Shinji Aramaki

6 March 2005
picture: Shinji Aramaki


Long respected for his mecha design work on popular anime series like Megazone 23 and Bubblegum Crisis, and for his recent storyboard work on 2002's Ping Pong, Shinji Aramaki makes his directing debut on the techno-driven CGI animated feature Appleseed. How does someone whose background is in design work make it as a director? Very well, it seems. The secret is creativity, patience and hard work. Midnight Eye's Nicholas Rucka sat down with Aramaki on the eve of Appleseed's US release to discuss traditional 2-D cell animation versus 3-D computer graphics (CG), the future of anime in Japan, and what it's like to adapt a Masamune Shirow manga.

Animation is a medium in which you can realize anything you want. Why do so many animators strive for a complete realism - or even a cinematic realism - in their animation? Why is this almost a new trend?

Realism is very hard to define. Realism is supposed to portray the real 'thing,' but of course, what is 'real?' And so the incorporation of realism in anime is an issue. Animation is able to portray all things so there is a lot of information that you need to both abbreviate and exaggerate in the cinematography. The fun of doing animation is that you can create the imagery that you have in your mind, whatever it might be.

I think that your question has to do with animation in general and the trend to want to bring it to realism - as close to realism as one might imagine being able to do - and I think that might have to do with the fact that the ability to express oneself visually is coming to a much higher level because the technology enables us to do so. But from the point of view of the story, the animation story now wants to be communicated on a much higher level because it can be and therefore because the visuals are more real our stories can become more real. We're now able to have a more realistic portrayal of emotions.

This is interesting because we're already talking about how technology is pushing to make things more 'real.' But in the case of Appleseed, you use a piece of software called Toon-Shader, which is designed to make your regular CGI look more like 2-D cell animation. What is your motivation behind this approach? Are you attempting to control the technology through this?

Well, it's hard to explain. I've always worked in traditional 2-D Japanese cell animation. So it has to do with this Japanese animation and sensibility and design, cell drawing, and its legacy. In 3-D CG I wanted to somehow include that essence, but this might be because, perhaps, that's all I have inside of me. But to be involved in 3-D CG I wanted to show the outline of the face by using toon shading.

There are different styles using 3-D CG, Pixar's style for example. I tried out various types of CG animation, various styles, and I didn't feel comfortable with the characters that evolved. But I wanted to have characters that one would feel comfortable with and so the style you see in the movie is the one that we settled on, so to speak, in this process. I felt that this was a type of approach that Japanese animation was still familiar with and would not feel too foreign or uncomfortable with. I guess that's the big reason why we chose this style.

picture: scenes from 'Appleseed'

The other big Masamune Shirow adaptation that came out this year was Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. That film is, conceptually, very similar to yours, except they combine traditional 2-D animation with 3-D digital backgrounds. This being said, the way that the audience reacts to Appleseed and Innocence is very different. What is the difference in approach between Appleseed and other Masamune Shirow adaptations?

I don't know about other directors and what they have in mind, I can only talk about myself. In terms of the original Appleseed, I was familiar with Masamune Shirow manga and it was the one that I wanted to direct. There are difficulties in Mr. Masamune's stories because they're hard to understand and there's a lot of depth in them. But I wanted to have something that could be enjoyed by people who aren't familiar with the original manga. But at the same time, I wanted to respect the essence of the work: both the action and the themes. So I wanted to be sure that that would be a part of this.

I think it's interesting that you mention that Masamune's comics are hard to completely understand. They are very complicated and dense. I know that with Mamoru Oshii's approach he essentially throws out the original story and sort of does his own thing. Now returning to the topic of the animation, I have some questions about the digital approach to this film. Did the bad reception to Square Soft's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within make animators rethink what audiences expect from CGI anime? Specifically, was the toon shading a concession to traditional animation because 3-D CGI was too radical for the audience?

I understand what you're saying. Final Fantasy and pushing animation technology to replicate reality, maybe… They may have gone too far trying to become closer to humans. The closer you get the more you notice the difference. It's like dolls that have too human a quality to them, they feel eerie. So I don't know whether to call it their failure or mistake, but this may have been a factor in it.

Final Fantasy unfortunately shows what the limits are in CG technology. After watching the film I was able to see what was important to focus on in using that technology. Additionally, it's important to know initially what you want to do with the 3-D CG technology. For me, I knew what sort of images I wanted before we started working on Appleseed. It's important to do this before you begin.

Another point about life after Final Fantasy is that because it was a commercial mishap for both the creator's side and the audience's, it created a sort of rejection of 3-D CG. As a result, the expectations were lowered and I realized that rather than a bad thing, it was actually a great opportunity to do something new with the technology.

The Japan Times film reviewer Mark Schilling reports that Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki said that 3-D CG is the future of Japanese animation - specifically in reference to Appleseed. Do you agree?

2-D Animation is mainstream in Japan. But I just don't think it's going to switch over to 3-D CG; it's just not like that. But people are talking and they're talking about a specific genre that would fit into this style. For myself, I didn't do this work and think of it as a replacement for traditional animation. I am using 3-D CG right now because it's a new style that fit the type of story I was telling. I believe it's a new genre to be developed.

So, just to be clear, 2-D cell animation is not dead?

No, I don't think so. [laughs]

This is a more philosophical question, but what do you think determines whether a film should be animated or live action? For example, the argument can be made that Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue would've worked as a live-action film - in fact it was made into one - but I'm talking about initially.

I can only speak for myself; I'm not in a position to talk about Perfect Blue. Some people say that it's cheaper to do animation rather than live-action films, but that's not the case. Even if I had a very big budget, I don't think I would've done this story in live-action. I think that this is the right style for this story about these two characters. The story that I had in mind is best realized through this medium. But that doesn't mean because I work in animation I don't like live action. I do - very much so, in fact. But this was the best means to allow me to do what I wanted to do.

picture: scenes from 'Appleseed'

Speaking of live-action, I've read that there's discussion of doing a live-action Hollywood remake of Appleseed. What do you think of that and the two proposed anime sequels?

I would be very interested in seeing someone's live-action version of the film. But I wouldn't want to do it. I don't believe I have the desire to do so, yet. As for the sequels, I am already working on the sequel for the next Appleseed. For the sequel I don't plan to continue with the same style. I would like there to be some sort of evolution in style, it won't be the same.

What kind of evolution?

That's a secret. [laughs]

Considering your mecha-design background, do you prefer directing to any other position in filmmaking?

It's not the only position I like to work in. I mean I've worked over 20 years doing mecha-design work for movies, anime, and games. And that's a place that I feel I can always return to. And I'll continue to do that kind of work. But being able to direct a movie on something that I want to do - an original story I want to work on - that's very desirable. But it's not that I specifically want to only be a director.

Connected with that, how has your history of doing mecha-design informed your making of this movie?

On the work that I did for Appleseed, I think 1/3 of it was actually directing, the other 2/3 I spent being involved with the design and production. I think that's what makes my directorial style unique and I know that was why I was asked to direct Appleseed. That's who I am and that's what makes me different from other directors.

How did you choose the music for the film?

The music producer proposed using a techno score for the movie. Since I didn't know the genre, I was open to trying it. I found that not only did techno really work but I specifically enjoyed selecting the tracks for each scene in the film. Needless to say, I am very happy with the results.

Do you have any final comments?

As far as the Japanese animation genre is concerned, just because it's traditionally 2-D - and because this is a 3-D CG film - doesn't mean that Appleseed doesn't fit. I believe that the film is spiritually in line with anime in general. It is, in a sense, a new type of animation, which I believe will be able to spread around the world while still preserving its Japanese essence. I think it might even help the spread of anime.

For the people that will see Appleseed, I would like them to see it on the big screen whenever possible, although this goes for all movies, I suppose. I believe that the movie becomes better in relationship to the size of the screen. I know that really sounds like a kind of promotional pitch, but I really mean it.