A conversation between Katsuhiro Otomo and Koji Morimoto

First meetings, new animation ...

Otomo: I think we first met doing Genma Taisen.

Morimoto: I was observing you from a distance. You were hunched over your desk like this ... so close to the paper that I thought, "Is he asleep?"

Otomo: No way was I asleep. I was probably just trying to block out my surroundings.

Morimoto: After that we worked side-by-side for the first time on Order To Halt Construction from Manie Manie.

Otomo: While you were doing key frames we talked about alot of different things. Later, Robot Carnival was like that too. It was very interesting to work with animators like you and Kitakubo, Inoue, Nakamura. It seemed like everyone was trying to do something different and unique.

Morimoto: Madhouse itself was like that. That all came from Rintaro, making films with such a powerful visual impact. Bringing in folks from art school or with no animation experience to work as colorists and stuff.

Otomo: That started even before at Mushi Productions.Beliadonna and One Thousand And One Nights. Alot of pretty strange work.

Moderator: What about Morimoto's first directorial effort Franken's Gears ...

Morimoto: Didn't really have the freedom to think about doing new things. Was overloaded just trying to do what had to be done. But the challenge of drawing robots that was fun. I like robots. During Robot Carnival and Manie Manie you introduced me to music by Art Of Noise ...

Otomo: Music is such an important part of moviemaking. Difficult too. When I was doing Order To Halt Construction I was listening to Hajime Tachibana but didn't actually use that music for the film. Didn't think it would go with the final images. Since then I try to avoid making decisions about music while storyboarding. You never know if something's going to work until you hear what your music staff puts together.

Morimoto: I'm always listening to music. Sometimes listening to it as though it were sound effects.

Otomo: With your music video Extra you already had music from the beginning.

Morimoto: Music helps extract some good images from within you. The first music that had that impact on me was YMO. When I was doing Tomorrow's Joe that's all I listened to. When working with director Desaki I was just hearing "Tokyo!" and stuff like that.

Otomo: (laughs) That's totally different!

Morimoto: Big mistake, Japanese country music. But YMO was very stimulating. I was always baffled by the crazy sounds they managed to make. And after that, you introduced me to Art Of Noise and Kraftwerk. That start– ed everything.

Sketches and stories ...

Morimoto: In the old days, you told me, "Your drawings have no life in them.'"

Otomo: "They don't! "

Morimoto: I always have one idea and then try and build a story around it.

Otomo: Don't you think of movement before story? 

Morimoto: Yes, right. Probably just thinking "It would be interesting if this guy did this" and using that as a point of departure from which to draw. I think I'd have to multiply that by a factor of one thousand to complete a feature film. I'd like that.

Otomo: I felt that way when I saw The Tin Drum years ago. It was just like he made one scene at a time and the final film was those scenes strung together. Like, "Ok, here's the scene where the mother eats an eeL .. " and stuff like that. A lot of short films put together. Worked really well.

Morimoto: It can be really interesting to compose things as a series of shorts.

Otomo: Same with a lot of European movies. Fellini, stuff like that.

Otomo: Sometimes it can just be drawing absurd pictures to go with an absurd event. Like drawing "autumn" and then drawing "winter". And before you know it you're done.

Morimoto: Maybe I'm like that too. People always say they don't get my stories. Maybe I'm just not interested in how the main character evolves.

Moderator: Perhaps you're just more involved in intense characters and continuing to string out one particular gag or another.

Otomo: There's alot of them in this book of yours. 

Morimoto: Sometimes I'm drawing because I'm interested in the film itself but other times it's just a particular idea that strikes me, like a light bulb going on in my head.

Otomo: You should draw a weird character like that. 

Morimoto: I'll slyly direct the conversation away from myself by asking you why you don't work like that. 

Otomo: Just absurd stuff? I always think about it. Sometimes when I'm tired I'll put on a Fellini film. I love watching his films.

Morimoto: Feels so absurd sometimes. I drew the characters in here because I was interested in these types of characters. But at one time I was just doing mechanical stuff and backgrounds - no characters at all. That was fun too.

Otomo: Do you ever think of your childhood? .

Morimoto: Can't remember. But Wakayama Prefebture is covered with ruins. Lots of interesting scenery, but I was just playing when I was a child.

Otomo: I've heard about Wakayama in old times. Intense. I think that prefecture has a very strong survival instinct!

Morimoto: But I'm in love with cities, crowded and messy. Can't draw anything of nature.

Otomo: Why not?

Morimoto: Tedious.

Otomo: (laughs) It takes all kinds. People who hate to draw trees and stuff like that. But trees are much funner than man-made objects.

Morimoto You like drawing trees?

Otomo: Yes, yes. But I never have any in my stories. Morimoto : Something really crazy, like your version of Hansel And Gret!.

Otomo: I like that story. The trees there are not normal though.

Morimoto: The trees that you draw are like ruins though. I like when there's fine detail and interesting textures. 

Otomo: Tons of that stuff in Wakayama! Such a green place.

Morimoto: I liked tunnels more than trees. The ones that cut through mountains and stuff like that. They have some for irrigating the rice fields. There were some near my elementary school. Used to go there on the way home. Totally falling apart.

Otomo: Dangerous!

Morimoto: Very! People always told me to stay away from them (laughs). Bats flying in and out of them. Badger nests and stuff. I once crawled in an enormous hole and found badgers.

Otomo: Really? In my home town, people said they were very cute. Surprising. Doesn't that feeling come out in your artwork? So intense.

Morimoto: In those days, I just thought it was normal to take a tunnel to school. There were no buildings around. So I was very intrigued by the big city. It was so great going to Osaka. In a way it's even more messy than Tokyo. Like something from Blade Runner. Cooooll! Made my heart beat faster wandering around there. Where did you like going to when you first came to Tokyo?

Otomo: Mmm. When I first came to Tokyo, I found Ueno amazing. Like being in a different era. Just after the war or something. There were all these old shops lined up on the railway platform. I loved those kind of messy, dirty places. Nothing like my home town.

Morimoto: I always wonder what's next after Blade Runner. Not something like Kowloon City, though that's something fun to draw also. Eventually maybe there'll be green conduits and tunnels instead ot trees. Maybe eventually machines and plants will merge ...

Otomo: Perhaps things will evolve to a larger scale. That would be interesting.

Morimoto: It would be nice to see this kind of line style in a film.

Otomo: Vegetation is a motif you see in Gaudi's artwork. Like the Sagrada Familia vegetables and piants on a macro scale. That's cool. Not just normal vegetation, but really strange stuff.

Morimoto: I grew up in the mountains so I have a sense for the forest and green areas. Maybe it's unrelated but my drawings now are less about complicated forms than about curves, which I find very pleasant to draw.

Otomo: People who draw end up liking those kinds of curves. Feels good drawing them.

Morimoto: It's like drawing and hoping you'll find a good line in there somewhere. Spending three months doing that can be fun. But for some reason the characters always seem.so far away. Like I'm trying to catch up with them. (laughs)

Otomo: I don't really sketch that much. In my case thinking of the next story, the words and such.

Morimoto: Don't you think there's a difference in stories that begin as words and stories that begin as pictures? I think manga and animation's power comes from the drawings, so don't you feel like things are moving in the wrong direction when your head is full of words instead of pictures? Often I feel like I just want to forget language altogether.

Otomo: I get to that when I storyboard. Trying to come up with cinematic pictures, camerawork, lighting, lenses. I don't think stories emerge from the line artwork. I was thinking of a manga idea recently and I found I was thinking very cinematically, even though I was planning a manga not a movie.

Morimoto: From the beginning?

Otomo: Yes, from the beginning. Like "this is how I'll compose this frame." There's not too many characters in this. I don't think "this guy should be wearing these kinds of clothing." If I start thinking of stuff like "there's this strange machine over here" and "what's this thing over here", I never build up momentum.

Morimoto: I know what you mean. I always get stuck at the same point. While writing the story I get hung up on details. But if I don't think of the details I can't move forward with the story.

Otomo: I know what you mean. When I think of manga, for example something in eastern Europe, or anything for that matter, thinking of background details can be so time consuming. It's hard to come up with pictures you're actually pleased with. You sometimes start to hate everything that's in your head! And you know your taste and your strengths if you're always drawing. But you want to draw scenes that you've never seen before, buildings that don't look like the buildings you draw. And eventually you have to populate these scenes also. 

Morimoto: There's some sense of comfort or balance in your work and you have to destroy that.

Otomo: You start drawing and then you think "oh no, not this again."

Morimoto: Yes! That's why I always start to reverse the direction of the drawings, or see things a bit differently. I always feel like I'm trying to break free of the gravity of the place I'm at. It feels safe to have my feet on the ground here so I know something interesting' will come

from destroying that. '

Otomo: There's definitely a weightless feeling in your drawings. Maybe that's from music?

Morimoto: Weightlessness is the best. I'd love to be able to fly.

Moderator: There was the flying stuff in your Animalrix episode Beyond ...

Otomo: And your short film Noiseman too. 

Morimoto: I didn't really feel I directed those too well. Like in music, particularly trance music, there's that moment where you're thinking "it's and then "boom!" That's the kind of music I like. 

Otomo: Visceral pleasure.

Morimoto: That's the kind of music I'm fixated on. Techno starts out very simple and then gets heavier, but that's just a fixed pattern. And while you hold on to that pattern, there's other stuff changing as well. And you never know exactly where it's taking you.

Drawing with an eye towards the future ...

Morimoto: This book is a collection of sketches, but right now I'm trying to draw a manga.

Otomo: A short?

Morimoto: Yes. I have the basic story, but not the actual panels worked out. I have it all in my head but when I start to draw it takes up too many pages. Any advice? 

Otomo: (laughs) I'll have to think about that and get back to you.

Morimoto: I don't really know enough about manga, like why you sometimes use triangular panels or trapezoids. 

Otomo: Trapezoids are tough. You could do what Moebius does and try and just work out each individual panel's structure.

Morimoto: I realized that picture structure can really help dialog flow naturally. Just put the dialog where the reader's eye goes and you get a very easy-to-read manga. I just realized that recently. Obvious?

Otomo: (laughs) Everyone's doing that. Well, unlike animation, you can use very wide compositions and biframes. So when you really want someone to spend time looking at a picture you can draw it big. Can't do that with animation. That's a big limitation. Every scene is drawn in the same proportions and size. Storyboards can end up looking very empty. Are you going to do the manga in color? Will you use halftones?

Morimoto: Digital. I've never used a G-pen.

Otomo: You should! You'd be like a real manga artist. Draw with a pen on Kent paper.

Morimoto: I have to do a lot of layering to get the pictures I want. That's' how you do animation. If you want to add something you just add another layer. "A eel, B eeL .. " like that. Of course I do my rough drawings all together.

Otomo: Better to just draw on instinct. If you have the ability to correct, you'll never finish.

Morimoto: I know, I know. But I'm so used to dealing with each element individually.

Moderator: Listening to you speak about sketching and stories, I feel like you two are total opposites.

Otomo: I think about the entire image first. A certain feeling or a way of drawing a particular character. Always want to do something that's not entirely familiar to me. That's probably a bit unique. Most people probably want to express everything that they have inside, but guys like me want to do something totally new every time. Maybe it's more important to value your own ideas. Like Akira  and things like that. But by the time I'm finished with a project my head is already somewhere else.

Morimoto: That probably is a big difference between us. I feel like I'm just drawing my world. Everything occurring in the same city. Same locations. Or perhaps you could compare it to different rooms in the same apartment building. That's the world I want to draw. The city's bakery, noodle shop, etc. Strange items in that world. The 'people who live in that world.

Otomo: Sounds like a remix! Ok I get it, so you want to do a whole city.

Morimoto: A city that I like.

Otomo: I want to go someplace I've never been! I like looking at a picture and thinking "this is something I would have never imagined". Some little alleyway in Mexico. Or an old house with buildings in the distance, and in the foreground an adobe wall with birds on it. Dirty children sitting in the mud. That would be great. That kind of back alley. That's what I like.

Morimoto: In the manga I'm thinking of now there's a strange scene with a little girl. You know those school crossing zones painted on the streets? I was thinking of an "old zone". When you step into the old zone ...

Otomo: I have to do something interesting like that. Maybe do another manga ... Yeah, a "strange zone" .... (laughs)

Morimoto: (laughs) No, no. I can't wait to see your next manga. As a fan of yours, I have to say I love your movies but I also want to read your manga. Thanks for your time today. You've inspired me!

(Originally post on March 2012)

"Scenarios USA" Winner Bronze Promax Award 2013

Mun2 intro for Scenarios USA, a national non-profit organization that uses writing and film to foster youth leadership, advocacy and self-expression in students across the country, with a focus on marginalized communities.
*Bronze Winner, 2013 Promax and BDA award for Best Art Direction and Design, On Air Illustration.
Technique:Drawings, TVpaint, Photoshop and After Effects.