Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Naoyoshi Shiotani: Anime Man
While currently perhaps not quite as well known as people like Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii, Satoshi Kon, Koji Morimoto or Mamoru Hosoda, Naoyoshi Shiotani could easily shape up as the next big anime thing, evidenced in his directorial debut – the gloriously bittersweet anime Tokyo Marble Chocolate (2007) – and more recently the man’s prolific input into Shinsuke Sato’s CG/anime feature Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror, for animation heavyweight Production I.G (Ghost in the Shell).
That opening paragraph has left me a little breathless (my kingdom for a stray full stop), so here's where I pass on the baton.
"There’s nothing in animation that can be described as ‘easy’. Directing, drawing, design... These are very different roles that require different skills; therefore I could hardly establish which one is the most challenging," Shiotani told me in a recent interview we undertook, to be published in Impact mag over in the UK in a couple of months' time.
"However, I must admit that I’m probably still uncomfortable with character designing. Once Ishikawa-san [Production I.G’s president and CEO Mitsuhisa Ishikawa] told me that the human characters I design are too unique, and they’d fit only in an art movie."
Shiotani's exact involvement in Oblivion Island (ホッタラケの島 ～遥と魔法の鏡～) is not all that clear - he's been listed alternatively as unit director, animation director and character designer of the stuffed toy sheep character Cotton – so what other input exactly did he have in this movie?
"My role can be described as ‘animation director’," he suggests.
"Shinsuke Sato, the director of this movie, has come from live action film making, so my role was to adapt and expand his ideas into the animation medium. I joined the production when the script was almost completed, so the first step was to share with Sato-san our mutual vision.
"A movie director may not necessarily be present in the studio all the time, so I also had the role to supervise the animation team. Sato-san and I had long brainstorming sessions in order to be sure that I would proceed in the direction he envisioned, and that he agreed on what I had in mind; we exchanged ideas on everything – like how to make the story more gripping and compelling? How should the characters look? What should the island be like? And so on.
"I added most of the action scenes you see in the second half of the movie, but I won’t list them here, as I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t seen the film. I can only say that what Cotton does in the second half of the movie was not in the original script! Most of all I convinced Sato-san to add the scene when Haruka and Teo watch the memories inside the mirror, and when I saw the final result I was glad I’d been so persistent.
"I also made rough concept designs for the island, as I wanted it to fit with the story concept, and I designed Cotton – the younger Haruka’s toy stuffed animal. After all these modifications I drew the storyboard, a tool that can be described as the movie blueprint, and from there I had meetings with each section of the crew. We decided the lighting and camera angle for each scene, how the characters were supposed to move, the visual effects, the colours, and so on.
"But apart from being the supervisor, I also had a very important job to do: since the island’s conceptual design was fundamental to the project, I was determined to keep the same style and atmosphere in each scene. This, however, ended up with me drawing the background art boards – the reference drawings used by the background artists – for about 1000 scenes. When everybody in the studio left I was still at my desk drawing, sometimes till the next morning... So, you see, I did a wide variety of things for this movie."
Cotton himself is a super-cute soft toy that cannot only do song-and-dance numbers, but can ride to the rescue of our heroine even after being torn in half. What's the inspiration behind his concept and character?
"Cotton’s the stuffed animal everybody had when he or she was a kid. I wanted everyone in the audience to relate with and overlap his/her personal childhood memories the very instant Cotton appears on screen. His role in the movie is the answer to the question: if a toy could be given the opportunity to move and talk, what would he say?
"He’s a neglected childhood treasure who has the chance to meet up again with his owner, the very person that left him lying around and eventually forgot him. Within the context of the movie’s main themes, Cotton is one of the most emblematic characters," the character designer suggests.
"I wanted him to be cute in his appearance and movements, so I went through a process of trial and error – and I concluded that he would look cuter if I did not change his facial expression. The risk was to have a very creepy doll, so I came up with the idea of using buttons for the eyes."
Going back for a moment to Tokyo Marble Chocolate (東京マーブルチョコレート), the movie was awarded the Grand Prize in the feature film category at the 12th annual Seoul International Cartoon and Animation Festival (SICAF) in 2008.
I worked with Francesco Prandoni from Production I.G on the English subtitles for T.M.C., and two years later I'm still curious as to where Shiotani got the inspired idea of the manic mini donkey-in-a-nappy...
"I must confess that I’m particularly happy with the success of this little, devilish character because, to tell the truth, when I first presented ‘him’ to the other staff I got a mixed reception, both regarding his look and the way he moved," remembers the director.
"The idea for the mini donkey comes from a fashion magazine I had at the time; there was this picture of a model walking in the park of a big city... with a donkey. The donkey had this misty look in his eyes that somehow struck my imagination, so everything started from that photo. I re-sized the donkey to make him a pet that you could keep at home, and then added the diaper while thinking about those pet owners who force animals living in big cities to wear baby-like garments."
He laughed at that point.
"The diaper also helped me with giving him a stronger personality and more colour, as donkeys are just grey and I wanted a fairy-like creature. At a first look, you don’t know whether you should laugh at or be scared of this mischievous beast! But he’s a character you learn to understand and appreciate once you spend time with him."
The rest of this lengthy chat will feature in Impact magazine shortly.
Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror
© 2009 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK / Production I.G / DENTSU / PONY CANYON
Tokyo Marble Chocolate
© 2007 Production I.G / Project Tokyo Marble Chocolate