Toshio Suzuki and Mamoru Oshii Conversation Fan Translation: Suzuki Toshio no Ghibli Asemamire – Episode 45: Ponyo vs The Sky Crawlers
Last year, I was sitting in a lecture hall in Kyoto Seika university, I believe at a guest lecture Takekuma Kentaro was giving, when the speaker mentioned a radio show that featured anime director Mamoru Oshii grilling Ghibli producer Suzuki Toshio on Ponyo. I forgot about it for a bit, until all the buzz about the US release of Ponyo started heating up. I soon discovered that the radio show this conversation took place on, Suzuki Toshio no Ghibli Asemamire was available for free online! The episode in question is the August 2008 broadcast, “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea vs The Sky Crawlers.’ An mp3 was available for download on the site from here (next to 2008/8/12), and I also discovered a unofficial transcript of the conversation on this blog, so I used these resources to create an unauthorized fan translation of this radio show. If you can, I suggest listening to the radio show alongside the transcript in order to hear more of the emotion in their voices, but that is obviously optional. A dvd of over 40 hours of the radio show is also available for purchase.
The often-heated but always-friendly conversation touches a number of subjects, from Ponyo and The Sky Crawlers, to the state of the Japanese animation industry and the fate of hand-drawn animation. I hope you find it as interesting as I found it, and as usual, please don’t hesitate to contact me through comments or email with any corrections, suggestions, or questions. Also, if you are a rights holder of any of the materials that I have translated and would like the material taken down, again, please contact me through the email address found on the sidebar.
Suzuki: Have you seen [the new] Indiana Jones?
S: You should see it. Basically, it’s present-day Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones, and about his grown-up son that he had when he was messing around with women in the past, right? So, I was wondering, why is it that everyone’s making movies these days about parents and children? Look, Miya-san is doing it, you’re doing it… If I wanted to sound like a critic, I’d look at you three and say that what’s interesting is that your movies are in the sky and in the ocean… They’re in unexplored territory.
O: That’s right.
S: So then, what’s here and now doesn’t matter to you. That’s what I found interesting. Don’t you think?
O: That’s standard, patented Suzuki Toshio sophistry of the highest order.
All: (Bursts out laughing)
O: Tell me what you personally found interesting, okay?
S: I was just thinking. It was a thought.
O: A thought? Isn’t it obvious that someone getting older is going to make stories about parents and children?
S: Yes, that’s exactly it! Miya-san is 67, right? And Spielberg is 62, 63?
O: Around 63.
S: Right? And Oshii-san, you’re 58?
Staff: So that one gets a rise out of him! (laughter)
S: So, all of you are working with the same theme, you see? The details between each film might be different, of course. But still, it surprised me. And what I was thinking was, whether your stories are in the sky, or in the ocean, or in uncharted lands, they’re all the same thing. They’re all about the afterlife.
O: Well, that’s inevitable.
O: If you’re older than 50 and making movies that don’t deal with the afterlife in some way, something’s off about you.
S: Yes, yes, yes. (Impressed)
O: I saw Ponyo the other day and figured something out. I realized, “Oh, Suzuki Toshio had absolutely nothing to do with this movie,” and I was certain about it.
Staff: Absolutely nothing? (strained laughter)
O: That was a 100 percent Miya-san movie.
S: Well, it really is Miya-san’s movie.
O: The movie was 100 percent made by Miya-san.
S: Yes, that’s correct.
O: You didn’t lay a single finger on it. Or maybe you weren’t allowed to, I bet. That’s why it isn’t a complete film. What that means is that for all of Miya-san’s movies up until now, the only reason that they were real movies was because Toshio Suzuki was right there, or because Takahata Isao was right there.
O: There wasn’t someone supervising this one to bring it all together as a film, this time.
S: Ah (impressed)
O: It’s a flight of fancy. I’ll keep going, and say that the movie is an explosion of desires, right? It’s a recovery film, isn’t it?
S: Was Ponyo bad?
O: Huh? What about it?
S: Was the movie no good?
O: No, it was interesting to watch. What I mean by that is that Miya-san’s wild ideas are interesting to watch. The problem is that it wasn’t a real movie. It wasn’t put together like a proper movie. Not one bit.
S: You don’t have to say it so many times (laughs).
O: That’s how it is! (laughs)
S: Why do you keep saying that! (laughs)
O: Because it’s true! (laughs)
S: Can’t you at least candy coat it a little? (laughs)
O: The movie didn’t explain anything about Fujimoto.
Staff: (strained laughter) That’s true…
O: Nothing at all.
S: Fujimoto… He’s very similar to you, Oshii-san.
O: How exactly is that?
S: You’re doing well, aren’t you Oshii-san?
S: You’re energetic.
O: I am. I feel like I’m full of energy, physically and mentally.
S: The Sky Crawlers was an interesting movie.
O: I came here for just one reason. I wanted to ask you why you neglected this movie!
Staff: So that’s his theme for today (laugh)
O: Did you get sick of it?
S: No, no no no.
O: What was it?
S: It really is about Miya-san’s mental state.
O: Miya-san isn’t listening to what anyone says anymore, is he?
S: Listen, Miya-san’s mental state… He had this curse hanging over him called Takahata Isao, right? He worked with the man for 15 years. But even after that, he followed him around like a ghost.
O: Yes, and-
S: But one of Miya-san’s big themes in his movies is how he can get away from all of that, right?
O: Well, the way I see it, at least in some small part, he acknowledged that his movies needed Suzuki Toshio’s logic, or Takahata Isao’s boasting. Up until a certain time. Probably.
O: Even if he doesn’t want to admit it. In the end, it was something he needed. So what he wanted to do was to remove those things, make a movie, and see what happened. That’s why I’m saying, I acknowledge that he is a wonderful creator of delusions. The most incredible delusions in Japan, no, the world. That’s apparent.
S: That was the idea.
S: So basically, what he wanted to do was to draw up everything that he thought of, and then make a movie out of that. You know what I mean?
O: But you see, you can’t make a film out of that. Each individual delusion was incredibly interesting. They’re all just overflowing with expressiveness. The first ten minutes were flawless. You know the scene where she surfaces while riding the jellyfish? I thought that the sequence was really good. So like I said, each individual scene is entrancing.
S: So, it’s just like you pointed out: we wanted to animate our delusions.
O: Uh huh. Why did the mom come back to the house?
O: That mom, what reason is there for her to come back to the house?
S: Come back to the house?
O: Yeah. After she goes back to the house, she returns again to the Sunflower Garden.
O: So what I want to say is, why didn’t she stay at the Sunflower Garden the whole time?
S: Well, that’s because–
O: What reason did she have for going back home?
S: Well, we wanted to have her interact with Ponyo and Sousuke.
O: What I’m trying to ask is what reason within the world of the movie is there for her to go back? (Laughter)
S: Like I’m saying-
O: A scene with no motivation at all shouldn’t sit well with people. But even so, people are entranced by the scene, and that’s because of the overwhelming expressive power that the movie has.
S: And that’s the kind of work that we wanted to make.
S: A movie like that.
O: Well, your movies having themes are a thing of the far past.
S: You’re right in saying that we wanted to make a movie with no real structure.
O: It’s not that you’re trying to make movies with no sense of structure–
S: I’ll admit it, that’s what we did. So what all of this means is that the person giving structure to our movies was Takahata-san.
S: That means that as long as our movies have any structure, Miya-san will never be able to separate himself from Takahata-san.
O: And that’s whats odd here. That.
S: Well I’m not sure if that’s something odd or not (laughs)
O: He could just give the film structure himself, though.
S: Right. And that’s why it surprised me. Normally in Miya-san’s movies, there’s a main character, and you follow that character around and discover all these different things with them. It brings the viewer in to the world. It’s like a mystery movie. But this time, we follow a lot of different characters around, right? When you think that it’s a story about Ponyo, you switch over to Sousuke. When you think you’re following Sousuke around, Fujimoto makes an appearance. A lot of people appear in the movie, but it’s not the kind of movie where you’re brought into the world by learning about things alongside the characters.
S: So normally, in a movie like that, you begin by explaining things to the viewer, like what’s going on, and about the place where things are happening. After that, you go to each separate actor and they do their parts. That’s standard, right?
S: See, Ponyo doesn’t do that.
S: Oshii-san, your movie is a departure from your normal works, too.
O: What about it? I was intentionally trying to make something unlike my old movies.
S: This time, there isn’t much dialogue, is there?
Staff: That’s right, there isn’t that much.
O: I made it that way.
S: There isn’t much. I wonder what changes took place in your mind for that to happen.
O: Well, that’s because I want to show people something different with this movie.
Staff: Well, Oshii-san, this time you’ve made a romance movie, and the romance–this might be because of the original script, but–the main characters are children who don’t age. So after seeing you make a romance movie about children, it made me wonder…
O: You know, wherever animation goes, it’s still going to be a medium of symbols. That’s for sure.
S: Yeah. But in a way, didn’t it look in some ways like a bunraku play (Japanese puppet theatre)?
Staff: Well, the characters’ expressions themselves weren’t particularly expressive.
S: So characters like that, moving in the way that they do–never mind the artistic nature of it–you can tell that some person is directing their actions and moving their bodies. It’s a bunraku play.
O: The thing that makes bunraku what it is is that depending on what angle you see the characters from, you see different expressions. It’s the same in noh and other traditions, and it’s part of Japanese artistic tradition.
S: Yes, and the movie was extremely Japanese, is what I’m getting at.
O: Expression through form alone is part of Japan’s– well, the Japanese sense of aesthetics. A kind of privileged type of expression. Expression not conveyed by movement or performance, but expression through form.
Staff: But, well, this is a personal opinion, but having no opening exposition in the movie, and just simply showing a gathering of people reading the newspaper, just drinking beer, or smoking… It felt to me like what you were doing there was making it so that the youth of today watching the movie could understand them and their world just through a natural extension of their own personal feelings.
S: I can see that.
O: That’s true.
S: That’s something that interested me. Each individual character, well, they speak, right? Expressionlessly. Then there’s a cut, and your hand moves them. They touch their hair, or they turn a little. Every time, there’s something like that. I was wondering what would happen if you were to take those parts out (laughter).
O: If you took those out, the film would be empty.
O: I just wanted to create an expression of the time itself that young people today live in.
S: Oshii Mamoru making a love story. Have you fallen in love?
O: Yes, I have before! (Strained laughter)
S: No, no, I mean recently. (laughter)
O: Stay out of my business! (laughter)
Staff: (Erupts in laughter)
S: Love in old age? That’s what it felt like to me.
O: Well, love in old age is,
S: Well it’s not just that phrase alone, but–
O: Love in old age allows you to expose the essence of love itself. The older you get, you know–
S: No, I found it interesting. Really.
O: The older you get, the more you cling to sei (性, sex). Both the “life” part of it (生, the right side of the kanji, meaning “life” or “living”) and the left heart radical. (心, the kanji for heart/mind). That’s what it’s about.
Staff: Hmmm…(Thinking deeply)
O: Normally us old men don’t have any art through which we can express this, and that’s why so many people run off to pay schoolgirls to have sex with them. To put it bluntly, you start to take an interest in women.
S: Right, right, right, right.
O: That’s what it is.
S: Ah… (Impressed)
O: It’s like what Ootsuka-san said a while back, remember? When we were drinking with Ootsuka-san and Miya-san, Miya-san went to the bathroom and Ootsuka-san said “Well, once Miya-san breaks 60, something incredible might happen. It’d be wild if he started going mad about women!”.
Staff: (Erupts in laughter)
O: He was saying it like he was wishing that it would happen. It was clear.
O: Out of everyone there, Ootsuka-san would be the most disinterested, the most indifferent about that kind of thing.
O: But he sees what he sees. I thought the same thing. But Miya-san doesn’t have the guts for that kind of thing.
O: And his wife is scary (Laughs), real scary. So he’d never actually do something like that in reality, but he brings all his feelings and thoughts that would make him a John and puts it all into the world of animation. It’s-I’m sure that all of that went into those plants, and those jellyfish, and the marine life.
S: Yes yes yes yes. It comes out looking like that, but it’s about old age! (Laughs)
O: That’s right. All of that, whether it’s the jellyfish, the fish, or the 5 year old girls, that’s all an old man’s world. I mean, throughout that whole movie, you only see children and the elderly. There’s the mom and the dad, but other than them… Where are all the other adults?
S: Good old Mamoru Oshii. What’s interesting about you, Oshii-san, is that a person as logical and theoretical as you was still looking at the art. It’s because you’re looking at the art. To be totally honest with you, at first, what surprised me the most when I was looking at the rushes was that car scene. A character licks their ice cream, then the car shows up in front of you, right? Then the steering wheel gets jerked left. What surprised me was how there was no intensity at all there.
S: It really surprised me. I thought “Huh? Okay, now what!?” I felt the same way about the story. There’s all that screaming, Lisa! Lisa! Lisa!, and all these things happen and you think “Okay, now…” but then all of a sudden everything just gets resolved, right? There’s lots of moments like that in the movie. So, that’s the flight of fancy, right? We just get setups, bam, bam, bam, bam.
O: I especially felt like that during the scene with the jellyfish. Those jellyfish were so good.
S: Yeah, they were.
O: It shocked me.
S: Tanaka Nacchan did those. (Naoya Tanaka, art director and background artist for Ghibli)
O: When I saw those jellyfish,
S: They’re absurdly good.
O: See, that’s–
S: That one cut was around 1600 frames. 1600.
O: I saw the jellyfish and the fish fluttering around, and Ponyo’s little sisters fluttering around, and thought, “Ah, so this is the world that he’s in now.”
Staff: So for example, Oshii-san, when you were making Innocence, that was all in a world of dolls, but now you’ve moved yourself to a world of humans. Is that similar?
S: Well, you know, it’s cause he’s getting old.
Staff: (Laughter) I don’t–
S: Humans and dolls, or humans and dogs, and so on… you had to do that, right? That had turned into your trademark style. And clinging to a style like that is something that you do when you’re young.
Staff: Ahh… (Impressed)
S: That’s what it means. But now, the moment that he starts working with just humans, it’s like the moment that Oshii Mamoru… how do I put it? The moment he stepped on his fumi-e (a tablet that bore Christian images that suspected Christians in Edo Japan were forced to step on, in order to prove their non-faith.)
Staff: His own fumi-e…?
S: Right, right, right. It’s a part of old age. So if you’ll allow me to keep going, this is connected to what I said in the beginning of the talk about Indiana Jones. I saw these three movies and kept returning to the same place, thinking the same thing. What kind of movies do young people today make? And what do young people today think about the movies that old folks like us are making? But you know, to be honest, I of course said this about Ponyo and Sky Crawlers, but I also thought Indiana Jones was really interesting. All of these incredible things were crammed into the film, and these people calling themselves film lovers, or Indiana Jones fans, they’re all complaining. But if you look at it as a natural progression of what Spielberg has done in his life, then it’s really fascinating.
S: Yeah. And then the amazing thing about Indiana Jones is that there’s no philosophy, no religion. I saw it and thought, “So this is where he is now!”
O: I won’t argue with that, not at all. My getting old certainly isn’t unrelated to turning around and facing everything head-on in my movies now.
S: But Miya-san doesn’t realize that, you know? He doesn’t. When I see Ponyo, never mind what’s drawn on the screen, but the way he draws things is always the same. He’s so persistent that it’s amazing, right?
O: You know, I think his proclamation that he was going to go all hand-drawn is like what Miya-san said to me last time I met him, maybe 2 years ago, “From here on out, you know, we’re going back to working with artists. Everyone working with computers is going to be fired!”
S: He never said that (laughs). Even Miya-san knows that whether you’re drawing by hand or drawing on a computer, what’s good is good.
Staff: Oshii-san, this time with Sky Crawlers, the aerial scenes are done in 3DCG and the scenes on the ground are, well, 2d animation. And well, I realize that it was intentional, but I was wondering why you decided to go in that direction?
O: Well, to start off, we have to be realistic here: that was the only way we could get it done. I mean, there aren’t enough animators out there that could let us do everything hand-drawn.
O: There aren’t animators out there reckless enough to animate those fighter planes, or even more, move those clouds.
S: They’ve disappeared?
O: They’re not around anymore.
O: Who’s going to draw those fighter planes? No one’s going to.
S: After all…
O: It was our only choice. I mean. It’s our only choice, so we integrate it into how the film is made. That’s why the made the worlds above and below the clouds are so distinct from each other.
O: It’s all we could do.
S: I see.
O: That’s why when the movie is above the clouds, the characters have the goggles and the masks covering their faces. So, what do I mean–we try to cover up the traces of hand-drawn animation as much as possible, and not show the characters’ expressions, and–
S: You don’t show their faces, but you can still feel their emotions.
O: And that’s because those lines were drawn by hand.
S: Now that was interesting.
O: When we draw out the characters, that’s the thing that puts the soul into those 3d fighters. Our guy doing 3d, Hayashi-kun, saw that and was really moved. He said, “one you draw the lines, it really does somehow put feeling into things.”
O: And so we forced ourselves to do it. But I don’t know if anyone’s going to do something like that again. I mean, if you sit down and think about how much labor is going to go into something like that, no one’s going to do it.
S: Ah… (impressed)
O: You know, I think–no, I know that if a newspaper was to write the story about Miya-san going back to basics, returning to the world of hand-drawn animation, it’d be written as a moving, wonderful tale. But that’d be all wrong. The world of hand-drawn Japanese animation became useless long ago, as far as level of achievement and talent. The stuff airing on television these days can just be churned out, mass produced.
S: But if you tried to make something that was actually high-quality, and do it hand-drawn, you’d be out of luck. At least not if you wanted to make something on the scale of a feature film. Maybe if you did a 10 or 20 minute short. There’s no way that Miya-san doesn’t realize that. But he told me, “even so, we’re going to do it.” Miya-san and Ghibli might have just narrowly been able to create something like Ponyo, but even so, that jellyfish scene? If you did it in CG, in 3d, you might have beautiful jellyfish, ones you could mistake for the real thing, huge groups of them even, but it wouldn’t be the same feeling as the hand-drawn scene in the movie. There’s no arguing it. I’m certain, there’s a certain merit in the craft-
S: Oshii-san, you’ve called animation a handicraft before, right?
Staff: Ah, a handicraft. Like that it’s now part of the tradition of Japanese arts.
O: I certainly think that animation is like a handicraft. If you ask me, it’s similar to the miracle that is shrine carpentry. Do you know how many people are weeded out before a single person rises to the top and becomes a qualified shrine carpenter? How much training is required? That’s why I compare animation to shrine carpentry: you simply cannot mass produce it. But now, we’re reaching our limits. If you want to know why, it’s because all the really talented animators that are sustaining the world of hand-drawn animation, the 20 or so of them, are all over 40.
S: Yeah, they’re already 50.
O: They might be near 50. It’s true. Late 40s. At the very least, they’ve broken 40. So think about it, in another 10 years, what’s going to happen?
S: And is there anyone to take their place? No, there isn’t.
O: What’s great about shrine carpenters is that they’re a group of itinerant workers.
Staff: Of course…
O: Build a five-storied pagoda here, a main hall there, they’re itinerant.
S: Wasn’t IG working on fostering people like that?
O: We were, but no one of that class turned up.
S: I don’t know how well it’ll turn out, but that’s why we want to put out a challenge at Ghibli once again. Recruit new blood. Because you know, looking back on things, when Oshii-san or I were in, what, our 20s? that was when the so-called anime boom was starting, and if you look at that period, it was full of people going around, knocking on studios’ doors. There were lots of people getting into the industry at that time. That meant that a lot of different kinds of people got into the business. Looking it at it this way, we’re connected to all sorts of industries. All sorts.
O: The one thing, though, is that back then, people like us didn’t have to be recruited, we’d just all start gathering at studios. That seems obvious, but if you look at why that is, it’s because we had nowhere else to go. At least I was that way. I didn’t have any other options. I really wanted to create something like a movie, and work with films, and after searching this way and that, I found myself working at an anime studio. And you know what, at an anime studio, surprisingly, if you really want to get it done, you can make just about anything into a reality.
O: What I’m trying to say is, hm, well, no matter how many exceptionally talented people you find, will you still be able to go back to that era? I mean, those people gathered and found each other just naturally. Now, these days, I don’t think anything is going to happen until people not only see the condition that things are in, and how the quality of animation is sinking, but also want to do something about it. You won’t be able to artificially recreate the way things used to be.
S: That’s now history tends to work.
O: Yeah. Actually, looking at the way things are, even on a personal level, if you want to make a movie, you have to consider all the methods you have available to you, whatever they may be. If you can’t do cel animation, then you’re going to have to take up 3DCG. If I didn’t start off as a painter or a drawer, I’d just be a simple filmmaker, so I’ll use anything.