Andrew Osmond talks to animation legend Jimmy Murakami
For anyone interested in animation, the name of Jimmy Murakami crops up here, there and everywhere. He supervised one of the most famous British cartoons ever made, The Snowman, then nuked Blighty in When the Wind Blows. He witnessed the first days of modern anime in the 1960s, and the artistic frontier of US cartoons at the UPA studio. In live-action, he directed the fondly-remembered space opera Battle Beyond the Stars, working with an effects tyke called James Cameron.
But this is not just a life lived in movies. When Murakami was seven years old, he and his family – American citizens living in California – were among thousands of Japanese imprisoned at an internment camp after Pearl Harbor. Murakami’s older sister died there. One of America’s most disgraceful episodes, the internment is the focus of a new feature documentary, Jimmy Murakami Non-Alien, in which the animator reflects on what happened and how it changed him.
On a historic level, the story can never be told too often. In the film, Murakami remembers how the camp experience convinced him, as a child not yet ten, that he should blow himself up for Japan if it invaded America; the same beliefs, he notes, are being “embedded” in oppressed peoples across the world today. For readers interested in that time, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles records the history in vivid depth. “It’s frightening, it’s so real,” Murakami says. “They pulled out the whole history of my family, it was all there. There was a period when J. Edgar Hoover made sure that he had a record of every so-called non-alien. That’s why we were in prison. We were put in a category where we were not American citizens (so they didn’t have to try us), but non-aliens.” The experience recurs in some of his paintings (below).
On a personal level, though, Murakami points out that the documentary “emphasises the negative” in his long life. Now 78, when he has time between his other projects he’s working on an autobiography to redress the balance (“a ton of work”), taking in the different phases of his career. For anime fans, one of the most intriguing is Murakami’s brief time at the Toei studio in the 1960s. This was a seminal moment for Japanese animation, transforming from a pre-war cottage industry into the mass-medium we know now. Toei set up a department to make animated feature films, starting with Legend of the White Serpent in 1958.
“It was very big and very new,” Murakami remembers of Toei’s cartoon studio. “They had hundreds of people there. There were no computers, everything was done by hand, on cels and paper. I’d probably call it a factory, about as big as the Disney studio. They were working on two or three feature films a year, a huge volume of work.” When asked if the animators looked fatigued, Murakami laughs. “Listen, if you were tired in Japan in those days, you wouldn’t be working! Sheer hard work, get your head down… They’re not sitting there joking around like [the American studio] UPA did! They’re very intensive, very serious. In Japan they worked that way, no matter what business they were in. No-one looked up, they were just working intensely.”
Murakami had already worked at animation studios in America, but came to Japan to find his roots in the early 1960s. Toei hired him as a consultant; after all, Murakami was one of the first animation professionals to come over to Japan from the West. “I was just a Western snotnosed kid,” says Murakami. “The reason why I was there was to give a general impression about animation and storytelling, to be an American, Western background influence. Every morning, we used to have serious production meetings with all the executives. As a consultant, I went through storyboards, through rushes, and gave my critique to the director.”
But, Murakami found, the director would do it his way. “There was no way I would influence him by telling him how to do something, where a mistake was, how it could be improved. I made a few suggestions, about the timing and all that, and he took it on board… He’d never say ‘no,’ but you know, that’s the Japanese tradition! To be honest, I wasn’t sure why I was there, which was very frustrating because there were other things that I wanted to do.”
One particularly infuriating case concerned “registration.” In traditional, paper-based animation, registration means putting two pieces of paper together for tracing or ink-and-painting. Murakami found that Toei used paper-clips for registration, rather than pegs; in consequence, the animation could be jittery. “I told them about it; that was my job. They took it on board and said they’d think about it, but they never did anything while I was there. They didn’t want to be influenced by anybody outside.”
Murakami had better experiences at the UPA studio in America, where he worked before and after Toei, on titles such as the TV Gerald McBoing Boing series and the film 1001 Arabian Nights starring Mr Magoo. “UPA was making really good films, with a lot of experimenting in backgrounds, like The Tell-Tale Heart (a 1953 film based on Edgar Allan Poe’s hysterical scare tale). Most of the people there had broken away from Disney, and were determined to do things differently. I was very fortunate to come there, because I didn’t want to do stuff like Disney.”
“We were working with deadlines – they weren’t difficult deadlines, but we knew exactly was needed of us,” says Murakami of UPA’s work ethic. “We could play ping-pong all afternoon, but then we would work in the evening to get the film done. It was a really interesting studio because you would learn a different kind of commitment to creating a project. It wasn’t punching a clock every day, it was a more relaxed atmosphere.”
Murakami’s own short films were made later, on his own time. They range from Good Friends, a reflection on human relationships, to the Oscar-nominated Magic Pear Tree, based on a “sexy tale” from the Italian story collection The Decameron. “They were made for my enjoyment – working on projects at home, at weekends,” says Murakami. It was a way for me to retain the creativity in my head; I wanted to make films that I believed in. That’s why I enjoyed working with TVC on When the Wind Blows, because that was the kind of film I wanted to make.”
TVC was a British studio set up by Canadian animator George Dunning, best-known for the Beatles cartoon fantasia The Yellow Submarine. TVC adapted The Snowman and When the Wind Blows, both based on picture-book strips by the curmudgeonly artist Raymond Briggs. Murakami was supervising director on Dianne Jackson’s The Snowman (he admitted that the project wasn’t quite his taste). He was far more excited by When the Wind Blows, which he directed, in which two sweet pensioners in a South Downs cottage face a nuclear attack on Britain.
Asked about the difference between a supervising director and a director, Murakami says, “A good supervising director has an influence on creating the script, the look, something that’s uniquely different. He can’t sit down and tell the artists what to animate, but he can put in intelligence, a hook, and storytelling that works. A film needs something to take it over the top, to make it magical. It has to have something more than competent direction; there are a lot of competent directors, but not a lot of competent good directors. I wouldn’t put myself up among them, but I can look at the difference between a film that Darren Aronofsky makes and a film that an ordinary Hollywood director makes. There’s something that makes a film beyond an ordinary film.”
When the Wind Blows took Murakami back to Japan, where the bleak subject had obvious resonances. Murakami himself had lost a relative to the Nagasaki A-Bomb. “I was in Japan during the publicity tour, on television and newspapers. The distributor, Herald Ace, gave it a big publicity push. It was very sad because some of the reporters there, in their 30s, had the aftereffects of the bomb in their genes – not having an eye, for example – because their parents were exposed to the bomb. People are still suffering from the radiation today.”
The Japanese dub of When the Wind Blows was directed by no less a personage than Nagisa Oshima, the world-famous director of In the Realm of the Sense. “The voice-actors were top names in Japan,” Murakami remembers: veterans Hisaya Morishige, voicing Jim, and Haruko Kato as Hilda, replacing John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft in the English version. “The hype was incredible. Herald Ace put me up in the Imperial Palace hotel!”
Since When the Wind Blows, Murakami has worked on a wide range of projects, several with a Japanese connection. However, he says that what he found at Toei five decades ago still holds; Japan can be maddeningly hard to work with. On one occasion, he was working on a proposed Japanese animated feature film. “We did an incredible presentation, the studio loved it, and then they told me they were trying to get the rights, after investing all this money… The whole thing collapsed because they didn’t have the rights to it!”
Another time, Murakami was flown out to the grand opening of Huis Ten Bosch, a reconstructed Dutch village on reclaimed land near Nagasaki, which included an animation pavilion. “I was asked me to become the Western animation ‘expert’ and Miyazaki was to be the Japanese one. There was a plan for a specific co-production with a European studio, dreamed up by one man. But the animation pavilion is gone now. There was no follow through, no really serious commitment. It was just a dream, too big to handle at that time.”
A project that Murakami himself proposed was an animated film based on the Haruki Murakami novel, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. “Because we have the same name!” Murakami jokes. “It would have been a mindblowing animation – a feature film, very adult. At that time, though, the author didn’t want another film made of his books. Now he’s changed his mind…” says Murakami, referring to the recent live-action film of Norwegian Wood. More recently, Murakami has been supervising Bob Shirahata's computer-animated children’s anime, Birdy, in which the characters are talking aeroplanes who live on an island.
But Murakami’s main interest is still grown-up animation. His current project is a feature film co-production between Japan and Ireland, where Murakami now lives. He describes the film as a ‘love story/drama’ set in Hiroshima before and after the A-bomb. Called The Girl in the Green Kimono, its script development is supported by the Irish Film Board, while there is interest from the feature film arm of the Japanese studio WOWOW. An animation opus to bridge decades, catastrophes and continents; it sounds like exactly the job for Jimmy Murakami.
The collection of animated shorts, Reflections of Jimmy Murakami, is available now from the Murakami website.