Director Koji Masunari on Welcome to the Space Show
Koji Masunari is keeping it real. “I mainly pay attention to the ideas of the real,” he explains. “Real life is right there. But then, suddenly some surreal situation happens, and the story and the wonder come from how a character reacts or how they feel. That’s how I work.”
Born in 1965 in the boondocks of Shimane, Masunari came to Tokyo without any particular desire to work in the anime business. Like his idol, Yoshiyuki Tomino, he saw himself as an artist who happened to find work in animation, beginning with Sword of Musashi in 1985.
“I was looking for a job, and a magazine article said that anime was the only industry where you were 100% guaranteed to get a job, so that’s what I did! Back then, we were making everything by cel drawing, but now everything is done digitally. That is the biggest change. The difference is as essential as the discovery of fire. It’s that revolutionary. And the expression of the art form is getting wider and wider.”
Masunari spent much of the 1990s drawing storyboards for a diverse range of anime, with high points including the dynamic opening credits of KO Century Beast Warriors and Tenchi Muyo. He was also known for directorial work on Read or Die, in which he took the then-controversial decision to focus on different characters between the television and video versions. But everything changed for him with Kamichu, (left) the tale of a young goddess.
“I was lucky enough to receive an award from the Japanese government for Kamichu! When I received the prize, I was talking with Tomonori Ochikoshi, who’d been producer on Kamichu and Read or Die, and he said that perhaps this was the time to create a film. I suppose it was providence!”
Puffed up with their Japan Media Arts Festival Award for Kamichu, Masunari and his group of animators decided to shoot for a movie as their next project. They put it together in the same way they’d assembled their previous work, coming up with a high concept to flesh out.
“What we ended up with was the phrase ‘primary school kids and a dog’. I think that was what we got first. We originally thought we’d have some kids rescuing a dog in Kyushu, and returning it by going to Hokkaido.” That would have made the movie a road trip that encompassed the length of mainland Japan. “But Ochikoshi demanded it should be SF, so the final destination was changed from Hokkaido to outer space.” And Welcome to the Space Show was born.
“It was five years of hell! Progress was very slow, and mostly that was me, but I thought I was making progress. We really didn’t know how to make a film for theatrical release – we honestly believed we could do it in three years.”
“We wanted to make something entertaining. And, for me, that means something that people can simply enjoy – laugh a little, cry a little, feel sad. When people watch a touching spectacle, they cry their heart out at the last scene. That still counts as entertainment, and so does feeling helpless at the end of a horror film. I believe that making an entertainment film means tackling such emotions head-on to make audience share them. I mean, I don’t believe that something that is an entertainment just because it’s funny!”
The working methods on television and film are very different. “For the movie, we first think of the beginning and the ending. For a TV show, we don’t really fix the ending. In a series of thirteen or twenty six episodes we will create the ending a couple of episodes away from final episode. That’s probably the biggest difference, because so much can change while the series is airing. Also, TV series have a long time period to be seen and enjoyed, but with a feature film the audience gets the entirety in just one sitting. And in order to see the movie, the audience has to pay, so there are lots of differences.”
Masunari confesses that directing a movie is a lonely job compared to television. “I demand a lot, so I was hated by the production team (laughter). The key artists and other staff thought I was bastard. Those who really understand, it’s okay, as they understand, but those who don’t just think ‘I AM working hard, but why (does he say things like that)?’ Those human relationships were hard.
“It is difficult to explain, but when we do a TV series, we set the level of quality relatively low. We determine how good a storyboard needs to be, for example, and that’s what everybody should aim for. But this time, I did not set a standard. Everyone had to aim at a notional higher standard, but they could never reach it, so they got frustrated and there was no sense of achievement. It was only at the completion of the film when they felt the sense of achievement
“Another thing that was different from TV series was after-care. When you make a film, you also have to set aside time for promotion, and I haven’t had time to do any other work! So, it is impossible to do any drawing at the moment. I often get commissions to make storyboards in my spare time, but when I work on a storyboard, I lock myself in for a month or so. But now, I have interviews every other day or something like that. In that case, I have only one day that I can concentrate. But one day is not good. When I concentrate, I work for two days or so without sleep, then sleep, and work for two days… I need to work like that in order to finish the job.
“In the process of coming up the plot, we decided that we’d use the Moon to really push the science fictional sense of the future. Noriyuki Jinguji was the only person in our circle with the right skillset for that, so we left him to the production designs for the lunar scenes. Shiho Takeuchi can do it, too, but at that time, we weren’t sure if he could join the project. Later, when we found out that he could, we asked him to do the production design of Planet One. They have totally different attitudes towards machinery and design. Mr Jinguji draws something unexpected and Shiho draws something convincing. Shiho is also good at nature. That is another reason why we asked him to do Planet One. He is very knowledgeable about structure of buildings. He knows what kind of structure it is going to be if timbers are combined in certain way. He can draw the structure of an eave, which we look at without thinking. He just does it as if it is a normal thing to do, so the background artists were so surprised. Even background artists sometimes cheat at that sort of stuff.
“I wanted a general concept of that leap from Earth to the Moon, for there to be encounters with science fictional objects. From a distance, the buildings look drab and mechanical, but up close they are colourful with neon lights. I wanted a space where people live and drive their cars, but dead-looking from a distance. So I asked [Koji Watanabe] for that perceptual gap.”
As for bringing things down to Earth with a bump, Masunari was keen to draw on the experience of his own home town, which is becoming rapidly depopulated by the brain drain to the cities. “I think that now there’s only one class per grade. The place my niece went to only had about five students in the whole school.”
He also got back to nature in an unexpected way, by conducting field research into a famous Japanese condiment.
“The biggest advantage for us was our encounter with wasabi! It was very ‘natural’, as we went to a wasabi field. But this time, we saw a side to wasabi that we never knew before, shall we say, the essence of wasabi, maybe. That’s why we decided to use wasabi as an important plot item in the film. Did you know that most wasabi in a single batch is cloned from the same plant? Because they are clones, one variety last only 20-25 years. The taste deteriorates and the size becomes smaller and smaller. Roots that were once said to be delicious eventually lose their flavour. Also, we heard that wasabi was discovered in the Edo period. Having said that, according to our research, there was a mention of something resembling wasabi in a document from the Azuchi-Momoyama era. But it did not really exist in ancient times. We thought it was interesting that it was discovered out of the blue.”
Despite this very Japanese background, Masunari doesn’t think that foreign viewers will mind. Far from it, in fact. “I don’t really differentiate the markets of ‘Japan’ and ‘outside Japan’. I wants to create interesting stories and hopefully with this approach, the family audiences, not only in Japan but worldwide, will love the end result. None of us involved on Welcome to the Space Show really want to make the film to tailor to specific people. Even in Japan there are many people and audiences from many generations. I want to make something that can be enjoyed universally, something that speaks to everyone.”
“So far, the audiences really seem to enjoy it. It’s been very good. Welcome to the Space Show premiered in Berlin before it was released in Japan, and that screening was the first time we got to see an audience response. The reaction was very refreshing and impressive. I hope people continue to simply enjoy the movie. We hope to see people who are happy from watching Welcome to the Space Show, and I hope the people who watch tell their friends and family!