Japanese director Katsuhiro Otomo began his career as a manga artist, writing and drawing series like Fireball and Domu in the late '70s and early '80s before moving on to the staggeringly ambitious, 2,000-plus-page series Akira, which followed two young biker-punks in a muddled future dystopia. When Otomo directed a feature adaptation of Akira in 1988, it became the most expensive animated movie ever produced in Japan, and also one of the most visually impressive: It inspired a generation of Japanese viewers to become animators, and as one of the first anime films to play in American theaters and to gain mainstream critical support, it remains the seminal anime film for many older American fans.
Otomo went on to direct a live-action film and a short segment for the 1995 anime anthology Memories, and he's scripted, supervised, and storyboarded other full-length anime films like Spriggan and Metropolis. But since 1995, he's been working on his second full-length animated feature, Steamboy, which opened in Japan in 2004 and made it to American theaters this year. Like Akira, Steamboy is a richly animated dark adventure with very little to connect it to more conventional anime stylings or story tropes. It takes place in an alternate past driven by steam power, and follows a young boy named Rei who gets caught up in a struggle between two generations of mad scientists, as his father and grandfather vie for control of a new steam-powered invention. Shortly before Steamboy's American launch, Otomo spoke with The Onion A.V. Club via e-mail, discussing Steamboy's production and planning, the benefits of directing, and the problems with Japan's animation industry.
The Onion: Your films and your short pieces tend to take place in a very chaotic world. There's a sense that everything is decaying, that there is no moral center or stability, and things are falling apart. Does this in any way reflect your own philosophy?
Katsuhiro Otomo: In my opinion, there is no sense that everything is decaying, nor that there is no moral center or stability, and things aren't falling apart.
O: Steamboy centers on two violent and powerful creators, each arguing that they know what's best for humanity, and using their powers against each other while unthinkingly hurting a lot of people around them. This seems like an allegory that could be read a number of ways for world politics. Do you mean for viewers to interpret the film allegorically?
KO: It is entirely up to one's interpretation. That could be your opinion, which might differ from one audience to another.
O: Steamboy first went into production 10 years ago. Did your vision for the film change significantly between then and now?
KO: Nothing particular has changed in terms of the content of the film. I think the impression of the completed film is the same as the original concept we had planned.
O: Did the advances in CGI animation between now and then change your production process, or change what you expected from the results?
KO: If the advancement of CGI animation technology were delayed, the completion of the film, too, would have been delayed. Since the waiting time required during the rendering process has been dramatically shorter in the last 10 years, I think that CGI animation has finally become practical. I can't describe precisely how much the CGI animation has been advancing, but it is a fact that I processed the work based on the assumption that the machine spec would be higher.
In that context, young 3D animators have also gotten more skillful in recent years. But what I didn't expect is that the skills of traditional 2D animators have become worse, and notable young animators have not come out to the scene. This is a big issue for the industry.
O: Do you see some specific reason for this happening? Does it matter significantly, if the industry is moving toward abandoning 2D in favor of CGI?
KO: I don't know why. It was said at one point that it was because of the working environment for the animators, but as a matter of fact, it might not be the only reason, since not too many young notable animators are coming out of places such as Studio Ghibli, where they are on a fixed salary. I think the industry in Japan moving toward CGI is not as severe and extreme as in the U.S. The animation industry in the U.S. is firing 2D animators and closing those studios, but I think it's possibly because the national traits of the U.S. prefer super-realism. Since Japan is a country that prefers plane vision, I don't think we will leave 2D and substitute hand-drawing with CGI entirely.
O: What percentage of Steamboy's animation is computer-generated? It doesn't have the look of CGI, even the mechanical motion of painted-over CGI. What's the process behind what we're seeing on the screen?
KO: Approximately 400 cuts—that would make 25 percent of the total—use CGI. I worked on the production based on the usual handwriting method. Digital animation is just supplementary. I didn't do anything surprising, because the idea is to overcome the limitation of expressions done by handwriting with the help of CGI.
O: Akira and Steamboy have a similar richly colored layered look—was the process behind them at all similar?
KO: There is only one part that used CGI in Akira. Compared to that, a quarter of Steamboy was produced using CGI, and the entire film is done on digital composites. In that sense, these films are distinct as fully analog and digital. However, except for the fact the system at the studio was digitalized, Steamboy is similar to Akira, since we use the method of traditional cel animation.
O: What's your personal position on CG animation vs. cel animation? Do you prefer one over the other, either in terms of the work process or in terms of how the results look?
KO: Although all studios are now moving towards digitalization, a foundation in which we draw pictures by hand hasn't changed, so I foresee that we will continue to keep it in the future. After all, we used the digital method based on a conception of expanding and advancing the expression of the traditional animation cel in Steamboy, so it is not that I prefer it over the other, as there is very little difference between the two in terms of an approach.
However, there is a lot of limitation in terms of expression on the traditional animation cel. The first goal of this project was to overcome those limitations—especially that of camera angles caused by platforms. On that aspect, I won't go back to the traditional method. I hoped to combine the merits of the traditional method of cel animation with the merits of the new CGI method.
O: Was it possible to salvage the work you did on Steamboy when the project first got under way, or were you starting over with this version?
KO: The original image was a five-minute pilot and was created before we started location scouting in England. They were just images of characters, story, and production design, which were not boiled down to become a final product. From the start, it was created with the purpose of collecting sponsors, and for the film crew to have the images to share. This was just a springboard prior to the completed work, and I didn't intend to create the same film as the pilot version. The pilot was completed in 1995, so it took nine years to complete this film.
O: This is your first time directing since Memories in 1995. Does directing have any particular appeal for you that writing, producing, creating storyboards, and so forth don't have? What for you is the most satisfying thing about directing a film?
KO: During the production of this film, what I put my most effort in was the process of layouts, and I did my best to check every detail. Once this process is done precisely, we will get great backgrounds from our art team. This makes the team effort fun.
I can't create a movie by myself. It is worthy only because many staff bring new ideas and techniques. I think the appeal of being the director is to encounter such new things, which I don't possess. It is absolutely wonderful to create something new based on teamwork. It is something that I couldn't appreciate in my cartoonist days.
O: That said, is there anything uniquely interesting or special about drawing manga on your own that you don't get from film production?
KO: Unfortunately, that is not the case. The cartoonist's work is solitary; even when dealing with editors and assistants, there is no such excitement as to creating unexpected drastic changes for projects. But by the same token, manga can't be drawn by a lot of people, as done in film.