An Interview with Anime Director Michael Arias
Date: 2016 June 6th Monday [15:59] | Posted By: Lee
Lots of anime fans aspire to join the anime industry. Very few from the west make it. Even fewer people go on to direct well known titles like Tekkonkinkreet, or produced the Animatrix. Michael Arias was a guest at the MCM London Comic Con this May 2016. We were lucky enough to catch him for an exclusive interview, while he was here to promote Harmony, his latest feature film, it's due for a home video release in the UK sometime in Q4 2016 thanks to Anime Limited.
You're living the Otaku dream, living the dream of anyone who wanted to go to Japan work on anime, and you are one of the few people who has actually done it and have been really successful, so how does it feel?
*laughs* I don't want to blow the dream *laughs again* I just like living in Japan.The work, to be honest for me maybe it's not the best of all places to be working as a filmmaker, though it's certainly one of the best places to be doing traditional animation. I kind of got into traditional animation,I wouldn't say by accident, but by a series of not entirely self directed moves.
If you don't mind of asking, what were they?
Oh just a series of events and people I was hanging out with, because I have a background in visual effects and there's a lot of overlap between animation and visual effects and although it's a little difficult to summarise the many years, one thing I would say is that I think it would be hard to duplicate my path to what i'm doing now. A lot of it was just good luck, meeting the right people, because at the time that I was there, there weren't really many foreigners there so this kind of thing was unique. Being a foreigner who could communicate in Japanese but had experience doing visual effects on some very well known movies opened a lot of doors in ways that I think they might not these days. There's a lot of good fortune involved and I think it would be very difficult to deliberately map that out.
I mean, when I try to even plan out, to plot out a timeline of what the last 26 years since I first arrived in Japan, half my life really, It kind of emerges as more of a random walk with a lot of tracing back on itself, repeating the same path a couple of times. It does not seem like a rational plan and if I had to say, I really envy people who are able to have a theme to their life, like this is where I want to be in ten years or twenty years. Everyone has ambitions or dreams to a certain extent but to actually be able to visualise like what the moves are to get you there or whether it's career or life, you know, personal stuff and that's eluded me and at this point i'm not going to try and figure it out.
It's interesting to hear you say it's the Otaku Dream. On the one hand it's gratifying to know that someone would think that my life's worth living.
Are you surprised there's not more western directors / animators moving to Japan?
No I'm not surprised. A big reason for that is it requires a lot of effort to communicate in Japanese and collaborative enterprise like filmmaking and animation relies so much on the ability to communicate with people that, I just think that that's just a very practical and pragmatic reason. I think most people who want to make movies are more focussed on making movies than they are on learning Languages so that's kind of a big commitment and then also there's kind of a dark side. The pay isn't great and the working conditions are hard by the standards of...well I wouldn't say Hollywood anymore.
There's what you would imagine the work is and there's the reality. You know, sitting in a desk seven days a week a lot of times, in a smokey office, there's a reason that .a lot of the guys working in animation are guys my age , probably single, can't support a family. It's a great place to be if all you want to do is draw, and then, you're there! But it's hard work and the really good animators, that's what they live and breathe. It appeals to people who can only express themselves through their fingertips.
But would you say it's worth it in the end once you see the finished product?
Yeah for me it's enormously gratifying, when it's gone well, to see something that you've worked on whether directing, or whatever you're role is, if you like making movies, the payoff is definitely, at least for me, in the shared experience of maybe seeing the movie with friends or a regular audience at a nice theatre. It goes a long way and although It doesn't necessary pay the rent, it's very cool.
You made the amazing Tekkonkinkreet, which is brilliant
Thank you I'm very proud of it.
And we now have Harmony which is just releasing in the States later this year?
Actually I think it just released last week, I think on the 17th and 18th Funimation did a roving weekend of digital cinema screenings. I kind of found out about it by friends who were like "Hey i'm going to see your movie this weekend and I was like "Really?" because I haven't really been involved in any of the overseas distribution. I think there's some kind of package, a physical release planned in the US for the Autumn perhaps.
What would you say the biggest difference was between adapting a manga and adapting a novel?
Well even though with Tekkonkinkreet I would say our final visuals ended up like they're their own thing, we used the manga and that was our springboard. Everything we added is in a lot of ways just window dressing and there's core that's just visually speaking and aesthetically speaking us standing on Taiyō Matsumoto's shoulders in every way. Having such inspiring visual resource helps a lot and for Harmony we had none of that.
We were just working with words. One of the great things and one of the kind of confounding things about literature is that everyone who reads it can form a completely different visual impression of it, imagine something different. To be honest, with Harmony I read the English translation first and then only later read the Japanese.The English translation I think is really good, it's by a guy named Alexander Smith who's a really amazing translator who does a lot of mystery and sci fi stuff and he finds a voice for each novel and he does a great job of it. It's not just translating it's coming up with a way to invoke the spirit of what's in the original and that's tough. In doing that there's a certain colour that you can't get around. There's a certain amount of his personality, that's the way he sees it so I think a lot of that may have coloured my impression of Harmony for better or for worse. I think for better actually, but there was definitely a difference in the way that some of my colleagues saw the movie so that just added to the challenges figuring that we needed to visually express what's in the book.
There's also something else, I think it's in a way particular to the sci fi genre but also to Pitoh's writing. He likes kind of cool turns of phrase and just he likes cool stuff which on the page is, well it's cool but when you try and unpack and think "wait what is he actually saying here? Some of the stuff doesn't necessarily reveal an obvious visual interpretation to me. I would think "wow that sounds really cool but what does it really mean" We had a lot of discussions about whether he really meant that literally that you know that everything is pink (this is just an example) or whether he just thought it would be cool to say that everything is pink. It doesn't really matter what he intended but this is one of the many reasons i wish he would actually be alive for us to actually ask, "Do you mind if we actually make everything pink?" or on the flip side "Do you mind if we just ignore this because it's not going to be so easy to do this and maybe it won't look so cool if we actually do it."
I don't know how to explain exactly but that's another thing that's a little difficult about adapting literature. For Tekkonkinkreet, I have been carrying the comic book around for so many years that by the time we actually started making the movie I had really internalised a lot of the details of it and just made them my own and mixed them with my own ideas. I had a very living picture of the source in my head that I could retrieve stuff from, where as with Harmony I kind of was always flipping through the book and saying things like, "where was that, what was that? Where did he say that? What was he referring to?"
Do you feel that gave you more freedom?
More freedom to make wrong turns and go down dead ends. More freedom in a good way and a bad way and in some ways less of a smooth process moving it to film. Not only because of that stuff but also directing as a team with another director had it's own challenges.
When you were creating Tekkonkinkreet you said that 50% of portraying the world, the universe was in the sound?
A lot of it, I don't know 50% maybe more, maybe a bit less but yeah it was huge.
Would you say that music had the same impact on Harmony as well?
No. No I would not. But that is ultimately a matter of taste. Music with Tekkon was a little special in that we had kind of rough musical ideas very early in the process which by the time music started being worked out for Harmony, for all intents and purposes we were done with the movie. The music for Tekkon might not have been the most efficient way to work on music, however it was hugely inspiring for the visual artists to actually be able to hear it. Not just the visual artists but also voice actors and all these people who would not normally have any music to work with.
Music is just typically the last thing, one of the last details that gets applied just because it's cheaper to do it that way. You know you have a finished cut and you just give it to the composer and the composer creates the score from the beginning to the end, the music that's going to lay over it. That's the way for the most part movies are scored. We did this other thing for Tekkon but it was very useful. Music is a great way to communicate, it's very expressive of mood and vibe and feeling in a way that words only do part of the job. A lot of times I was able to, where words failed, say "This is what I want it to be like" or "This is what it's going to sound like" and then people would be like "oooooh okaay, so it's not just happy, it's also a little scary" or whatever that kind of emotion or ambiance. Somehow music really communicates a lot and the fact that we were able to, for the last year animating the film, be sort of creatively in sync with the composers,that was a very unique situation and I haven't heard of many films being made that way but it's definitely the way to do it if you can!
Is there any other manga or novel you want to adapt to film? What's your dream, if you had a choice of anything?
Well pretty much anything by Taiyo Matsumoto
So like Sunny for example?
Yeah sure, I don't know if it would be ideal as a feature film, more like a long running TV series, and I also haven't given it much thought about whether this is something you want animated or live action.
Anything by him really, although to be honest, I don't read as much manga as I should and I haven't found anything that talks to me as much as Taiyō's work, so I don't know if Sunny's the one, but yeah, I'd love the chance.
So if Sunny wouldn't be the one which would be your first choice?
They're all great aren't they? There's this great boxing story called Zero. It's really wonderful. I actually tried to make a movie out of that but haven't been able to put it all together, but any of them without mentioning titles, they're all great.
What is the anime you enjoy the most, other than your own work?
There's a short film called NoiseMan Sound Insect which I really really love directed by a guy named Koji Morimoto. He's an unsung master, but he hasn't directed a feature in recent history. That's a really wonderful one and there's a feature called Mind Game by a guy named Masaaki Yuasa which is wonderful, very trippy, strange, psychedelic and sexy. It's just a really groovy movie, beautifully animated.
I would say the movie, and this is really going to sound like a cliche, but the movie that really opened my eyes to the Japanese animation was Akira and I don't think any movie has really topped it in terms of making something that goes beyond just being a...I mean that movie has so much scale, it's so cinematic. It came at a time when I was still very young and when I saw it my reaction was "Wow what is this?" It had no precedent and even when you see it and think about the kind of continuum of movies that came before and after it, it's definitely a watershed and of course it would be.
Otomo he's really one of the few masters and I'm really lucky to have got to know him quite well recently . He's just a really really brilliant and super talented hard working guy, a lot of fun. What an incredible guy, so yeah, Akira. My vote goes for Akira.
Otaku News would like to thank Michael Arias for letting us interview him. Thanks also goes to MCM London Comic Con and Anime Limited for arranging the interview.
As we've mentioned before, Harmony is due out on home video in the UK sometime in Q4 2016.