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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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04/03/2006 Archived Entry: "Interview with Noboru Ishiguro"

Interview with Noboru Ishiguro

By Tom Good

Noboru Ishiguro, director of such anime classics as Astro Boy and Macross, appeared at Sakuracon in Seattle to talk about his new project, Mushishi, which had just won an award in the TV Series category at the Tokyo International Anime Fair. He is currently working on 6 new episodes. The following press interview was conducted through an interpreter.

What is the series about?

It is hard to explain what the series is about. Probably the best way to explain is to actually watch it, but even then you might not be able to understand it. But notice the visual backgrounds. A lot of emphasis was put there, and they are much prettier than most. It has about twice the amount of frames as most anime.

Was it an expensive production?

It had the same budget as anything else, so we've been working pretty hard. It's something we've wanted to do for a long time, but as far as business is concerned, it was treated budget-wise like any other anime.

It uses so many frames, but for the average person watching the show it doesn't look like many frames, it almost looks like it is standing still. For example, in the days of Astro Boy, the number of frames in an anime was set to about 2000. Now it has gradually increased to about 3500. We are constantly working to figure out how to make the animation move as much as it can with as few frames as possible.

Are digital techniques and computers facilitating that?

I will talk about computer graphics later, but in the case of Mushishi, we have used as few computer graphics as possible. Even with all the technology, we still have the old habits to use as few frames as possible. In fact, Mr. Nagano, as a young person, thinks the other way around: he uses as many frames as possible to make something look still -- something beyond the imagination. For example, there is one scene where it looks like a computer graphic, but it is all done by hand, 6 seconds using 1000 frames. If this were like an old Disney film, that would be understandable, but not as a current animation.

Is that level of detail practical today, given the expense of production?

You mean how to stay within the budget? No, we couldn't keep the budget down.

How long did it take to produce those 1000 frames for 6 seconds?

That kind of drawing is rather dull and simple, but it took about a week or two. As far as I'm concerned, it wouldn't have made much difference if it had been done in computer graphics. On average, we have 7000-8000 frames per episode.

How does Sakuracon compare to events in Japan?

I have been attending anime expos for 10 years, but my impression of Seattle is that it has a more European atmosphere. Everyone is well behaved.

How does the influence of foreign markets affect anime production? You're now producing for the world, primarily American markets, but European too.

There are some places where they make projects aimed towards overseas, but my opinion is that most of those do not succeed very well. I have been making anime for 42 years, but I've never really made anime thinking about the overseas audience; I'm primarily thinking about Japanese children. I was surprised to hear that people overseas were watching and enjoying the shows. I wouldn't have imagined something like this [Sakuracon] would have happened. But it's not about making an anime for a Japanese or an overseas audience, it's more about making an anime I think is entertaining. So I don't think about what Americans might enjoy or not. I always wish the audience will understand the quality. Mushishi is very difficult to understand, and I'm worried people may not understand it, but the quality is good.

Is it hard to understand because of cultural differences? Or is it just confusing?

The original manga is set in a Japan that never had the Meiji restoration, as if the Edo period continued to this day in a parallel universe. It is difficult even for Japanese people to understand it. It's a world where humans and vermin, not insects like we see, but vermin [Note: the Japanese word "mushi" can mean insect], coexist in the same environment , and these vermin sometimes will help humans and sometimes harm them, but they don't really think about humans, they're not too concerned with them.

"Mushishi" is a person who goes around and cures people who have been infected by the vermin. Unlike Black Jack, sometimes he might fail to cure someone, or maybe curing the disease was actually not a good thing for the person, so he has to figure out what is good. He is not just the "slayer" killing bad things.

Each episode will stand on its own, it is not a continuous story, so in that sense it is easier to understand. The idea that you can make an anime with this much quality and broadcast it once a week -- even the production staff was amazed.

Is this what you are currently working on?

Yes, I've made the 20th episode, and the remaining 6 episodes will be out on DVD. It is a continuation of the TV series, but we were unable to get the space on the air to air it.

So there is only so much air time available, forcing some shows to be shown late at night...?

Yes, this show was on at 3:30am on Sunday. We got 2% ratings at the 3:30am Sunday slot. With that kind of time slot the average rating is 0.4%. The idea of 2% watching the show is amazing.

A lot of anime art styles are being adopted by other countries like the U.S. for their animation. What is your opinion of how Japan's style has influenced other countries?

Taiwan, China, and Korea are taking a lot of the techniques of Japanese anime and are making lots of animation. In fact the governments of Korea and China sponsor anime productions. There are some productions in Korea or China where they get the government funding and do the basic plot or art design, but have it made in a Japanese studio, then bring it back in their country.

The Chinese government gave money to anime producers and told them to make 100 anime a year, but producers said it can't be done. In surveys about the most popular anime character in China, only one of the top 10 was from China.

With the animation techniques, it's great to spread them around the globe, but the important thing in Japanese anime is originality, and that is difficult to copy. After the war, for 60 years the culture of children's comic books developed by the genius Osamu Tezuka laid the groundwork for the entire culture. From there the industry spread, with more manga and storytelling, then 40 years ago TV animation in Japan started. These days Japan makes 80 anime per year, and for that they must have aid from countries like Korea and China. And for their part, [those countries] should get chances to steal techniques -- and there are plenty of people who have good skills and techniques in those countries already -- but the originality aspect is lacking.

What is your connection with the history of manga in Japan?

I loved reading manga as a child, and in my day it was considered something you stopped reading after elementary school, but I would sneak read it in middle school, and if my father found out I might get beaten. I also liked to draw my own manga. I hid them from my parents. To this day I believe the reason I was unable to stop reading manga is that there was something wrong with me. The world has become a better place for me because I can say I work in manga and be proud.

How is the anime industry doing in Japan?

Until 3 years ago it was so hectic that sometimes anime would not make it in time for broadcast so they'd have to show the same episode twice. These days quantity wise it is not so different, but they are managing to make them on time. Mushishi will generally be finished 3 days before broadcast, but on a bad day, finished on the day before. We can do this now because of digitization of production. I have been doing a lot of productions where you submit it the same day [that it airs], and I'm not afraid of it, but there is always a sense that if anything goes wrong it's all over.

Do you prefer the old style of cell animation to computers?

You can fix the color an hour before broadcast with digital. In the case of lip sync, if there is a glitch you can't fix it on film. People have given up on cels. With digital you can push it to the limit, more than with the old style.

I used to take the completed film and on the way to deliver it, I'd imagine it would be funny if I got on the plane and told people, "if you want the film give me 10 million yen." Back then you could do that, but now there's no time.

American animation is moving to full 3D CGI animation. Do you see Japan moving towards or experimenting with that?

I'm disappointed that only Japan does 2D animation these days. In fact, maybe it is better to make 2D a selling point of Japanese animations. Making the mecha and so on will often be 3D. I'll watch a smooth moving 3D machine, and think that when I made Battleship Yamato I would use 500 frames to move the battleship. If only I had computers then! That clip of Yamato going by the screen uses 500 frames. One guy spent a whole month working on it and didn't want to see it ever again. I'll watch a video game of Yamato, and see it moving on the game screen. It's amazing, but there is something missing with the quality of movement.

Are there trends or ideas you've seen in anime in Japan and worldwide that really excite you about the future of animation?

For example Mr. Nagahama who did Mushishi, he is a young person and with young people around him making great anime, they will be able to keep Japanese anime going. For about 5-6 years there was a kind of despair about Japanese animation. I was kind of disturbed about the roricon thing, the obsession with cute girls, yaoi, etc. Maybe there was too much of that.

Instead of those kinds of things, I want to see good story-lines and something that moves someone's heart. In that spirit I found someone like Nagahama-san and that made me want to get back in the business. Next year I am thinking of making my own original anime. It's still top secret but I have confidence that it will be a good piece. I think I probably have about 3 years left in the industry, so I want to make the most of it.

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