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Aya Suzuki

Andrew Osmond interviews the woman who went from Bournemouth to Belleville, and beyond…

There’s probably only one animator in the world who has worked for Satoshi Kon and Mamoru Hosoda and Sylvain Chomet (the French director of Belleville Rendez-Vous and The Illusionist). Her name is Aya Suzuki, and she studied animation in Bournemouth, training which stood her in good stead on Chomet’s The Illusionist, Kon’s unfinished The Dream Machine and Hosoda’s The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki. And where is Suzuki now? A little place called Studio Ghibli…

Aya Suzuki

It’s the rainy season and there’s a typhoon raging in Tokyo. She was born here, but her father’s business took his family to the UK when she was three. “I spent five years there, then moved back to Japan at the age of eight,” she explains. “I moved to America for a year at 15, then back to the UK and finished my A-levels.”

Inevitably, Japanese trips brought her into contact with anime. “I visited my relatives in Japan every year. Because I’d moved to the UK when I was three, I couldn’t speak Japanese. So my relatives were wondering, what are we going to do with this kid who doesn’t speak Japanese? So they’d slap on Totoro, and I’d go quiet for a couple of hours! As a child, I was fortunate enough to watch animation from all over the world. I loved animation and drawing; I never wanted to do anything else, so it was either being a graphic novel artist or an animator.”

Suzuki went to the Arts Institute of Bournemouth (now the Arts University College Bournemouth). Her course director was Peter Parr, who’d trained generations of animators through the decades. “The most important thing is that, whether you were a 3D animation student or a modelmaker or anything, Parr would just make you draw. A lot of animation courses in the UK don’t actually tell you to draw any more, because the industry is moving into Flash or Maya or whatever, and you’re not actually holding a pencil. But for Peter, it didn’t matter – you just draw, because that’ll be useful. Most of my classmates are in the animation industry at the moment, and I think it proves it works.”

In the summer holidays, Suzuki went to animation festivals, and eventually decided to apply to the one in Hiroshima. It helped that she was now bilingual; “My parents forced me to speak Japanese in the house, because they didn’t want me to just be an English speaker.” The Hiroshima event gave Suzuki a job as an interpreter, helping guests out on the festival floor.

For an animation student, it was the networking opportunity from heaven. “It was just the best position to be in, interpreting for these people,” Suzuki says. During the event, Belleville Rendez-vous director Sylvain Chomet mentioned he would soon be starting a new animated feature in the UK. Back in London, Suzuki showed him her portfolio and was accepted. “I had asked him what he wanted to see in my portfolio and he gave me the specifics, and then that’s all I filled my portfolio with until I showed it to him! He was happy to see what he was asking for, and also that he could communicate with me – I did pretty much exactly what he’d asked,” Suzuki says.

Chomet’s new film, released in Britain in 2010, was The Illusionist, based on an unmade script by Jacques Tati. In the story, the Tati character is a struggling magician, chasing dwindling audiences, who eventually comes to Scotland. Here he’s joined by an ingénue called Alice, who’s about the only person to be enchanted by his quaint magic. The two land up in Edinburgh, where the film’s main studio was based in reality. There, Suzuki began in storyboarding, working with the animator Laurent Kircher. Later, she worked on Alice’s character development and costume design. “After a while I was supervising the assistant animation for Alice, putting all her animation on-model. Eventually they put me onto animation. I spent four years in total working on The Illusionist!”

Like many Western animated movies, The Illusionist assigned animators to draw particular characters; in anime features, animators are likelier to take on particular scenes, including all the characters in them, for reasons we’ll get to later. Suzuki handled much of Alice’s animation; for example, when the blossoming girl encounters a handsome swain at her window. “Sylvain told me to study anatomy… I just studied the human body like crazy,” Suzuki says. She acknowledges it was often gruelling to animate the same character for years on end: “Whenever I got to do something other than Alice, I was so happy!”

Suzuki’s experience on The Illusionist would be vital for one of her later jobs in Japan, precisely because Chomet’s film had no big “action”. However, the experience was very different from Suzuki’s later anime work, especially in the staff make-up. “The people on The Illusionist were from all over the place – for a while, I was the most British person there! There were people from Spain, France, Germany, Italy, America, Denmark, Holland… Everybody was speaking their own languages at the studio.”

In principle, could the same kind of mixed team work on an anime film? “I don’t think it would be a bad thing to have an environment like that, but the only problem is that communication with the director is vital in Japan,” Suzuki says. “It’s different from the western system, because anime films are pretty much director-driven, not production-run. The way that I see it, though, if that somebody wants to work in Japan, then they’ll learn the language and do it. I see people do that.”

“But strangely,” Suzuki continues, “a lot of Japanese animation studios were hesitant to have me on board because I come from a ‘different’ industry to them. I found this quite ridiculous, because it is the same industry and it’s pretty much the same skill. You just need to adjust. Even if I’d worked for a different company in Europe after The Illusionist, I’d still have had to adjust for a different director and company. I don’t really like the mental block the Japanese seem to have; they seem to think the western industry is so different from the Japanese one. I was very lucky to meet Satoshi Kon, who was particularly open-minded.”

Suzuki met Kon not through an animator but a lawyer for a Japanese animation union, who interviewed her about working conditions in Europe. “I was just talking with him and he told me that Kon was recruiting for his next film. I applied immediately through The Dream Machine’s website and Kon got back, saying he was very interested in having me on the team. Strangely enough, at the same time, I also applied for Madhouse [the studio which produced The Dream Machine] as an inbetweener. Madhouse never got back, but Kon did; I was rejected for inbetweening but got a job animating for Satoshi Kon!”

Kon, Suzuki explains, wanted to test her before bringing her over to Japan. “He sent storyboards for a scene, and model and character sheets, to my address in London. Over Skype, we went over the storyboards and he instructed me about constructing the scene.” (This kind of meeting is called “scene casting.”) “After that, I just knocked out the layouts, and sent them to him online – it took about ten days. He got back to me immediately saying he’d like me on the team, and I moved to Japan.”

Dream Machine

The Dream Machine was conceived as a road movie set in a world of robots; there would be no human characters at all. Kon fans were still happily awaiting the film in August 2010, when the shocking news broke; Kon had succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 46. With the film still unfinished, Suzuki cannot talk about its content, although she remembers working on it warmly. Despite her Japanese fluency, she had to grapple with a different system of terminology from Western animation. “A dope sheet would be a time sheet, an overlay is called a book for some odd reason! At meetings, I would be asking what were probably the most stupid questions, but Kon would always explain things to me… I think he enjoyed the fact that I didn’t know these things, because that means they’re doing it differently, I think he enjoyed the contrast. Kon’s a very adventurous person, and I think he saw that hiring me could be entertaining for himself as well.”

Having visited DreamWorks and other Hollywood animation studios, Kon had his own views about the differences between Japanese and Western animation. “He said the industry was like a bunch of people trying to form a circle. The way the European and American industries work is that they put a lot of people together, shoulder by shoulder, and if there’s a space, then they’ll put another person in that gap. In Japan, what everyone has to do is reach out their hands and join them, because they don’t have any more people.”

It was Kon’s way of explaining the lack of division of labour in anime, compared to Western animation. “In the western world, everything is separated; you get the animation director, the supervising animator, the lead animator, the junior animator, the assistant animator, the in-betweener, the clean-up artist… In Japan, there are genga animators and doga animators, which roughly correspond to key animators and inbetweeners. But Genga animators do background layouts, character layouts, the effects, and pretty much the clean-up. Doga do the in-betweening tracing, and sometimes the assistant animation as well. In the western industry, they’ve got probably five different people doing the job of two in Japan – that’s how Kon explained it.”

Animating on The Dream Machine, Suzuki and the other artists reported to Kon directly. “You get your scenes, you’re casted them [i.e. scene casting], and then you’re responsible for those scenes.” Like most anime directors, Kon storyboarded the film himself; less usually, he handled most of the background layouts, which Suzuki describes as a scene’s architecture, defining its space and perspective. It was the job of Suzuki and her fellow animators to add in the characters (“character layouts”) and provide background layouts on occasion. “Usually in the west, you have an artist who just specialises in layouts, whereas in Japan we have to do it all.” It’s hard to compare team sizes directly, as animated films always outsource parts of the work, but Suzuki doesn’t doubt The Illusionist employed far more artists than any of the anime she’s worked on since. “Again, I think it’s a reflection on the budget and the way of working.”

Would she make any other comparisons between East and West? “I find that when you’re on a Japanese film, it’s very much made for a Japanese audience,” she says. “My feeling is that The Illusionist wasn’t just for France or the U.K., but for a very broad market. The budgets in Japan are [comparatively] very low, but the industry can survive just by the Japanese market. The international market is like a bonus.”

Production on The Dream Machine continued after Kon’s passing, but halted in April 2011. While Madhouse’s president Masao Maruyama has said he’s determined to finish the film, Suzuki had to look for other work. She moved to The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki, directed by Mamoru Hosoda. The director had made his acclaimed previous films, The Girl who Leapt through Time and Summer Wars, at Madhouse, but for The Wolf Children he elected to begin a new studio, Chizu. The director was actively seeking Suzuki, not because of her tenure on The Dream Machine but rather for her experience on The Illusionist.

“Hosoda needed animators who could animate day-to-day life, so it was my work on The Illusionist that was important,” Suzuki explains. “He had heard of an Illusionist animator at Madhouse, but at first he couldn’t remember my name! When I went in to Chizu, they gave me the storyboards for Wolf Children; I loved them, and decided to stay in Japan another year.”

The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki opens in the UK this month. The film is the story of a woman who falls in love with a wolf man and has two adorable children with him, girl Yuki and boy Ame. The film follows the family’s fortunes, as the kids grow up with their dual identities, shapeshifting merrily between human and hairy. “It was really good to work on,” says Suzuki. “It was very difficult because I had never animated children before, and that was challenging. But Hosoda is fantastic to work for, and I hope to do so again.”

From Studio Chizu, Suzuki has moved to Studio Ghibli. “Several of my previous colleagues from Dream Machine and Wolf Children had joined Ghibli and recommended me, so Ghibli got in touch. After Wolf Children, I was again planning to go back to Europe, but Ghibli was the only studio that could have tied me to Japan for another year!” Ghibli had distributed The Illusionist in Japan; Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) was responsible, having previously handled Chomet’s Belleville Rendez-vous.

At Ghibli, Suzuki had an especially pleasant surprise when she encountered legendary female animator Atsuko Tanaka (not to be confused with Kusanagi’s voice-actress of the same name in Ghost in the Shell). Tanaka has drawn everything from Lupin’s frantic roof leap in Castle of Cagliostro to the swarming sea life at the start of Ponyo. “When I started at Ghibli she actually came to my desk and introduced herself to me – I was so shocked!” Suzuki recalls. “She said she was impressed by The Illusionist, and asked me this and that about Alice, how we did her dress… It was shocking coming from someone with such an incredible career.”

“I’ve done a couple of interviews in Japan,” Suzuki reflects, “and they tend to ask me: So, you’ve moved back to Japan? I always say that no, I haven’t moved back to Japan, because I never lived here properly before! I moved here for the job; it wasn’t particularly Japan I was interested in, it was Kon’s film I wanted to work on. But Japanese animation films are made quite quickly; I’ve worked on three in a row now! So I haven’t particularly “moved” to Japan; rather, I’m happy to move wherever there’s an interesting project.”

Wolf Children is on release in selected UK cinemas this month, and will also be released on UK Blu-ray and DVD by Manga Entertainment in late December, available now for pre-orders.

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