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Andrew Osmond interviews director Naoyoshi Shiotani

It’s a cliché that Tokyo often seems unreal (or post-real) to foreigners. The cartoon characters adorning Blade Runner screens and earthquake warnings; the neon shopping centres that feel like the innards of a pinball machine; the malls and stations with the brain-frazzling topography of a Mario puzzle game. But it feels especially weird to go to a multiplex cinema in Ikebukuro – one of central Tokyo’s main shopping and leisure districts – and watch an anime film that starts with an ultra-detailed simulation of the real Ikebukuro station you walked through minutes earlier. Alhough when you were there, you missed the glowering, sword-wielding schoolgirl slicing up monstrous commuters.

The film is Blood-C: The Last Dark, and it’s the new incarnation of the franchise that began with Blood: The Last Vampire (2000). A day later, we’re at the Production I.G studio, home to such anime as Ghost in the Shell, xxxHOLIC and Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, to grill the film’s boyish-looking director, Naoyoshi Shiotani. Described on the studio site as “a soft-spoken nice guy with a naughty boy inside,” Shiotani’s weighty resumé includes directing I.G’s award-winning romantic comedy Tokyo Marble Chocolate. Shiotani was also one of the architects of the bric-a-brac world in the CGI fantasy Oblivion Island. If you remember the adorable sheep doll Cotton, you can thank Shiotani for his design. In Shiotani’s words, “He’s the stuffed animal everybody had as a kid.”

Blood-C is I.G’s second revamp of the Blood story, following the TV series Blood+ which ran in Japan from 2005 into 2006. In all the Bloods, the central figure is Saya, who looks like a teen girl but who regularly carves up monsters with her katana sword. After Blood+, Production I.G decided to have Saya reinterpreted by the female manga group CLAMP. The collective already had a strong relationship with Production I.G, via the studio’s anime version of CLAMP’s xxxHOLIC. Its director Tsutomu Mizushima also directed the TV version of Blood-C, and there are other links between the titles. If you recognised a certain character from xxxHOLIC guesting in the TV Blood-C, then he pops up in the film too, playing his customary role of magic shopkeeeper. Blood-C’s original design concepts were provided by CLAMP artist Mokona, while the story concept and composition were by fellow CLAMP member Nanase Ohkawa.

Blood-C is a work of two parts. Production I.G has indicated that it sees it as following a separate continuity from the other Blood anime, so you don’t have to worry about them. The 12-episode Blood-C TV serial is already available on DVD and Blu-ray, and is covered in an article here. Storywise, The Last Dark film is a sequel, set six months after the gory end of the series, though most of its characters are new and the film can be watched by itself. Visually, the film and series are in radically different worlds. The TV show was full of harmonically-composed colour schemes and girls-comic character designs. Even its Saya was cute, sporting oversized pigtails like great black wings. Shiotani’s film, while still co-created by CLAMP, feels utterly different.

The look is spectacularly hyper-real, utterly three-dimensional without being in 3D, and full of gleaming lights and fleet-footed virtual cameras. The action feels squarely in the tradition of I.G’s urban SF-conspiracy thrillers, going back to Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor in the ‘90s. Saya herself was redesigned by CLAMP for the film, in line with the glowering sailor-suited warrior of the original Last Vampire.

The Blood-C series and The Last Dark have different directors and production teams, but Shiotani has a strong sense of how they fit together. The TV series, he explains, began as a cheerful, light school comedy, before it moved into darkness (and extreme splatter). That’s where the film picks up. “The series is set in summer in a small town in the countryside; the film is set at winter in Tokyo,” explains Shiotani. “I asked the animation character designer, Kazuchika Kise, to make Saya darker, more adult and gloomy. The series explained why she’s like that, giving her background. In the film she’s strong, aloof and she doesn’t really relate to other people.”

Nonetheless the film sees Saya joining a group of young Tokyo hackers to fight an enemy from the TV series. In particular, Saya teams up with a young woman called Mana. “Mana is like the audience’s point of view,” says Shiotani. “It’s very difficult for normal people to communicate with Saya. She’s always gloomy, she may be dangerous, you don’t know if she’s friend or foe. We expect the audience is feeling uneasy, but at the same time attracted by this mysterious girl, like Mana is. We also wanted a character in which Saya could recognise her own situation, after what happens to her in the TV series.” Saya in The Last Dark is a cold, ruthless warrior, but the naïve Mana recalls Saya as she was in the Blood-C TV series. Indeed, you could see Mana and Saya as two sides of the same person, like a multi-Doctor Doctor Who.

Shiotani wanted the setting of his film to feel immediate. “It’s not a town in Japan somewhere [as in the TV Blood-C]; it is Tokyo now. Consequently, the audience feels the story is happening now in their town, and they relate with the characters and story in the most realistic way possible. For this reason, the places in the film actually exist. We did not just digitise photos, but redrew everything.” Much of the film takes place in a mansion, based on the real former Iwasaki estate in the Ueno district which once belonged to the founders of Mitsubishi. A high school hall where a huge battle happens is based on the Okuma Auditorium at Waseda University. “I checked all the blueprints for that,” says Shiotani, “even the seat placements, which took a very long time.”

The film also homages to the original Blood: The Last Vampire anime from more than a decade ago. The opening involves a fight on the subway train; back in 2000, Saya’s gory “hit” on a similar train became a calling-card advert for I.G’s technology. “The first Blood was the studio’s first fully digital anime,” says Shiotani. “This time I wanted to make use of 2D traditional animation, but also the best that could be achieved with CG, and with blending the techniques. You see a massive use of CG in this movie.” You also see a massive amount of detail; everything from reflections in the metal pipes of the Tokyo subway to actual words in the newspapers on the street.

Animators and fans argue endlessly about if trad and computer animation can mix, a challenge Production I.G has risen to spectacularly in past films. “Matching traditional animation with CGI is always a gamble because they’re completely different things,” says Shiotani. “Usually when you work in 2D and add computer elements, you decrease the amount of information from the CG part, in order to match the 2D animation. But I didn’t want to do that. So, using the lighting and the other effects that could be added in compositing, I tried to upgrade the 2D characters to match the CGI, without actually adding details to the characters themselves.”

It’s easy to imagine fans poring over particular shots in the film generated by the overlapping processes. They’re so complex that The Last Dark could be taken as a meta-statement of the ever-glossier techniques cultivated by I.G. Shiotani was still fine-tuning details on the morning before the Japanese press screening, though he denies the film is about the technique.

“The movie as a whole was very complicated, so I can’t say a specific scene was harder to make than the others,” says Shiotani. “In my memory, the whole movie is hard! Of course we tried to create a good-looking, cool animation, so we did our best from a technical point of view. But that was only to entertain the audience, not to show we are good at doing this. We want people to be enthralled by our story, and to relate to Saya and the other characters. Saya doesn’t talk very much, and I wanted to show what she sees and feels through the pictures. That’s why you have a high level of information in the images.”

In particular, light was central in conveying Saya’s feelings. “I made a specific order to the staff – I wanted Vermeer-like light, throughout the movie. I wanted warm light, but also light that expressed depth and distance, not a flat picture.” Some scenes in the film use very dim light. “Dim light is difficult to do… If you’re working with computer animation, you can control the light better because once you set the parameters, the objects in the scene are illuminated at the same time, at the same level.  But for traditional 2D animation, even if you’re dealing with similar scenes set in the same building, you have to do the colouring a different way each time. The ‘camera’ might be closer to the character; there are little changes that mean you must adjust the colour for every single scene, otherwise you don’t get the right feeling.”

There was another problem with dim light. “In every theatre you have different light, so you can never be sure what it’s going to look like. So you have to think; will this be okay, will you lose details in that kind of darkness? It was hard to calculate all that.”

It’s clear from Shiotani’s comments that he views good computer animation as founded on the same principles as classical painting. He also thinks handcrafted animation will continue to have a place in Japan even as CGI advances – you can read more about his views on the subject here. “Certainly, we want to take advantage of what digital techniques are offering these days, but it is not going to be as simple as a shift from traditional to CGI animation,” says Shiotani. “Perhaps the two techniques are going to coexist, at least for a while. I think there will be a Japanese way of CG animation because of our tradition, so we are not going to turn into Pixar. There will be a different way to do it, and it’s right that it will be like that.”

Blood C: The Last Dark is out on UK DVD and limited edition Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

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