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AN INTERVIEW WITH STUDIO GHIBLI'S KOSAKA KITARO
BY MARCO BELLANO


Cross-cultural similarities in the production of animated films, and the state-of-the-art of this area of cinema: these were the main themes discussed by Kosaka Kitaro during a special day of conferences, that was titled From Studio Ghibli to research in animated cinema and held in Turin on February 27, 2009, thanks to the Associazione Beni Culturali Italia and the Region Piemonte. Kosaka is internationally renowned as a Studio Ghibli animator and a trusted collaborator of Miyazaki since Nausicaš of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika, 1984); however, he is also known for his work as director of the animation for Howl's Moving Castle (Hauru no Ugoku Shiro, 2004) and director of two direct-to-video productions animated by Studio Madhouse: Nasu - Summer in Andalusia (Nasu - Andalusia no Natsu, 2003), that was also screened at the Cannes Festival, and Nasu - A Migratory Bird with Suitcase (Nasu - Suitcase no Wataridori, 2007). In the production of Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Gake no ue no Ponyo, 2008), Miyazaki's latest film that will be released in Italy by Lucky Red on March 20, Kosaka was assistant director of the animation.

We interviewed Kosaka at the end of a long afternoon, which started at the Cinema Massimo with the screening of a "making of" documentary about Ponyo (it originally aired on Japanese TV, as an episode of the NHK program Professional). The documentary showed director Miyazaki at work, while struggling with storyboards delayed beyond schedule and the necessity of maintaining the highest level of artistic quality. After that, the event continued at the Museo Nazionale del Cinema, where Kosaka commented the productive process of the Studio Ghibli with Stefania Raimondi (president of the Italian animation company Studio Enarmonia) and Prof. Inumaru Kazuo, of the University of Pavia.

Kosaka Kitaro and his film Nasu -  Andalusia no Natsu

The Ponyo documentary showed us Miyazaki's strictness in dealing with his own work and with the output of the animators. However, do the animators have possibilities to express their own point of view on the director's decisions?

During the production of a film, Miyazaki talks with the main staff members, who are in charge of the four main departments: animation, backgrounds, color design and cinematography. As there are one to three directors for each one of these departments, the main staff usually comprehends ten people. They tell the rest of the staff (four hundred people) about the director's decisions. It is unlikely that Miyazaki would directly talk with each one of the animator: however, there are moments in which everyone can listen to his voice, as during the general meetings he organizes at the beginning of each production. Anyway, it is not allowed for animators or for the other artists to express opinions on Miyazaki's vision of a film. Studio Ghibli exists in order to make Miyazaki's films: the director never submits to the will of his collaborators, and this fact is widely accepted by us.

You worked also with Takahata Isao. How is his approach to animation production different from the one of Miyazaki?

I can only talk about my own experience, of course... In extreme simplification, you can say that Takahata's work is mainly founded on intellect, on rationality. Miyazaki, on the contrary, relies on a sensuality, a sensibility which is not intellectual. Besides, Takahata can not draw: so, when he speaks to his collaborators, he does not explain his ideas with drawings, but with words. That may bring problems to animators, as it is difficult to catch the vision of a director trough mere words. However, also in Miyazaki's case there may be difficulties: sometimes it is really hard to fix on paper what he imagines. Therefore, every time the animators fail in rendering his ideas, he personally makes corrections. When Miyazaki explains his projects, he often uses drawings or implicit meanings. In fact, when the correction of a single drawing is concerned, he gives more importance to the overall feeling than to the mere movement: he makes corrections where he sees a lack of expressiveness.

Takahata Isao & Miyazaki Hayao

In fact, it is evident how Miyazaki's films, notwithstanding their highly imaginative stories, tend to present characters which are deeply human in their behavior and sensibility...

I believe that the fantasy elements, which are so evident in the latest Ghibli productions, have a meaning which is deeper than what may superficially appear. That is to say, I do not think that Miyazaki's stories have to be considered as simple flights from the real world of everyday problems. On the contrary, I think that Ghibli fantasies are a form of criticism of the human intellect. A criticism that works in the way of a negation. The contemporary society is something familiar to us, and we are used to its positive or frightening aspects. Ghibli films allow a critical separation from this context, because they show the world we passively live in from a whole new perspective. For example, we may have lost interest in blades of grass: however, I hope that someone, after having seen blades of grass in a Ghibli film, moving and transfigured by the detailed stylization of the drawings, will find a new pleasure in looking carefully when passing by a real meadow.

Talking about drawings, Miyazaki's latest film, Ponyo, did not use any computer generated image. What is your opinion on this choice? I am asking this because you, as a director, are used to make an extensive use of CG in your films.

I instantly liked Miyazaki's idea, and I joined the project with enthusiasm. If I would have had the possibility, I would have made only hand-drawn films too. Moreover (but this is a personal opinion, I may be wrong) I feel like there's something banal in computer graphic. I do not mean that films that use computer graphic are banal: I watch Pixar films, and I appreciate them very much. However, I think that the images of these films have no concreteness. A traditional hand-drawn film is made of cels, something that you can actually show and touch. You can say: look, this is a drawing, a part of the film. How can you do something like that for a CG film? Do you print an image file? It is not the same thing. It lacks emotion.

An example of Ponyo's hand drawn animation

At Studio Ghibli, the work on the sound is usually done during the post-production. However, do the animators have some indications about the final soundtrack, as a reference while they are working on selected sequences?

The Japanese language is very rich of onomatopoeic words: therefore, the storyboards can be very detailed, from this point of view. However, an animator usually does not know anything about the final sound that will be added to his/her work. During the production of the animation, Miyazaki tries to convey an idea which is very general. Of course, the storyboard lists also a series of time indications for sounds, that are used as references in animation.

In the documentary, we saw that Miyazaki himself listened to Hisaishi Joe's working music for Ponyo (it was the Image Album) only in a very advanced stage of the production. While creating a film, is the staff aware of the musical score that will comment the completed work?

It is possible to say that animators live in a world which is completely separated from the one of the musical score... Sometimes a sample CD arrives and it becomes a kind of "soundtrack" of our work at the Studio. That was not the case of the production of Ponyo, though: it could happen that Miyazaki listened to some music by Hisaishi, so who was working near his desk listened to it too, by chance. However, it is true that we were in a very advanced stage of the production; and, moreover, a lot of animators prefer to listen to their own music, with earphones...

Is it true that the next Studio Ghibli film will be by Takahata Isao, who will return to a feature-length work after more than ten years?

It is still unclear whether it will be or not, as there are various productions that are advancing simultaneously.

Kosaka Kitaro and Nasu, a realistic cycling story

In your films as a director, it is possible to notice a preference for realistic stories (in particular, they are realistic stories about cycling). Why is that?

Yes, apart from my work with Miyazaki, I tend to like realistic stories. I feel something "true" about cycling, in particular in the character of the lone cyclist that, at some point of the race, is separated from his teammates. In real life, we often have to do things we are not interested in, things we do not care for. In cycling, on the contrary, I feel a kind of sincerity in commitment and effort.

How do you conciliate this preference of yours with Miyazaki's need for imaginative stories?

The fact that I am not very interested in telling fantasy stories does not have any influence on my work with Miyazaki, who I consider as a true master, for my life and my art. He is not so good at teaching animation though, as he is naturally talented. However, in Japan we say: when it comes to technique, steal it.

Have you ever thought of making a "live-action" film, following your passion for realism?

Actually, I have not. I really like cinema in its wider sense (my favorite directors are William Wyler and Kurosawa Akira), but I think I will keep doing animation. I started my career because of Miyazaki Hayao's art. To be able to make films with him has been the fulfillment of a true desire of mine, and I am thankful to have had the possibility to reach this goal through what I can do at best, and what I like the most: to draw.

Autograph by Kosaka Kitaro

ABOUT MARCO BELLANO: Marco Bellano is a Ph. D. candidate at the Department of History of Visual Arts and Music of the University of Padua, Italy. He is currently researching on music for Avant-garde films. His areas of expertise include cinema history, animated cinema, music history and composition. He owns a Bachelor's degree in Communication Sciences from the University of Padua, a Master's degree in History and Critic of Cinema from the Catholic University of Milan and a Conservatory degree in Piano from the Conservatory of Vicenza.

He is Editor for the quarterly cinema review Ciemme, and music critic for the monthly classical music review Musica - Rivista di cultura musicale e discografica. He is also responsible of the educational program, writer and researcher for the "Teatro Olimpico Orchestra" of Vicenza.

He is author of a book on music for silent films that received attention from foreign scholars and libraries: Metapartiture. Comporre musica per i film muti ("Metascores. Making Music for Silent Films", Mestre, VE: CINIT, 2007). In the second part of that work, an analysis of Joe Hisaishi's music for Buster Keaton's The General (1927) is presented: that is part of a study on Hisaishi's music that the author started since 2004. The results of that research are being progressively published in a series of articles and short essays.

Studio Ghibli related articles, essays and interviews:
- "Musica per guerre e macchine a vapore", Ciemme no. 150 (Mestre: Cinit, 2005). (Short essay about a comparison between Hisaishi's soundtracks for Howl's Moving Castle and The General)
- "Altrove, di volo in volo", in Cin&Media no. 17 (Mestre: Cinit, 2006). (Essay on Hayao Miyazaki's career)
- "I sensi del silenzio", Cin&Media no. 17 (Mestre: Cinit, 2006). (Essay on the use of sounds in Miyazaki's films).
- Interview with Goro Miyazaki, in Cin&Media no. 19/20 (Mestre: Cinit, 2006).
- Metapartiture. Comporre musica per i film muti (S. Alessio Siculo, ME: Cinit, 2007), chapter four: "The General come metapartitura: due sonorizzazioni a confronto".
- A long analysis of Hisaishi's music is also part of Marco Bellano's Master's degree thesis The score of the age. Neo-Baroque as a key for film music (chapter six: "A new awareness").
- Ponyo Image Album review, GhibliWorld.com (April 2008).