Q: How did AKIRA come about?
A: At first, I was asked by an editor at “Young Magazine” to do a few short pieces. After I did two or so, they asked if I wanted to do a serial. I hadn’t really do much in the way of series before, but I figured “why not?”. This was 1982. They asked me to do something that was SF-action. I’d been writing some SF pieces at the time, but I thought I’d make a long story as the series ran, and make something that people could sit down and read. So that’s where I began. Before then, I’d written some SF stories, not all of which made it into a solo book format. Pretty much the first SF piece I’d drawn was called “Fireball” ②. The name of the computer in Fireball was Atom. This Atom, named after Osamu Tezuka’s “Tetsuwan Atom” ③ (Astroboy), shows up a lot, so it was…consecrated?...to Osamu Tezuka’s “Tetsuwan Atom.” I made Fireball in response to the works I grew up with. I wanted to make my own piece in response to those SF comics. After that, I did a piece called “Doumu.” ④ It was about a little girl named Etchan who had superpowers. Now, Shotaro Ishimori has a story called “Sarutobi Et-chan.” ⑤ I guess that was an homage to Shotaro Ishimori. That sort of thing. There was something like that at about the time of Akira, too. I wanted to do Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s “Tetsujin 28” ⑥ (Gigantor). The general story was…Well, I guess I can’t say it was “Tetsujin 28.” The initial idea was, but it became something totally different as I wrote it. What’s left is Kaneda, and…Kaneda is based n the Shotaro Kaneda that appearedin tetsujin 28. That, and Akira being No.28 comes from the name Tetsujin 28. And Tetsujin 28’s story is about a secret weapon, made by the military before the Pacific War being reawakened in modern times. From that standpoint, Akira is a retelling of Tetsujin 28, so Tetsujin 28 was the initial image.
Q: What were your guidelines in creating the AKIRA world?
A: A new Tokyo, I guess. The motif of Tokyo came out a lot when it was in the planning stages in my head. I wanted to do Tokyo. My thought was to have an SF story that would take place in this chaotic city. It’s got a strong sense of Tokyo in it.
Q: We’re told that there are production notes for AKIRA. What’s in them?
A: Yes, that’s right. Let’s see…I really don’t want to show these to anybody. They’re…I forget what these notes are on. The first one has…It’s written out as “episode 1” and “episode 2”, but before that the whole story is outlined here. The entire story is spread out here. The ending is totally different, though. When I started writing it, it was incredibly, incredibly…Anyway, I’d write out one or two volumes in minute detail. But by the end, I’d just write the basic image. For the most part, I did follow this as I went along. This line here means, “ I've reached this point now.” (laughs) And here, I wrote, “Maybe this is enough for Part 1.” And it’s simple. Right here is, “There’s a panic as Akira awakens.” This ended up covering dozens of pages. I’m not really sure how many pages it comes to now. It has to be about 2000, I guess. So this is my initial overall memo, and the rest is notes on each volume…where I wrote out a little bit of each before drawing it. So this one has the overall story in it. And as for the others, I jotted down things each time. This is kind of like storyboards, where I worked out the frames. And what else…? And when I first made the title for the book covers, I had “Akira” written out like this. I did it like this the whole time. At first, I thought it would end at about this point, but it was like the story would never end. What else is there? There are three volumes, so there’s this other one. This one’s about the same. Those one’s… Yeah, the overall themes. Image. It’s got part of the story planning, too. But as you write, the end gets…more and more different from what you first wrote. I sometimes wrote out the whole thing. But it gets more and more different. Once every few issues, though, I’d come up with a whole story line.
Q: What was the first work that influenced you?
A: That’d be when I was in grade school. I think it’s the same with everyone in my generation. That’d be Shotaro Ishimori’s “Magaka nyuumon” ⑦ (How to be a Comic Artist). It was the first book that properly explained how to draw a comic. After I read that, I was hooked. The first thing that shocked me was that movie that came out in the 70’s…That American movie. What was it called again? What was it? “Bonnie and Clyde.” ⑧ “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” ⑨ And “Easy Rider.” ⑩ The way we saw movies and read comics changed. Life…That might be going overboard…The way we looked at the world changed. After that, I started watching Japanese movies and old movies long after that. That sort of thing happened. But I guess movies from America definitely influenced me. All the movies said to pack up and leave town. Basically, all the movies were about leaving home. “Easy Rider” was like that. So was “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” All the movies were about people who were fed up…with their boring lives, so they wanted to go someplace else. It was like Woodstock ⑪ was like that, too, right? Everybody wanted to hitchhike their way to Woodstock. It was like that for some people. I really wanted to leave home, too. I wonder is someplace out there wasn't like the life I had. So I wanted to leave home. But just saying that you’re going to leave home won’t…Well, it’s not like you’re going to be able to support yourself. So I started thinking, what can I do to make enough to eat? Comics? If I do draw comics, maybe I’ll be able to eat…That’s too optimistic, isn't it? Back then, I was thinking, “Maybe I’ll be able to eat if I do comics.” But at the time, comics had an air of freedom about them. It wasn't… In that era, you weren't drawing something for entertainment, you were putting the life you were leading into comic form. They were called “Youth Comics” back then. I thought, “Well, that’s how it is.” I thought it’d be great if I could live off of comics like that.
Q: What was your first encounter with animation?
A: I guess it’d be the old Toei feature-length theatrical animations that I mentioned. I guess the ones I really liked were “Saiyuuki” ⑫ and “Hakujaden.” ⑬ What else? Ones like “sarutobi Sasuke.” ⑭ Things like that. I liked movies like those.
Q: What are your Feelings on Having made animation yourself?
A: Mr. Rin talked to me about working on “Genma Taisen” ⑮ (Harmageddon). I’d always liked Genma. He asked if I would do the character designs, and I said sure. And that’s how I got into it. The biggest change was working as part of a group. Working on a comic is a solo effort. With animation, you have a lot of people who like to draw working together. It’s not like using an assistant. An assistant helps you out with your work. With animation, everyone works on the same job together. And there were so many talented people there. That was a surprise. A surprise and a lot of fun. There were only people who loved to draw. When you go from working alone to a place like that, you feel real cozy. That’s not always a good thing.
Q: What made you decide to animate AKIRA?
A: Right after I finished work on “Order to Stop Contruction” ⑯. I forget what year that was. I was first asked to do “Order to Stop Contruction,” then I did “Akira” for a week, and then I spent the next week at the Minami Asagaya studio. It was when I worked there with other animators. That was the first time Kodansha talked to me about animating it. I was really interested because I was working on an animation at the time. I wanted to make my own, but I thought, “Man, this’ll be a lot of work!” It was really hard work.
Q: What gave you trouble when animating it?
A: Well, first of all, I wasn't thinking of making the comic version straight into an animation. I thought of it as something completely different. It was different, but since there was source material, and I wrote it, my first thought was to make a separate world for the movie based on the comic. I guess the main thing was the length. We’re talking less than two hours, right? It was hard to bring everything together inside of two hours. Plus, I hadn't written the ending yet at that point. It was rough, knowing that I even had to come up with the ending. Basically, it was different from the flow of the comic. I had to start by writing the end. It was hard to write the ending. There ended up being a lot of cuts, but I knew there would be. What would you call it…? It’s tough to say. I thought of it more as a visual work than as an animation. It was less about making the characters move than about the edits and things you have in a live-action film. I wanted to do something more technical with the visuals. Of course, we do animate the characters. Speaking of animating the characters, we used prescoring, for instance. We did things like that, but I really wanted to approach it visually. The thing is, it’s not really a…What would you call it? It’s not really a character piece. Not a character piece? Well, not a hero piece, I mean. In a hero piece, he shows up and he looks cool and all that. In “Akira” there isn't a hero like that. I wanted to create this movie as more of a total visual piece.
Q: What was your intent with using prescoring?
(Prescoring is where the dialogue is recorded before the film starts production, and the movement of the character’s lips are animated to match that dialogue.)
A: I was worried that the animation wouldn’t work if the mouth movements didn’t match the spoken lines during closeup shots. Well, I thought it would be boring with just lip-synching. Since it’d be on a big screen, I started off by saying that I’d like to use prescoring on at least the close-ups. We ended up using it for just about everything, though. Whether prescoring is good or bad is another matter. My thinking was that if we have the dialogue first, the actor’s performance will come back out of it. They don’t just stand still and deliver their lines, the action comes across naturally in their lines. That’s what I wanted to accomplish. Nobody had done it before. No one had done it, so they were a bit lost. How the animator images the scene is limited by the actors’s performance. Some animators would say it’s good that the lines are there because they bring new ideas to the work, and those who say that now they can’t draw the action that they imagine. There are those two sides to it.
Q: What was your intent with using the Quick Action Recorder?
(The Quick Action Recorder is a system that can digitalize key frames and in between frames with a video camera, and play then back at 24 frames per second. It is used for motion timing checks and corrections)
A: In animation, the editing is already finished in the storyboard phase. I think that’s a really tough process for us. With movies, you film our shots and then edit them together to match what’s in your head. In animation, you have to work out the rhythm of the edits when you’re in the storyboard phase. That means, If you mess up, after it’s colored and…It’s not just a rush of one cut each. You just can’t tell unless you see a series of connected rushes. So you really want to find that out. You want to find out if the storyboards you've put together establish the rhythm of the motion and have the proper tempo. You want to find that out. I’m not a veteran who can tell that just from looking at the storyboards and the directions, so I wanted to know for sure. I think that animators want to know that, too. To know how much they’re drawing. Really, when you’re animating something at your desk, you can imagine that what you’re drawing is moving, but there’s no way to tell unless you actually see it moving. Using the Quick Action is the easiest way to do that. It does take more time when you use it, to be sure. Everyone fixes things in the initial stages. So sometimes the key drawings don’t make it to the next production stage in time. But to be honest, this is the ideal situation if you want to get it perfect.
Q: What was your intent in using computer graphics?
A: Right, I think I mentioned the reason I used computer graphics earlier. I wanted to incorporate various visual things, not just animation.
Q: Your intent in using the Synclavier?
(The Synclavier is a digital audio system that can freely manipulate various effect sounds on a single keyboard)
A: The world it takes place in is the Tokyo of the future, so…To tell you the truth, I would’ve done even more with the audio if I could have. The Synclavier really worked out. But at the time, “Akira” was pretty much the first project it was used on. I didn’t really understand what the Synclavier was.
Q: Your reason for using Geinoh Yamashiro Gumi for the music?
A: The Yamashiro Gumi⑰ had a Bulgarian voice album. I forget the title. I heard that earlier, and then they did “Kecak” after that. It was a choral piece. Well, they were both choral. Each record was made as a suite. That is, instead of just making an LP out of single songs, they made a total album. So… How can I put it? They have a real breadth in the music world. They don’t just let it go with individual pieces. They make them with an overall structure. Aside from that, I also wanted to use a chorus. I definitely wanted to use a chorus. I had that in mind, so I figured I had to go with the Yamashiro Gumi. Aside from that, the Yamashiro Gumi creates a really wide range of music. They do Bulgarian voice, they did the Kecak…They do rock music, too. Traditional Japanese music, too. A real mish-mash. I thought they were really close to the image I had of Tokyo. I thought that “Akira” wouldn’t hold together unless it had something that fit that Tokyo image, not just a classical score. I felt that “Akira” wouldn't hold together unless it had lush music. Plain classical and choral wouldn't be enough. Something ethnic with more rhythm—I like rhythm, you see. Their work has lots of rhythm.
Q: On the reputation of AKIRA around the world.
A: There’s overseas, American, and European versions of the comic. I didn’t really give it much thought at first. I didn’t make it with the overseas market in mind. When I first found out about them, I basically just went, “Wow”. I thought there’d only be Japanese readers. I was worried about whether or not they’d like it, but people looked at it and said it was interesting. It’s like “Blade Runner” ⑱ and Cyberpunk. I think it shared certain worldwide visions with those, all right. The fact that the comic of “Akira” and the film version were accepted overseas might be because they share those images.
Q: What’s next for Katsuhiro Otomo?
A: I want to keep drawing comics, and there are new projects and movies I want to do. I definitely want to try my hand at live-action, too. I’d like to try something else that’s on the same scale as “Akira.” There were things I couldn't do in “Akira,” and things in “Akira” that didn't live up to my expectations that I want to try again. And there’s one other thing. I want to try an animated piece that’s not like the animation in “Akira.” It’s hard to put in concrete terms. I feel like animation may be moving towards something new. Using cell animation, which we've used so far and CG animation, which is developing quickly, turned out really well. I think that animation may be taking a different form, so I think I might want to give that a try, too. I want to do other cell animation, but this new form of animation…Like the animation they’re doing over at Disney that makes use of computers. Something close to that. I think animation’s changing little by little. New machines and computers come out, and they influence animation. I think I’d like to give that a try. “Akira,” both the comic and the film, went overseas and I think it may have opened up a lot of possibilities. I think I’s opened up possibilities, not only for myself, but for Japanese animation and comics as well. So in this situation, I think overseas writers…comic artists and illustrators will work with us more and more. I think computers will be introduced into animation. And in the same way, people’s, staff’s , and animators’ ways of thinking will change. And when I say it’s changing, I think I have to make things like that, too. Yes. When they say that “Akira” is the only phenomenal thing I've done, I don’t think that’s good for me. I want to move forward, to take it a step further. I want other people and other animators to keep working their hardest. And I want to challenge that world…Challenge that wide-open field.
⑤Sarutobi Et-chan (さるとびエッちゃん)by Shotaro Ishimori (石ノ森章太郎)is a manga published in Shueisha’s Weekly Margarete Magazine from 1964 to 1966 with the name Okashina Okashina Ano Ko (おかしなおかしなあの子) name that was later changed when it was released as an animation series by TOEI in 1971. Diverse availability: http://amzn.to/10N7OFw
⑥Tetsujin 28 (鉄人28号)(Gigantor) by Mitsuteru Yokoyama (横山 光輝) is a manga published in Kobunsha's Shōnen Magazine from July 1956 to May 1966 and was later adapted to various anime series in the 60’s, 80’s and the last one in 2004 as well a live action film in 2005. Diverse availability: http://amzn.to/YmHaVd
⑦Magaka nyuumon (マンガ家入門) (How to be a Comic Artist) by Shotaro Ishimori (石ノ森章太郎). Available in Amazon japan: http://amzn.to/XsuQB1
⑯Kōji Chūshi Meirei (工事中止命令) (Order to Stop Contruction ) is a 1987 animation short directed by Katsuhiro Otomo that formed part of the film Meikyū Monogatari (迷宮物語)
. The film is known in the US as Neo Tokyo.
⑰ Geinoh Yamashiro Gumi (芸能山城組) is a Japanese musical collective founded on 1974 by Tsutomu Ōhashi, They are known for both their faithful re-creations of folk music from around the world, as well as their fusion of various traditional musical styles with modern instrumentation and synthesizers. Official site:http://www.yamashirogumi.gr.jp/
Discography available here:http://amzn.to/Ynmah4