Katsuhito Ishii as Animator

August 9, 2023 · 0 comments

By Tom Wilmot.

For those clued up on modern Japanese cinema, the name Katsuhito Ishii is sure to ring a bell. Renowned for his surreal imagery and off-kilter comedy, Ishii’s films range from the violent and zany to the soft and serene. However, while the director is most widely recognised for his work in live-action, his roots and interests lie in the world of animation. Having grown up on a steady diet of anime, Western cinema, and American comic books, Ishii was drawing from the age of ten and wrote his own manga in high school before graduating from Tokyo’s Musashino Art University. Although not at the forefront of Ishii’s activities, animation has remained a constant throughout his career, the director lending his enthusiasm and vision to several beloved works over the past twenty years.

At just a glance, it’s easy to see how Ishii’s background in animation has influenced his live-action work. For a start, the director has made a habit of producing comprehensive storyboards for his films, detailing each shot from start to finish. Inevitably, anime-friendly framing and action seep their way into these drawings, with most of it ending up in the final film. As much is apparent in Ishii’s debut feature, Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl (1998), an off-beat yakuza romp adapted from Minetaro Mochizuki’s 1993 manga. The film’s lively, comic-booky action is detached from reality, the director describing the film as more of “a violent and funny manga.”

The filmmaker’s anime influences go beyond storyboarding and action, as he also has a penchant for character design. Ishii illustrates nearly all of the characters that feature in his live-action projects, going as far as to detail their costumes, many of which are then custom-made. In the case of Shark Skin Man, the director “gave the actors costumes that aren’t typically Japanese, so that even though they [the actors] are Japanese, they lose their specificity and nationality.”

Ishii’s characters are certainly better suited to comic book worlds, and many wouldn’t feel out of place in a typical anime series. Party 7 (2000), Ishii’s second feature, stars the perverted Captain Banana, a ridiculous character partly inspired by the romantic hero Captain Harlock from Leiji Matsumoto’s manga series, Space Pirate Captain Harlock (1977-79). It’s larger-than-life characters such as these, whose origins lie in Ishii’s comic book and anime interests, that are vital to realising the director’s unique cinematic worlds.

Shark Skin Man’s success led to the production of what is surely Ishii’s most widely seen work of animation, “The Origin of O-Ren”, from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003). The American filmmaker’s love for Ishii’s yakuza flick led to a friendship between the two directors, Ishii ultimately being asked to helm an animated sequence for Tarantino’s revenge tale a few years later. Working alongside a team of talented key animators from Production IG, including Yasunori Miyazawa (Promare) and Shinya Ohira (A Letter to Momo), Ishii produced a pulsating nine-minute sequence for the Hollywood hit.

Highly stylised, ultra-violent, and pulsating with aggressive energy, “The Origin of O-Ren” is one of Kill Bill’s highlights. Ishii’s character designs are grotesquely exaggerated and typically rough around the edges, particularly for the debauched Boss Matsumoto. The scene also creatively plays with perspective; we follow a bullet from O-Ren’s sniper rifle as it flies through the air and pierces the skull of an unsuspecting statesman. For many (including myself at far too young an age), the scene was an explosive introduction to the world of anime that undoubtedly inspired a renewed Western interest in Japanese animation.

It’s impossible to get a complete idea of Ishii’s animation career without also discussing one of the industry’s most accomplished talents. Takeshi Koike has been animating since the mid-1980s, at first working under the great Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust) until breaking out as a director in the early noughties. Koike’s professional relationship with Ishii was born during the production of Party 7, as he, along with Kawajiri and Korean-American animator Peter Chung, put together an electrifying animated sequence for the film’s opening credits. So impressed was Ishii with Koike’s work that the director was keen to join forces with him on any animated project thereafter. Sure enough, Koike returned as the lead animator for Ishii’s The Taste of Tea (2004) and Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005), films that feature aesthetically unique and memorable animated sequences.

The pair’s most overlooked collaboration is their co-directed forty-five-minute OVA Trava: Fist Planet (2001-02). The wild narrative follows alien drifters Trava and Shinkai, voiced by Ishii regulars Kanji Tsuda and Yoshiyuki Morishita, respectively, who set out on a simple survey mission and end up recovering a lost princess, battling huge, insect-like robots called “Thinking Weapons”, and teaming up with a space giant who belongs to a band of ex-pirates. While showcasing loud and visually stimulating action in spurts, Trava: Fist Planet is more of a space hang-out adventure akin to Shinichiro Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop (1998-99). Trava and Shinkai spend most of their time lying about on their ship, smoking and quarrelling the day away. This downtime is key to the pacing, as outrageous action set pieces are cut short for the sake of frolicking, fishing, and hopeless flirting. The OVA remains an exciting and distinct piece of work that has Ishii’s fingerprints all over it, from the outlandish and mature character designs to the unique brand of humour.

Despite an alluring preview, a second episode of Trava would never see the light of day. However, the OVA would serve as the foundation for Ishii and Koike’s most acclaimed joint project to date, Redline (2009). Canonically a prequel to Trava, set in the same sci-fi universe, Redline is Ishii’s brainchild brought to life by Koike. Bookended by two thrilling action sequences, the film follows a band of intergalactic racers, Trava and Shinkai amongst them, competing in the prestigious Redline event, held once every five years. While Ishii didn’t direct alongside Koike this time around, he was intimately involved in the seven-year production, writing the screenplay, designing the characters and vehicles, and also serving as sound director. The filmmaker downplays his position in the later production as “sort of supervising”, but Koike credits Ishii with much more, going as far as to say that he considers him to be the film’s “true director”.[i] Redline remains an astonishing piece of hand-drawn animation and is one of Ishii’s most accomplished projects in the medium.

Through the production company Grasshoppa!, founded by Shark Skin Man producer Hilo Iizumi, Ishii has also dabbled in 3D animation. The obscure computer-animated show Hal & Bons (2002-06) stars a duo of sofa-dwelling dogs and an anthropomorphic rice cake name Mochi (yes, this is real), while the elusive Hokuro Kyodai Full Throttle!!!! (2007) serves as an origin animation for the so-called Mole Brothers, a manzai comedy duo who feature prominently in the aforementioned Funky Forest. The most popular of Ishii’s 3D animated works is the studio Kadokawa-produced Gamera (2015), a short film commemorating the titular kaiju’s fiftieth anniversary. The brief but enticing short, which combines live-action and CGI, was intended as a proof of concept for an Ishii-directed feature film that sadly never made it past the development stage.

Throughout his career, Ishii’s respect for animation as a craft, and animators in general, has remained evident. In The Taste of Tea, Ishii made Satomi Tezuka’s mother character a work-from-home animator to highlight just how tough working in animation can be. His films have also featured several cameos from animators, most famously from industry darling Hideaki Anno (Gunbuster), who is, at least in Ishii’s opinion, “a really good actor”.

Although he’s taken a backseat from the film industry over the past decade, Ishii remains active in animation and publishing, in recent years producing a manga based on the proposed script for Funky Forest 2 (please, someone release this in English as soon as possible). The director has also served as a creative advisor for several anime projects, including Koike’s Lupin III: The Gravestone of Daisuke Jigen (2014) and Hiroaki Ando’s short film Gambo (2013).

While it might not be what he’s best known for, Katsuhito Ishii remains an unlikely influence in the world of modern Japanese animation. The director has helped bring to life some of the medium’s most unique projects over the past twenty years, and his return to the spotlight is long overdue.

The new Katsuhito Ishii box set is released in the UK by Third Window.

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