The Annecy International Animation Film Festival selected Japan as Annecy’s Tribute Country for the festival in 2019. In response to that, a special program New Motion -The Next of Japanese Animation- was hosted by the Agency for Cultural Affairs*1 and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Visual Industry Promotion Organization*2 (VIPO) planned and managed the special program by welcoming Mitsuko Okamoto, the vice president of Tokyo University of the Arts, as the general director. As a part of the special program, 26 creators who will bear the next generation of Japanese animation were selected and their works were introduced during the festival.

Yoshimi Itazu is one of the selected creators for the program. He is well known as the lead animator of the TV series Dennō Coil (2007) and the feature film Miss Hokusai (2015), and as the director of the TV series Welcome to the Ballroom (2017). The Fukushima disaster-themed short film Pigtails, which marked his directorial debut in 2015, was screened at a program titled Tribute to Japanese Animation: New Motion – Directors, a part of the special program New Motion -The Next of Japanese Animation-, during the festival.

*1: A Japanese governmental body, which belongs to the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Promoting Japanese art and culture is one of their public missions.
*2: A non-profit organization in Japan, which supports the Japanese content industry (anime, broadcasting, character, games, movie, music, publishing) to make it internationally competitive and to contribute to the growth of the Japanese economy.

© 2015 Machiko Kyo/SHUEISHA, ITSV

Animationweek had the opportunity to interview Mr. Itazu during the festival and heard many precious first-hand stories about his career and the Japanese animation industry in general. We would like to share them with you here.

Interview with Yoshimi Itazu

Hideki Nagaishi(HN): Why have you aimed for the animation industry?

Yoshimi Itazu: I loved animation and I have been watching it since my childhood, so the dream of being able to be involved in a drawing-related job one day, had grown quite naturally inside me from a very early stage. At the same time, I felt urged to start to work as soon as possible, because, to be honest, I was not very much fond of going to school (laughs). I had been loving to draw pictures since I was a kid, so I thought I could find something that could allow me to do that to earn a living. Also, my favorite style was line drawing: the style of animation. That’s how the idea of working in the animation industry started to become an option to pursue. That idea eventually became reality when I managed to get hired by a studio. At that time, I think I was around 17 or 18.

HN: Who are the creators you were particularly influenced or inspired by, as an animator?

Yoshimi Itazu: Before I started to work, Hayao Miyazaki was the creator I was influenced by the most, as I had been watching his films for as long as I could remember. When I joined my very first studio (Studio Gallop), I had the privilege to work under Tsukasa Tannai, a very experienced animator who became my direct mentor. By absolute coincidence, and to my greatest surprise, he was nothing less than the lead animator for Mr. Miyazaki’s film Castle in the Sky (1986). I owe to Mr. Tannai most of what I know about animation techniques. After quitting the studio to become a freelancer, I had the opportunity to take part in a number of projects directed by Satoshi Kon, and I could definitely refer to him as a major influence in terms of film directing.

HN: Could you tell us more about how Satoshi Kon influenced you as a director?

Yoshimi Itazu: Mr. Kon was a person who used to talk a lot about films over drinks, with conversations such as: “This film is the kind of film that would be interesting if you watch in this way.” I had always heard him talking, being next to him, and he introduced me to a lot of films and his ways of watching them.

HN: Could you please let us know an animation title that you find especially impressive from the works you took part in so far?

Yoshimi Itazu: If I have to mention one, I believe that would be Miss Hokusai, directed by Keiichi Hara that became the biggest turning point of my career. Before the film, I had worked with directors who were also talented animation artists; but Mr. Hara is not an animator, even though he draws extremely detailed storyboards. Mr. Hara showed me a different style of directing out of the directors I’ve worked with until then, because he doesn’t draw animation with his own hands. It was a very precious experience for me. For Miss Hokusai I had the role of lead animator, and Mr. Hara gave me fairly extensive creative freedom when it came to translate his storyboards into animation. This became a rare opportunity to expand my views on staging in animation. For this reason, Miss Hokusai is a very special title for me.

© 2014-2015 Hinako Sugiura•MS.HS / Sarusuberi Film Partners

HN: I feel that Japanese animation has been creating new types of actions and movements that breaks the laws of physics. Do you take care of anything in particular when you animate?

Yoshimi Itazu: Many elements that are deemed distinctive to the style of Japanese traditional hand-drawn 2D animation today are in fact byproducts of the restrictions the Japanese animation industry had that have been affecting the whole industry since its early days. When Japan started to develop TV animation series, studios had to deal with shoestring budgets and production periods were short. As a result, newly-created shows would run at 8 pictures per second, which is a style of animation called “limited animation” that became almost common in the Japanese animation industry, in contrast to “full animation” that is generally common in Western animation, like animations made by Disney, which has 12 if not 24 drawings for each second. In this country, we made – and we are still making – animation with only one-third of the number of pictures used in full animation.

In time, Japanese animators learned how to make the most out of this animation style, resulting in the look of mainstream Japanese animation today. Since we have a low rate of drawings per second, we focus more on each drawing to be very well thought out in terms of layout, pose and visual impression.

The animators from my generation, including myself, grew up watching Japanese-style limited animation, so we are naturally accepting the style. As a matter of fact, I’m sure many of us eventually decided to join this trade because 8 frames-per-second animation looked totally cool and comfortable to us as it was. Hence, when I have to translate into a series of drawings a particular instant I perceived from reality, I feel perfectly comfortable in working with limited animation in order to render that very impression, rather than “reality” itself. I’m pretty sure I’m self-consciously doing it that way.

HN: When you take part in an animation project, do you have a different approach depending on your role as a director or an animator?

Yoshimi Itazu: When I work for an animation project as an animator, I value the stance of knowing how to live up to the director’s intentions. Also, I consider what kind of role for the whole work is requested for the part I am responsible for as an animator. If you attend a project as an animator, generally you will not instruct anything to anyone. So, I think the job of the animator is knowing how to perform to the best of one’s ability in passive roles.

When I take part in a project as a director, the majority of my role is asking creators to draw, getting creators to create. So, to have creators bring their best ability into an animation project, I am careful not to draw too much myself.

HN: I feel that the Japanese animation industry is generally tolerant of having each animator show their artistic flair, such as their visual style and manner of expression, in their respective parts in each animation title, enough for the fans to enjoy and be able to identify which animator animated which scene. Do you think there is an atmosphere of highlighting each animator’s individuality in each Japanese animation project?

Yoshimi Itazu: I think there are many animation studios in Japan which give animators a relatively high degree of freedom. In essence, when it’s time to check the key frames done by the animators, a layout/animation director or a lead animator would maintain the quality control over the visuals in a project by providing proper instructions to each individual artist, such as “Please keep your personal style of expression to a minimum in this scene” and “It is OK to put your unique touch in this scene”.

HN: In directing an animation title, how do you balance between displaying the artistic individuality of each animator and the homogeneity of visual style and expression?

Yoshimi Itazu: The degree of freedom in showing the individuality of each animator differs from title to title. I also think there are scenes in which animators should not show their individuality on their drawings, and other scenes where there is not much concern with the individuality of the animators’ work. Hence, my way of balancing that differs depending on the project.

When directing an animation, I basically fix all the compositions in the animation to some extent when I draw the storyboard, so I try to manage this by having each animator display their individualities in the animation within the limits of the compositions and storyboard that I’ve defined.

HN: How do animators in the Japanese animation industry develop the experience and skills to step up in their career?

Yoshimi Itazu: The Japanese animation industry doesn’t have a proper education system for animators to be able to direct animation as a director or a layout/animation director. On the other hand, the Japanese animation industry has a system or culture that enables each animator to open the door to those positions by themselves with their own, self-guided efforts. Many animators, including younger generations, are fully aware of how this system works, therefore they are individually boosting their skills by learning voluntarily from creators around them.

Additionally, I feel there is a culture in the Japanese animation industry where directors tend to try to give young talented animators opportunities to exhibit their originalities and chances for their career developments. The reason why they can support young animators is the really large number of new TV animation series titles that are produced every year in Japan. There are as many new animation titles as there are positions of layout/animation director, lead animator and director.  So, there are chances for young animators, too.

HN: What points do you check and judge when you receive young animators’ works for an animation title that you are directing? For example, giving a higher position to a person showing potential for improvement.

Yoshimi Itazu: I think that high drawing skills is the major prerequisite for young animators in creating good works, which would make me consider elevating them to higher positions, because only animators who have high sketching skills and good spatial awareness can portray the individuality of the expression of action and movement in animation. In addition, the extent of the ability to read and understand intentions of direction from storyboards is another factor. I think it is a very important skill for animators to draw by understanding the visual expressions the storyboard calls for.

HN: Regarding your future activities, what kind of animation work would you like to make, or what forms of visual expression would you like to try? Do you have any challenges that you are thinking of trying personally?

Yoshimi Itazu: One of the things I had fun with during my time directing animation so far is matching moving images and music. As I had been drawing as an animator the whole time, I became fully aware of the effects of sound direction and music in animation for the first time after becoming a director. Hence, a challenge for me at the moment is how to bring sound effects, music and animation together in the most effective manner.

In terms of visuals, I would like to evolve further my personal animation visual style. I want to have drawings and acting that are simple but with a high quantity of information.

HN: Do you have any directors or animations outside of Japan that you feel inspired by?

Yoshimi Itazu: Actually, the opportunities to watch over-sea animation in Japan are not much and most of the productions that receive proper distribution over here are basically Disney titles. Speaking of European animation, I could say that The Triplets of Belleville (2003) directed by Sylvain Chomet is definitely one of the most inspiring animated films I have watched. I would not call it “influential”, but I really enjoyed the story and its visuals were simply amazing.

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