100 anniversaries of Japanese anime: ‘Anime in the future and anime in the past’
Yasuo Otsuka is a legendary artist in the early days of the Japanese anime industry.
He worked with Miyazaki Hayao (‘Miyazaki-san’) and Takahata Isao (‘Takahata-san’) on many influential anime titles, such as The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun (Taiyō no Ōji Horusu no Daibōken) (1968), Lupin the Third (Rupan Sansei) (1971–72), Panda! Go, Panda! (Panda Kopanda) (1972), and Future Boy Conan (Mirai Shōnen Konan) (1978). He served as key-frame animator and animation director, providing the backbone for these anime. His creativity came to fruition in vivid, dynamic and comical animations, which are highly praised in Japan and overseas. As a producer, he is also famous for discovering and mentoring talented animators, involving them in his work . Even after retiring, he has focused on nurturing young talent by teaching animation techniques not only in Japan but also in other countries such as Italy and France.
Otsuka’s achievements have received high praise in the film industry. This exclusive interview is his first since receiving a prestigious 42nd Japan Academy Special Award for lifetime achievement in 2019.
Interviewer: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I think everyone in the Japanese anime industry has grown up with Otsuka-san’s anime and keyframes.
Otsuka: (laughing) They are just the older people!
Interviewer: Yet Lupin and Conan are now considered classics, and they are still very attractive to audiences today. A younger generation has watched them, and they’ve been re-aired many times.
Would you tell us a bit about your concept or what you have in mind while you are producing your animations?
Otsuka: Well, it has been a long time since I’ve attempted to see things ‘through the eyes of the child’ or aimed to produce ‘good anime for children’, or anything like that. My approach when making anime has been to work as a professional artist and business contractor, not as a hobbyist or a fan.
My wife and I were the both founding members of the ‘Toei douga’ company, from its very beginning. But she is younger than I am; I had started my career in ‘Nichido’ before that.
Interviewer: I have recorded your lectures several times, I wonder if you remember? I was very impressed by your teaching technique, and the way that you easily adjusted you approach to suit the students’ level of understanding. What do you have in mind while you are lecturing?
Otsuka: I am just giving honest advice in response to the drawings in front of me. This is just my job as an animation director, you know – to make the drawings in front of me much better.
Interviewer: Are there any specific films that have particularly influenced your artistic approach?
Otsuka: Not specific films, I guess. But I watch films all the time, especially French ones. For example, as an animation film… [he goes over to his shelves of video materials, from old to recent films, but can’t find what he is looking for], Well, anyway, I love French films. I am fascinated by them, and especially attracted to the visual aspect. I have watched movies from all around the world, but French films still stand out for me. For example, Les Visiteurs du Soir.
Interviewer: I see on your shelf there are not only video archives but many model Jeeps.
Otsuka: I have loved Jeep for a long time. I even owned seven Jeep vehicles at once.
Interviewer: Seven Jeeps! How did you park them?
Otsuka: In many different parking places…(laughing)
Interviewer: What did your wife feel about this?
Otsuka: Well, she wasn’t mad about it. (laughing)
Interviewer: Why do you like the Jeep?
Otsuka: Well, a Jeep doesn’t have doors and is quite crudely armoured. A popular sedan has an even shape and smooth surface, but a Jeep is more uneven and rough. It’s interesting in both its shape and drivability.
Interviewer: How about tanks?
Otsuka: No, I don’t like them much. I fell in love with the Jeep and drew a lot of Jeeps and locomotives when I was in junior high. The seven Jeeps I owned have now been handed over to a chocolate company CEO in Hokkaido. I think they are exhibited.
Interviewer: We can see Otsuka-san’s Jeeps in Hokkaido?
Otsuka: Right! (laughing)
Interviewer: You also have many plastic models. Did you build them?
Otsuka: I made a lot of plastic models. A lot of them are displayed upstairs, and in the entrance to the house.
Interviewer: And you are building new ones?
Otsuka: Not so often. Just when I feel like it. (laughing)
Interviewer: What is your most impressive title you worked on?
Otsuka: Well, that would be Horus. An astonishing work. But it took a lot of money. The production company Toei fired Takahata-san and Miyazaki-san, and also fired me. Then, Fujioka Yutaka, who founded Tokyo Movie, took care of us all. My very first job working for the Tokyo Movie company was Nemo, which was co-produced with an American production company.
Interviewer: Actually, you are the man who put Takahata-san as the director of Horus. Could you tell us a little bit more about working with him?
Otsuka: When talking with Takahata-san, I discovered that we loved the same films. We understood each other and we shared the same tastes. I loved working with him.
Interviewer: How about Miyazaki-san?
Otsuka: Miyazaki-san was a different kind of person. But he has a keen sensitivity. I could trust his feelings. I felt that maybe I needed to cultivate my imagination and my sensitivity in order to understand his.
Interviewer: Horus was one of the major exhibits in the ‘Takahata Isao: A Legend in Japanese Animation’ exhibition in 2019.
Otsuka: Yes, it was huge for all the people involved.
Interviewer: Would you recommend that the younger generation of would-be anime artists should watch the film?
Otsuka: No, not by everyone. I think the approach to making anime now is very different from the enthusiasms at that time.
Interviewer: How is it different?
Otsuka: Animators nowadays don’t have imagination because they lack curiosity and inquisitiveness. Anime is not just about drawing movements by hand; animators should immerse themselves in the mechanisms of those movements and draw and animate them with imagination. I couldn’t afford to think about any other things while I was making animations.
Interviewer: Then, how did you develop your imagination?
Otsuka: I didn’t. Miyazaki-san and Takahata-san did that part. My job was to help their imagination and creativity by drawing lines on paper.
Interviewer: They are younger than you.
Otsuka: They are younger, and they are greater. Without them, I believe I have would have quit animation.
Interviewer: All right. So, what creative work do you do now, after your retirement?
Otsuka: Not much, really. I am already 88 years old; I can’t imagine further work. I’ve done almost everything I can do – and, you know, I will be 90 in two years’ time.
Interviewer: I hope you will live for at least another 12 years and reach 100.
Otsuka: No, 100 is too much. (laughing)
Afterwards, Otsuka-san mentioned his lectures in Italy and France and reflected on the many things he’d achieved. In the entrance of his house, various things are displayed – many his favourite Jeep models, a Walther P38 gun model from Lupin the Third and even a bust of himself, all built from scratch. Having survived in the anime industry, and as a legendary figure, he feels he has achieved almost all he can. Indeed, afterward our interview I felt as if he had asked me, “Well, what do you do to survive?”.
Interviewer: Daigo Hiyama
Translation: Yuzuru Nakagawa
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