- 29 December 2006
by Kuriko Sato
Rare are the occasions that manga and anime master Katsuhiro Otomo accepts one-on-one interviews. Even when he traveled to the Venice Film Festival this year to represent Bugmaster (Mushishi) - his live action adaptation of Yuki Urushibara's manga, starring Joe Odagiri and Yu Aoi - the creator of the epoch-making Akira stayed out of the spotlight of publicity. Nevertheless, Midnight Eye was one of the very lucky few to have a chance to sit down with one of the great creators in the pantheon of contemporary Japanese culture.
How did Bugmaster get off the ground?
The producer Satoru Ogura wanted to make a large-scale jidai geki in co-production with the people behind Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. He asked me if I would be interested in directing it. I hadn't made a live action film in a long time, though, and I was quite out of touch with the technology needed for a project of that size, so I thought it would be really difficult for me to direct something like that.
However, I told Ogura that I did have the desire to adapt the manga Mushishi, which is also a kind of period piece. I'd read it and thought it would make an interesting film. It would give me an opportunity to mix live action and computer graphics, to create a hybrid of the natural and the virtual, and hopefully achieve a harmonious mixture of the two.
You are known for science fiction. What was the interest for you in doing a period piece?
I've always been interested in jidai geki and in making one. As a Japanese, you grow up watching jidai geki. Every filmmaker probably wants to direct one - to be like Akira Kurosawa. But not everybody can be Kurosawa. Also, I'm not interested in making films that someone else has already made. If I make a film, I want it to be unlike anything and when you find an idea that might allow you to do that, like in the case of Bugmaster, it really motivates you.
To get the rights to make this film you had to meet the author Yuki Urushibara. Of course, normally people come to you with that question, because they want to adapt one of your own manga. How was it to be on the other side of the table?
It was pretty straightforward: I really wanted to adapt this story, so I asked her if it was okay. It wasn't an easy job, though, because the manga runs about 13 or 14 volumes and each of those is a full story, with a beginning, middle and end. I picked up elements from several of them and combined them into my screenplay. I sent Urushibara the script and she made a few comments, but she basically let me do what I wanted.
You know, a manga artist who is very attached to his work will always have the desire to make the film version himself. But those are exceptional cases, like Akira was for me. I can't do them all, so I don't mind if somebody else adapts one of my manga. I don't like repeating myself, and I feel that adapting my own manga is essentially repeating something I've already done once before.
Have you been happy with the films that other directors have made of your work?
Of course I feel attached to these films and I sometimes ask to read the screenplay before allowing a project to go ahead, but generally I try to stay out of it. It's somebody else's work. Anyway, there aren't many manga of mine left that haven't been adapted yet.
Joe Odagiri loves Domu: A Child's Dream, which is one of the ones that haven't been done yet.
In Venice I met Guillermo Del Toro, who's had the intention to adapt Domu for a while. But I don't know what's up with that right now. We tried to get it made once before, but there were problems with the producer. I gave Del Toro the rights, though, so as far as I'm concerned, if it ever gets made, he is the one who will make it. Who knows, Domu is published in the US by Dark Horse, who also bring out Hellboy. So there is still a chance it will happen.
I wrote Domu like I would write a film. It's like the storyboard for one entire film. I've already made the movie Domu, in other words, and I'm not interested in making it again myself. I generally don't like revisiting or even reading my own manga. Maybe I just don't like my own work (laughs).
There is something very philosophical about the story of Bugmaster, and about the role played by micro organisms. In the film there is light and darkness, but it doesn't automatically mean that light is good and darkness is bad, or that light conquers darkness. They simply exist together and are in harmony. Is that idea of a grey zone what attracted you in the original manga?
Yes. It all depends on how you look at micro organisms, what you think of their existence. Microbes symbolize absurdity, in a way, the things that human beings can't control, like misfortune, disaster, and death. The point is how we accept the existence of such things. That is what this story is about. For example, today terrorism occupies our minds. A bomb explodes somewhere and a lot of people die. But if you see that event from a certain point of view, from a distance, it can become beautiful. A flash of light and flying sparks look beautiful when you see it at night, but what it really is is people being blown to bits. That's the absurdity; despair can become beauty from a different perspective. This is how I treat the presence of the mushi in this film.
Mankind has to co-exist with microbes. You can't avoid them. You have no choice but to accept their presence. That's the protagonist Ginko's attitude. Also, some people will probably feel that the film doesn't have a real climax. It sort of calmly moves toward its end. But that too is very much like our lives as human beings. If you look back at your life, maybe you can point to moments that you feel were a climax or a turning point, but when they actually happened you didn't experience them the same way. Life moves ahead quite calmly and gradually, and I wanted to bring that same feeling to Bugmaster.
Ginko is an interesting character. He can communicate with nature, but he hasn't achieved a balance or zen-like harmony.
Maybe. But I believe he tries to achieve that balance. He acknowledges and faces the existence of micro organisms, where most people prefer to ignore them. It's like a cancer patient: some can face their disease and live with dignity despite their illness, while others fall into despair. In this film, the two main characters Ginko and Tanyu can face absurdity and try to look for ways to co-exist with it, but they are the only ones who do so.
The film is set in the Meiji era, even though it's not so specific in terms of time and place. In the Meiji period, a lot of foreign influences were embraced by the Japanese and a lot of existing values were upset. Is there a sense of criticism on your part in using this setting?
It's not really criticism. The film is a kind of fable, so it needs a setting that is a bit otherworldly. It wouldn't really work in the Edo period, and the Taisho and Showa eras are already too modern. Also, that characteristic of constant flux, of things changing and disappearing, suited the characters well. You needed to have the feeling that they could suddenly disappear without a trace. I was looking to give the film an edge of fantasy and the Meiji period best allowed me to achieve that.
I have the impression that the way you are viewed, especially outside Japan, is still as 'The man who made Akira'. Does that bother you?
I don't really mind how people regard me. You know, when I wrote Akira after Domu - which is even more SF-like than Akira - a lot of fans complained about it. Then, when I made Steamboy after Akira, a lot of Akira fans asked me why I made a film like Steamboy. It's always the same thing. It's useless for me to follow those kinds of opinions. I should do what I want and not repeat myself. I don't mind what others think of me or my work. I don't think there is anything to gain from that for me. What I hate most is to stay stuck in the same spot. Don't get me wrong, I believe it's an honour that people like my work enough to become devoted fans, but each time I feel like I'm no longer in the same spot as them.
But it's not that you've lost interest in science fiction or future scenarios?
Not at all. I'm just not interested in visiting places where I've already been. Actually I have an idea for a story now, which is set in the future.
Will that be for a movie or a manga?
It's for a movie, but it'll probably be really expensive. I wonder how I'm going to get it off the ground... oh well, we'll see (laughs).
The main difference between making films and writing manga is collaboration. Writing manga is something you do all alone, but a movie requires collaboration with a lot of people. You've focused more on filmmaking in recent years, does that mean that you've found more joy in working with others?
Yes, that's true. Of course, to work alone is both harder and easier. There's nothing fabulous about drawing comic books. When you finish, you're relieved and happy, but it's the middle of the night and there is no one to share your joy with. With filmmaking you have a party with your crew and then the premiere. All that stuff you miss when you just draw manga. But there are drawbacks to filmmaking too: sometimes it's really difficult to get your ideas across to your crew, for example. But it's true that I've discovered the joy in working with other people. Actually, I have an idea now for a new manga and I can probably do it before my next big film project. The timing would be good, but my motivation is the problem. I'm not sure if I can get myself to sit down at a desk all alone. Unless an editor forces me to. I haven't done any manga in about a decade. I guess you could say I'm a kind of disappearing mangaka (laughs).
Are there any films or directors that you've had an interest in recently?
Talk to Her by Pedro Almodovar was really interesting. I felt really unusual emotions when I watched it. The story, the visuals, the acting, the director - they are all wonderful.
Your films are regulars at film festivals now. Do you enjoy these festival experiences?
They're fun, but you really feel a strong responsibility for what you've made. It makes me realize that I should be serious about making good films. I only feel that responsibility toward my own films, though. I don't feel that I represent Japan or Japanese cinema in any way.