Interview: Kōji Morimoto

The renowned director speaks to Nick Dwyer about his career on the cutting-edge

Born in Wakayama in the Kansai region of Japan in the late 1950s, Japanese anime director Kōji Morimoto came of age during an era when Japanese manga and anime was becoming a unprecedented cultural phenomenon. Inspired by “The Godfather of Manga,” Osamu Tezuka, Morimoto followed a childhood passion for drawing all the way to the Osaka College of Design, and by the early 1980s he was already working on some of the industry’s biggest titles. His work soon caught the attention of Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo, who, impressed with his talent, secured Morimoto as a contributor to the Neo-Tokyo and Robot Carnival anthologies. (Morimoto made his directorial debut as part of the latter with the short Franken’s Gears.)

What followed was the film that forever changed the face of anime: Akira, which Morimoto worked on as part of an all-star cast of Japan’s top animators, all enlisted to bring Otomo’s epic dystopian vision of a future Tokyo to life. Setting up Studio 4°C in 1986 alongside producer Eiko Tanaka, Morimoto soon found his own unique voice in the world of anime as a director. Operating at the cutting-edge of Japanese animation, he produced incredible works like Magnetic Rose, from Otomo’s Memories anthology, and a groundbreaking music video for Ken Ishii’s “Extra.” By the mid-1990s, Morimoto had established himself as one of Japan’s greatest talents in the field, and hasn’t stopped pushing the boundaries of Japanese animation since.

In this interview with Nick Dwyer, Morimoto reflects on his childhood love for animation, the experience of working on Akira and the persistent thrill and challenge of depicting scenes from the far future.

Masato Yokoyama

Could you tell us a bit about your childhood, and what life was like in Wakayama during the 1960s?

It’s right in the mountains. At the time I really dreamed about leaving for the city. My neighborhood was just a village consisting of a few detached houses, scattered around an area of about 100 meters.

One of the most inspiring events for so many of Japan’s future creatives at the time was Expo ’70. People from all over Japan travelled there, and living in Kansai I’m going to guess that you went there. Just how inspiring was it?

Yeah, I went when I was 11 years old. I went twice. I was really impressed by Tarō Okamoto’s Tower of the Sun that was exhibited there – it’s still there now. It was amazing. Also, it was the first time that a moon rock had been exhibited. I think that was in the America zone of the World’s Fair.

There is a long history of manga in some form in Japan, and you can trace the origins of manga, in a very primitive way, back to the 12th century. Manga existed in the works of many Ukiyo-e artists during the Edo period. But when talking about the modern tradition of manga, the industry was accelerated post-war, and in particular with the work of Osamu Tezuka. Can you remember the first time that you saw Tezuka’s work, and were you a fan from early on?

Absolutely, shows like Astro Boy were very exciting for me when I was a child. Even as a child I was somewhat aware that behind all of that there was someone illustrating the animation, and that was very inspiring. It was very stimulating. It was because I knew of Tezuka’s work that I started watching other animations, like Disney. I thought it was all amazing.

Can you explain how important Tezuka’s work was at the time?

Recently, the sort of worlds that animators come up with and dream up, they might be set ten years in the future or so, but Tezuka thought up worlds that existed 100 years in the future, even 1,000 years in the future. He was the first person to show us a vision of the future like that, and contemporary animators don’t even do that. And it was a vision of the future that looked really fun. There aren’t even novelists now who are creating worlds set 100 years in the future, and there weren’t at the time either – I don’t even think there will be anyone else who can do that.

One thing that was a very common theme in Tezuka’s work, and in a lot of other manga and anime and tokusatsu in Japan throughout the ’50, ’60s and beyond, was the nuclear threat and the trauma of atomic bomb. How important do you think manga and anime were in postwar Japan as a creative outlet to speak about things that were still quite difficult to speak about openly?

If you think about Hadashi no Gen [Barefoot Gen] and works like that – it’s something that you still get shown in primary school as part of your education – it shows the enduring power of animations like that, and the way that they can express those stories. Or Grave Of The Fireflies, perhaps, which is also about the nuclear bomb issue.

Grave Of The Fireflies (1988) - Trailer

How old were you when you became aware of the extent of the destruction that had only occurred a few decades earlier? To what extent do you think those same themes influenced your future work?

Obviously, I didn’t experience it in real-time, but I heard about it from my mother and so on. And then seeing things like Barefoot Gen, I realised what had occurred – it didn’t have the same reality to it, but everyone learns about it during school, about Hiroshima and so on. And then when I actually went to Hiroshima and saw the dome [Hiroshima Peace Memorial]... That was a moment when I really felt the reality of the issue. The war and the nuclear bomb were both before I was born, so it’s something you come to terms with afterwards.

Another major influence in the world of Japanese manga was the launch of Weekly Shōnen Jump in 1968. Was it also an influence? If so, what was it that drew you to those particular manga?

I would have been nine years old when it launched, and I loved it when I was a kid. It took on the importance of a textbook for people who wanted to become illustrators. If you wanted to learn how to draw, you had to read it.

Can you remember when you went from being a fan of the comics and the storylines to being more impressed and interested in the style of how they were drawn?

There was a comic called Wild Seven, and another one called 8 Man. I thought they were really stylish. Also, Stop! Nichan by Sekiya Hisashi – I really liked his work, too.

Gamba no Bōken was the first production that made me realise how animation could really express humanity.

At what age did you know you wanted to work in illustration or animation?

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, but not because I thought I was good or anything. In the same year as me there were other kids who were really talented at drawing – I always felt like I was in maybe third or fourth place, not at the top. So there was always a certain feeling of regret while I drew. But those people who were great as kids aren’t illustrators or animators now. I’ve met a lot of people in this field since moving to Tokyo, but none of the people who were once really talented kids growing up in the countryside. I think it was that feeling of regret, or losing to other people, that spurred me on.

The people who were at the top in primary school have all quit animation to do other work – I think it was because they had that experience of being on top at a young age, and lost their interest. But people like me, we were sad because we were never on top, and that’s what kept us going and continues to do so. I’d love to ask those people who were at the top why they quit. I was OK – I wasn’t bad or anything – but I always felt frustrated I wasn’t better, and there’s still an element of that.

Was there a particular turning point when you realised that you to wanted to become an illustrator?

It was animation. It was watching Gamba no Bōken [Adventures Of Gamba] – I have it over there on the shelf. It was by Osamu Dezaki, who also did Ashita no Joe [Tomorrow’s Joe]. When I saw this, I knew I wanted to get into animation myself. It made me realise that animation is amazing. It was the first production that made me realise how animation could really express humanity, and life, in this way. I also really liked Future Boy Conan by Hayao Miyazaki – it was amazing what they accomplished with animation in that.

Gamba no Bōken - Intro Credits

You studied at the Osaka College of Design. Did you move there from Wakayama?

At that time, there weren’t many schools or specialist colleges that were especially for animation, and the ones that did exist were all in Tokyo. But I wasn’t able to go to those, so I was looking for somewhere a bit closer, and then I found this school in Osaka and went there for two years.

A common thread throughout your career is that you’ve always been passionate about cutting-edge music and worked with a range of forward-thinking musicians and artists. What was musically influencing you around this time?

I love techno – I loved Yellow Magic Orchestra and Art of Noise; Kraftwerk.

A few years after graduating you joined a studio called Annapuru. What was life like being a salaried employed, animating as a full-time job?

The animation I just mentioned, Gamba no Bōken, I went to that studio, and at that time it was all about Ashita no Joe, there was so much pressure working on that project. But everyone there was older than me, so I had so much on my plate, there was just so much work for me to do. It wasn’t so much that there were things to worry about, but rather work just took over my life. I would just go back home to pay my rent once a month, and apart from that I’d be sleeping over at my company’s studio. I wondered why my seniors wouldn’t just hurry up and sleep! As long as they were awake there was no way I could go home, because they were my seniors. As far as I can remember, I was just holed up at work in the company building, working nonstop.

Are there any projects that really stuck out for you from this period as projects you were really happy to be a part of?

Definitely Ashita no Joe. There was number two, too. The first one was such a huge hit that it really drove everyone working there to find a way to better it with the sequel. Everyone put so much effort in.

Ashita no Joe - Introduction

The 1980s were a time when Japan was experiencing an economic boom, which had a positive effect on consumer electronics, the music industry and the entertainment industry. How did the boom affect the animation industry?

Animation used to be shown at 6 AM until about 8 AM in the morning. There’s none of that now – maybe on Sundays only, perhaps. But back in the day there was actually a window of time in the morning just for animation – now it’s all variety shows and the like. So even though Japan is considered a leading power for animation, it was much more the case back then. It was on at a time that kids used to look forward to it, and I’d love for that to be the case again. They used to watch it before going to school, but now the shows at that time are full of news shows covering sad stories like, “A parent has murdered their child,” and they’re going to school having watched that – surely, that lowers their spirits. Even if you want them to go to school full of energy, they can’t after that. I want that to change. I’d love for TV channels to be showing idiotic but fun programs for kids and to cheer them up, not just full of serious news stories.

You decided to go freelance pretty early on in your career. What inspired that decision?

Working as an animator, it’s actually better if you don’t have individuality, or an independent attitude, because you have to draw what you’re told. You have to work to a variety of genres. If you just do a single style that you’re personally interested in, you won’t get work. You have to kill your individualism, first of all. So I did that, but at a certain point I started to wonder what “my style” even was. I had been drawing other people’s visions, but I started to think about what I would do if it was solely up to me. I wanted to try exploring my own style and made the decision not to draw other people’s work – just focus on my own, or the genres that I was personally interested in. That meant losing opportunities for work, but by deliberately declining the sort of jobs that I didn’t want to do, one at a time, that meant I was left with the things that I really did want to do, and it enabled me to understand that.

Otomo’s works weren’t manga – they were films. You could almost hear the sound from the pages.

You directed your first short in 1987, which was Franken’s Gears. What was the experience like directing for the first time?

I was working as an animator at that time, but I wanted to create my own vision. Franken’s Gears was a short movie. I was influenced by the Disney movies that I still like, but the biggest influence was [Katsuhiro] Otomo, who directed Akira - he had a manga called Fireball and there was a scene where a big fireball exploded. I loved that scene, and I was also influenced by Devilman. I wanted to make something like those films.

1987 must’ve been incredible, with Franken’s Gears and Neo-Tokyo coming out that year?

It was a fun year. Of course when I say fun, I mean I was busy. It passed in a flash.

Kōji Morimoto - Franken’s Gears

Were you already working on Akira by this stage?

Not yet. It was after that.

Were you already a fan of Otomo’s manga when you found out you were going to be working on the film?

Absolutely. From when I was a student, when I was 18, I wondered who he was. My friends and I would talk about him – we thought he was amazing, his work was incredible. Of course I respected [Osamu] Tezuka, and Rei Matsumoto, but Otomo was different. How can I explain it? His works were films. They weren’t manga – they were films. You could almost hear the sound from the pages. You could hear it. You could smell the air. His mangas engaged the senses.

What would you say was the greatest thing that you learned from Otomo?

At that time, all the staff, we were all working because we felt like we could change the world. We felt like we were going to take over the world. That first scene in Akira, the first time the bomb explodes… Our studio at the time, the Mita Studio, was at the epicentre of that explosion. We felt like we were going to change the world when we were making Akira, and that scene represented that.

Akira- Opening

Akira was in itself quite revolutionary in terms of how it was made, with animators working with voice-over which had already been pre-scored, and it had the budget to show a fully realised “Neo-Tokyo.” It was an anime that pushed a lot of boundaries. What did this mean for the animators?

The most amazing thing was, at the time, every studio would be working on one project, but with Akira, a new studio was made just for that, the “Akira studio.” The top people from all the top studios were plucked out of their various studios and asked to work on Akira, and the team was formed in a way that had never been done before. People were gathered together just to work on Akira. And everyone knew of each other by name, because it was all the top people. It was fun, and a novel way of doing things.

How did you feel when you finally sat down and watched it for the very first time?

It had taken about three years to make, so the biggest feeling was that it was finally over. I was moved that it had finally been completed.

Soon after you worked with the other legend of anime: Hayao Miyazaki on Kiki’s Delivery Service. What was the experience like working at Ghibli, and how different was it to working with Otomo?

I had wanted to go to Osamu Dezaki’s studio – he did Gamba, as I said – but there was someone else too, and that was Hayao Miyazaki. I knew that I wanted to work with one of them. I had once sent my work to Miyazaki in the past but I was rejected, so I wanted to try again and learn how he worked, what it was like there. I knew I wanted to direct my own work when I turned 30, but until then I wanted to learn my craft under various people, and this was my final chance in my 20s, so I wanted to try working under Miyazaki.

Things that haven’t been seen before, that haven’t been made before – I respect people who make these things.

You founded Studio 4°C in 1986 with Eiko Tanaka. Was the ambition to do something that you felt was missing in Japanese animation at the time?

I wanted to make my own films, but I’d never had the chance, so I thought I should just make my own studio to produce originals – that was 4°C.

In 1995 you released Memories, which is one of your most beloved works, and which you worked on with Satoshi Kon. Looking back over your works, was that particular collaboration with Kon one that means a lot to you?

Absolutely. Kon also liked Otomo – he respected him in the same way that I did. He had worked as a staff member on Otomo’s manga, so I knew that he was a very accomplished artist. We respected Otomo so much that we were actually driven to try and create something that exceeded even his work.

Were there certain ideas and themes you wanted to pursue with your own work that you felt didn’t exist at the time in Japanese animation?

There were novelists and artists that I liked at the time, like Shūji Terayama, who were doing really original things that no one else was, and the beauty of working for yourself is being able to realise those original visions. So I wanted to make something that no one had ever seen before, that was definitely a big thing. I like inventions. I like inventors. Things that haven’t been seen before, that haven’t been made before – I respect people who make these things. I wanted to draw a future 1,000 years from now, even if it’s tough, simply because there aren’t many people who are doing that. I wanted to challenge myself to do that.

Kōji Morimoto - Magnetic Rose Trailer (From Memories)

When I was a presenter on a TV show, hosting the dance music show in the late ’90s I managed to get a copy of the beta tape of Ken Ishii’s “Extra” from R&S, and played that video nearly every week. For a lot of young people around the world, “Extra” was not only their introduction to techno, but also to Japanese anime. How did the collaboration come about?

I loved techno, and at that time I listened to Ken Ishii’s music. Just by chance, I was introduced to him by a mutual friend at Sony Music, and Ken said that he wanted to make an animated music video for his next track. I was obviously keen to see what I could do for that. At the time computers were super expensive; regular people weren’t able to use one. We used one for this video, which was still very rare at the time.

At the time it was a really banging “upper” tune, but I thought it would be better with more drama, with an ambient section. I liked that about Ken’s music, the ambient breakdowns. If it’s all banging, it’s not that interesting, so I got him to add in an ambient intro to the track at the beginning, so it wouldn’t just immediately launch into it.

Where did the idea for the storyline come from? Considering where we are at now, with VR only just starting to become part of contemporary entertainment culture, it feels so far ahead of it’s time.

There was an artist I liked: Mœbius, a French illustrator. I was looking at his drawings, and also I watched Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and of course Blade Runner too – I was influenced by all of those. But I think Mœbius was the biggest.

What were your memories of working on that video?

We made it in about a month. It felt like we made it without sleeping. There were lots of late nights, and we didn’t have much room with the scheduling, but it was the first time I was able to do something I really wanted to do, so it was a very exciting project for me. It was the first time I didn’t have any instructions or guidelines to work within.

Techno seemed to be the most perfect sonic match to this dystopian future metropolis aesthetic that was very prevalent in Japanese anime at the time. Were you surprised at the end result?

I listened to techno because I thought it was very forward-thinking music. But on the flipside, I wanted to include my own neighbourhood that I know so well, that I experience in my day-to-day life. I wanted to draw my own neighbourhood. I had always looked at illustrations of places like Europe and thought they were amazing, but I thought it would conversely be great to take that feeling and apply it to my own neighbourhood. It was something Mœbius did with his work, too – a blend of something new, the music in this case, and something well-known to myself.

Ken Ishii - Extra

As a genre, what drew you to techno in particular during this time?

When I’m drawing, I like to listen to music while I work, but I don’t listen to tracks with vocals in them, because then you’re drawn into that world. It’s better with music that doesn’t do that, like techno or classical, purely instrumental music. For instance, I draw scenes of rain while it rains outside, and techno is a great background music that doesn’t distract from my work process.

This year you collaborated with Hyperdub on the Diggin’ In The Carts project, providing artwork for the compilation and for the live show which is also a celebration of your previous work. Were you aware of the music of Hyperdub before they got in touch?

No, it was my first time listening to the label. I thought it was quite a “masculine” label, but when I actually listened to it there were lots of instrumental tracks and quieter tracks, too.

Are these kinds of collaborations important to you, to ensure that an new audience around the world can be introduced to your work for the first time?

It’s very important to me. And also, quite simply, I really enjoy the process of listening to music and then imagining what sort of illustration would work well with it, and then creating that.

We were talking about VR before, and last year you worked on your first VR project, which was called 18: Dream World VR. What was the experience like of creating work for a VR project? As a creator who has always prioritized doing new things, are you excited about the possibilities of VR?

I really liked the concept of VR, and I always wanted to create a 360-degree club environment in VR – that was a thought I’d always had. I’ve always wanted to work in this fully immersive context since the technology has become available. We haven’t even scratched the surface – no one can imagine what will come of it. I think it will still take a fair bit of a time before it becomes mainstream as a format, but then it will change how we consume entertainment. The idea of even calling it a “film” might disappear. VR expresses a different potential entirely – it’s in a different category, a different genre. Once it reaches its potential, we’ll be talking about “how we used to watch films,” because it’ll be a completely new prospect. It’s not linked to time: if someone wants to experience it for two hours they can do that, or ten minutes, or a whole day. It’s completely up to the viewer, not the narrative.

How much has the Japanese animation scene changed for better or for worse since you started working in this industry?

Anime used to be very subcultural – there was no widespread awareness of the concept of “otaku,” for instance. It wasn’t something you could talk about with just anyone, but now everyone knows it. It used to be associated with weird people, but now it’s everywhere in society. “Japan equals anime” – that’s very different. Countries all over the world are making animations now, everywhere. I think that’s amazing, and that didn’t used to be the case.

Finally, what’s next for Kōji Morimoto?

I’m going to make another film, a science-fiction film! I’m aiming to release it around the time of the Olympics, in 2020.

By Nick Dwyer on November 30, 2017

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