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Read the full review of Kurayukaba.

It is always a delight to converse with the talented filmmakers I have come to expect at Fantasia, but it is especially gratifying to be the first on the North American continent to interview a new star on the scene. Through the interpretational skills of Michio Hirai, director (and producer Shinnosuke Yoshida) talk with 366 about his new feature-length debut, Kurayukaba, going in depth about his development as an animator and a storyteller.

366: Thank you very kindly for agreeing to talk with me today. My name is Giles Edwards, 366 Weird Movies. We hunt down strange cinema, non-mainstream kinds of things. I am seated now with Shigeyoshi Tsukahara, and off over to the side is producer Shinnosuke Yoshida, and yesterday was the international premiere of Kurayukaba. I want to open up with: what drew you to storytelling through animation?

Shigeyoshi Tsukahara: That is a difficult question! First, when I was a student, I was making various animes myself, so expressing myself through animation was already something I was used to. There wasn’t a specific moment, or time in my life when I thought, “I’m going to express myself through anime!” No, it was already something that was when I just noticed it.

I really liked to play around with PCs, and fiddling and made some drawings on PCs, and then I started making them move, and there you go: animation!

366: Yes, images moving—animation indeed!

ST: [laughs]

366: The style you have is dissimilar to much of what I’ve seen. There are watercolor elements, there’s a “papery layering” to the image, and I was curious to how you developed that singular style, and what inspired that artistic choice.

ST: Another difficult question! I’m not really sure how and where I went to that. It did evolve into that, but I’m not sure. I was trying to find the animation style that made me feel good, and I ended up where it is now.

366: As reasonable an answer as I could hope to ask for.

There is one dominant visual theme in the three animations we saw, the two shorts and the feature film, all heavily involving trains and—how to phrase this? There’s a “mechanization”, not electrical per-se, but how the interest developed in that [kind of technology], because there’s a focus on that in nearly every frame: trains, cities of a certain period, and even the clockwork vignettes within the animations surrounding them.

ST: Another interesting question… One of the things that inspired
me with the “hardware” is the environment I was born in. I was born in an older part of Tokyo, an area called Yanesen. There’s a lot of cluttering and a lot things that make it very “busy” to the eye, and I grew up there and lived there, and so was inspired by that look.

The place close to where I was a born, one of the main streets, ten years before I was born there were still trams that passed in the streets. By the time I was born, they did not exist, but my father often spoke to me about these memories; also, in a playground near my home, there was one of those tram cars in it, and I would often go and play around there. That probably gave me a lot of the “mechanical” aspect that inspired me, and I really like.

One other thing, as my father and I walked in the old parts of Tokyo, my father would explain, “Oh, back then there was this thing here, and then there was this thing here,” and so I was told about a lot of the older-time scenery, which also gave me the feel of the mechanical systems that I show in my movies. Oh, and another thing, what you often see in scenes of Tokyo in other anime movies is very modern looking, but that’s not really the Tokyo I grew in, so I wanted to show this other aspect of the city which most people do not know.

366: I for one will say I’m very glad to hear that. I enjoy the “cluttered” style, and cluttered urban backdrops in general are fascinating to me as well.

Another dominant theme-through all three of those films-is a focus on lenses. There are the young girl’s spectacles, the binoculars featured in the interpretation of the Edogawa Rampo story, and then of course continuing to Kurayukaba, and with that there’s an exploration of what is seen and what is left unseen. Obviously, there are any number of reasons to be fascinated with the unseen, and I would like to know yours.

ST: This connects with a previous answer. There’s something about the “old times.” You can’t see them any more, part of the unseen fantasy; but also tying into a number of Japanese religions, there’s the belief that there are many gods in every little aspect, and in every little object. One example from my childhood: there were many things I didn’t quite think about, but I’d see a little tunnel somewhere and at the end of the tunnel would be a very tiny shrine! Not many people know this, but there’s a small shared consciousness that it’s there.

Also, I’ve been wearing glasses since I was young, and one of the hobbies I had was borrowing my parents’ camera and go out to take a lot of photos. I’d often notice that the photographs would be different from what I saw—for example, I see the world differently when I’m not wearing glasses versus when I’m wearing glasses, and so there is this change of what’s seen, and not seen.

So when I had the camera, I took photographs of the scenery, hoping to really capture it in a photo, and when I developed the photos I’d think, “This is not what I saw!” So there was that difference. At one point, then, I purchased a camera where I could change the lens, and played around with different lenses and finally found one lens that truly captured what I felt I actually saw. You see a different world through a different lens.

This brings me back to prior answers, but by finding the lens that I wanted, I was able to make the photograph of the scene as I saw it. In terms of making an animation, I just had to draw what I saw in the world in order to express the vision I had.

366: I suspect a number of my questions will be tying back to ground we’ve covered, and one reason I am trying to be this thorough is my modest research before this interview showed virtually nothing about you’ve done, in the English language, at any rate. So I’m coming from a position of greater ignorance than I prefer.

ST: There aren’t many interviews that I’ve had so far in my career in the first place, so there isn’t much to work with.

Shinnosuke Yoshida (producer): Not only haven’t there been many interviews, but even less about [filmmaker’s] background, about his inspiration, so you’ll be the first to bring out a lot of this information. He hasn’t been discovered yet.

ST: As I was saying before, there are a lot of things that you can see, and a lot you cannot see—I am part of the world that has not been seen yet!

A major theme in Kurayukaba is that it’s about the underground, the unseen, a lot of things that the world does not know about, and that is something that I find very interesting to explore.

366: Fertile ground under the earth there, certainly. A couple more historical questions: the few bits of information I was able to find were through Rupert Bottenberg’s (Fantasia’s animation programmer) write-up for these, and brief glance at the Taisho era proved fascinating, and I’d be interested to hear more about your interest in that, and the particulars that made it an obvious source of passion and inspiration.

ST: Actually, while there was the Taisho era, I was more interested in how the city I was born in, Tokyo, was made, and the history behind it. Of course I am interested in the Meiji/Taisho era, but also the era before that, the Edo period. During the Edo period, Japan was closed to the outside world, and Japanese culture had a lot of time to develop in its own way. When the country finally opened, a great deal of culture seeped in, and there was the big chaos of multiple things happening at the same time.

366: Yes, and the surrounding “clutter” you can get when there’s a—well, not a “clash”—but a meeting of a very dominant culture and the outside world culture, and how those pieces fall into place in the particular way that they did.

Moving slightly closer to the future now, the two shorts that preceded the feature, one is based on a short story and the other read has extracts from a writer, and I was hoping you could elaborate on those [inspirations] because, animation is time consuming, and there is obvious interest there, so the fact that you made nine- and fourteen-minute shorts with these sources suggests they meant something.

ST: Before those two short films presented at the premiere, there was another short film I made, called “On the Other Side of the Bridge,” and that was a short version of Kurayukaba, which someone saw it and asked me if I wanted to make a full movie of it. That offer came, and that became the movie which was just screened.

Around the time I had made the “Bridge” short film, I was very stubborn. Even if there were offers, “Would you want to make this (certain kind of movie)?”, if I was not interested, I’d respond, “No, I’m not going to do it!” But when the offer came to make a long version of that early short, I responded, “Yeah!” It took a long time to prepare, ten years, and I continued doing other works. Those two other shorts were during that period.

366: That segues nicely for me. I speak to a number of filmmakers who’ve made their first feature, previously having made some number of shorts, or like in this case, a particular short they’ve done which they’ve expanded, and I was wondering if you might talk on the challenges—including the fun challenges—of creating a feature-length [film] versus the far more flexible world of short films, particularly in the field of animation?

ST: One good thing about making short films is that you have a starting concept, and you can just take that and go completely with it until the end; you can just make everything in one shot. In terms of longer films, obviously you start with a concept, but it’s going to change a bit gradually as it goes on, but there is that fun aspect of how it’s going to change and evolve. There’s also the element, with this kind of feature film, that you can’t do it alone: you’ll be working with various people, and various teams, and working with that community is one of the fun aspects of making a longer film.

366: Excellent. Now in regards to Kurayukaba specifically, we’ve discussed, albeit somewhat indirectly, a whole lot that makes up that movie, but there is that finale scene where we finally encounter the carnival, the plot catalyst, and I wanted to double-check for my own knowledge: I saw many echoes of the German Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, first of all with the doom-laced circus group, and then very much so with the visual style that ten-or-so minute blast at the end of the movie, and curious if I am seeing that correctly.

ST: Yes, exactly that! [laughs] Very impressive.

366: We are getting close to the end here, and I have two things I want to ask about: now that this is completed 2021—I’m seeing different dates—but in my case, I am always eager to know about future projects, especially from filmmakers whose movies I’ve enjoyed, and wondered if you might be able to talk about what you’re doing now, or what’s in the pipeline.

ST: It wasn’t finished in 2021. In 2021 we made a twelve-minute section of the movie, showed it to the world, and used it for crowdfunding. After that, there was enough interest to secure the funding for the complete film, and it was worked on until 2023. 

SY: The little section we made did get us crowdfunding, but we also looked around for other sources.

ST: In terms of future works, right now the only thing we can say is that the next project is in production, and we should be able to make an announcement next year. Even if it’s nothing specific, we will be able to [make the] official announcement “it’s in the works!”.

366: Fair enough answer, definitely. And I do like to close every interview I do—and you mentioned it earlier, but I would like to hear it again—what’s the name of your hometown, and is there a restaurant there you can recommend?

ST: [laughter] Veno, Tokyo—more like a town next to Tokyo—and I recommend “Takioka,” it’s kind of this hole-in-the-wall, more of a food-stand…

366: Oh yes, I recognize that [kind of eatery]. Actually, if you write that down here, I can get it accurately…

ST: [writes name and place] …so do a Google search of “Takioka, Ueno”, and if the stall is full, you can just wander to the one right across the way.

366: Well thank you all very much. This was very enjoyable and very educational… thank you!

Those who wish to test their Japanese-language chops can find the complete interview here!

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