you can exaggerate everything. You can make it denser. Of course, you have other limits, for example, the capability of the painter. These animations were very influential in the Western idea of Japan. Some people still think that Tokyo actually looks like this. In fact it’s nothing like it. It is too exaggerated. One of the missions of this show is to bring the balance. That’s why we also have the photographs from the real city. Although these movies might feel like documentaries, they are drawn to create a non-existent environment. 

What is the uniqueness of Japanese animations?

It’s a big question. It’s a question that is now being discussed on a very high level between Japanese politicians. If you could find the key, which makes it Japanese, you could unlock a big treasury as then you could market it in a completely different way. If it would have an identity of a Japanese animation, that would make these animations a super product. But unfortunately it doesn’t have one. The artists themselves don’t care, because they are not working as Japanese animators. They just want to do their stuff and it happens that they are sitting in Tokyo so they talk about their surroundings. 

Hideaki Anno. Still image from Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance (2009)

The best thing you can say is probably that the production system in Tokyo is really special. And that’s also why, from a very pragmatic reason, you get a certain look and a certain feel of the animation. Animation in Japan is produced differently than in other places. That’s the real difference. If you go to a studio in the US and to one in Tokyo, they would be completely different. They work in a different way. So the results are also different. 

What are the main differences between the production processes in Japan and in the West? 

In Japan everything is based on layouts. The whole film is planned and based on layout drawings, which are more detailed than the final paintings. The guys, who paint them, often cannot execute them, because the details are too small. At one point of the production, which is far before the final product, you actually have a much more detailed and richer world. There are many examples of this included in the book Proto Anime Cut - Spaces and Visions in Japanese animation. In the final thing you loose this detail, but because you have it in the drawings, the painter manages to give you the feeling as if they are still there. The painter knows that you don’t need that many details. It’s enough to put a single line or a shadow to recreate it. This is the central part of all Japanese animation production. 

Koji Morimoto. Copyright by Studio 4°C, R&S Records and Sony Music

You once expressed that in Japan you don’t have the same artistic freedom as in the West. Could you elaborate on that? 

What we have in this exhibition was not meant to be art. All the things that are here, although they look beautiful, were never produced to be shown on the gallery’s or museum’s walls. They are made for the film. Film production has a very rigid work division. It is very fractured. It’s just like a conveyer belt where you can do only a limited amount of actions. Of course, in animation you can develop your own style. That’s actually why these guys are here. They have managed to create their own signature. The way they paint or draw is unique to them.

What usually happens to these drawings after the production? 

They are thrown away. 

So how did you get the hold of them? 

That’s the hardest part of this exhibition. Often there was a movie or an artist that I wanted to include in the exhibition, but later it turned out that anything, besides the animation, just doesn’t exist anymore. By intuition and chance we picked out sequences and artists, who at the time of making these animations knew their work was special. Usually an artist would not keep these detailed backgrounds. But Hiromasa Ogura, for example, knew that he would rarely have the chance to spend two days to work on such a painting… So he kept it. The contracts usually say that when the production process is finished, everything goes back to the production company. They put everything in one big container and this container is later deposed. I am talking about the super commercial productions. Then there is this also Koji Morimoto, who is more of an artist. He is also an animator and he just loves what he’s doing, so he keeps the drawings in his own storage.

Koji Morimoto. Copyright by Studio 4°C, R&S Records and Sony Music

One of the big successes of this exhibition is that these artists now understand that what they are doing could be interesting for others too, not only for the camera and the screen. When Morimoto and Ogura came to the first opening in Berlin, they were really shocked. They were fascinated to see their creations on the walls and people going really close to observe them. They had never experienced such a situation. Suddenly they had a completely different attitude towards their work. It is the best thing that can happen for a curator – the artist moving in the exhibition and realising another value of his work.

Animation is usually perceived as part of the popular culture and is thus regarded mainly as entertainment. Has there been a change in the overall attitude since these animations have been placed in the gallery or the museum space? 

I am really glad we are here, because this is the first exhibition in a museum. I am really curious to see what the art audience will think. Previously we have displayed this exhibition in galleries and in different art spaces, but there the audience was already used to the cross-media exhibitions. We are now quickly coming to the defining question – what is art? If the Art Museum of Estonia is now presenting these drawings, it means that we have made a step towards turning something, which was not art, into art. That’s what museums are for. Of course, it doesn’t work exactly like that, but we are on the way. The problem is that in this exhibition we only have around 400 pieces on display, but, if you produce an animation of 90 minutes, you would have rooms filled with boxes of paper artworks. Some of them would be excellent drawings, but others would only hold a few lines. You see the problem.

Of course, for this exhibition we have only selected the best artworks. They show the important points of the production process. Not everything from a 90-minute animation is art. (Laughs) There is a lot of supply, but the demand at the moment is not as high. In the current market economy this means that you have to establish a good criteria, why one piece of paper is interesting and not the other one. A book like Proto Anime Cut - Spaces and Visions in Japanese animation, for an example, is a very good criteria. This catalogue is very important in terms of defining a new art form.

 Takashi Watabe. Copyright by khara 2009

Do people from the animation industry in Japan know about this exhibition and about what you are doing? 

Yes. As I said in the beginning this topic has reached a very high political level. I go to Japan often and I usually have to explain that, “Yes, the European audience really appreciates these works. They also understand the Japanese culture a little bit.” 

The Japanese animators really value the effort that has been put into making this exhibition. These kinds of exhibitions don’t exist in Japan. It is a really special case, because people are starting to realise that what they are doing is somehow important. If an animation exhibition in Japan takes place, it is usually about a single film. You might see there some drawings, a background and a character, but you will hardly understand, who did it. The exhibition like that usually tells the “making of” story of the film. Here we want to show what the individual guys are doing in the production. That’s why this exhibition is divided into the artists’ individual sections. Naturally the animators and the illustrators really appreciate this approach and maybe in the future we will do another show with a different topic, involving a younger generation.

Are the younger generation of artists still working on paper? I assumed that the animation industry has become digitalised.

Everything still starts with paper. But, of course, you turn to the computer much quicker. The process has become more digitalised. There are still the masters, who draw by hand and they teach others how to draw by hand. They are faster drawing things out, but they will leave space for computers. Hideaki Anno draws the layouts himself, but there are areas on the paper, which he leaves open, as those parts should be filled by the 3D department. Basically it means that drawings become emptier, leaving more and more blank spaces.

Would it even be possible to do this show with a younger generation of artists? 

Yes. It would also be interesting to see what can actually be shown from their work. Most of them work in a digital production process. 

 Takashi Watabe. Copyright by khara 2009

So you are not against the computer-generated animations? 

No! This exhibition shows the turning point. In 1995 the artists already had a few computers, with which they added lighting and other details, but mainly it was all hand-drawn. Now it’s moving towards the very little hand-drawn and a lot of digitalisation. In the recent years we have, however, seen the return to hand-made drawings. For example, when you need really emotional and texture-filled backgrounds, the artists draw them by hand. The digital process is just too sleek. When things need to look more real and rustic, they do it by hand. To do this digitally would take forever. You would have to paint each and every line, but by hand you can easily do it with a single brushstroke. The time factor is always important. You can do these things digitally, but it would take much longer. Some things are still easier to do by hand. 

Are you planning to take this exhibition to Japan?

Yes. (Laughs) It’s a big project. It will probably happen around the year 2015. Next we will be taking this exhibition to Basel. It’s the same story as with the woodprints. Do you know how the Japanese wood printing became so popular? 

I don’t think so.

In the 19th century the Japanese sent ceramics to Europe, to Antwerp, and they were wrapped in paper that was lying around back then. This paper happened to be the test runs of wood prints – the trials and errors that were not good enough to use, but could still be recycled as a wrapping material. So these ceramics and the woodprints arrived in Antwerp, where Van Gogh and other artists saw them. They were amazed by the prints. They were really beautiful. A few years later somebody went to Japan wanting to buy more of these prints. You can imagine the reaction from the Japanese – a foreigner being interested in something that was considered ordinary. That’s when the Japanese realised that they indeed may have something beautiful. The same is now happening with the Japanese animation. The people are realising that animations might actually be something more than just stupid entertainment. Maybe it is even possible to make a real Japanese product out of it. 

Are you now you are the expert of Japanese animation? 

Suddenly, yes. I have to find a way, how to change it, because I don’t want to stay in this position for the rest of my life. (Laughs) But it’s ok for now.

Imaginary Spaces and Urban Visions. Highlights of Japanese Animation is a project by Les Jardins des Pilotes (Berlin) in cooperation with 2dk (Tokyo). Curated by Stefan Riekeles and David d’Heilly.