The ambitions of director Itoso Kenji for Japanese anime

Film and animation director Itoso Kenji is bursting with ambition as he describes his vision for the future. “These days, it’s possible to bring together 1,000 people simultaneously on Zoom to see how Japanese anime are drawn, produced and expressed.” But it’s not just about participating online. Itoso devised a detailed strategy to create a new order in the animation industry in Japan.

From Miyazaki’s tutelage to the top

After studying with acclaimed Studio Ghibli director Miyazaki Hayao in his teens, Itoso Kenji was chosen by several famous directors and producers to produce their works. For animated feature films Colubocoro and Santa Claus Company: The Secret of Christmas, both released in 2019, it abandons the customary model of the production committee and sets up a structure giving it full ownership of the copyright of the work. Itoso is not only a gifted creator, but his keen business acumen has breathed new life into the world of Japanese animation. He’s a shrewd strategist who managed to raise a cumulative 850 million yen through crowdfunding, a feat that earned him a place in the Guinness World Records.

Itoso wears many different hats: film director, university professor and business executive.

The weekly manga magazine Shônen jump was at its peak during Itoso’s childhood. All of his friends were avid readers of the magazine, but Itoso’s parents thought it was a bad educational influence and kept him away from him. A kid who refuses this kind of entertainment can usually pout or make a fuss, but instead Itoso decided that he would come up with interesting stories that no one else knew and started making his own manga, on the model Dragon ball, his favorite story.

As a young teenager, Itoso was crazy about football, but realized that he was not talented enough to become a professional player. Thinking about his future, at the age of 17, he decided to become a manga artist and left his native Hiroshima to attend Tokyo Zōkei University of Art.

Some of his teachers were also involved in creating anime, and by listening to them talk he became convinced that he should move on to the field. This was around the time Miyazaki Hayao announced his (short-term) retirement after the 1997 release of Princess mononoke, and Itoso learned that Studio Ghibli will be auditioning candidates for its Higashi Koganei Son Juku seminars, created to nurture the next generation of anime artists.

As part of his strategy to earn a spot at the seminar, Itoso watched several Studio Ghibli animated films up close. He found that while Miyazaki’s name didn’t appear in the end credits as a character creator, each work unmistakably reflected his distinctive touch.

Itoso decided that was either because the staff’s designs had been retouched to give them the signature Miyazaki flavor, or they were so devoted to Miyazaki that their production subconsciously reflected his style. In any case, Itoso was convinced that the only way to get a foot in the door would be to submit designs with a Miyazaki flavor. He had also noted that crucial scenes in Miyazaki films often showed close-ups of female characters in profile. He followed this practice to the letter, submitting watercolors of women in profile incorporating his own touches, and successfully passed the audition.

Itoso created this watercolor as part of his seminar audition portfolio.
Itoso created this watercolor as part of his seminar audition portfolio.

During the seminary, Itoso spent all of his time with the then retired Miyazaki, who devoted many hours to supervising the students of the seminary. Luckily, plans for a Ghibli museum were underway at the time, and Itoso was asked to create storyboards for short films that would be shown there exclusively. Through repeated discussions of visualization in films, he absorbed the view of nature symbolically represented in Miyazaki’s works.

“Do it now, not a day”

Colubocoro, a work Itoso premiered in 2007 but which only hit theaters in 2019, will be a centerpiece of his work. He believed that a work by a stranger would be difficult to publicize and would attract little attention anyway. He decided that an animated film made in the Ghibli style by someone who had studied with Miyazaki would provide the necessary hook, and the work he created incorporated elements from the Studio Ghibli films. Kiki’s delivery service, My neighbor Totoro, and Laputa: Castle in the Sky.

Just as he had planned, Itoso gradually started to gain attention in the anime industry. In 2010, producer and founder of Madhouse production company Maruyama Masao approached him to participate in the production of Dream machine, an animated film directed by Kon Satoshi. The offer was a precious opportunity to get involved in this ambitious work, the fruit of leading creators. But shortly after production started, Kon was diagnosed with end-stage pancreatic cancer.

One day Kon asked Itoso if he had ever wondered why he was drawing. Itoso replied that he hoped to one day create his own original work. Kon retorted, “‘A day’ may never come, and you may end up dying before that. Forget “someday”, do it now. Take care and bring me some suggestions.

Kon brushed aside most of Itoso’s ideas but thought that Santa Claus Company could make an interesting movie. The storyline, that Santa Claus can deliver gifts overnight because his operation is actually a business, was originally a manga written by Itoso.

Kon died in August 2010. The Dream machine the project ran out of money and was eventually disbanded, so the film was never made. But spurred on by Kon’s ‘do it right now’ in 2014, Itoso turned to crowdfunding, an unusual move at the time, to make the short. Santa Claus Company.

An extended version of the film, to which new scenes were added to deepen the storyline, hit theaters in 2019, voiced by lead voice actors Hanazawa Kana and Kaji YÅ«ki.

“Kaji and Hanazawa are both hot stars, and they were only available for a short time to record their games,” Itoso explains. “It only took Kaji an hour and a half to express an hour of dialogue. I gave him direction and we did several tests, but once he figured out what I wanted he did it all in one take. He is a master of his trade. And while we recorded the roles of the two actors separately, the scenes where the characters are laughing or getting angry sync up perfectly. I was really impressed with their professional work.

Breaking the mold

In a different vein, Itoso plans to use scenes from voice actors recording their parts as educational material for aspiring animators or voice actors.

“Take a commercial product like Doraemon, for example. All elements of the work, from the illustrations and animations of the characters to the colorful images produced later in the process, are protected by copyright, and even vocational schools and universities cannot use them to teach their students. animation students. But I structured Santa Claus Company so that my studio owns all the copyrights, and if I wanted, I could download a hard drive with all the data on the internet tomorrow.

It would also create material for students to practice, karaoke-like, with prominent Japanese comedians by simply blocking the audio track of a certain character. Itoso says he has already gotten the green light from the actors in his works to use their scenes.

In his role as head of the art and design department at Osaka Seikei University, Itoso visits an affiliated school in Taiwan several times a year to lecture and coach animation students. “The first time I stood in front of a class, I was surprised to see students smile at my remarks, before the interpreter even started speaking, so I asked the students if they understood Japanese. About half of them said they had done so; they had learned the language of the anime. For Itoso, it was clear that Japanese anime had a huge impact abroad.

Itoso travels to Taiwan several times a year to teach animation students at Tainan University of Technology, a sister school of Osaka Seikei University.
Itoso travels to Taiwan several times a year to teach animation students at Tainan University of Technology, a sister school of Osaka Seikei University.

He hopes to keep this sharing in motion. “Right now, Japanese anime skills are in the foreground and there are Japanese anime fans all over the world. Whenever I talk about what’s going on in an animation studio, there is a great deal of interest. I’m not interested in keeping the secrets of the anime to myself. With online tools like YouTube or Zoom, it’s easy to show how Japanese voice actors work, and people all over the world can join in at the same time. Any anime fan who participates in an online session can later recall how the scenes ended up in the finished product when watching an animated film.

He continues, “If possible, I would like to make an animated film working with people outside of Japan, not just creators but also fans. And anyone who has contributed to a crowdfunding campaign could have the satisfaction of seeing their name in the credits as a donor. Letting people feel that they have been actively involved is also a great way to get the word out. It is also free advertising.

Itoso has a grander vision than just doing Santa Claus Company a success in Japan. He aims to make his mark on the world stage.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Director Itoso Kenji with a poster of Santa Claus Company. Photo by the author. Poster © Kenji Studio, 2019. Photos courtesy of Itoso Kenji, unless otherwise noted.)

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