UrumaDelvi learn the importance of contacts

by Roland Kelts

The husband-and-wife creative team known as UrumaDelvi has been cranking out quirky, quasi-psychedelic illustrations, animated shorts and music videos for over 20 years. They met in design school in 1988. Deciding that their married surname, Kobayashi, was too common in Japan to be memorable, they took the names of two of the wife’s early sketches — of a boy named Uruma and a girl named Delvi — as their own, and rebranded their art.

The duo started creating characters through collaborative daily doodling sessions and began uploading them to a website called The Daily Cartoon in 1995. Since then, they have created over 4,000 characters (a number they plan to submit to Guinness World Records), a Top 10 hit single and viral video about a bug that bites derrieres, a best-selling children’s book series about shape-shifting spirits, a software program that enables children to animate their own drawings, a music video with Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Byrne to help the children of Tohoku — and a live-action television series about an office lady who is in fact a pudgy panda with its abdominal fur colored in the shape of a thong. Now, after a career of defying categorization by tantalizing children and adults in Japan, the couple want to make it in America.

They first visited the United States five years ago to learn about the entertainment and media businesses, stopping in Los Angeles to meet with staff at The Walt Disney Company, New York to explore American media empires, and San Francisco to dip into Silicon Valley.

“New York is too similar to Tokyo, too crowded, and Los Angeles has too much traffic,” says husband Uruma. “But we loved San Francisco.”

They loved it so much they managed to convince the Japanese government to designate them as “cultural envoys” based in the city for one year. They have held workshops and screenings at the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco every weekend over the past year. Collaborating with University of Tokyo Prof. Takeo Igarashi, they created a software program called “Picmo” that enables the “drawing-challenged” to create a work of digital animation in 10 minutes. An interactive digital installation called “Wonder Disc,” a spinning wheel that animates still images, is on exhibition at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco until Sept. 20.

I met Uruma late last month at the inaugural Japan Expo USA — an offshoot of the annual Japan Expo in Paris — held in Santa Clara, California, about an hour’s drive from his home in San Francisco. I was there to give a presentation for the Japan Society of Northern California on the final day of the three-day event. I’d already missed Uruma’s panel on day one, but he said that he was available for an interview.

First we planned to meet at San Francisco Airport prior to my return flight to New York. Then we opted for an interview on Skype later in the week. Finally, as I was dining at a Chinese restaurant with friends in San Jose, I received the following text: “This is Uruma. I am in your hotel lobby.”

I found him hovering over a beer at a small table near the bar, a middle-aged bohemian with a dusty beard and drooping eyes. He handed over a gift bag of UrumaDelvi schwag, including a beautiful full-color hardback of one of the installments in their best-selling children’s book series, “Twin Obake.”

“Living here in Silicon Valley, we can connect with professionals in every industry,” Uruma said, waving an arm to indicate the wealth of opportunity outside the hotel doors. “We need to make those connections now. We need to network.”

UrumaDelvi’s official status as cultural envoy expired at the end of August, and the couple are scrambling to make headway in the U.S. market, hoping for an English-language publisher for their “Obake” books and production deals for their animated videos. Their track record is impressive. In addition to the best-selling books, their animated music video “Oshiri Kajiri Mushi” (“Bottom-Biting Bug”), moved 300,000 DVDs and almost 2 million downloads.

“We had starting making animations for the website in 2003,” Uruma says, explaining the birth of “Bottom-Biting Bug.” “One day I was watching Delvi bent over the kitchen sink washing dishes. I noticed that her butt was sticking out. I said, ‘You’d better be careful. A bottom-biting bug might come along and bite your butt.’ She said, ‘What’s a bottom-biting bug?’

“That was the first time (for us) that a story was born out of words and an idea, instead of character doodles.”

The couple’s creative process is fluid in the early stages. Both are illustrators, or “doodlers,” as Uruma says, and they exchange drawings and suggest ideas throughout the day. Later, the division of labor is more sharply demarcated. Delvi does most of the preproduction work for museum installations and films, drawing and painting images and overseeing their development. Uruma takes on much of the editing, a crucial late stage in a project’s evolution.

“Animation is an art based on timing,” he says. “But everyone’s sense of timing can be different. The editing and timing has to be very precise, but at the same time open-ended enough to let the viewer interpret it in their own way.”

UrumaDelvi’s first live-action series, called “Hi-Cut Panda,” is currently in competition with other five-minute dramas seeking the full-fledged series treatment at Japan’s national broadcaster NHK. “Panda” has already survived several rounds of audience keitai (cellphone) voting. Its fate will be decided this fall.

The couple are developing the UrumaDelvi production company this year and have hired a San Francisco-based firm for legal and artistic representation. Uruma speaks with passion about continuing to support the children of Tohoku with more charity projects, and he is clearly enthusiastic about prospects for English-language versions of UrumaDelvi’s successful Japanese projects. But there is concern in his eyes when he reflects upon the team’s loss of official envoy status — and the daunting challenge of going it alone.

“We really need to make connections in order to survive out here.”

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.