EDIT: This interview was conducted roughly one month before May 2010, after which Kon was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Shortly before his death, Kon uploaded a final message onto his blog in which he explained choosing not to make news of his rapidly advancing illness public: the result was that the announcement of his demise was met with widespread shock. Satoshi Kon passed away on August 24, 2010 at the age of 46. Much too young… far too soon.
If you don’t know Satoshi Kon yet, you should. He of the notoriety of Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers, and the brilliant Millennium Actress, Kon is gearing up for the release of his next anime feature: Yume Miru Kikai (The Dreaming Machine) which is scheduled for release through the superb Madhouse studios, and now has its funky own website at yume-robo.com. Kon has dabbled quite extensively with technology (and its impact on people) before, but this time there’s a different slant—there are no people, and all the key players are automated. “This is my own original story, and therefore that makes it different from my previous outings,” Kon told me during a recent interview; it was the first time we’d chatted and he was surprisingly open, humorous and verbose. “While I was developing the script, I heard about a movie called WALL-E… and I got a little nervous that it might be similar to mine. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I learned that the two stories were totally different,” he laughed. “In The Dreaming Machine, only robots are there. I want the audience to enjoy the adventures of robots who survived even after their parents—human beings—had become extinct. After Paprika, I ended up taking a vacation for over a year, so we’ve just started development on this. You can see this movie in 2011.” Till then, if you haven’t checked it out already, grab Kon’s Millennium Actress—perhaps my favourite anime flick from the 2000s, even up against stiff competition from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Mamoru Oshii’s Innocence.
Naoyoshi Shiotani’s Mini Donkey
While currently perhaps not quite as well known as the aforementioned triumvirate of Kon, Oshii and Miyazaki, 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). Shiotani has also worked as a key animator (on Oshii’s Sky Crawlers), character designer (the legendary mini donkey in Tokyo Magic Chocolate and Cotton in Oblivion Island), and as an in-between animator (on Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Oshii’s Innocence: Ghost in the Shell 2). “Which has been the most challenging? All of them!” Shiotani laughed in an interview we did just before this magazine went to press. “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. 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.” Tokyo Marble Chocolate was awarded the Grand Prize in the feature film category at the 12th annual Seoul International Cartoon and Animation Festival (SICAF) in 2008. “I remember the producer calling me early that morning, the day of the ceremony, and he was overexcited. ‘We did it! We got the Grand Prix!’ he yelled over the phone. It was amazing! However at that time I was right in the middle of the production of Oblivion Island, so unfortunately I couldn’t go to the award ceremony—which is something I still regret. It’s strange when you think about it, but when you receive some kind of recognition from outside your own country it makes you feel that much happier; it’s a sort of greater honor.”
Shiotani’s own influence comes from quite the disparate cultural palette.
“I grew up in a place in the country, so there wasn’t much anime on TV. However, by the time I was in junior high this thing called video emerged… giving me more opportunity to watch series and movies,” he mused. “I liked not only [Studio] Ghibli movies such as My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Porco Rosso, but also The Secret of Blue Water, Giant Robot and Patlabor. I also loved Disney animation, such as Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland and Snow White. But what made me think of joining the animation industry as a teenager was [‘80s Gainax anime] Wings of Honneamise. There’s a unique world reconstructed in every detail, those astounding backgrounds, the battle sequence at the end, and the dramatic rocket launch. I was so impressed with that perfect combination between picture and story, and I admit that the movie still motivates me to this day.” Shiotani’s biggest claim to notoriety at the current time, however, are for two madly memorable character designs that are about as similar as soft, white, porous sedimentary rock is to milk-based food products. Cotton, from Oblivion Island, is a super-cute soft toy that cannot only do song-and-dance numbers, but rides to the rescue of our heroine even after being torn in half. “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 our 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 about and eventually forgot him. 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—where did he get the inspired idea of the manic mini donkey-in-a-diaper? “I’ve got to admit that I’m particularly happy with the success of that devilish little character because—to tell the truth—when I first presented ‘him’ to the other film staff I got a very mixed reception. 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 glassy look in his eyes that somehow struck my imagination, so everything started from that photo. I resized 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. The diaper also helped me with giving him a stronger personality and more color, as donkeys are just grey. At a first look, you don’t know whether you should laugh or be terrified of this mischievous beast.”