A Trip to Kenji Miyazawa’s Beautiful Hometown Hanamaki

This is the last out of three planned post about Kenji Miyazawa.

1) The Life, Works and Themes of Kenji Miyazawa
2) Kenji Miyazawa in Anime and Manga: Adaptions and Influence
3) A Trip to Kenji Miyazawa’s Beautiful Hometown Hanamaki

I chose to do the Kenji Miyazawa Theme Week because it aligned favorably with my plans to visit Iwate prefecture, so on my last day I spent a night in Hanamaki, Kenji Miyazawa’s home town.

It’s a small, serene place without the bustle of the big cities. And let me tell you, they’re proud of their Kenji. I arrived in the evening and was lucky enough to catch some fireworks on the horizon. Already at the station I found various posters promoting Miyazawa-related events.

Various places in Hanamaki are named after things in Miyazawa’s storiesy – the Ginga Mall, for example. You will find Miyazawa-themed decorations anywhere – lampposts, benches, sculptures, anything.

A bench displaying characters from The Restaurant of Many Orders

But the main attractions are obviously the Kenji Miyazawa Memorial Museum and the Fairy Tale Village (Dōwa Mura).

There’s a special train, the SL Ginga, that’s going from Hanamaki to Kamaishi and back every weekend. Since Miyazawa studied Esperanto, all stations on the way have an Esperanto name attached to them – for example, Shin-Hanamaki becomes “Stellario” with the kanji 星座 (star sign). I would have loved to ride this event train with its interior modeled after real trains from around 100 years ago. Maybe next time!

The Memorial Museum is a beautiful place, located on top of a hill with a panoramic view on the surrounding idyll. A wooden staircase leads there and on every stair, one character of Miyazawa’s famous poem Ame ni mo Makezu is written, for a total for 367 stairs.

Entry is free and it feels like everything is crafted with love. There’s a restaurant, too, named Wild Cat House after the restaurant in The Restaurant of Many Orders. The souvenir shop has all kinds of goods and I took the chance to buy some books and a Night on the Galactic Railroad pin.

The main building had a lot of information on Miyazawa and original material on display. Apparently an English online guide exists, but inside most things are Japanese-only. Displayed were things such as letters Miyazawa wrote to one of his students or photos of the people close to him.

I then visited the Fairy Tale Village, a small Miyazawa-themed park with food stalls, a big stage, a big model train, ponds and various buildings – a great place for parents with children. The main building had one room with giant toy insects that was slightly eerie while another was dark and full of mirrors with lights imitating the night sky.

Here I also found messages from various notable Japanese personalities, including the late Ghibli director Isao Takahata, producer Toshio Suzuki, composer Joe Hisaishi, In This Corner of the World director Sunao Katabuchi, mangaka Fumiyo Kōno, composer kotringo. I was amazed how many of these names were familiar to me.

I took my time to walk around and enjoy every bit of it and if I had had more time, I would have gladly stayed longer. Most of the popular tourist spots in Japan can be pretty crowded and I find myself enjoying places like Hanamaki a lot more. Here I can relax and enjoy the atmosphere. If I lived here, I could see myself coming regularly, maybe reading  book on a bench overlooking the fields and forests of Hanamaki. It’s definitely high on my list of places I want to re-visit when I’m coming to Japan again.

Riding through the prefecture on the local train lines also proved to be an excellent decision as the panoramic mountain and forest views were simply stunning at times, especially between Morioka and Miyako.

I’m glad I was able to visit Hanamaki. Tourism information in English is sparse and it’s not really a popular destination for foreigners, so I was not entirely sure what to expect. But both the town itself and the Kenji Miyazawa Memorial Museum / Fairy Tale Village were lovely and quickly became one of my favorite places in Japan.

That concludes my posts on Kenji Miyazawa. It was my first theme week and I consider it a success. Having a theme and a goal definitely boosts my motivation to tackle thing I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. What definitely still needs to be improved is timely coverage – this took far longer than it should’ve taken and I also went into more detail than originally anticipated. But there will be more theme weeks and I’ll try my best to not procrastinate the writing part too much next time.

 

Kenji Miyazawa in Anime and Manga

This is the second out of three planned post about Kenji Miyazawa.

1) The Life, Works and Themes of Kenji Miyazawa
2) Kenji Miyazawa in Anime and Manga: Adaptions and Influence
3) A Trip to Kenji Miyazawa’s Beautiful Hometown Hanamaki

Kenji Miyazawa’s stories became very popular in post-war Japan, so naturally there have there have been animated adaptions. The earliest ones were puppet animations – The Restaurant of Many Orders (1958) and Gauche the Cellist (1963) – and the most recent adaption is Matasaburō of the Wind from the Anime Mirai 2016  (Young Animators Training Program).

But Miyazawa’s influence goes far beyond just adaptions of his work. His ideas had and continue to have a big impact on generations of artists. The most notable case may be Leiji Matsumoto’s works, particularly Galaxy Express 999 and The Galaxy Railways.

In this article, I will try to provide a non-exhaustive overview of these adaptions and influenced works.

Adaptions and Re-Adaptions

Take a short glimpse at the anime works that credit Kenji Miyazawa and you will notice: Many of them have been adapted two or even three times. Out of the huge catalogue of Miyazawa short stories, a few seem to me particularly popular. Gauche the Cellist, Night on the Galactic Railroad, Matasaburō of the Wind and The Life of Budori Guskō have all been adapted twice or three times even over the course of the decades.

Out of the ones I have seen, all had an interesting artistic directions. There are more straightforward works, like Takahata’s take on Gauche, but the majority of the adaptions have unusual – sometimes daring and experimental – visual styles that complement the eerier, weirder elements in Miyazawa’s stories. Unfortunately, some of the older works are hard to get your hands on nowadays – I’m not sure all of them were released physically in the first place.

Let’s take a short look at the works by the most prestigious directors.

Isao Takahata’s Cellist

Takahata’s 1982 adaption of Gauche the Cellist may seem fairly conventional. It adds a few details to the original story, but nothing major. However, this was an independently produced endeavor with great attention to detail that took 6 years to complete and was the beginning of an approach to anime production that Takahata would later use again in My Neighbors the Yamadas and The Tale of Princess Kaguya: To attain the highest level of artistic consistency, the 63-minute movie was solo-layouted and key animated by Yoshitsugu Saida.

Most of the movie is fairly realistic – the lavish backgrounds stand out in particular – but there are some very stylized scenes of comic relief that may surprise people who only know Takahata’s newer works. One scene also pays tribute to Tom & Jerry.

Also notable is the attention payed to the music. In addition to the pieces used in the original story, Takahata chose a few classical compositions for the movie. Saida took cello lessons in order to animate the movements as accurately as possible. The song Hoshimeguri no Uta written by Miyazawa himself is notably used in the opening credits.

While other adaptions of Miyazawa works may stand out as more artistically daring, this is definitely an excellent adaption of Gauche. I have to admit the original story never resonated much with me, but any admirer of animation as an art form should watch Takahata’s Gauche at least once.

Gisaburō Sugii’s Cats in Space

Gisaburō Sugii, one of the earliest directors in TV animation, took on the arguably most famous animated Kenji Miyazawa adaption, released in 1985: Night on the Galactic Railroad. In the beginning, Sugii had trouble adapting Miyazawa’s abstract work into something concrete, as Jonathan Clements describes, so he made an interesting choice: “It was the manga artist Hiroshi Masumura who came up with a solution – keeping the original abstraction in the anime by making the lead characters cats.”

The original work was already quite weird at times, but Sugii’s version takes it to a new level. The movie is dark, slow and sometimes outright creepy. It still keeps Miyazawa’s message intact, but it’s nothing I would show to children as casual entertainment. That being said, the very nature of this highly unique movie and its incredibly strange atmosphere make it quite compelling. Definitely recommended!

Funny anecdote: The movie was recently licensed in Germany by publisher Anime House, but the voice and music tracks were lost over the years, so in order to produce a dubbed version, Anime House had to recreate these tracks. They used the official soundtrack release to restore the music and the sound effects while the missing parts of music were recreated from scratch by the dubbing studio, based on the original sound. The process was documented here.

I’m personally more fond of Sugii’s take on The Life of Budori Guskō 27 years later (the second time the story was adapted in animated form). The movie also portrays the main characters as cats and has much of the same eerie weirdness as Sugii’s Railroad, but I found it more tangible and the visuals more appealing. The story also shares some biographical elements with Spring and Chaos (see below). For more details on the production process, read Clements’ article linked above.

(Screenshots from sevengamer.de)

There’s another “adaption” of Night on the Galactic Railroad with the English subtitle Fantasy Railroad in the Stars by digital artist Kagaya – a 48-minute tribute to the story. It shows the train on its journey through the galaxy – and it’s quite beautiful, including the music – the kitsch factor is high, though. Kagaya also added narration of passages of the original story, but did not aim to retell the whole story, encouraging viewers to read the original instead.

Shōji Kawamori Peculiar Biography

Shōji Kawamori of Macross fame directed the 1996 movie Spring and Chaos (イーハトーブ幻想 Kenjiの春), produced by TV Iwate, the local television station of Miyazawa’s home prefecture. Kawamori also decided to portray the characters as cats, but this is not an adaption of a story, but a biographic take on Miyazawa’s life as a teacher, writer and farmer.

The one-hour movie portrays Miyazawa as a rather eccentric teacher and references some of his work, including Miyazawa’s Hoshimeguri no Uta song already used by Takahata. In addition to traditional cel animation, the movie has a couple of very interesting and experimental sequences that use beautiful, abstract crayon-styled animation to portray dreamlike sequences. These sequences are absolutely outstanding.

While people who don’t know anything about Miyazawa may be puzzled by this movie, I still think its message and atmosphere can be appreciated regardless of background knowledge. It is a competent retelling of Miyazawa’s grown-up life that covers topics such as his idealism, the death of his sister and his wish to become a farmer. Very peculiar indeed, but definitely worth a watch!

Kazuo Oga’s Solo Effort on Taneyamagahara at Ghibli

Ghibli Background Artist and Art Director Kazuo Oga adapted Miyazawa’s Night on Taneyamagahara at Studio Ghibli in 2006 – mostly all by himself. Oga is credited for direction, drawing all the key frames and “dramatization”. And it shows: This is not a typical animated movie, but rather a collection of stills with added narration. But these stills are beautiful! The story borrows the setting of Taneyamagahara, but the events are anime-original. I personally think it captures the appeal of Miyazawa’s story perfectly and absolutely does it justice. The narration is also quite excellent and pays a lot of attention to details – for example, the local Iwate dialect is used. Give it a try if you want to experience one of Miyazawa’s mysterious, yet oddly calming stories about nature.

(Screenshots from AniSearch)

Last But Not Least…

It may not stand out as much as the other works mentioned here, but my personal favorite of all Miyazawa adaptions is the 2016 version of Matasaburō of the Wind – a 25-minute short movie made as part of a subsidized training project for young animators, called Anime Mirai (now: Anime Tamago). The character designs are cute, the colors very appealing and it captures the calming yet mysterious nature I love so much about Miyazawa’s works. You can really feel the wind while watching!

These are by far not all adaptions, but from the ones I have seen, I consider them the most interesting.

Influenced Works

To conclude this article, I would like to name a few cases of other anime or manga works referencing or being influenced by Miyazawa’s works, first and foremost Night on the Galactic Railroad.

– As mentioned above, Leiji Matsumoto’s Galaxy Express 999 and The Galaxy Railways directly pay tribute to Night on the Galactic Railroad.

– In the 2013 post-war movie Giovanni’s Island (big recommendation), the protagonists are nicknamed after the protagonists in Night on the Galactic Railroad, and in a pivotal moment in the the second half, the galaxy train appears in a dreamlike sequence.

– Kunihiko Ikuhara’s Mawaru Penguindrum heavily references several elements of Night on the Galactic Railroad, including to Scorpion’s Fire.

– Both Bungaku Shōjo and Hanbun no Tsuki ga Noboru Sora reference Night on the Galactic Railroad several times.

– Hayao Miyazaki mentioned in an interview that that he always imagined the cat in Judge Wildcat and the Acorns as bigger-than-human as a child – a reason why Totoro is so big.

– In Takahata’s Pom Poko, two of Miyazawa’s songs are used as background music (I already mentioned the Hoshimeguri no Uta – the other one is called Spring Joy and seems to originate from Matasaburō of the Wind, from what I read on a Japanese blog).

– Jonathan Clements mentions Keiichi Hara’s Colorful and Birthday Wonderland movies also received inspiration from Miyazawa’s works.

– The song Hoshimeguri no Uta composed by Miyazawa himself is not only used in adaptions of his works, but also in Wish Upon the Pleiades (Gainax, 2015), Planetarian: The Reverie of a Little Planet (David Production, 2016), Baja’s Studio (Kyōto Animation, 2018).

Links

Notes on Galaxy Express 999
The Trouble with Budori Gusuco

The Life, Works and Themes of Kenji Miyazawa

Image Source: izumi-books

This is the first out of three planned post about Kenji Miyazawa.

1) The Life, Works and Themes of Kenji Miyazawa
2) Kenji Miyazawa in Anime and Manga: Adaptions and Influence
3) A Trip to Kenji Miyazawa’s Beautiful Hometown Hanamaki

Who Was Kenji Miyazawa?

Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) was a Japanese writer and poet famous for his fairy tales – in a way, he could be called the Japanese Hans Christian Andersen or Lewis Carroll. But he was also a scholar, a teacher and someone deeply concerned with the life of local farmers – to the point where he left his job as a teacher behind and became a farmer himself.

My experience with Miyazawa before this theme week

  • read the English translation of Night on the Galactic Railroad
  • read Chūmon no Ōi Ryōriten (The Restaurant of Many Orders) and Donguri to Yamaneko (Judge Wildcat and the Acorns) in Japanese
  • watched the following anime films based on his work or life:
      • The Life of Gusko Budori (2013 version)
      • Matasaburō of the Wind (both versions)
      • The Restaurant of Many Orders (1994 version)
      • Night on Taneyamagahara
      • Gauche the Cellist (1982 version)

What I did during this theme week:

☑  Visit: Kenji Miyazawa’s hometown Hanamaki + museums
Read/Listen: Taneyamagahara (種山ヶ原)
Read/Listen: Gauche the Cellist (セロ弾きのゴーシュ)
☑  Read/Listen: Matasaburō of the Wind (風の又三郎)
☑  Read/Listen: The Acorn and the Mountain Cat (どんぐりと山猫)
☑  Read/Listen: The Twin Stars (双子の星)
☑  Watch: Spring and Chaos (1996)
☑  Rewatch: Gauche the Cellist (1982)
☑  Rewatch: The Night on Taneyamagahara (2006)
Watch: Fantasy Railroad in the Stars (2007)

Life and Death and Galaxy Trains

Miyazawa’s most famous work is without doubt Night on the Galactic Railroad, a story about two boys, Giovanni and Campanella, who travel through the galaxy in a train before their inevitable parting. The story begins at Tanabata, the Star Festival in July. Giovanni boards a train that magically appears when he climbs a hill alone at night and meets his best friend, Campanella, there. What he does not know yet is that Campanella had fallen into a river that night, losing his live. The mysterious train takes them on a journey through the galaxy. The two boys witness all kinds of wondrous phenomenons, see beautiful places and meet bizarre people. They talk about their loved ones and the true meaning of happiness. But Giovanni is not dead, so he has to return to Earth in the end, while Campanella continues his journey into the next world.

This story reflects many of Miyazawa’s ideas, but one that occurs in a number of his stories and poems is the sorrow of parting. In 1922, at the age of 24, Miyazawa’s sister Toshi passed away. The two of them were very close and according to the anime adaption of Spring and Chaos, Miyazawa considered her one of the two people who truly understood him (the other one being his classmate Hosoka Kanai). Naturally, her death left a deep scar on his heart.

The Fields and Mountains of Iwate

A recurring setting in Miyazawa’s works is the beautiful nature of his home, the Iwate prefecture. Mountains, fields, rural villages and deep forests – when I took a train ride through the prefecture recently, I could really feel what inspired him a century ago. Miyazawa invented the name „Ihatov“ for the region which is thought to be an Esperanto rendering of the name “Iwate” with the meaning “ideal place” or “paradise”, though there are a number of different theories.

However, there’s also a strong element of mystery in many of his works. In both Matasaburō of the Wind and Taneyamagahara, supernatural events occur. But there’s no explicit magic in these works – it’s all described in a dreamlike fashion that makes you wonder if it was real or not. In Matasaburō of the Wind, a boy called Saburō from outside moves to a rural school and the other kids half-jokingly call him „Matasaburō of the Wind“, after a wind sprite known to the locals. The wind indeed picks up that day and other mysterious phenomenons happen, but when Saburō and his family leave the village, the children and the reader still wonder if he was really „Matasaburō of the Wind“ or just a normal boy.

The local Iwate dialect is also commonly used in his works and even more so in the anime adaptions.

Moral in Miyazawa’s Works

From what I’ve read, Good and Evil is not really a theme in Miyazawa’s works. But many of his stories do have some kind of morale, and some also condemn certain behaviors or character traits. This is most obviously in his famous The Restaurant of Many Orders. In this story, two men behave arrogantly and greedily, showing no respect for nature. Their greed and stupidity eventually leads to them being eaten by wild cats who carefully lured them into their trap.

This is one of the weirder, darker stories, and it has a bit of a Through the Looking-Glass vibe. Judge Wildcat and the Acorns, a story about a cat who settles an argument between a group of acorns in a lawsuit, is less dark, but comedic and nonsensical in a way that is also very reminiscent of Lewis Carroll.

Miyazawa the Idealist

In one of his poems (published posthumely), Be not Defeated by the Rain (雨ニモマケズ, Ame ni mo Makezu), Miyazawa describes what kind of person he aspires to be. This poem seems to represent many of his ideals. It goes like this:

(Source: Wikipedia)

In the biographical anime movie Spring and Chaos, Miyazawa’s father, a pawnbroker, claims his son is “too idealistic” after Miyazawa remarks he would lend poor people in need money. During his time at university, many of Miyazawa’s ideals were formed in conversations with his close friend Hosoka Kanai – who believed the natural (or ideal) state of a human being was being a peasant. One NHK World documentary even interprets this poem as describing Kanai.

Animals and Humor

Some of Miyazawa’s stories feature human characters, but a number of them include anthropomorphized animals or other things. Judge Wildcat and the Acorns was mentioned above already, The Cat Office (猫の事務所) also features cats. The Twin Stars tells the story of two stars on the sky and their interactions with personified star constellations, the Scorpion and the Big Crow. Judge Wildcat and the Acorns as well as The Restaurant of Many Orders also have a peculiar sense of humors that is sometimes straightforward, sometimes hard to make sense of – and sometimes surprisingly dark for tales aimed at children.

Kenji the Scholar

Miyazawa quit his job as a teacher to help the poor farmers in his hometown, becoming a farmer himself and trying to introduce innovative methods of fertilization. This way of living, however, took a toll on his health and he passed away at the young age of 37. Some of his works were self-published during his lifetime (though not very successful), but most of them only published posthumously.

Miyazawa was an avid student of astronomy, geology, Buddhism, agricultural science,  and the Esperanto language. He worked as a teacher, placing value on hands-on experiences and taking his students on walks and expeditions frequently. He also introduced Western classical music and to the local farmers and engaged in a number of social and cultural activities, including readings and plays.

Kenji Miyazawa in English

Miyazawa never rose to fame in the English-speaking world like Haruki Murakami or Natsume Sōseki, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that many of his works were, in fact, published in English. Some of these works include:

  • Night on the Galactic Railroad (sometimes titles Milky Way Railroad)
  • Gauche the Cellist
  • The Restaurant of Many Orders
  • Wild Pear (Yamanashi)
  • The Nighthawk Star
  • The Kenju Park Grove
  • Ame ni mo Makezu + selected poems

Furthermore, I found the following English picture books of Miyazawa works in the souvenir shop of the Kenji Miyazawa Memorial Museum:

  • The Telegraph Poles on a Moonlit Night
  • The Bears of Mt. Nametoko
  • Judge Wildcat and the Acorns
  • The Kenju Park Grove
  • Gem Fire
  • The Shining Feet
  • Crossing the Snow
  • The Twin Stars

Where to Start

As an entry point, I would recommend Night on the Galactic Railroad. It is not only Miyazawa’s most famous and influential work, it’s fantastic nature and universal themes also make it accessible.

I also recommend the works that show Miyazawa’s love for the nature of his home, the Iwate prefecture, e.g. Matasaburō of the Wind or Taneyamagahara.

In addition, I consider the anime adaptions of Matasaburō of the Wind (2016), The Restaurant of Many Orders (1991/1994) and The Life of Gusko Budori (2013) good entry points. I will write more about them in the next article.

Links

Translated Kenji Miyazawa works on Amazon
NHK World Documentary Series (available until March 2020)
English Website with Extensive Information about Miyazawa
Ame ni mo Makezu poem and translation on Wikipedia

Introducing Theme Weeks + Masterpost

Image: Miyazawa Kenji no Shokutaku

There are so many things I’m interested in. Things I want to experience, explore, learn more about. Some of them have been on my radar for years and years, yet I haven’t given them the time and attention they deserve.

I’m sure many of you know that feeling. To motivate myself, I want to experiment with an idea I’ve had on my mind for a while now : theme weeks.

What Is a Theme Week?

The concept is simple: I will dedicate a part of my spare time to explore a certain topic within one week (or several weeks, depending on the scope). That topic can be anything, for example:

  • the works of a certain mangaka or author
  • revisiting games from my childhood
  • anime movies set during WWII
  • the early history of Japanese animation
  • the production of My Neighbor Totoro
  • proactively trying new game genres
  • discovering new music
  • learning or improving a certain skill

I will set myself a goal for each theme week that may include either specific or vague milestones. That goal will typically include writing a blog post about that topic with the aim to be both personal and informative.

Theme Week Masterlist

I’ll be using this section to record all ongoing and past theme weeks.

#01: The Dreamlike Works of Kenji Miyazawa (Aug 19~25)

Kenji Miyazawa was a Japanese poet and writer. While Japanese people are familiar with his fairy tales, most famously “Night on the Galactic Railroad”, hardly anyone in the West knows him or his works. I have always been drawn to Miyazawa’s stories, they have dreamlike, soothing, philosophical, weird, eerie and fantastical qualities at the same time. Some of them have been adapted into anime and manga works, and they are frequently referenced in other media. Since I’ll take a trip to Iwate prefecture this week, I’ll use this as an excuse to start with a Kenji Miyazawa theme week.

☑  Visit: Kenji Miyazawa’s hometown Hanamaki + museums
Read/Listen: Taneyamagahara (種山ヶ原)
Read/Listen: Gauche the Cellist (セロ弾きのゴーシュ)
☑  Read/Listen: Matasaburō of the Wind (風の又三郎) (optional)
☑  Read/Listen: The Acorn and the Mountain Cat (どんぐりと山猫)
Read/Listen: The Twin Stars (双子の星)
☑  Watch: Spring and Chaos (1996)
☑  Rewatch: Gauche the Cellist (1982)
☑  Rewatch: The Night on Taneyamagahara (2006)
Watch: Fantasy Railroad in the Stars (2007)
☐  Write: Blog Post

 

Carnivorous Totoro and Miyazaki’s Trick Question: Kenji Itoso About His Job Interview at Ghibli

Kenji Itoso, Ghibli alumnus and director of the crowdfunded anime short movies Santa Company and Coluboccoro, shared a story about his job interview at Studio Ghibli at a special screening event of his movies at the Finnish embassy in Tōkyō.

According to Itoso, it was a group interview and to ease the tension, Miyazaki asked on of the female applicants what movie she had seen recently. She answered: “I saw My Neighbor Totoro. I’ve loved that movie since my childhood and am collecting Totoro merchandise,” to which Miyazaki replied: “I see. While that makes me happy, I personally don’t think of Totoro as a cute creature. It’s a quite fearsome being. As a carnivore, the only reason it didn’t eat Satsuki and Mei is that it wasn’t hungry.”

This revelation naturally shocked the woman. Miyazaki continued to ask the applicants one by one about their thoughts on that. Most of them replied with positive responses. Itoso was the last to be asked. He thought back on how he had seen Totoro on VHS and something dawned on him. Totoro had  molars used to grind leaves characteristic of herbivores. “Totoro can’t be a a carnivorous animal. There is no way it would’ve eaten Satsuki and Mei,” he concluded.

Hearing that, Miyazaki started to smile. In the end, Itoso was the only one who passed the job interview. “When I asked Miyazaki why he had used this trick question, he replied ‘For people in the entertainment business it is important to not just swallow what they are presented with, but think for themselves”.

Itoso concluded: “I could only answer like this because I happened to like animals, but he is really someone who looks at all kinds of things. I had the feeling I was constantly being tested which motivated me to do my best.”

via Oricon

Chica Umino Talks About How Western Children’s Literature Influenced Her Stories

In Japan, it is common for classics to be republished with modern manga-style cover art to appeal to  a younger audience. Shueisha did that for Anne of Green Gables in 2011 – and asked mangaka Chica Umino (Honey and Clover, March comes in like a lion) to draw the new cover artworks.

The July 2019 issue of the picture book magazine MOE contains a list of 77 Western children’s books recommended for Japanese adults. They used that occasion to interview Chica Umino about how these books influenced her childhood and the stories she writes. Highlights were added by me.

Umino says, she read Anne of Green Gables and Heidi as a child, so she was very happy when she was asked the draw the new cover artworks for Anne. She is very fond of the recent adaption Anne with an E (streaming on Netflix) and remarks that if she was asked again to draw the cover artworks, her Anne would probably end up more like that. “Pale skin, lots of freckles and really red hair – even though she isn’t a beauty, there is a lot to love about that girl. Just like the real Anne [from the books].”

She said, growing up with the books just as Anne was growing up in the story inspired her to feature characters of various ages in her works:

“As I child, I first only read until Anne of the Island [the 3rd book in the series]. What came after that seemed to me like a world different from mine at that time. But after that, many changes came with Anne growing older and I continued reading the books matching my age and found that appealing. I want my manga to be read for a long time, so I take care to not only have characters of the same age group appear. I also try as best I can not to draw the clothes and hairstyles according to current trends.

As a child, Umino perceived Marilla as a very strict person. But thinking back on how she took care of Anne despite wanting a boy to help with the farm work, she can see Marilla’s kindness now. She also loved the scene when Matthew gave Anne a dress with puffed sleeves as a present and reread it countless times. Another of her favorite scenes is the one where Diana’s little sister gets seriously sick and Anne saves her.

Umino says, she is the kind of reader who rereads the same book many times. As a child, Anne of Green Gables, Heidi and the Little House on the Prairie book series were the ones she read over and over again, starting from her first elementary school years.

Having had very unruly hair as a child, Umino could relate very well to Anne being self-conscious about her red hair and found it reassuring to find someone with the same anxieties.

Umino is also very found of the mundane moments in the books, particularly the ones about preparing food. She loved in how much detail Montgomery portrayed the baking of a cake in Anne, down to getting milk from the cow. Her parents belonged to a pioneer group in the Yamagata prefecture, so the scene where Marilla bought wool to knit a sweater for Anne was right out of her own life.

Especially reading the Little House books was like reading stories out of her mother’s life for Umino. Her mother’s parents died young, so just like Laura and her sisters in the story, her mother had work for other families and do the work sons usually do. This made Umino’s affection for the books grow even more.

Reading the meal scenes in Anne inspired similar moments in her manga: “Because I read these scenes so passionately, I thought having meal scenes in my own manga would make it more fun for the readers.” Getting letters and photos from readers who tried to cook soft-boiled eggs the way they remembered it from March comes in like a lion made her very happy.

Finally, she explains how these books influenced the usually atypical families appearing in her stories:

I used to wonder why I don’t really portray normal families much, but nowadays I understand that this is due to the influence from Anne and Heidi. Because I always read stories where a child came from outside. Heidi and Anne were thrown into a different world all of a sudden and had to adapt to that [new] life, and for Laura with her pioneer family it was also like going to a new world. Because I grew up with stories like these, I now think I may be unable to tell any other stories.”

She concludes: “The books I own may be old, but the illustrations and their designs are really beautiful, so I hope they will stay with me forever.”

The Tree in the Middle of the World: Late Ghibli Animator Makiko Futaki’s Magical Picture Book

Makiko Futaki was one of the most important Studio Ghibli animators. Working with Miyazaki since Lupin the III: The Castle of Cagliostro in 1979, she contributed to almost all Studio Ghibli films as a key animator, from Nausicaä to Marnie. She also worked on Akira and The Wings of Honnêamise. Hayao Miyazaki considered her one of his most trusted co-workers. Unfortunately, she passed away far too early in 2016 at the age of 57.

Aside from her work as an animator, she published a few picture books for children and designed the cover of the Moribito books by Nahoko Uehashi (I will likely dedicate a few blog posts to Uehashi’s works at some point).

One of these books, The Tree in the Middle of the World (世界の真ん中の木), originally published in 1989, was re-released as a hardcover collector’s edition (愛蔵版) for its 30th anniversary for 2500 yen. I read this book and want to share a few impressions. Avery Morrow translated the first six pages a couple of years ago – you can read them here.

Like Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke, this book was inspired by the beautiful forests on the southern Japanese island Yakushima. I went there myself in March and can confirm that the mountain forests are stunning.

The story centers around a girl who lives close to a huge, huge tree – the world tree, you could say. One day, she sees a gigantic bird and is dazzled by its majestic appearance. With the goal to see that bird again, she begins to climb the huge tree and, on her way, encounters all kinds of animals and strange fantastical creatures living there.

However, these creatures seem to escape downwards. Some kind of murky water seems to poison the tree, making its leaves and branches wither. On her way up, the girl meets a talking frog and a boy from another country who accompany her on her quest to find out where that water comes from.

It’s a magical story. Not too original, one might argue. The theme of nature, pollution (this time not man-made), the interconnectedness of all living things and the absence of a good-and-evil duality are Ghibli staples. Indeed, the story is very reminiscent of Miyazaki’s Shuna no Tabi and one scene could be straight out of Nausicaä.

But the strong sense of wonder, the beauty of the drawings and the feeling of adventure still make the book very enjoyable. Not all strings come together as well as I had hoped, and the end feels a bit rushed, but overall, I had a lot of fun with The Tree in the Middle of the World.

Translation: Toshio Suzuki Reminisces About Isao Takahata (Part 3)

I kind of forgot that I was already 65 % done with this translation when I went on my bikepacking trip from Okinawa to Nagasaki. But I’m back now, so no excuses for further delays. This the last part of Suzuki’s musings and covers the particularly notorious part about Takahata “killing” Yoshifumi Kondō.

An additional note: I wrote that the original article was posted on bunshun.jp which was not wrong, but it was originally published in the Ghibli Textbook #19: The Tale of Princess Kaguya. I have added this information to the previous articles.

Part 1 | Part 2

The original Japanese article can be found here.


“Even After Takahata-san’s Death, the Tension Does Not Subside” – Toshio Suzuki talks about Isao Takahata (Part 3)

When will this film be completed, when will it be released to the world? I didn‘t even think about that once. Let’s just release it once it’s finished. With that way of thinking, I prepared myself for the worst, including the budget. Having enough of distressing over meeting deadlines was also a reason, and I also felt like I should let Takahata do until he was satisfied. As a result, [the production] took eight years and, with a budget of 50 billion yen, became the most expensive Japanese movie in history, but I decided to not let it bother me at all.

“The Idea of Releasing ’Princess Kaguya’ and ’The Wind Rises’ Simultaneously”

But still, when I heard that the completion was in sight, I felt excitement – because Nishimura talked about summer 2013, the same timing as “The Wind Rises”. That’s when I came up with the idea of a simultaneous release. Two maestros with a teacher-student relationship and a lifelong rivalry, pitting their works against each other 25 years after “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Grave of the Fireflies” – if that came to be, making big headlines would be easy. And personally, I was also interested which film would attract more visitors and how different the critical reception would be if released at the same time.

That’s when I went to Takahata-san and explained my plan to him. But Takahata-san was not thrilled. “You want to release this film by stirring up a fire like that?” “Exactly. You see, the film cost a lot of money, and recovering the money by getting people to see the movie is one of my reasons,” I replied, but Takahata-san said he would not agree to that. At one point, Takahata-san likened my way of promotion to propaganda and become quite critical.

As a result, progress on “Kaguya” got delayed once more, and the release was stretched out until November. Admittedly, my dreams of a simultaneous release were shattered, but I thought, if it’s not meant to be, that’s also fine. In that way, I countered his stubbornness with my own stubbornness. I decided to take this contest of endurance to the limit.

Dispute Over a Tagline

When it came to the promotion, we also argued over the tagline. The line I came up with was “The sin of a princess and her punishment”. That was also written in the project proposal Takahata-san had submitted at the beginning, and anyway, it was the theme of the original story. I thought this was the only fitting line. But when I showed it to Takahata-san, his face changed colors again. Seemingly not pleased, he told me: “It’s true, initially I also thought like that. But I decided to drop that theme.”

In regard to the tagline, Takahata maintained a peculiarly consistent stance. “We shouldn’t evoke a wrong impression of the work,” he said. To explain this further, he wanted to make “sin and punishment” the theme of the work, but was unable to realize it in practice, which was why that tagline was wrong.

After he told me this, I had no choice but to think of a new tagline proposal. He acknowledged that this time, the content wasn’t misleading, but the uneasy feeling I had did not subside. “I very well understand that this tagline would be less problematic, but the ’sin and punishment’ tagline was much better received by the [production committee] [lit.: parties involved],” it slipped out of my mouth. It was then that Takahata-san sullenly retorted: “I see. I don’t care anymore. Do what you want.”

“Shouting Over a Poster”

We then used “sin and punishment” and made the first poster, but that lead to yet another clash. For the test print run, we made one version with colors true to the actual key frames, and one version with a fluorescent pink that was a little flashier. I took those to Takahata who looked at the flashy one and lost his temper. “You seriously want to sell this work like that?!” While he was shouting furiously, I remained silent and Kazuo Oga-san who had drawn that picture happened to pass by. Surely Takahata thought he would be on his side. “Oga-san, what do you think?” I asked him. At that moment, our eyes met for a second. Thereupon, Oga-san replied: “I think this one is better” while pointing at the flashier one. I’m sure that must have been bitter for Takahata-san.

But that issue had an even more lasting effect. After that, when the production was in a late stage, Takahata-san said: “Because of your tagline, I don’t know what to do.” Nowadays, even the promotional tagline is subconsciously influencing the viewers who visit the cinema. Based on that, the tagline “The sin of a princess and her punishment” shouldn’t be mentioned in regard to the movie. I felt it was inevitable, so I decided to add a quote [from the movie]. “Please remember that,” he emphasized. Then, every time when he was giving interviews, he kept saying: “This tagline is wrong.”

In other words, the movie “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” was a struggle between Takahata-san and me. That’s why I couldn’t just calmly watch the movie. But when it was completed, the one thing that I frankly must admit was amazing was how he captured Princess Kaguya as a woman. Including the scene of her first menstruation, she was portrayed as a woman perfectly. There are no other directors who can do that. I’ve got to hand that to him. I really think the movie turned out well.

“Takahata-san Was Trying to Kill Me”

Every human does good and bad things in their lives, and due to their work, movie directors can’t always be good people. There are times when they involuntarily change the lives of others, and sometimes become the target of resentment. In Takahata’s case specifically, making good movies meant everything to him to the point where everything else was secondary. You could very well call it “work supremacism”. But there’s no denying that this destroyed a lot of people.

Kondō Yoshifumi, the animation director of “Grave of the Fireflies”, was one of these people. When he visited Sendai for the promotional campaign of his first and last movie as a director, “Whisper of the Heart”, he talked to me about Takahata-san that night and couldn’t stop. “Takahata-san tried to kill me. When I think of him, even now my body starts to shake.” Talking like that, he cried for two hours. After that, he fell ill and died at the age of 47. While we were waiting for his bones to be burned at the crematory, S-san, an animator and colleague who had worked with Takahata and Miyazaki since their times at Toei Dōga, said the following: “It was Paku-san who killed Kon-chan, wasn’t it?” The air froze instantly. After a little while, Takahata-san silently nodded.

“The Man Isao Takahata” as Told by Hayao Miyazaki

If it was for the sake of a work, he did everything. As a result, he wrecked the people we had pinned our hopes on one by one. Miya-san often said: “The only staff member who survived Takahata-san was me.” This is no exaggeration; it is the truth. You may think working under Takahata will be a good learning experience – but it’s not as simple as that. You have to be prepared to be exploited, overworked until you break.

“Paku-san” is the god of thunder.” That’s what Miya-san said a lot recently. When Takahata-san got angry, he was always serious. He doesn’t get angry to discipline someone or change their attitude towards work. And because he’s serious when he gets angry, he knows no mercy. He doesn’t leave a way to escape and doesn’t extend a helping hand afterwards. That’s what makes it so scary.

As Nitta Hiroshi from Shinchōsha who was involved in the production of “Grave of Fireflies” fittingly said: “Matsumoto Seichō, Shibata Renzaburō, Abe Kōbō – I have worked with many writers, but never encountered a person like [Takahata-san]. Compared to Takahata-san, they all seem normal.”

I have also met all kinds of people, but no one else like Takahata-san. No matter what the staff did for him, he never expressed gratitude. According to his way of thinking, since they were working together on something, it would have been strange for him as the director to express his gratitude. That might seem logical, but from an interpersonal perspective, he lacked feelings – his was a destructive way of thinking.

“You alone tried to bring Paku-san to make movies. No one wanted that,” Miya-san once said to me. But during the production of “Heidi, Girl of the Alps”, Miya-san himself went all the way to Takahata-san’s place every day to urge him, who had no intention to so, to work. Going even further back in time, during the times of Toei Dōga, animation director Ōtsuka Yasuo-san insisted: “If you don’t let Takahata direct, I’m not doing it,” which let to Takahata’s directorial debut on “Hols, Prince of the Sun”.

“Even After His Death, the Tension Does Not Subside”

Looking back, there was no work Takahata said he really wanted to make on his own accord. But still, myself included, the people flocked around him and pushed him to make [movies]. Was that the reason for his talent? I don’t really understand it myself.

To begin with, no matter if writer or movie director, people who want to create something to show it to others usually have a strong desire for recognition, right? I believe Takahata also had this desire. But at the same time, in accordance with his destructionalism (destructive principles / 破滅主義), I have the feeling he was also tormented by self-destructive desires. I think the person Takahata Isao can be described as in a rift between these two tendencies.

There is this word called “charisma” – people are deeply shocked [by someone], think that there is something to that person and start following them. This is neither good nor bad. But once captivated by this charm, it doesn’t let them go until that person dies. No, even then it doesn’t end.

That’s why even after working with Takahata-san for 40 years, I couldn’t let my guard down even once. Even after his death, this tension does not subside. That’s how I feel. Expressed in more beautiful words, you could say he still lives on in my heart. But that’s not what it is. I want him to peacefully leave this world behind, but he simply won’t do that. What is this feeling? What was there to this person? Me and Miya-san, we want to find this answer, and continue our wake together even after his death.

By the way, in the movie Miya-san is currently working on, “How Do You Live?” (Kimitachi wa Dō Ikiru ka), there is a character modelled after Takahata-san. I’m interested in how Miya-san will handle this character. After Takahata-san’s death, the progress on the storyboards that went smoothly has halted now for two months. That’s why even now I don’t feel like praying for Takahata’s happiness in the next world. That might be difficult to understand for outsiders. But these are my genuine feelings right now.


That’s it for now, thank you for reading. I personally find Suzuki’s stories very fascinating. Studio Ghibli is not bound by any higher entity trying to protect a brand image or anything, so Suzuki, Miyazaki and Takahata were always talking very freely about basically anything – quite unlike what Japanese usually do. The amount of documentation of Studio Ghibli works, their productions and the people involved is insane. For me that is a big part of the fascination, and the deeper I delve into it, the more engrossing it becomes. Miyazaki, Takahata, Suzuki – it’s not only their works, I also find their personalities highly interesting.

There are other magazine article translations I’m planning to do – one very recent article in the same style where Suzuki talks about Miyazaki (references by ANN here), the work on Spirited Away and the footprint Miyazaki left on the Heisei era. Another very interesting article from 1963 was re-published yesterday – it’s about legendary animator Reiko Okuyama who was one of the first woman to enter the animation industry in Japan. She is the model for the current NHK morning drama (asadora), Natsuzora,  that tells the story of a girl growing up after World War II and eventually entering the animation industry. In the article, she talks about her experiences as a woman in a work environment dominated by men and why she decided to become an animator.

If you have any interesting suggestions for articles that still need translation, feel free to mention them in the comments.

Translation: Toshio Suzuki Reminisces About Isao Takahata (Part 2)

I am sorry for the long, long wait, but here’s part 2. A lot of fascinating details about the production of Princess Kaguya. I’ve also started adding tooltips (I may go back and add some to part 1 at some point). I plan to finish the third and last part by tomorrow.

You can read part 1 here.

The original Japanese article can be found here. Originally published in the Ghibli Textbook #19: The Tale of Princess Kaguya.


“When I Proposed Dismissing Director Isao Takahata” – Toshio Suzuki talks about Isao Takahata (Part 2)

At that time, Takahata-san was eager to adapt “The Tale of the Heike“. A concept that sounded interesting, but there was one problem: Who would do the key animation? “When it comes to drawing the Heike battle scene, no one but me could do that,” Hayao Miyazaki boasted and I understood how immensely difficult it would be on a technical level. Takahata tried to ask Osamu Tanabe who had worked on “The Yamadas” to do it, but Tanabe in his stubbornness retorted: “I don’t want to draw pictures of people killing each other.”

I then proposed “Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. As everyone knows, this is Japan’s oldest story and I remembered that Takahata himself had said once that “it should be turned properly into a movie by someone.” When I brought that up again, he replied: “I did say that someone should make it, but I never said I was the one.”

“Why Did Princess Kaguya Choose the Earth?”

I told Takahata how Ujiie-san told me he wanted to see one more of his works at all cost before his death. Since there were no other good proposals, and “Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” had no scenes of people killing each other, Tanabe-kun would also agree to help, I told him. While trying to convince him with these words, Takahata-san suddenly asked: “Okay, please tell me one thing. Why did the princess, among all the stars, choose the Earth? If we don’t understand this, we can’t make this movie, right?” “Please think about that yourself,” I was about to retort, but he would continue this question-and-answer game with the producer forever because he was someone who needed this input at certain intervals to move forward. When such a discussion got going, he wouldn’t stop and continue talking throughout the entire night, even until the next morning without batting an eyelid.

Especially during the planning stage, we had to do these talks for at least 10 hours every day. Honestly speaking, I got fed up with this and it also left me with no time to attend to my other work. That’s when I sent the young Yoshiaki Nishimura and Taku Kishimoto in as Takahata’s discussion partners. Because they were so young, they were able to stand their ground as his conversation partners, and my hope was also that having new conversation partners would prove to be stimulating for him. And when it actually began, those two young guys listened enthusiastically to what he had to say which also seemed to make him happy.

I periodically had the two report to me, at which point they told me that Takahata-san wanted to completely change the project plan in the middle of the way. He was thinking about making a drama with Norio Akasaka’s book “Birth of the Lullaby” as an original concept. But he himself understood that this would be difficult. So after many twists and turns, he returned to the initial “Kaguya” plan and the production began formally.

“That Man Still Has the Scent of a Marxist”

I believe that as a producer, I must run a three-legged race with the director, so to speak. Looking at it from that perspective, I couldn’t be called producer this time. That’s why I appointed Nishimura as the producer and left everything to him. By the way, the other producer, Kishimoto, quit Ghibli in between and is now a popular scriptwriter.

As the preparations for “Kaguya” progressed, Ujiie-san invited Takahata-san, Miya-san and me on a trip to visit art museums in Europe. Beginning in 2008, we would visit [museums in] France, Italia and Spain for the next three years, but I think Miya-san and I were just extras – Ujiie-san really wanted to go with Takahata-san.

At that point I tried to ask him why he was so fixated on Takahata-san.

“Takahata’s movies have a poetic side. I fell in love with that. That man still has the scent of a Marxist.” That was Ujiie-san’s answer. In the end, the movie could not be completed in Ujiie-sans lifetime. But at the end of 2010, he was able to take a look at some of the storyboards that were already completed. He took his time to read through them, and then uttered: “Princess Kaguya sure is a selfish girl. But that’s just the type of girl I like.” Three months later, Ujiie-san left this world at the age of 84.

“Hayao Miyazaki’s Unassuming Cooperation”

In the early stage of the production, at one side of the floor, the “Kaguya” team would work, and Miyazaki’s team on the other side.Tanabe-kun, one of the artists from the Kaguya team, would come early and diligently draw the key animation by himself. Takahata always came in the afternoon. Then right after arriving, he would look at Tanabe-kun’s drawings and angrily complain “not like this, this is wrong.”

Observing this every day, I noticed something amusing. When Takahata-san got angry, Miya-san would casually stand behind the Kaguya team and strain his ears to hear what was going on. Then on the next morning, he’d visit Tanabe at his desk. “What Paku-san meant is this. That’s why you have to draw it like that,” he would explain while drawing what he meant. “But don’t tell Paku-san that I told you this.” That’s what he’d do every day, all while neglecting his own work.

But Tanabe is a stubborn guy, so he refused to draw like that. Miya-san really has a soft heart, it was touching to see… After “The Yamadas”, he saw the terrible state of the studio. “We can’t let him make another movie,” he exclaimed furiously, but in the end he himself wanted to see Takahata’s works more than anyone.

“If You Want This Work to Be Completed, Dismiss Takahata”

When the preparations had reached a certain point, the progress suddenly slowed down. When I asked Nishimura, I learned that in short, Takahata tried to make Tanabe single-handedly draw all the scenes. The already steep demands from “The Yamadas” were escalating further.

In the past decades, the level of detail in animation has gradually increased. For example, during “My Neighbor Totoro”, one person drew about ten minutes worth of key animation of a feature-length movie, but nowadays no more than 3 minutes are possible. In a time of strong work segmentation where more and more animators are needed, Takahata tried to make one single person draw everything.

If he’d leave it to a select few, I could understand it, but it just wasn’t realistic to leave it to one person. I then took a middle position and suggested Nishimura to have about three people draw the pictures. As a result, Masashi Andō returned to Ghibli for the first time in a long while. Under Miyazaki, he’d worked as the animation director for “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away”. Furthermore, Ken’ichi Konishi and Shinji Hashimoto, who had worked on “The Yamadas”, joined in and things finally progressed on the key animation side.

It was when the production was maybe halfway done when Nishimura came to me and said with a serious expression: “We won’t be able to complete it at this rate.” At that time, I told him: “If you really want this work to be completed, dismiss Takahata. Just leave the rest to Tanabe or Andō.” Takahata was someone who had studied the French language and learned to think in an European style of rationalism. I won’t go as far as to say he would have quit by himself, but if a producer dismissed him from his post, he would think about it logically and obey. That was an especially troublesome time for Nishimura. In the end, after a 3-month standstill on the key animation side, he was able to get Takahata-san to devote himself to finishing the storyboard.

Trouble like this came and went, but this time I didn’t have to deal with it directly, so I was able to take it relatively easy. Nishimura-san, who continued to work with Takahata-san, on the other hand, got thinner and thinner. I appointed him when he was 28, but when the work was finished, he was 36. During this time, he had married and become a father. He devoted most of his youth to one film. I think he really, persistently did his best.

Translation: Toshio Suzuki Reminisces About Isao Takahata (Part 1)

Last August, the severe working conditions under Isao Takahata made headlines on many websites after Ghibli producer and long-time colleague Toshio Suzuki openly talked about Takahata’s incredibly demanding work practices and how he “destroyed” the staff that worked on his films. In a three-part article for the Japanese website Bunshin, Suzuki reminisces about Takahata and why Takahata is still on his mind even months after his passing.

Some key points and quotes were already mentioned in said articles, but the whole thing is much, much longer and contains many more insightful comments by Suzuki that help us understand what kind of man and creator Takahata was, for the better or worse.

This is my first Japanese-to-English translation of a text this long, so I apologize for any wonky English you might encounter. I will try to translate part 2 and 3 as soon as possible.

“Why I Stopped Wanting to Make Movies with Takahata Isao-san” – Toshio Suzuki talks about Isao Takahata (Part 1)

Published on August 10, 2018 here. Originally published in the Ghibli Textbook #19: The Tale of Princess Kaguya.

When Takahata-san died, and even now after the memorial meeting, my feelings show no signs of settling down. After the death of Tokuma Yasuyoshi, Ujiie Seiichirō-san, my mother and my father, I was able to sort out my feelings after the funeral. But this time I’m just unable to calm down. Constantly Takahata-san comes to my mind. I’m experiencing this for the first time in my life. Maybe this shows what a strong presence he had, and honestly speaking, it bothers me.

I’ve already said this at the “Farewell Party”, but in the end, my relationship with Takahata-san was that of a producer and a director. There was always some kind of tension in the air.

– Toshio Suzuki (Studio Ghibli Representative Producer)

The first time I had a long talk with Takahata-san was when he was working on “Chie the Brat”. At that time, I was an editor for the “Animage” magazine and was supposed to interview Takahata-san in a cafe in Kōenji, where the production company Telecom [Animation Film] was stationed. Right when we sat down, he already fired the first bullets. “I’m sure you want to hear me talking about nonsense like what part of the original work inspired me to make this movie.”

I already knew from my phone calls prior to the meeting that he was a difficult person, so I fired back by confronting him with the questions I had carefully prepared beforehand. His replies were endlessly long and before I knew it, three hours had passed. Just when he was about to leave, Takahata-san said: “You can’t use this, right? You can’t make this into an article, right?” I accepted this challenge and wrote an article.

From this day until the end of the production of the movie, I met up with Takahata-san in Kōenji every day and we continued our talk. Then, at the screening party after the movie’s completion, Takahata-san told me: “Thanks to you, I was able sort out my own thoughts.” That might have been the first time tasting the joys of making movies and being a producer.

Working with Takahata-san Was No Cakewalk

The movies I worked on at Ghibli with Takahata-san include five titles, “Grave of the Fireflies”, “Only Yesterday”, “Pom Poko”, “My Neighbors the Yamadas” and “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”. To make a movie, the director and the producer form a joint venture-like relationship. No good works are created just by getting along. It’s no overstatement to say that we argued continuously each time and that those days were like fighting a war. You often hear that you should keep a proper distance, but it’s not that easy. We just clashed time and time again.

My position demanded me to point out the uncomfortable facts to Takahata-san. When we fell behind schedule more and more during the work on “Grave of the Fireflies”, I had no choice but to get into a serious argument with him to have the film ready for the opening day. After a discussion with Murase Takuo who was in charge of Shinchōsha back then, I decided to trim the 107-minute long storyboard down to 88 minutes. I still painfully remember that even that was not enough, and the movie had to be screened with some parts still unpolished.

When working on “Pom Poko”, I already anticipated that we would fall behind schedule and went so far as to put up an altered promotional poster reading “Opening This Spring” instead of the real “Opening This Summer” poster next to Takahata’s workplace. But it had no use at all. (laughs bitterly) In the end, I had to make cuts again, something Takahata-san held against me forever.

This process continued to repeat itself and after the production of “The Yamadas”, I decided to put an end to Takahata’s works. “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” wouldn’t have happened without the involvement of [former] Nippon TV chairman Ujiie Sei’ichirō-san.

I Want to See One More of Takahata’s Works Before I Die

Ujiie-san and Tokuma Shoten’s president, Yasuyoshi Tokuma, both had a Yomiuri Shimbun background. We also got along well as managers, so I had the honor to hold the memorial address at Tokuma’s funeral. To express his gratitude for that, Ujiie-san visited me and said in an earnest voice: “Toku-san was an incredible person. From a company to movies, he made so many different things. That guy was a real producer. Looking back on my life now, I’ve done nothing. Do you understand the sadness a 70-something year-old guy feels when he has done nothing in his life?”

I didn’t know how to reply to that, so I trivially said: “But you’ve held a high position in the mass media. You were the one who rebuilt Nippon TV, Ujiie-san” to what Ujiie-san shouted angrily: “Idiot! Everything in the Yomiuri Group was built by Shōriki [Matsutarō]-san. We only have built upon that. I want to try to make something by myself at least once. I cannot die before I do that.” He looked very serious.

Ujiie-san made me the board chairman of the Ghibli Museum at some point. After that, once a month, under the pretext of wanting a “report”, he came to meet me. On that occasion, he would ask me “What’s Takahata doing at the moment? Of all Ghibli works, I love ‘My Neighbors, the Yamadas’ the most. That might not be the most popular work. But before I die, I want to see one more of Takahata’s works at all costs. As my farewell present. Come on.”

Even after he said that much, I can’t say I was very eager. But each time I met him, he would ask me: “So, have you decided?” and I would always reply “I’m examining the possibility” to dodge the issue. But one time, he got furious. “I know the reason why Takahata can’t do another movie. That reason is you!”

The Entire Staff Gets Completely Worn-Out

This had to be said at this point, so I defiantly explained what a movie by Takahata would entail. “It costs money, of course, and not meeting deadlines is also an issue, but that’s not all. The real problem is his way of making [films]. Because he shows no consideration for the people around him, the entire staff gets completely worn out. To make matters worse, by doing that, he violates what Ghibli has built up that way, the work environment that was fostered. The company becomes a complete mess.”

The storyboards are drawn, and based on that, the layout work is done, and the key animators draw the key frames. Then the in-betweeners draw the pictures between the key frames. This is the basic principle of the Japanese animation system Takahata and his peers have established. But when he made “The Yamadas”, Takahata said he wanted to scrap that system. He said he wanted an approach where one person draws all lines. He denied the methodology he himself created and rebuilt it from scratch. Creation, destruction and regeneration. Describing it like this may sound cool, but it effectively eliminated the work of 50+ in-betweeners, and the animators who had to do the entire process were worn out to the verge of collapse. But when Takahata wants to do something, he listens to no one. One by one, he wore the staff out until they left. Miya-san knew that and exasperatedly exclaimed: “Suzuki-san, what’s happening here? I want to protect this studio.” I could understand his feeling very well.

What Takahata was trying to achieve far exceeded the frame of a normal animation movie meant for entertainment. Because he employed the same methods as someone creating works of art, the results were so impressive. If an impressionist painting would be created as animation – well, that’s what “The Yamadas” became. Later, when a retrospective exhibition of Ghibli works was hosted in the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art in New York) and the person in charge came and said: “There is one wonderful work that stands above all others. I want to add that to our permanent collection,” I was not surprised. That was the mindset this work was created with.

But Ujiie-san didn’t give up, even after I explained all these things to him, and insisted on a Takahata movie. At that point I resigned and began to discuss the plan for the project with Takahata-san.