Atsuko Ishizuka Interview

October 3, 2022 · 0 comments

By Andrew Osmond.

This summer, I interviewed the director Atsuko Ishizuka in London about her new film Goodbye, Don Glees, which is screening at this year’s Scotland Loves Anime festival. It’s the story of three boys in a Japanese country village, who are falsely blamed for causing a forest fire. To clear their name, they must go deep into the local mountains, dodging bears and tumbling into rivers, and naturally coming to know each other better. (There’s a detailed write-up of the film here.)

Some readers will know Ishizuka for directing the fantasy-comedy series No Game No Life, and its film prequel, No Game No Life Zero. However, she’s best-known for an outstanding 2018 series, A Place Further Than the Universe, about four schoolgirls striving to get to Antarctica. As Ishizuka explains in the interview, she views Don Glees as a kind of continuation of that series, but with crucial differences…

How did you first conceive the film, and was any of it drawn from your own experience? 

I wanted to create the boys’ coming of age, the moment when they are actually growing up. These boys are living in a small town, they are sort of outcasts. So, I thought, Where are they going? They’re going on an adventure, and what happens after that adventure ends? 

When you look at a Japanese map of the world, Japan is in the middle, then Iceland is on the far left-hand side… Iceland would be a great adventure, a great destination. So they are boys in a small Japanese town, heading towards the edge of the world. 

I don’t have that sort of experience. And also boys are different, they can do more things than girls, they are a little bit sillier than girls. So I think these are things I would have wanted to do if I was a boy.  

Was the Japanese country town in the film modeled on a real place? 

I went to see the mountains near Tokyo, but (the town in the film) isn’t modeled on a specific place. I wanted to create a place that everyone can relate to; ‘This is where I grew up’ for anyone. 

I saw your previous TV series, A Place Further than the Universe, and thought many people would have made that story about boys, going to Antarctica. In the case of Goodbye Don Glees, I wondered if the film would have worked with girls.

My previous work was about girls going somewhere far away, and that was the mission that they had. But it was about their emotions, their relationships – not big in terms of scale. The girls go far away but their emotions are not so huge, they’re more intimate. They’re discovering people who are closer than their own families, so they become sort of soulmates to each other. It’s very much internal conflicts and emotions and relationships.

Whereas in Don Glees, it’s about ‘me and the world.’ (The boys) are discovering pride in their own identities. It’s about friendship, but it’s more about ‘where they are in the world, in society. So I thought that boys would be more suitable for the storyline than girls.  

Early in the film, Roma’s father describes his son with the word “chunibyo” (middle school syndrome), which is an idea that many western viewers have become familiar with through anime. Goodbye Don Glees seems a celebration of the chunibyo personality. 

Definitely. I think chunibyo is a good thing; it might be a little bit embarrassing if you’re grown up, but it’s nice to have that sort of silliness. Obviously being chunibyo is good if you’re actually that young, that’s the privilege that (the characters) have, in a way. But it’s never too late to go on an adventure, so you can regain that sort of feeling within you, as a grown-up.

The film was in production over the Covid period. Did the three main voice actors record separately or was there any opportunity to have them recording together?

There were times when we had to have them (recording) in three separate rooms, but we tried to have partitions so they could be in the same room, and have actual conversations, for the genuine conversation feel. We tried as much as we could to have them all together.

When I watched the film, I thought that the voice-actor playing Drop (one of the three boys) might be a woman. In fact it was a male actor – Ayumu Murase, whose other anime roles include Ryo in Devilman Crybaby – but I wondered if you had considered using a female actor for the character?

I did consider a female voice actor – there were quite a few in the audition. But what I found was that when a female voice actor plays a young boy, they try to sound more like a hero, with too much strength in their voice. Obviously there are good female actors who can do boys’ voices, but I wanted to avoid that “hero-ish” sound. I wanted to get the right voice tone, just before the voice breaks, and Ayumu Murase did it perfectly. He has that kind of unisex voice that’s a good fit with the character. (NB – Ayumu Murase is 33 years old.)

Moving on to the boy Toto, he seems on a set path. He’s going to Tokyo and training to be a doctor, but during the film he begins to wonder about the path he is taking. I wondered if this might be personal to you, as early in your career you had no idea you would go into animation.

I didn’t really have a hard time going into animation, it was quite a smooth ride for me. But when I was a child, I was a really good student and my parents liked me for that, they praised me and I thought I wanted their approval all the time. That might be something that I have in common with the character.

This is the first commercial anime you have both directed and written. Did it feel especially personal to you?

I don’t particularly feel it that way, because when I was working on A Place Further than the Universe, I sort of expected that the same team was going to work together again. It’s definitely a continuation of that anime, so it was how we expected to go.

Regarding the boys’ situation, did the American live-action film Stand by Me come up in conversation when you were making the film?

When we came up with the idea of this coming-of-age movie, I revisited Stand by Me, it was that way around. But when I watched it again, I realized that it’s the story of a man who’s now an adult, looking back and saying: ‘I can never make friends like the ones I had when I was twelve years old.’

But that’s the point of view of a grown man. I wanted to make a story from the points of view of these boys who are still young, they’re going on an adventure, then coming back to their small town, and what’s next? That’s what I was looking for. By watching Stand by Me again,it made me realize the direction that I wanted to go with my own story.

A telephone box is a central image in the film, based on a phone box in Iceland. (British viewers will see that it looks very like British phone boxes from the pre-mobile age.) Could you say more about its inspiration?

When I was researching Iceland, I came across the image of this vast landscape, nothing there… except this phone booth. The land is so vast, and you don’t see another soul. I started thinking about birth, death, life in nature… and all of a sudden you have this manmade object, the phone booth. I found that sort of odd imbalance really fascinating and I wanted to use it in my film.

Also, when you think about where the character Drop is, his life is collapsing… So I thought that the Iceland landscape, where there’s nothing but there’s a phone booth, where you can connect with living people… I thought that expressed where he is.

In the 2000s, you created some short animated films in a different, more graphic style. Do you think of going back to that style again in the future?

Yes, probably, on a much smaller scale, if there’s the chance. I really like that style!

Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Goodbye, Don Glees is screening in competition at this year’s Scotland Loves Anime.

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