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Japanamerica: An Interview With Shinji Aramaki

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By Roland Kelts.

Shinji Aramaki is nearing 50, placing him in the generation of anime auteurs–Satoshi Kon, Hideaki Anno, Mamoru Oshii–that has made the Japanese art form a global phenomenon.

Aramaki was a key designer of Transformers, the franchise that stormed Hollywood this summer, and Robotech, Toby Maguire’s new project. He also directed the new Appleseed films, the first one released in 2004, that connect East and West via brilliant technology.

In the sequel, Appleseed Saga: Ex Machina, a global security apparatus turns sinister when terrorism is found to be an internal affair. Conspiracies abound. Female politicos are called upon to salvage global sanity, and mind-controlling technologies threaten to turn civilians into mindless consumers. It’s set in the future, but Ex Machina feels frighteningly familiar.

I spoke with Aramaki on the eve of Ex Machina‘s nationwide release in Japan.

3:AM: Was the level of international collaboration in Ex Machina–costumes by Miuccia Prada, music by YMO/Cornelius and director John Woo on board as a producer–deliberate?

SA: No it wasn’t actually my intention at all, but the result was that I enjoyed it very much. More than the international aspect, I feel that the involvement of all these individual creative talents strengthened the entire project.

3:AM: What did Woo do?

SA: Well, there are a lot of little details. He had a big influence in providing advice and comments on the story points that would become the core of the film, and on developing and deepening the characters. His involvement helped make it a deeper film, I think, and he was very easy to work with–partly because he said from the very beginning that the final call is the director’s call.

3:AM: How did the Prada costume designs happen?

SA: Our music producer, Shin Yasui, knew folks at Prada, and there were only two people between him and Prada herself. I was quite surprised when it became a reality, but the designing process went quite smoothly. Prada very much liked what we produced. She had already seen the first Appleseed and was a big fan of the main character, Deunan. She already had images of Deunan and the designs the character might wear.

3:AM: Do you think about the global audience when you work on your films?

SA: I am concerned about certain issues that would offend some countries, and we try to soften those issues, or take them out entirely.

3:AM: For example?

SA: We try not to make religious issues too strong. Even though we have a major fight inside a church in the beginning, we avoid specific symbols that would connect the scenes visually to a specific religion. We avoid crosses, for example. And we avoid the violence that might cause problems in other countries.

3:AM: What did Woo say about grounding things in the global setting of 2007?

SA: He suggested that we make the key plot points and the exposition minimal, to make the story more easily understood. The original manga is very detailed and complex, and Woo suggested we simplify, make it more accessible. I tried to be very careful, though. If you cut down on too much of the complexity, you lose the beauty and sophistication of the original story.

Anime are different from Hollywood films, which are usually quite simple in their basic storylines. Although Hollywood can produce some beautiful simplicity, anime tends to be more complex, and I try very hard not to lose that complexity when crafting my films.

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3:AM: What about the problems in the anime industry, such as young talent going elsewhere?

SA: Although I’m conscious of that problem among Japanese youth in anime, I think it’s more important to show the younger generation how great it is to be successful. I’m not criticizing Hayao Miyazaki, for example, but I wish he would make more of his status. He should have gone to the Academy Awards ceremony [when Spirited Away won best animated feature film], and he should be showing off his winning of the Academy Award, and showing young artists his status, his international wealth and fame.

As for myself, I hope I can convey my own success to young animators in Japan, who need to see what we can achieve.

It may sound simplistic, but when we see professional baseball players who have great cars and beautiful wives, we think of their status, and we admire it. Similarly, anime artists should show off their success and status.

3:AM: What do you think of the phenomenon of offshoring anime jobs?

SA: There are two sides to this question. The planning and design are all kept closely in Japan. But you’re right: We are training the laborers to make our own products. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have great artists in Japan. It just means that young people don’t see the glamour and status of the job.

Right now, the government is trying to train the younger generation [of animators]. But that seems silly to me. We artists can only work on the next title. It’s hard work. The government will probably only interfere, and that’s not about art.

I won’t benefit from government money, so who cares? They [government bureaucrats] don’t get it [anime culture] anyway. And I’m too old to get the money.

3:AM: What about the concept of manga diplomacy, the idea that Japan’s pop culture builds up goodwill overseas?

SA: Rather than [focus on such] diplomacy, they should improve schools for animation in Japan. It’s probably a better plan than [directly encouraging] exports. We should have better schools for teaching the art work.

I have friends who attended the USC [University of Southern California] school of film. They teach you stuff I actually do in my work, but they do so pragmatically. We need that in Japan.

3:AM: Who would you say is the best audience for Ex Machina?

SA: Hard to say. I would like people who don’t usually watch anime to get it–fans of Prada, Hollywood, et cetera. Real people. The otakus will come anyway. We want people like your sister to love it.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roland Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US, out in paperback this November.

Picture: Roland Kelts outside Cafe Manga on London’s South Bank, by Andrew Stevens.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 22nd, 2007.