Ryutaro Nakamura 1955-2013

Remembering the late director and his best-known work

Ryutaro Nakamura
Ryutaro Nakamura, who died on 29th June, was a director who specialised in the gap between reality and our perception of it. He thrived in the animation world, particularly under the tutelage of the director Osamu Dezaki, for whom he was a key animator on several notable TV series, from Nobody’s Boy (1977) and The Rose of Versailles (1979) onwards. An animator at the Madhouse studio for several years, he left in 1986 to become a freelance artist, creating storyboards and layouts for several shows, and achieving his directorial debut with The Legend of Gusco Budori in 1991.

Despite never achieving international celebrity, Nakamura was a strong performer in numerous collaborations. He is widely credited with tempering the comedic, slapstick attitudes of show-runner Satoru Akahori on Sakura Wars, playing up darker, more serious elements of Japan’s 1920s in what would have otherwise been a much lighter show. And most famously, he found a productive ally in Chiaki Konaka, who wrote the scripts for his most famous TV show, Serial Experiments Lain. Channelling Nakamura’s own interests in computers and computing, Lain remains one of the classics of late 1990s anime, with its tale of a girl who appears to be haunted by her own net avatar. But Nakamura’s achievement lay in his memorable, iconic depiction not of cyberspace, but of the real world – the sky tied up with wire, the ominous hum of electronic hardware, and the pallid complexions of humans lit by computer screens.

Ryutaro Nakamura

When he arrived on staff, the first four scripts were already written, and the producer’s attempts to describe the story weren’t much help. “I was told that, basically, this was a story of a young girl who eats a bullet and commits suicide – and I thought “I give up!”’ he confessed. Finding the narrative itself surreal and hard to handle, Nakamura left that to Konaka, while concentrating on what he called the “sense of style.”

Some of his favourite moments in the entire series included Rein’s train journey and walk up the hill in episode one – very mundane events rendered disturbing by the way they have been shot or coloured. “In the school scene, for example, there’s suddenly nobody at the end of the corridor, even though they should be during break time,” he explained. “It’s a very different sense of eeriness to the one you would get with the overt presence of monsters, as you would in a ghost story.”

“When Rein goes to school, I painted the background completely white. If we had been fixated on realism, we would have had to put trees in the background with a blue sky peeking through, but that’s exactly what we didn’t do. It took a great deal of time to explain this to the staff, but that was the way we did our best to reduce the importance of a sense of the real.” Nakamura also used the positioning of cameras to put the viewer in the picture – most noticeably, by matching a character’s sense of inadequacy with close angles. “The world of Lain has a limited field of vision, so I wanted to avoid a so-called ‘God’s-eye viewpoint.’”

His later successes included the deeply allegorical Kino’s Journey, Ghost Hound and REC, an adaptation of the Q-taro Hanamizawa manga, challenging viewers’ realities in a whole different way, by being an anime depicting a love affair with an anime voice actress. His last work, Despera, was conceived in tandem with Serial Experiment Lain’s Konaka and Yoshitoshi Abe. Set, like Sakura Wars, in an alternate 1920s Japan, it has been serialised in manga form in Animage magazine, although production on the anime was delayed, and presumably now postponed indefinitely, on account of Nakamura’s battle against cancer.

Jonathan Clements

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