You may not know his name, but if you've been following Japanese animation over the last quarter of a century, you will definitely have seen some of his work. A background artist on Otomo Katsuhiro's groundbreaking Akira (1988) and Studio Ghibli maestro Miyazaki Hayao's Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), assistant art director on talent powerhouse Roujin Z (1991), lead animator on Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1998), screenwriter on Wild Arms: Twilight Venom (1999) and Blood: The Last Vampire (2000), and writer/director of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2002 onwards) and Eden of the East (both the 2009 TV series and the two subsequent features), Kenji Kamiyama has been at the very centre of developments in anime for almost three decades.
Through an interpreter, we talked with him about the state of the art, and about his latest feature 009 Re:Cyborg.
GFW: One of your earliest credits is for Akira (1988), a film which is one of the first animes to be recognised by Western viewers as a serious work of art. What kind of changes has anime undergone between then and now?
Kamiyama Kenji: The staff who worked on Akira in particular went on to work on various other things, including myself, and some of them went on to focus on trying to make anime as realistic as possible. So they paid attention to things like the camera angle and the type of lens on the camera and not playing around with things and changing and deforming things, and not using unrealistic movements but sticking to the kind of motion that real people would use, and trying to make it as accurate and as realistic as possible. On the other hand, another group went in the opposite direction and made it as manga-like as possible. I think back then Japan was probably the only country that was aiming for that realistic type of anime, and I was working on that as well but it was too difficult in the end, it never became mainstream, which I think is a shame.
After years directing 2D animation, you've recently worked in CG 3D – both on Ghost in the Shell S.A.C. Solid State Society (2011) and in your latest 009 Re:Cyborg. How does your approach to 3D differ as a director?
The biggest difference is that I am checking things now in real time on a monitor rather than leafing through sheets of in-betweens, but the actual act of directing hasn't changed that much. With a 3D film, the audience feels like the space is more real, and in this case, although the images are 2D, they feel like they can actually go inside the space, and I think this may be the first time they are experiencing that. That's a very valuable thing for this film in particular. But for the staff, they have to make two versions of the same picture and merge them, so it's twice as hard, and takes much longer – so it's very difficult for them.
Ishinomori Shotaro's manga Cyborg 009 first appeared in print in 1964, and its run would span several decades. It has also been adapted into animated features, animated television series and even video games – and yet it's little known in the West. Could you say something about the manga's impact and influence in Japan over the years?
The 009 that made the strongest impression on me was the second TV series in 1979. I loved the accelerator that Joe Shimamura has, and I loved the action scenes with 004, Heinrich – he's the one whose whole body is a weapon. So my friends and I used to play at 009, and our fingers would be machine guns. So that was the first 009 influence that I felt, although at the time I didn't notice the themes that Ishinomori-san tried to put into it, but when I reread all the manga, when it came to making the film, I realised that these were really deep themes.
The first animated feature to be based on the Cyborg 009 manga was directed by Serikawa Yogo, and was released in 1966 – the same year as your birth. Obviously your film is very different from Serikawa's – how did you go about updating the manga to our own times, and how easily did the story's original Cold War sensibilities fit into a post-9/11 context?
Firstly we wanted to bring the story into the present day. It's 20 years or so since the manga ended, and since then, all sorts of changes have happened – the Cold War has ended, the Soviet Union has disappeared, the Berlin Wall came down – all these huge changes. And so I wanted to see how the 009 cyborgs had grown, and what influence all these changes had had on them. So I wanted to bring the political situation today into the manga, and see what effect that had on the characters and the story.
What distinguishes your film from other SF-action anime is the amount of theology in it. Did you feel you were taking a risk in importing this kind of religious/philosophical material, or do you think it's essential and integral to the story that you're telling?
I think for people seeing the film for the first time, there may be an element of risk, but I would like this film to give people the opportunity or the motivation to go back to the manga, thinking, "Why is it that there are these religious themes in there?", and to go back to the manga because it's a series that has a long history. For me, I couldn't ignore all that history and just make it a film that was purely for entertainment.
009's one-time girlfriend and fellow cyborg Françoise Arnaud is first seen in your film plummeting backwards out of a plane. Did you intend this as a reference to the iconic fall of Major Motoko Kusanage at the beginning of Oshii Mamoru's Ghost in the Shell (1995) – and do you see a direct line of descent in these different series about cyborg agents?
I don't think so, no. I did think that people would think that, watching the film, but it's also something I do in my own films, so I hoped that people would see that and think this is a Kamiyama Kenji film.
Do you intend to make any more films featuring Cyborg 009 and his fellow agents? And would a sequel be set on Earth or in Heaven?
We're not working on any sequel plans right now. I do have an idea in my head for the next story, set in the real world, that will involve all the 00 Cyborgs getting together to fight a new enemy, and I think because we've made this film now, that gives us the freedom to move forward, so if a chance comes along, I'll be very happy to make another one.
'009 Re:Cyborg' will be available to stream online over at All The Anime (from 7 June).
The film is released in UK cinemas on 7 June. Canadian release pending.