Landmark movie, based on the manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, first released in 2006
A decade after its first release in Japan, Tekkonkinkreet remains a visionary work of the imagination, one whose technological innovations helped set the template for 2D + 3D CGI anime to come. It was also the first instance of an American sitting in the director’s chair of an anime feature film... Now, in celebration of Tekkonkinkreet’s 10th anniversary, we present an interview with the film’s director Michael Arias. Enjoy his thoughts on the anime industry, “Cool Japan”, and the legacy of Tekkonkinkreet...
Crunchyroll News: Ok, it’s been 10 years since the release of Tekkonkinkreet. How does that make you feel?
Michael Arias: Old, mostly! That was the fastest 10 years yet.
What have you been up to professionally since then?
A bit of everything it seems. As far as directing goes, since Tekkonkinkreet, there have been two more Japanese features (one live-action drama and another anime, Harmony, based on the sci-fi novel by Project Itoh); a smattering of short films, music videos, and commercials; and mixed in there, about three years total on projects that ultimately fizzled. One of those was a hybrid animation pilot that I think is quite groundbreaking in its use of the virtual camera, but will never be seen by the public because of licensing issues. Other than my own projects, I’ve spent a fair bit of time helping out colleagues here with their movies (contributing VFX or designs, or on the set as an AD or second unit director). At the same time, I’ve been translating Sunny, Taiyo Matsumoto’s latest manga, into English for the last five years, more-or-less in sync with its publication here.
As the years go by, what remain some most of the unforgettable incidents or moments from the making of the film for you?
That’s a difficult question to answer. It was such a crazy time for me; there were so many first times and so much drama. To say that bringing out a movie is like giving birth is a cliché, but at the time that’s actually how it felt. One thing that surprised me and that I remember quite vividly is the incredible sensation of solitude I felt after Tekkonkinkreet was released. Over the years I’ve wondered if that’s what postpartum depression feels like. Four years, flat out, firing on all cylinders, and then... silence! There was relief that it was done and done well, yes; but also a very unexpected feeling of bereftness. I’ve experienced something similar on live-action projects, but the transition from intense collaboration to “solo act” is a little gentler with live-action than with animation. (And that has nothing to do with whether a movie gets attention or fails to find an audience.)
It seemed like Tekkonkinkreet had been in pre-production of one sort or another for a long time before work even began on the feature. How did you keep your motivation and passion for the project going for so long?
Staying motivated was the easy part. I was just really in love with the source, Taiyo’s manga. I guess there were periods towards the end when I was physically exhausted or overwhelmed, but I never thought, “I’d rather be doing something else instead.” Part of the challenge since has been to find material that excites me to a similar degree!
Cover for the English language edition of Taiyo Matsumoto's Tekkonkinkreet manga
Have you kept in touch with Taiyo Matsumoto since the project ended? What’s your perspective on him post-Tekkon?
We’ve remained very good friends. (And neighbors for a couple years now as well.) I consider myself super-fortunate in having made so many smart and creative friends in Japan, but Taiyo occupies a very special place in my heart. I really can’t think of anything he’s done that doesn’t speak to me. Sunny is just outstanding. It’s very subtle — nothing flashy — just very quiet, deliberate, and eloquent use of the form. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to call it a “humanist masterpiece.”
Do you think you’d ever want to revisit the world of characters of Tekkonkinkreet again?
I don’t think so, not with a sequel (barring further installments from Taiyo). But who knows? I can certainly imagine different ways of re-imagining Tekkonkinkreet. There was an interesting theater production, complete with wire action; and I’ve heard of an arty porn movie whose story and characters follow the contours of Tekkonkinkreet. Both of these predate my movie by several years — and I’m told that the porno is one of the last shot on film…
The texture of Japanese city life was one of the main inspirations on the visual style of Tekkonkinkreet. Has that changed at all over the last 10 years?
City life in Japan, like in so many places, has continued to coalesce towards a global, corporate, mass-produced “user experience.” Everything starts to feel like walking through an airport, doesn’t it? All the rough edges get smoothed away and you’re left with a bunch of brand boutiques nestled between matching Starbucks, and maybe, just maybe, some public art mixed in (Takashi Murakami perhaps, but nothing challenging or subversive). But that’s been happening since well before I first came to Japan, back in 1990, and, anyway, who’s to say that my aversion to the experience of the mega-city as some sort of mega-mall isn’t just a matter of personal taste? Ultimately, you — one person, alone — can’t really do anything to stop the flow or change it’s course. Not to be trite or defeatist, but sometimes all you can do is hang on and try to do some good for those you love, and “add your light to the sum of light,” as Tolstoy said. That is, after all, one of the themes of Tekkonkinkreet (despite how it was held up as an example of anti-urban-development art). Development per se doesn’t bother me, as long as my favorite bar or soba place is still there. I may run screaming from those kimono-clad, geta-shod nostalgistes I see around Tokyo and Kyoto, but I definitely “get” the lure of old Japan (I’m a total sucker for early Showa-era design kitsch).
How has the anime industry changed since then?
Not so much I think. Japan, at it’s core, is a pretty conservative place, and the anime industry seems much more concerned with maintaining internal hierarchy and preserving existing fiefdoms than with expanding the envelope or identifying new audiences. Anime remains a ghetto (a very unique, creative, and entertaining ghetto, but a ghetto nonetheless). Granted, if all you want to do is draw and paint and make cartoons, then it’s not a bad place to be (and Japan is one of the only places in the world where one can pursue traditional animation craft). But working conditions suck (there’s really no better way to say it) and I think the studios, in general, suffer from mismanagement in the extreme. That a few cool movies actually still see the light every year is testament to the creative energy of a gradually diminishing pool of very talented artists.
When we talked 10 years ago about Tekkonkinkreet, there was a sense that anime was in danger from talent flight to other media, and a lack of financial support from Japan itself. Has that changed at all? Has talk of “Cool Japan” made any real impact on anime?
No, I think not. “Cool Japan,” as you’re probably aware, is a not-so-clever tag coined by the foreign press and then co-opted by Japanese government ministries as a label to be slapped on anything “pop.” So now, whatever’s not easily digested by the economic and political elites can be assimilated into the mainstream as “Cool”, and then (more to the point) commoditized. And perhaps there actually was a blip in the public’s perception of anime as something safe, culturally relevant, and even popular overseas. I’m not an economist so perhaps it’s not my place to say, but it seems that if the ultimate goal is to preserve an important cultural asset or, indeed, to spur growth of the industry and foster new talent, then the “Cool Japan” movement, such as it is, has failed. There’s nothing here in Japan to compare with the National Film Board of Canada, for example, or the British Film Institute, or France’s CNC. But, ultimately, perhaps a bigger problem is that, with or without “Cool Japan,” anime remains a niche product with limited appeal. That’s not to say there aren’t great animated films. (There are so many!) But, sadly, these days it seems that every manga or anime exists only so that it may one day be eclipsed by the new-and-improved Hollywood version.
Tekkonkinkreet remains a landmark mix of CGI and traditional animation. How has the technology to make anime evolved since it came out?
I see Tekkonkinkreet as a stage in the evolution of hybrid animation technique at Studio4°C — on a timeline that begins with Koji Morimoto’s Extra and Noiseman shorts, continues through Animatrix, then Mindgame, and culminates (in my opinion) with Tekkonkinkreet. I still can’t think of another film that’s used so much CGI in service of the hand-drawn/painted aesthetic so seamlessly. (Chomet’s films perhaps.) To be fair, similar technique was evolving at more or less the same time at Ghibli and Dreamworks Animation (to name just the studios I was working with on their “Toon” rendering software). But I think that, while it was getting pretty common to do cel-style rendering of CG, Tekkonkinkreet did the most to push the envelope of “deep canvas” matte painting. What I find a bit disappointing is how little these techniques have evolved since Tekkonkinkreet! There’s been very little technical advancement (one could even argue that the tools have regressed a bit). I thought Studio4°C was really primed to go further, but their hybrid animation work seems increasingly stuck in the past. To be fair, they’ve suffered a serious brain drain over those years — most significantly, the loss of Koji Morimoto; his output may have been a bit sparse, but he had incredibly good taste, and his presence was really inspiring. It’s that kind of thing — original artistic vision — that really drives technological development.
Michael Arias, ten years after directing Tekkonkinkreet
Finally, how have YOU changed?
Well, radiation and divorce have certainly taken their toll (he says, wiping away a tear). But other than the obvious areas of wear and tear, I feel essentially the same. Change is everywhere around me, to be sure, but I still get excited or annoyed by more or less the same things as I did ten years ago.