When did you first discover artist Taiyo Matsumoto’s “Tekkonkinkreet” manga?
I was staying with a Japanese friend of mine when I first saw Matsumoto-san’s manga. Keep in mind that I’m not someone who is an otaku (obsessive fan) at all. I don’t really read manga much, even today. I just had some time on my hands and I was looking for something to check out. My friend, who knows my tastes very well, suggested I might like it. He pulled out this three-book version of “Tekkonkinkreet” and said “nakeru yo,” which means something in Japanese like “keep a box of tissues handy.” It was probably 1995, right around the time of the sarin gas attacks and the Kobe earthquake. There were these black helicopters buzzing around and you could turn on the TV and see people getting stabbed in real time. It was a really weird time to be in Japan. Also, around the same time, one of my favorite places in Tokyo turned into this construction site overnight. It was this old ivy-covered apartment building in Daikanyama that had been developed in postwar Japan, but had since become this beautiful and idyllic sort of place with a bathhouse and a dining hall. Eventually, it wound up turning into a Roppongi Hills-style development. While all this was going on, here I was reading this manga about these two kids, named Kuro (“Black”) and Shiro (“White”), and how they managed to adapt, or not adapt, to this world that’s constantly shifting and changing around them. At first it’s just them and the local neighborhood gangsters, but then there’s this extraterrestrial real-estate developer, who tries to turn the city into an amusement park, and he’s working for yet another higher authority. . . . It was crazy but it all felt very real. It wasn’t such a stretch from what I was feeling at the time, which was “is there any solid ground here?” I was looking for something to hold onto, and this manga really spoke to me, and it continued to. And I could see from the beginning how it could be made into a really cool movie. It had an amazing setting — a very dramatic multilayered story. It felt very cinematic.
Which places helped inspire the imaginary city of Takara Machi, where the film takes place?
Kimura-san (“Tekkon’s” art director) and I did a fair amount of location scouting, especially in downtown Tokyo. We tried to use real places for reference as much as we could. There are a lot of places there that have an incredible amount of texture to them. Sometimes you’ll see an air vent outside of a restaurant coated with 20 years of grime, and with extension cords dangling out of it. That sort of thing was really inspirational to us. We must have taken 10 rolls of pictures alone of just telephone poles around Tokyo. Old areas like Asakusa and Ueno were certainly an influence. So was Shimokitazawa, which is where I’ve lived for about 10 years now. I also took a couple of trips to Hong Kong and various cities in Sri Lanka and Indonesia to get some of their flavor in the film as well. I didn’t want the movie to be set explicitly in Japan. I wanted it to be set in some kind of parallel universe that’s kind of like Japan, but not really Japan. In the film we have elephants walking around in the streets and aliens buying up the land. I just wanted the city in the movie to seem like a place where I might want to live; someplace that had a lot of street life and that felt like Asakusa or Hong Kong or one of those great Asian cities.
Do you think you could have made a movie like this back in Hollywood?
No. We absolutely could not have made this film in America. I know because we tried. [Anime director] Koji Morimoto and I made a pilot film back in 1999 and we shopped it around to studios in the U.S. The pilot won a lot of awards and was treated very nicely in Japan and Europe, but the reaction in America was just what you’d expect. Studio execs would look at our work and say, “Great movie, but can you turn the little boy into a little girl?” or “Can you make these characters teenagers?” without even a hint of irony. They’d missed the point completely. But we also wouldn’t have been able to make this film in the U.S. simply because traditional animation is pretty much dead over there. So Japan was really the place to do it.
Originally, someone else was supposed to have directed the film. How did you wind up calling the shots instead?
Well, it was really my project from the beginning. I tried to get Morimoto, who directed the pilot, to direct the movie, but he kind of lost interest. Also, the “Tekkonkinkreet” he wanted to make wasn’t really the one I wanted to make. Eventually, everyone from Morimoto, to my family, to my coproducer, got fed up with me constantly talking about the story and characters, so they said, ‘If you want to make this movie so bad, why don’t you direct it?’
So you weren’t just waiting all these years to sit in the director’s chair?
Absolutely not. I had no ambitions to be a director. I’ve worked with a lot of directors and seen a lot of hard struggles up close. But I always wanted to be a filmmaker and I always assumed I’d be working in movies in one way or another, whether it was doing animation or designing software or doing music for my friends’ movies, or whatever. I’m not married to one aspect of filmmaking. I really love all aspects of it. But with directing, you really need to be both the engine and caboose at the same time. It worked out this time probably because “Tekkon” was a story that wouldn’t let go of me and the movie wasn’t going to get made without me. Still, I don’t know if I want to direct again. I’ve been working on this film in one way or another for 10 years, and I don’t know . . . that’s a lot of one’s life to put into something.
What’s it been like working as a foreigner in the Japanese animation industry?
There’s been some practical hurtles. Communication takes a little more effort. Working in traditional animation, as opposed to visual effects, took some getting used to. When I began working in Japan, writing software, it may have been easier since it was just a computer and myself. I don’t understand why some of the rules are the way they are, but I don’t understand the reasons for that in my own country. But there was always more to like about Japan than to dislike. I always felt like it was worth it just to be able to walk down the street to buy toilet paper at the convenience store. You know, that feeling of, “I’m in Japan, how cool is that?” On the other hand, making “Tekkonkinkreet,” I was in a very different position being the director and also, to a certain extent, having already proved myself as someone in the anima- tion industry. We got some amazing people who wanted to work on this film because they really loved the original manga it was based on, and I don’t think they cared if I was American or from Mars. If I had any real problems, they mostly came from trying to direct an incredibly complex project and trying to communicate what I was seeing in my head to a lot of different people.
How would you sum up the current state of the anime industry in Japan?
It’s an amazingly creative place to be, but at the same time there’s not a lot of money being spent on it. The animation industry in Japan makes a lot of cool projects because animators are encouraged and allowed to do really original stuff. The tradeoff is that if you were to reduce it to just one sentence it would be: “We’re not going to pay you anything, but you can do whatever you want.” But the plus side is that you can envision and execute the craziest, most bizarre, or personal, or far-out thing you can and there is actually a market for it here. So it’s like a pressure cooker for cool art here in Japan. On the other hand, someone is getting rich here and it’s not the artists. All it takes it someone to come over here from outside and spend a lot of money and there’s the potential to lose a great asset. Another thing is that there are not a lot of young stars currently working in the animation industry. Everyone tends to be over 30 years old. The basic career of an animator begins with 15 years of really hard work and few rewards. My feeling is that there’s no “next generation” of animators on their way up. So I think the bottom is going to fall out of the industry once the present pool of talent burns out. I think if Japan, as a country, wants animation to survive as anything more than art — you know, as like a real “industry” — it really needs to invest in it financially, like the way that Canada and France have done with their film industries. I think the animation industry in Japan started to lose it’s way a few years back when all the money was flowing into dot coms and tech stuff. But only computer graphics and game companies wound up reaping the benefits. Animation is not quite as glamorous as that. It’s actually just a bunch of guys hunched over their desks. It’s not high-tech, but at the same time it’s just great craftsmanship. So that’s very romantic to me. I mean, animation is cool, right? You can make a series of drawings and then when you play them back they come to life! It’s like magnetism or gravity or something. It’s inexplicable and I like it.