Andrew Osmond tracks down super-producer Mitsuhisa Ishikawa
At the Hyper Japan event last month, audiences had the opportunity to meet an anime heavy who might be irreverently called “Mr I” – Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, the co-founder, president and letter “I” of Production I.G. Which, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the studio behind Ghost in the Shell, Blood The Last Vampire, xxxHOLIC, Eden of the East, Patlabor, Cromartie High School, the gory cartoon bit of Kill Bill, and a hundred others. Its current crop on Japanese TV include the future-cop series Psycho-Pass; the robot-building show Robotics;Notes; and the glossy six-minute car commercial below, with character designs by Evangelion’s Yoshiyuki Sadamoto.
This year, I.G. is celebrating its twenty-fifth birthday, and Ishikawa was in Blighty to talk about the studio’s new directions. In his on-stage talk, conducted with Helen McCarthy and media commentator Ryusuke Hikawa, Ishikawa distinguished two strands of I.G anime – strong black coffee and afternoon tea. The “strong black coffee” anime comprises I.G’s action output, such as Blood the Last Vampire and the Kill Bill segment - though from Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell, I.G was blending action with deep thought. The “afternoon tea” anime is aimed at a broader, more mainstream audience, including the cinema films Oblivion Island (scheduled for UK release on March 25th) and Letter to Momo. Both are family movies, fantasy rather than SF, inviting comparisons to Ghibli and Pixar.
Ishikawa acknowledges the appeal of “strong black coffee” anime, not least to the people who make them. “The young staff in our studio always wanted to be popular among girls, so they tended to make violent scenes to look a little bit cool,” Ishikawa said during the stage talk. “Those young men who chose rock music to attract girls usually are not very good academically or athletically, so they chose rock. We weren’t good at anything, so we chose animation, and made Ghost in the Shell. But the fans of Ghost in the Shell are all men, not girls, unfortunately. We turned to afternoon tea after I and my business partner [studio co-founder Takayuki Goto] got married, and we wanted to become popular among children.”
Ishikawa tends to make such irreverent comments about his studio and staff. In a previous interview, he explained that the ideal male I.G director would be a guy who’s hopeless with the opposite sex: “If you’re satisfied on that side, then you don’t create such interesting stories.” Ishikawa is especially mischievous when he’s asked about two of his studio’s most famous directors: Mamoru Oshii, who directed the original Ghost in the Shell, two Patlabors, and The Sky Crawlers; and Kenji Kamiyama, who directed Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex, Eden of the East, and the new film 009 RE: CYBORG.
“In a lot of Japanese businesses and companies, you have a sort of master-student relationship,” Ishikawa says. “It started out with Kamiyama as the student under Oshii, he wanted to make the same kind of films as Oshii. So for the first part of his career, Kamiyama was the student. But now what we see is that they’re coming to be more of a rival relationship, more on the same level. Because with any master-student relationship, there has to be a time when the student exceeds the master. And what we’re seeing now is that they’re on the same level and it’s getting towards that point. That’s maybe how you should explain their relationship.” Perhaps they should settle it with light-sabres…
Oshii and Kamiyama are two of the studio’s best-known names, but I.G. has had a large turnover of employees in its quarter-century history. “We take on about ten new animators every year, but of those people, the number who stay for ten years is only about one or two out of every ten, maybe a hundred or so people in total.” I.G relies on new recruits dedicated to anime, who love the form and are determined to join the industry. One such youngster, a lad called Naoyoshi Shiotani, grew up on ‘80s anime such as Totoro and Wings of Honneamise. “He graduated high school, he went to university, he went to a specialist school to learn animation, and then joined the company. And then ten years later, he’s directing his own projects.” Shiotani made the film Blood-C: The Last Dark, due for release next year, and contributed a loveable sheep to Oblivion Island.
For Ishikawa, the passion Shiotani showed is more important to anime than any technical advance. “Technology is important, you have to progress with it, but you need that kind of passion, that desire to do it, to be inspired; rather than looking at that technology and desiring to keep up with it.” For example, the film Letter to Momo, directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, was strongly inspired by Totoro. “It’s really difficult to depict real human emotion in animation,” Ishikawa says. “We wanted to bring it back in Momo, we really wanted to experiment.”
Many of I.G’s anime are hybrids, often mixing CGI with traditional hand-drawings. In recent years, though, there have also been hybrids of other kinds. I.G. anime like Eden of the East and Blood-C have action-oriented storylines, but they integrate designs by famous female artists. Eden of the East used character designs by Chica Umino, creator of Honey and Clover. Blood-C (both the series and film) used story and design concepts by the CLAMP group, which had already worked with I.G. on xxxHOLIC.
“Production I.G’s fanbase is overwhelmingly male,” says Ishikawa. “So what we were really trying to do with Eden and Blood-C was to maybe increase the number of female fans. CLAMP has a mainly female fanbase, so obviously by combining their work with what I.G does, perhaps we would make something that would appeal more to female fans.”
However, if you’re worrying that I.G. will forsake action for sweeter fare like Momo or Oblivion Island, you can rest easy. Of I.G.’s current titles, 009: RE CYBORG looks to be very much in the old-school studio mould, as does Psycho-Pass. I.G. has also recently made Appleseed XIII, a CGI film and series based on the classic SF manga by Masamune Shirow. Mention of Shirow turns our thoughts to Ghost in the Shell – surely I.G. must be planning a return of its most famous franchise? “I would love to talk a lot about it, but I’m not allowed to talk about it!,” Ishikawa apologises.
“I.G is known for edgy films, but I would love to keep making films like Momo,” Ishikawa says. “We’re making both kinds of film. What I really think makes us a good studio is to have both of those colours, not just one or the other. We think the best idea is to go to both extremes, to make the family-orientated films suitable for kids, and to make the more adult films, to make both at the same time. We think that’s the direction we want to go.”
Ghost in the Shell, Eden of the East and Sky Crawlers are all released in the UK by Manga Entertainment. Oblivion Island is coming to the UK in 2013.