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NYCC 2014: The KAKEHASHI Project’s “New Japanese Animation Talent” Panel

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On the final day of New York Comic con the Japan Foundation hosted a panel entitled “KAKEHASHI Project – New Japanese Animation Talent”, which spotlighted five young Japanese animators: Saki Muramoto, Ryo Okawara, Saori Shiroki, Aya Suzuki and Yuzuru Tachikawa. The five were joined by special guest Natasha Allegri (Adventure Time, Bee and PuppyCat), while Justin Leach of Blue Sky Studios moderated the panel. A splendid overview of these guests and their careers is posted on the Japan Foundation’s website.

Mr. Leach explained that the “KAKEHASHI Project” was part of a youth exchange program promoted by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and that this was inclusive of many other things such as fashion, design and the “fine arts”. The Laurasian Institution and the Japan Foundation cooperate to organize the project, whose stated purpose is “to promote deeper mutual understanding among the people of Japan and the United States, enable future leaders of Japan-US exchanges to form networks, and help young people develop wider perspectives to encourage active roles at the global level in the future.”During their time in the U.S. the five Japanese animators visited a number of animation studios  including Blue Sky Studios, Frederator, Titmouse, Industrial Light and Magic and Pixar, by the account of Aya Suzuki. For the other part of the exchange, the program will be sending five American animators for a similar visit to Japan this coming spring: Natasha Allegri, Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward, Pixar’s Erick Oh (Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University, Toy Story of Terror!, Inside Out), puppet stop motion artist Timothy Reckhardt (the Oscar-nominated Head Over Heels) and Minkyu Lee (the Oscar-nominated Adam and Dog, Frozen).

Each of the five Japanese animators introduced themselves to the audience, after which video reels were played to showcase each person’s respective work. First up was Yuzuru Tachikawa, whose clip prominently featured his 25 minute movie Death Billiards produced by Madhouse as one of four short films funded by Japan’s Anime Mirai project in 2013. Other footage referenced his involvement in Shinichiro Watanabe’s summer 2014 anime Terror In Resonance, as well as recent anime fan favorite Kill la Kill.

Next was Ryo Okawara, a graduate of Tama Art University and the Tokyo University of the Arts. Okawara’s reel spotlighted his work on the award-winning A Wind Egg, as well as his past films Orchestra and Animal Dance.

Saki Muramoto is another graduate of Tama Art University and the Tokyo University of the Arts. Her demo reel included footage from People Who are Eating and It’s Time for Supper, whose screenings at film festivals include Animafest Zagreb, the Stuttgart Festival of Animated Film and the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs Media Arts Festival.

After this came Aya Suzuki, who earned her bachelor’s degree in Film and Animation from The Arts Institute at Bournemouth in 2005. Her demo reel highlighted a diverse and truly impressive filmography included Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children, Yuzuru Tachikawa’s own Death Billiards, Masaaki Yuasa’s Ping Pong the Animation and Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist. Ms. Suzuki’s work can also be seen in the new action title Bayonetta: Bloody Fate.

Finally came a reel showcasing the work of Saori Shiroki, yet another product of Tama Art University and the Tokyo University of the Arts. Her footage included a look at several somber short films to her credit, including Monotonous Purgatory, Night Lights, MAGGOT and The Woman Who Stole Fingers. She studied oil painting during her time at school, and cited that as a major influence on her work.

After all this a special trailer was run for Natasha Allegri’s own Bee and Puppycat, which was successfully crowdfunded late last year and will debut on November 6, 2014 at Cartoon Hangover’s Youtube channel. After these displays of animation, some time was taken for Q&A. First, the panel was asked about differences between animation in the U.S. compared to Japan. Tachikawa replied that in Japan animation was focused around TV series targeted at otaku and a wide range of audience from younger kids to young adults, while in America more cartoons are targeted at children. Because of this Tachikawa feels “there is a wider range of genre in animated stories” in Japan and the chance to “see the personality of the creator” in various works.

Okawara cited Bill Polympton and Don Hertzfeldt as people that came to mind when he thinks of independent creators, and he wanted to find out if there were more like them given how advances in technology have made it easier for individuals to make their own films. In response to another question later Natasha Allegri agreed with this, remarking that she was “found through the internet” and that she thinks it is the “biggest new opportunity” for creators. Mr. Leach chimed in by citing the advent of crowdfunding as well, remarking thanks to it “there is space to take risk” while before the internet, he would not have had the opportunity to serve as a producer on a crowdfunded short project like Masaaki Yuasa’s Kick-Heart.

Muramoto commented that he was at a crossroads as he feels that there isn’t enough work to go around for those interested in the animation profession in Japan, but that after seeing what Natasha Allegri has done he finds himself asking if he and his colleagues could do similar work. In Muramoto’s view it is considerably easier to put your work out in America, thanks in large part to the rise of video streaming. Shiroki agreed, commenting that she was “envious” of smaller studios where animators had the space and freedom to work. Aya Suzuki highlighted a difference in the audiences the two industries aim for, remarking that the U.S. “is international and trying to satisfy every nationality possible” while that’s not the case in Japan, which produces a lot of “beautiful” animation that comes across as more niche. Suzuki finds it “extraordinary” that Japanese animation has produced a “hardcore following” given what she considers to be “limited exposure” and advertising, and mused whether many fans found it interesting precisely because it was seen as more obscure.

Another question commented on the presence of both digital and “traditional” animation in the animators’ respective clip reels, proceeding to ask if digital was the future or if there would always be a place for both. Suzuki thinks there is a place for the traditional method and that the use of digital is about making the work process more efficient, but that a shift to digital may be necessary at some point because “the industry itself is not sustainable”. Tachikawa agrees that “the overall move is toward digital”, but also believes that in the field of animated shorts many different methods and techniques of animation have been tried and that this will continue.