By Andrew Osmond.
Scotland Loves Anime in 2016 welcomed a first-time guest to Glasgow, Japanese animator and director Yoshimi Itazu. Since 1998, Itazu has worked on a wide range of anime, including such classics of the 2000s as Paranoia Agent and Denno Coil. On the period feature film Miss Hokusai, Itazu was both the character designer and supervising animator.
That led on to Itazu’s directorial debut, the 28-minute film Pigtails, screened at Scotland Loves Anime and due to be released by Anime Limited at a later date. The film begins with a girl who lives alone in a house by the sea after an unnamed disaster. Released in 2015, Pigtails’ real-life background is the catastrophic Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Fantasia Film Festival called Pigtails a “quietly powerful fable for a nation haunted by enormous loss.”
We took the opportunity to interview Itazu about his past career and his new work.
Can we ask why you first joined the anime industry? Did you have a particular ambition to be an animator, for example, or a director?
I’d always liked drawing as a child and I didn’t like school, so I wanted to start work as soon as possible. I started working as an animator from the age of 18.
You have worked on a very large number of anime productions. Which ones were the most useful learning experiences for you, helping to improve your skills?
It’s hard to choose the ones where I learned the most. But at the first company I worked for as an animator [Studio Gallup], my mentor was Tsukasa Tannai, and I worked with him on Kochikame.* I learned a lot on that; then I started working freelance, left Studio Gallup and worked with Satoshi Kon on Paranoia Agent (at Madhouse), which led on to working with him again later.[*Kochikame, to give its short name, is a massively long-lived manga in Japan about a buffoonish middle-aged man who works as a police officer on an obscure parkside beat. The Gallup anime ran from 1996 to 2004, racking up nearly four hundred episodes. The hefty full Japanese name is Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Kōen Mae Hashutsujo, or as the Anime Encyclopedia translates it: ‘This is the police station in front of Kameari Park in Katsushika ward.’]
You worked on more than one occasion with the director Satoshi Kon. [After Paranoia Agent, Itazu worked with Kon on Paprika and the unfinished Dreaming Machine.] How would you describe him?
He was very thoughtful, considerate of his staff. He’d invite us out for drinks and give us the opportunity to talk about our work, which would then feed back into the production process.
You were also the supervising animator on the 2007 science-fiction series Denno Coil (pictured), which some people credit with predicting this year’s craze for the game Pokemon Go. [Denno Coil’s characters wore VR glasses, superimposing digital objects and creatures onto the ‘real’ world.] Would you agree with that?
I guess there are similarities between Denno Coil and the current Pokemon Go system. I think Mitsuo Isoh, the director, was maybe ahead of his time, because Denno Coil was a completely new kind of genre when it came out.
It must be intimidating to portray the tragedy of the Tohoku earthquake on screen. What was your main purpose in making the Pigtails film?
I think it is the personal take of the author of the Pigtails manga, Machiko Kyo, on the disaster. But for me, the aim wasn’t to emphasise the disaster itself; it was more about the characters’ feelings. In particular, on this occasion it is the objects that are emphasised and that really interested me. [In Pigtails, ‘inanimate’ objects such as a pillow, an umbrella and even a toothbrush are all shown arguing with each other.]
It wasn’t my intention to make Pigtails all about the disaster. I was interested in the way of telling the story.
The trailer for Pigtails looks like a beautiful picture book. Was this inspired by the original manga; if so, was it difficult to adapt the look of the manga to animation?
The style of the Pigtails manga is quite abstract, there’s a lot left out. That was hard to turn into animation; that was one of the biggest challenges, to get that nuance across on screen.
I’d been in Tokyo the whole time [of the Tohoku earthquake and its aftermath], so I’d only really found out about the area from television. I left Tokyo and went up the motorway to Fukushima and Iwate. It was very valuable to see how people are living up there and that life does go on. I didn’t use (the experience) directly for the anime, but more the nuance of the landscape; what the landscape looks like after a tsunami and the water that’s left, for example. The look and feel of the landscape is reflected in the work, I think.
In Japan, the Pigtails film was part of a mixed-media production in Tokyo. Can you describe what this mixed-media production was like?
It was intended to be a live reading; there was the anime and then live voices reading the lines.
The Production I.G website mentions that the Pigtails manga was visually inspired by the garden of the British artist and film director Derek Jarman. [Jarman’s garden was made on a shingle shore, close to Dungeness nuclear power station in Kent]. Was this garden also an influence on the film?
Yes, there’s a collection of photographs of Jarman’s garden, and I’d heard that the manga author had used the garden as inspiration, so I got the book of photos. I used the colours of the buildings and the plants in the garden as a reference.