Anime Trending had the exclusive opportunity to speak with Hirokatsu Kihara who formerly worked as Production Coordinate on Studio Ghibli films such as My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky, and Kiki’s Delivery Service. He is known for his prolific writing career and is most well known for ghost stories. These stories are a personal focus both in events in Kihara’s life, and also with preserving and understanding people’s actual beliefs that arise from unexplainable circumstances. His current work, Mimi’s Tales of Terror, is set to release later this year through Viz Media.
During his time working with Studio Ghibli, Kihara-san ended up preserving one of the largest collections of Studio Ghibli animation frames and cells, which previously would have been destroyed during the production cycle. He used this opportunity at Fanimecon 2023 to demonstrate some of the oldest animation techniques to both the panel audience as well as during a special interview with Anime Trending Staff Writers Nico Monterosso and James Mizutani. They got to learn directly from Kihara-san about the importance of learning from the past for animation techniques, and the preservation and shared cultural learnings through storytelling.
Looking back 35 Years of My Neighbor Totoro and Studio Ghibli:
From the previous panel covering the 35th anniversary of My Neighbor Totoro, you mentioned you were able to preserve a lot of the animation cells, which used to be completely trashed when films were complete. How were you able to acquire all of this material used in production such as in My Neighbor Totoro,, and what ended up compelling you to preserve all this animation cells and frames in the first place?
I was working in the animation industry for a fair amount of time before I was staffed for that project. It’s the job of making these animations, so inside of the actual process itself, if they don’t get rid of things that are from the middle or the beginning of the [production] process, the overall flow of the whole production becomes hard to follow.
The floors in Japanese companies are actually really small. So if you don’t start throwing away stuff, you’ll literally run out of space, and I noticed that other animation companies were actually not saving these materials often.
I joined Studio Ghibli right when it was originally founded, so I was really there at the very beginning of the history of Studio Ghibli. SoI realized that if I’m here right now at the beginning, I really should be saving these materials because if at some point we are a company that wants to put things in a museum or have some kind of exhibition, and we don’t have those materials, that would be a shame. But actually, the company was really against it [at the time] because it had never been done before.
I was told that anime fans, if they saw something like that, they may not quite get it. They might get to see the whole process of it, but actually my feeling was totally different. So what are we going to do if we don’t have materials that the next generation could see and be like, “Yeah, I want to do that too!”
<Kihara imitates a past conversation>
“Alright, fine, fine. If you want to save them that badly, then that’s your job.”
If you can believe it, the productions that I worked on like Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, they don’t even have those materials. It’s just me.
It actually took Studio Ghibli a really long time as a company to even realize “Wow, actually we should be saving a lot of these materials”, which is why I only have a lot of the early materials, so the reason why they’re not not there is because of me.
So you’ll actually notice this: if you go to the Ghibli Museum, you’re mostly going to see things like replicas or recreations. You’re not going to see a lot of original versions from the production. I think it’s really sad, so disappointing.
Of course now things that are done on computers, it’s easy to preserve something like that. It’s on a computer, it’s just data. But I still think Japan doesn’t have a strong enough willingness to do things like hold on to originals like I did.
I think now it’s clear to us that in the Digital Generation, we need to be preserving things. But back in the Analog Generation, I don’t think that was such a widespread way of thinking.
AT: Speaking of new technology and digital preservation, the anime industry is changing very fast with new technologies. There’s a lot of digital-only production for anime and we were wondering what your thoughts were on that transition to an all-digital format.
K: I think that the things you make digitally are really accurate. They play exactly how you want it to be. In digital animation, you can trace the exact movement of something in nature for example, or the movements of a person.
There’s something kind of like a “perfect imperfection” that comes from doing things by hand, so if something is slightly off or curved in a wrong way, that’s how the next part can start. That can be the inspiration to keep going.
Writing by hand is not a perfect process, things are not exactly as you imagine. It’s hard to get a sense of movement entirely from some of the scenes, so in terms of if it’s digital in the sense of gravity, when you throw something, it’s pretty clear if it’s digital.
You’ve probably seen manga or anime, where they almost almost draw a hand going back, almost to an absurdist degree, and you see them really throwing it and you feel the action of everything. And so when someone throws something like that, they’ll bring their hand back like this:
<Kihara-san moves his arm back as if readying a cartoon throw>
So literally like this, it will go back as far as this, almost to an absurd degree, and it will come right out at you.
That’s the speed and the movement rate, so it’s not just scenes of movement, violent and very expressive, but you’ll see it elsewhere too. Disney Animation, for example, doesn’t have these kinds of over-exaggerations, but Japanese animation does. Maybe Disney could be said to be the “more nice looking of the two,” and even Pixar, you’d probably say the same thing: the animation is very accurate [with regards to real-life movement].
So, I think it’s a really special skill of Japanese animation to show so much passion and fervor inside of the animation. The more ridiculous something looks, I actually think that makes it look cooler. Again, things like movement, gravity, things like that, at the end of the day, it’s a picture, right?
AT: So going back to “perfect imperfection”, in your panel, you mentioned using box-cutter effects to etch the raindrop effects into the frames for My Neighbor Totoro. How did you come up with some of these techniques like in the production? And were there other problems that you had to improvise to come up with unique or unconventional solutions for some of these frames and shots?
K: Water falling is a pretty natural phenomenon, so I think there’s probably plenty of ways that you could do that and it could look like it to your eye that it’s like rain. Normally people wouldn’t see it right in front of them, so to people, the first time you can physically see rain is when it actually hits the ground.
If you try to make rain look like you can see it, it’s going to look like it’s super crazy raining. It actually came up as an idea because we realized there were some things you needed to see in the scene and things you didn’t need to, so how could we make the rain appear like it’s there, but not be overstated?
The same thing was with wind, right? How do you express wind? So us, if we look at the fields moving or something swaying, we know that there’s wind there. So because it’s hard to express something like that to us, it’s actually in Japanese animation you’ll see those flowing pillows of air. So, it’s really a trick that animators in Japan use.
One more thing I’ll show you. We actually have another kind of special technique that we use as a way of approaching things. It’s kind of how we show the cells and how we adjust with the background.
<Kihara brings out a large book filled with animation frames, complete with foreground and background cells. Each frame is made up of several layers that compose images that make up the foreground elements (EX: right clouds, lower cloud layers), background elements: (EX: Floating Castle, clouds left, behind, and below the castle), as well as blue sky background and cloud layered between each other.>
K: This is Castle in the Sky. So there’s 24 frames in a single second, so one frame is roughly 0.05 seconds.
<Kihara moves the element of a mechanical plane frame-by-frame, where each time the plane cell is moved a short distance between each shot.>
K: When you’re seeing this, it’s moving, but it’s really moving at 0.05 seconds, right? So it’s a lot of frames that are going on though and you can see it moving in the background, so it’s like a real trick, almost like a sleight of hand.
So in Castle in the Sky, this is the ship hike. You can actually see there’s some shadow here that sort of complements the movement, but it’s actually a cell. We call it the “Harmony Effect.” We create this gradation that happens on the surface there. It looks like CG, the computer effect but the way that we move it [creates that gradation].
AT: Because you have a middle layer in between that you can kind of have the shadowing and lighting change a little bit between shots?
K: Yes, it looks really mechanical on the front side but then, on the back, we have all of this going on. So you see it really beautifully on the front side, and this is what it looks like:
<Kihara flips the animation frame to show the back side of the frame. The backend cells are not uniform, some elements are cut in some spots to suit the layering of elements that must move throughout a scene, so some of these frames are really one of a kind because of the unique cuts and layering that has to be done to fulfill the shot and scene requirements.>
I think the really interesting thing about the Japanese animation style is the way that we play with both the back layer like what you’re seeing, as well as the front layer, and the way that it ends up showing up on screen. I think that this could really look like CG because of the way that this looks so real.
The reason I can explain this so easily and clearly to you is that I have this right in front of me. You’re not going to get any of that by just watching the movie because I have these here. This is why I’m able to give you such an easy explanation.
I don’t think anyone really predicted that 30 years ago, right? That something like this would be necessary to have these kinds of things. So this is really nothing more than just items for a collector. I might be one of the only people who keep these things because I want to show the techniques that were used. It’s impossible for us to explain things like this so easily if we have absolutely nothing to show you. So that’s why it’s really, really important to me that I don’t just scan these, put them on the computer, and forget about them, that I physically carry them around with me so I can show them to people like you. You think it’s way cooler watching it in person?
AT (in unison): Yes, yes, absolutely!
How Kihara-San Collects Stories to Connect Lives and Cultures:
We also would like to talk about your work on horror stories because we want to have more familiarity with your work. You have been writing and collecting horror stories for over 25 years, what ended up drawing you to horror? You gave the original explanation in your panel of the story with “The Woman in the High Heels” [Kihara and his middle-school friend’s real-life account where they witnessed a woman in high heels disappearing in a forest with a distinctive heel click-clack noise that Kihara cannot fully explain to this day]
So what goes into the process of collecting and retelling a lot of these horror stories that you’ve come across in your life?
Because it’s simply that when I had someone that I could talk to about these crazy stories. When he was gone, I had no one else to really talk to. It’s really similar to this, right? Like when I’m in the animation, or in a war or something like that – if no one’s collecting the stories for example, how can we relay that to the next generation? So I felt really, really strongly as a kid that whatever’s happening today could be gone tomorrow, so that was important to me.
Okay, so obviously I can’t hear any and every story but I would love to hear stories when I can and I really take away a lot from when I have a chance. I think the story would just get lost if it isn’t shared, because stories are just words, it’s very easy for them to just disappear. So, it was actually because of that exact fact, if no one is collecting them, they’re just going to disappear that I wanted to start collecting stories.
So, I really want to stress this, because I think it’s pretty cool, but think about it: part of the reason I actually have these anime cells from Totoro or from Ghibli right now is because when I was a kid, I had this really strong feeling that “Man, if literally no one’s saving these things, they’re just going to disappear.”
I think all of you and all of your friends know this, but you understand what you’re doing in the work and the things you do, but does the next generation of kids and do other people know? So really, it’s just the footnotes that are going to remain: the names, the people and the places. So the passion you had to be here, sitting in front of me doing this interview right now, that’s probably going to be lost right? So that’s the whole reason why I started this. The idea is that I wanted to preserve these experiences and memories that happened from the people around me, right? There’s so many people online who could teach you, but who is going to tell you about older technologies right?
I’ve gone to Pixar Studio and given a talk twice. They actually do a really good job of understanding the importance of older technologies and being respectful of where things are going on technology-wise. Disney, similar to Ghibli at first, didn’t feel the need to save a lot of that stuff, and because Pixar saw Disney make that mistake, they definitely did not want to make the same [mistake].
So I think it’s really the same inclination that I have, and maybe it’s just my opinion and my company but that’s definitely the way that I see it.
You’ve published a couple different compilations of ghost stories. What goes into assembling all of those? Do you travel to people to learn from them? Or are people now coming to you since you are now kind of establishing yourself as one of the premier sources for these kinds of stories?
So I only have one rule, which is that I see things with an open mind. I often go around, similar to what you actually saw during the panel today, asking people “If you have any crazy, this kind of paranormal story, please tell me!” So most people are, “No, no, I don’t have anything like that!”
I’ve talked about many different stories, including two different people, including things that kids see when they’re younger, like these kinds of ghost stories. So, there’s sometimes where people have this almost outpouring of emotion like, “Wait a second, I can talk about what I saw when I was younger? Oh, you’re gonna take me seriously?” So my job is to literally open Pandora’s box to those sorts of stories.
But obviously it’s possible that if I’m too open about it, people will come with me with stories that are just too fantastic to believe. So that’s why I don’t usually like to just give open requests for stories. I actually just like to talk to people, like I did during the panel and say “Any of you happen to have a story?” And then, that’s where the conversation will start instead of being the other way around.
You would not believe the stories I have, people who are sort of incredulous about it! I don’t really believe those people. So actually, a lot of people sleep on stories that normally you probably wouldn’t hear. But if you heard [them] you would go, “Why do you have that story?!” I don’t know if you saw, but actually from the last panel, someone came up to me with a picture, and now I have this new photo of this crazy evidence.
Last year, I actually went to Phoenix, Arizona and there was a Native American individual there who’s actually from the Navajo Nation who actually showed me around to some sites. I was there collecting stories and they told me “You’re the first person who’s ever come out of your way to actually come and try and talk to us about these stories that we have.” So I had never felt like I had seen some of these kinds of stories, how things were moving and these fantastic things that happened in front of me. It’s kind of crazy, this idea that Japan and America, these two separate places coming and converging together.
You might call it like a “Butterfly Effect,” but there’s some kind of otherworldly movement that’s brought the three of us to this table together today when you can’t show something physically, it’s not that eyes in front of you, right? That’s all I can say. But we just haven’t understood it on a scientific level yet, so that’s why I’ve come and have all these things. I just want to talk more and more and more.
Thank you so much!
Mimi’s Tales of Terror is now available to pre-order through Viz Media: It is composed of Hirokatsu Kihara and Ichiro Nakayama’s storytelling and combined with illustrations from renowned horror manga artist Junji Ito. It is expected to release October 24th, 2023