And here is the last interview I’m posting from this summer’s conventions: a conversation with character designer and animator Akihiko Yamashita. He’s best known for serving as animation director on numerous Studio Ghibli projects, including Ponyo and The Cat Returns, as well as being one of the two character designers on Giant Robo. In this interview, we ask him about what being at Ghibli and working alongside Hayao Miyazaki is like, his outright worship of JJ Abrams, and why he likes middle-aged male characters so much!
Note: the woman sitting next to him in the video is another character designer, Miho Shimogasa, who’s done work on Cutey Honey Flash, Gravitation, and Powerpuff Girls Z. She is silent in this interview.
Transcript follows after the break.
What’s it like working at Studio Ghibli compared to others?
Compared to other studios, it’s normal. What do I mean by normal? Well, everyone comes in to work at the same time each morning. It’s almost never like that at other companies. Everyone comes in at their own time. There was a time where we had to wait until evening to meet a producer. But at Ghibli everyone’s there, so it’s a very good company with a good work ethic.
Since we’re an animation studio, our production process is almost identical to other studios’. But what we make is different. Our ambitions are different. So we have a good working environment. Everyone is given plenty of space.
What’s it like working with Hayao Miyazaki?
It’s very stimulating. He has ideas that we could never imagine. As an animator, he’s excellent. Despite his age, we were surprised that he could still draw action and movement so well. He draws good pictures and writes good stories, and he’s really good at communicating what he wants us to draw. He’s not the handholding type of tutor, but he will tell us what kind of image to draw. While it’s our job to interpret what kind of image he wants, just one word of guidance from him enables us to expand on his image. And that makes us realize how great he is.
He’s also very scary. He won’t allow any mistakes. He will really scold anyone who makes trouble for someone else. We used to have that kind of people from the older generations, but now the Japanese people have become tamed, so nobody scolds anymore. Except him.
How much of your drawing is hand-drawn vs CG today? Which do you prefer?
At Ghibli, and for myself, 98% of what I do is still hand-drawn. While it depends on the work, in Ponyo, we had to draw the water all by hand. We only used CG for the waves on water surface. But the rest of the movements were hand-drawn.
As for which I like better, of course I like it when the movement is fun. But if Miyazaki says we need to draw a complicated object, it’s a pain. When we hand-draw, it’s not as super-precise as CG, so it’s a little distorted and crooked, but that’s what makes it enjoyable. It’s tough work, but it’s meaningful. I think my company will continue to do it in that manner.
You’ve expressed a love of the works of JJ Abrams (Lost, Alias, Cloverfield, etc). Which one of his stories do you think would make a good anime?
J.J. Abrams’ work is already very interesting. His stories are well crafted. There are certain formulas to good storytelling, and he makes his movies in accordance with them. They’re well constructed. For instance, in the beginning, the movie has to grab a viewer, and he’s very good at that. His endings are also satisfying.
I’d like to animate one of JJ’s stories. But even if I did, the movie itself is already perfect, so I think we don’t need to remake it. I don’t want to remake something that’s already so close to perfect. There may be differences between what is good for live action and what is good for animation. So I don’t even dare mess with it!
What are some of those differences between good live action and good animation storytelling?
In animation, you don’t want the dialogue to express everything. Of course for live action, you don’t depend too much on actor’s dialogue either, but also on the actor’s expressions. For animation, that is hard because there’s limit to how much you can show of that. It’s difficult to say if we’re even aiming at the same goal. Animation movement has to be entertaining, so it’s difficult for animation to depict the whole range of human emotion. It’s the actor’s job to depict that scenario, so it is difficult for actors to express with animated characters.
Out of your own work, what are your favorite character designs?
From my work, I think the greatest work of mine would be Giant Robo. There were two character designers, of which I was one, so I can only take half the credit. There were many unique characters in it. Personally, I like ojisan (middle aged male) characters. There was a good ojisan and a bad ojisan. But even the bad one had humanizing depth, so it was fun.
So you find middle aged men attractive?
Yes, very attractive. Well, an ojisan has gone through a lot to get to where he is in life, and is different from a young character in that way. And it’s fun to draw imagining that we can enter his feelings through acting and expression. And just by looking at actors, it makes me feel, “oh, this actor is really dandy.”