With the Sarazanmai announcement here is an interview with Ikuhara Kunihiko and Ohtsuki Kana! This interview was published in the magazine Eureka, September 2017 issue.
I apologise in advance if any areas of this interview are unclear. Please let me know if you have any questions regarding the translation and I will do my best to answer them.
Regarding spoilers, I don’t think there are any to be worried about. Though please be wary general themes are discussed mostly around Utena and Penguindrum.
– Today we have come to visit the studio at which production for Ikuhara’s new anime (!) has started. I have noticed the many visuals for the new anime posted up on boards around the room, but unfortunately we’ll have to be patient until the day they’re released. Today we have to join us Kana Ohtsuki-san, an artist Ikuhara-san has been interested in. We plan for Ohtsuki-san, who has supposedly been strongly influenced by the works of Ikuhara-san, to throw many questions to Ikuhara-san
Ohtsuki: The first time I really got into animation was in third grade, when ‘Sailor Moon’ had started airing. At the time I had a mook released by the ‘Nakayoshi’ editorial department called ‘Anime Album’, which contained important scenes, character profiles and a behind the scenes of anime production. And then there was an article on animators at work, which featured Ikuhara-san holding a stopwatch whilst drawing storyboards. After works like ‘Sailor Moon’ and those by Ghibli, I admired animators, so I was reading this very seriously in the hope that I could go into such a job in the future. Ikuhara-san started directing the show for ‘Sailor Moon R’, but I had been watching the series since ‘S’ and ‘SuperS’. Just, as we were moving house a lot, whilst in middle school I was living in an area where I wasn’t able to watch the channel showing anime. It was a very unfortunate situation in which if I had lived a few houses down, I’d have been able to watch the channel. All my friends were talking about anime, and I wasn’t able to. I was frustrated so I would read the same issue of ‘Animage’ for the whole month, and it was through this magazine that I learned of ‘Revolutionary Girl Utena’. That’s why I was aware of the character visuals and settings, even though I wasn’t watching the broadcast in real time. I was reading interviews and such, so I also had the CD of the theme song ‘Rinbu Revolution’ by Masami Okui-san.
Ikuhara: So you had the CD without watching it.
Ohtsuki: That’s right (laughs). It was such a good song so I thought about the meaning of the lyrics, and imagined what sort of story it might be. I only watched ‘Utena’ after starting work as an artist. A visitor to one of my exhibitions said “Ohtsuki-san, I really recommend you watch ‘Utena'”, so I thought ah, that’s right, I haven’t watched it yet! After this I ended up watching ‘Mawaru Penguindrum’ and ‘Yurikuma Arashi’. I didn’t watch ‘Utena’ during my adolescence. Though I had become an adult and the times had changed since it’s release, there was something that directly appealed to me regardless, so I was able to strongly identify with the show whilst watching it. When watching your works, I always think that you take responsibility and never let go of your own desires, and it is this that I’m drawn to. If you’re not strongly aware of your own desires, you can quite easily lose sight of them. Reason, emotion and desire – I think that people are supported by the balance of these three things. It seems to me that very naturally you take a lot of care for this desire. Normally someone’s desire is unexpectedly hard to notice, so one has got to properly talk to and understand this area. People can’t go on without taking this back in, so I feel that I’m always creating within this conflict. Ikuhara-san, do you think of this sort of thing during anime production?
Ikuhara: I do. I don’t think it’s the case for everybody, but for me I tend to go in and out of this conflict. My state of mind when facing creation is that the value of the creation changes depending on the state of society and the times. You’re not doing it as a hobby, and if money is involved, it’s a job that only takes shape when people want to see the work. If there’s no interest, then however much logic or reason you use there’s not much value in the creation. This sort of conflict never ends for me. I feel that in this age relatability is most important, but as I’m awkward I end up saying ‘that’s wrong’. It’s a bit like a rocker isn’t it (laughs)? By continuing to say ‘that’s wrong’, you can acquire your own space, but that’s a very roundabout way of doing things. But being artist means that you have to get hold of a rock-like spirit and a sense for relatability. You’ve got to acquire these two conflicting pieces to be able to move forwards. Red is popular at the moment so I’ll also make red, is a possible way of doing things, but only by saying “but actually red isn’t right” can an artist acquire their own style and carry on to exist. But the work must be wanted through being relatable. So there is a conflict caused by these disagreeing principles.
Desire and Relatability
Ohtsuki: The conflict with relatability is something that I think could be said for anime characters as well. A character is made as a means to allow the audience to identify with the show. I do certainly identify with it, but I have moments where I’m thrown back into reality when I realise that it’s not a real person but a character. Even so, I still enjoy watching it. However there is a part of me that needs to accept that the characters are made as a tool to make the show more relatable. Characters are one way of doing this, but I’ve never felt this whilst watching your works. When there is some sort of conflict, the process in which the character makes a decision to act, and the answer the character arrives at can feel like a part of my own life. With Utena, Anthy, and any other character, I really liked the fact that they would not for a moment give up until the very end, allowing me to sympathise with the story from the very bottom of my heart. It was like I was waiting for such characters, and watching them I felt that I also wanted to live without giving up. In this way it has affected my life since. In any piece of work there are many characters, but with this, each character had their own lives and not one character was handled without care. I felt that you wanted to treat each character’s most important desires with great respect.
Ikuhara: I do of course think that some won’t be able to like a certain kind of character, or when a character’s not a certain way maybe people won’t come to like them, but that’s just something superficial, as what I want to write are characters that are foolish. It’s their foolishness that makes them so lovable. It’s not that they’re cool because they’re right, or they’re just because they’re saving their friends, but rather it’s the opposite. Betraying their friends or clearly opposing society; it’s in this foolishness that love can be felt. I like characters where the people watching can say “That’s not right!”, so I always try as much as possible to find these sorts of areas in my characters. The more likeable I try to make a character the more of an uphill battle it becomes. I don’t really have the words inside me to make a scenario using a good person. Foolish things like doing such a thing as to hurt someone, or deceiving someone by telling a lie; I have many words inside me for this. What I want to see from fiction are these foolish parts. Characters that have a relationship with someone able to forgive despite their foolishness, or characters who form a connection with someone who is able to like them – I make characters with their foolishness at their centre. The characters that I am able to love inside me are each foolish.
I am also always aware of what we call desire. In fact I have the word ‘Desire’ set as my lockscreen wallpaper. This is because, as Ohtsuki-san previously said, it feels like you might forget that feeling of desire if things are not clear. People who move forward with desire, whatever they do, are foolish, so I want people not to forget this foolishness. It’s this balance, isn’t it? Losing desire will cause people to worry and wonder why they are living at all, but if you strive forward with desire it will always lead you to hurt someone, or overdo something. But then, if you were to deny that foolishness, it would become a lie. You don’t want to lie about this. Even when watching fictional stories, I don’t quite understand works with stories that talk about what’s right or wrong. Stories about what’s right are always relative, so will change depending on where you stand. The characters I can relate to are those who are clearly in the wrong.
Ohtsuki: You probably make mistakes and act foolishly because you’re honest with your own desires. In the real world, I have wished for people like this to be happy and though I don’t know what love is, I think to love someone is perhaps to be able to see their foolishness. When making a character, do you put an element of yourself into them or do you observe what’s around you and bring it in from there?
Ikuhara: Both. As it is fictional we make a character more interesting through information in the outside details and their appearance as the character profile, but for the inside there are some areas that I do project myself onto. It’s especially easy to project myself onto the areas of the character that are foolish. If they can’t love the foolishness inside them, they will simply become an unpleasant person. The cool bits of their appearance is in a way made by bringing things from elsewhere, so in a sense it’s like a parody.
Ohtsuki: Hearing this reminds me, I really liked the way Nanami-sama was handled. With your works there are quite a few scenes where I end up laughing even when they’re meant to be serious, like in ‘Penguindrum’, the penguins are always on the side doing something completely unrelated. But in ‘Utena’ I couldn’t believe it when Nanami-sama turned into a cow, and how this story took up one whole episode.
Ikuhara: It’s surreal isn’t it? Like last week it was such a serious story, but now this (laughs)? The following week it again became very serious, so maybe it was like seeing a dream.
Ohtsuki: Maybe if I continue watching there’ll be an important scene… ah, no, it’s like this to the end, like, what (laughs)? I end up watching every episode thinking I can’t let my guard down. But it was because such a story was included that I was able to like Nanami-sama. It’s cute and I can’t hate it. Thinking about it, there aren’t any characters that I can really hate in your works. In the real world, do you look at people in this same way?
Ikuhara: I don’t have the confidence to say that I have such skill in observation, but I think it’s different for me compared to what you’d call a normal writer. I’m sure this will depend on the person, but when making fiction where the reality in that work is a metaphor, I’m not very good at projecting myself on to a really cool character. I won’t deny that one reason for writing could be in spite against an unfortunate past, but I’m not like that. I do have a heart for vengeance, more than the normal person in fact. I feel strongly that I want to make my past into something that didn’t happen, I want to hide it. But what makes story-making so interesting is in how much you can boil down the poison of these embarrassing parts into the story. Because it’s an anime you might have a pretty boy, a woman of great beauty, or a sweet little sister appearing – and I do think that to get people to watch the work this is needed – however I can’t make fiction with just these parts. If I were to say it in a self-hating sort of way, I flow in the complete opposite direction to that of society. Saying it in a nicer way, I’m quite awkward (laughs). I’m surprised that even with this, I’m still receiving jobs (laughs).
Ohtsuki: Even if one is different from society’s so called ‘atmosphere’, I think that everyone on the inside is, to some extent looking and wanting for it. Whilst watching ‘Utena’, I really thought that the type of person like Utena who longs for their prince, the purity of their heart, not just Utena but, the story is built upon those who act based on these pure beliefs. On the flip slide of purity is youth, and it is the process of shattering this purity that’s depicted in your stories. I think that ‘Utena’ is the story of what those that mourn for the loss of purity will grab on to. In ‘Utena’, the girl becomes an adult. Having the story plunge beyond the purity once held by the girl, now torn to pieces, feels very good. Works that deal with girls tend to end up wanting to retain that beauty held by being a girl, but I thought it was amazing that this work was able to completely break that apart. I thought that this was the sort of story I wanted to see.
Ikuhara: I didn’t want ”Utena’ to become a nice story. A story can be pretty, but it feels like a lie. From the beginning, the story was going to be about saving a friend, so in that sense that was the goal, but it can easily become a nice story, so to break away from that I made sure that it was a foolish story. I think it’s this foolishness that makes ‘Utena’ so popular with adults. Not in a sexual way, but more that watching it at that point makes it more relatable. The second half of ‘Utena’ is very much a series of stories that are clearly wrong, which is what makes it so interesting. It’s not a cool story, but a story that is wrong. When making a story it can end up being too nice when trying to make it more relatable. The work is done as a group so if the work isn’t relatable then we won’t get any money from sponsors and the staff won’t work. As a creator it’s easy to fall into the hole of making a work inside that narrow field of relatability, making it into a nice story, adding lots of nice people. And so these nice things continue to expand within the work. I’d rather make something like a deadly poisonous manju. I like things where it’s covered in a sweet coating but when you eat it, the poison inside slowly sinks in. When tasting this poison, it tastes sweet and is quite addictive. I like this sort of thing.
To tear apart a nice story
Ohtsuki: When making a story, do you start with more abstract motifs or with an outline for the story?
Ikuhara: I do both. There are parts where I start with more abstract, picture-like details, and others where I decide that I definitely want to write something on a certain subject.
Ohtsuki: With ‘Utena’ and ‘Yurikuma Arashi’ the themes were very clear. It must have been very difficult to write something like ‘Penguindrum’.
Ikuhara: It has a lot of layers doesn’t it? With ‘Penguindrum’, I simply very strongly wanted to write a story on family, thinking whatever happens, my next work will be on family. ‘Utena’ was a story about opening up, so there was somewhat of a reaction there, but this time I wanted to do the opposite by going inwards; a story that follows the inner side of the characters. People probably won’t take it to be this, and interpret it according to how it connects to it being a work by Ikuhara, but first and foremost I wanted to affirm the idea of family. So not a denial of family. Depending on the time, the themes and ideas inside you change, so I think at that time I just really wanted to think about family. The fact that the anime was released in 2011 greatly influenced it, where whilst the idea just started as a small thought, due to the situation of 3・11, this thought became more certain. I strongly thought that this story needs to be about family; it needs to be connected to family.
Also, ‘Penguindrum’ was a work I thought I needed to do whatever happens, so this event was something like a trigger. Still, taking up this sort of subject would of course cause some room for misunderstanding. Using the subject itself is a sin, so there would of course be people who criticise it saying, how could you use such a subject for commercial use. I think such criticisms were and are still being directed at the work. Even so, the work was only just able to be made because there were those who said that there would be meaning in making it. With some details partly taken into the work, it wouldn’t be strange if it caused an uproar when released, so I was very considerate of the surrounding situation. There was also a time when I was quite nervous. ‘Yurikuma Arashi’ also had this sort of nuance, as there were a lot of details that could be taken and criticised. So there is always the conflict inside me that I may get very seriously criticised for the work. I think I’m a bit strange in this way. This sort of criticism that denies the very root of the work; people say that the work itself shouldn’t exist (laughs). To make these sorts of works at whatever the cost; it must be a habit of mine. If I don’t do this, then I don’t feel like I’m making anything. It’s like I’m saying “Punch me!” (laughs). Maybe I fear that where I ask to be tied up, I may really end up dying from it.
Ohtsuki: This is really encouraging (laughs). It just goes to show the inevitability within a piece of work.
Ikuhara: For me, I can’t bear the thought that making a piece of work isn’t related to a committal to the age. It’s a part of yourself, you see. So if I were to say it grandly, I feel this so strongly I could break my pen in half. In reality, my career has reached a few points where it could have ended, and so after experiencing a long period not being able to work, I realised that I couldn’t break away from this feeling. Of course I do think that I was lucky. If I wasn’t blessed with good encounters and supported by the many around me, then I wouldn’t be continuing to make works today. If anything, I am the sort of person who likes to do things people tell me I shouldn’t, and it is in these things that I think there are points to convey, and so this is perhaps the only area in which I can commit to society. It would be nice if I could be a bit more adept in making works for entertainment, but I just can’t do this. I have no intention at all to make works that are appreciative. In the end I write foolish people, and this is perhaps one part that is able to connect with the viewer.
Maybe it’s just what I’m interested in. It may be that I just like foolish people. There’s a sense of reality in it, not something logical, but maybe it’s mostly that these sorts of people feel so adorable to me. This is especially so as I feel that I’m a person that can be quite problematic. I end up pushing this side on to many people, and so with this I did get into a lot of trouble with my career. As perhaps a sort of self-justification I prefer people who are foolish, and looking around me I tend to see a lot who are (laughs). So including these people I want to affirm this foolishness. When making a fictional story, I can’t take a story that is clearly wrong, bend it and say that it’s a cool story or talk about the idea of the justice in saving a friend; it all feels like a lie.
Looking for a place of rest
Ohtsuki: It has been 10 years since I have been working as an artist. Up till now I have used young girls as a theme, but from this year I am thinking of using the theme of the ‘house’. The young girl was meant to represent something that has not yet reached maturity, but I think the ‘house’ is an important theme that I want many people to think about. It has various meanings like the want to be freed from the house, or wanting to get someone out of the house. How would you pull out a nail that has been hammered down is another thing I’m thinking about whilst making it. In your works houses come up quite a lot but I think the house that you tend to depict is a house that you don’t return to but rather leave to go outside. Will this theme of the house be important in your future works?
Ikuhara: Yes, very much. I get the feeling that the idea of somewhere to return to, or a home is something that is wanted by many Japanese people. We don’t live in an age where you can automatically join a new community when your own community disappears, so just with something small, you can easily end up alone. The function of society that catches these people is very unsteady. For example, not being able to obediently believe everything the country or the media says – though even I can’t tell if it’s true or not – I think this is a feeling that exists within everyone. I also think after the events of 3・11, everyone felt that their lives were fragile and very much in danger. Objects break, and everyone experienced first hand this loss, so I think the sensibility felt by the Japanese towards these things changed. To make these things up again is a lie and is wrong. We can’t go back to what it used to be. I think it’s an age where people want to feel and understand what there is other the owning of goods. For example, with the 2020 Tokyo olympics there are adults who want the 1964 Tokyo olympics again, but that is of an age where we valued materialism, and so I don’t see that coming back again. People say that owning a lot of goods just makes your room smaller (laughs), so we don’t need them anymore. I do though think there is a bit of discrepancy in this. We have finally realised that owning goods is not the answer, but with young people now already starting at this point, from their starved sort of situation they may reveal something new to be deemed valuable. On the other hand, it may be more that our generation, whilst saying that owning goods is not the right answer, can’t really get away from it all.
Half of the time it’s chance that affects the sort of fiction wanted from the time, or what will be able to provide healing for the masses. For the other half, I think there is an aspect which is planned, but it’s not certain whether it will stick. It may be right to write a cool story, or what may be liked might be a foolish story. But I do however really want to write a story that would be said to be cruel. Like Dazai Osamu’s ‘The Setting Sun’. I think the times now are similar to that of when ‘The Setting Sun’ was written. The family slowly falls to ruin and the story gets more and more awful. It goes to show that there was a time where it was this kind of fiction that would provide healing for people. I’m sure that it will depend on the time period, but once anime matures then perhaps we will start seeing more works like this. Will the viewers change, or will the people in the role of creating change together with the viewers? No, I do think it exists already. Just it hasn’t really been recognised. Either we don’t have an antenna to catch this, or we’re not mentally prepared for it yet.
Ohtsuki: If the pieces of work released change with the times then I’m really looking forward to see what’s to come.
Ikuhara: You can’t really move once you’ve said “Definitely, it’s this!”, so if it’s on tv then just before it’s broadcasted, or if it’s a film then just before it’s released; it’s important to stay neutral, and so it’s my ideal to be able to create something whilst in a situation where I could change position if needed. ‘Penguindrum’ was very much like this. It was at a time when the heart of the whole of Japan had been upset, and this was a project I started so that I could show off all this poison, but once the situation had turned into one where this wouldn’t be quite appropriate, I questioned what I was trying to do in the first place. I was originally wanting to do a story about family, and compared to the little thought of denial I felt towards it, my feelings towards affirming the family just grew stronger and stronger. Saying it out loud sounds a bit stupid but it’s perhaps loss and restoration. This has been a theme for me for a number of years. The experience of loss is something felt universally by yourself and those around. Something you can’t quite get back, then you have to restore it again, but you don’t know so you have to find out how to do this.
Ohtsuki: So you’re not trying to recreate what you lost in a different shape, but rather you’re looking for what it was that you lost.
Ikuhara: When you’ve lost something crucial, you try to recreate it with something you can see, like the olympics or in a materialistic manner. But whatever you do, your feelings don’t quite catch up. There’s some resistance in your heart not wanting you to restore these things by owning goods, like not being able follow the speed and flow of society saying let’s restore, or the idea that the more bright and positive things said to you the more you just can’t laugh. At times when there’s peer pressure for you not to put a damper on things, you end up getting more and more quiet. It’s obvious that you’ve lost something so you don’t want to hide it. But to carry on living it’s also necessary to restore these things, so you may ask if not in a materialistic way, then how? My future works will be on finding the answer to this. Or otherwise you could say finding where the human spirit lies.
Ohtsuki: Viewed in this way, it may be closer to say that the feeling of watching a work by you is less like watching an animation, but more like looking at a single painting for a long time. It’s closer to a feeling where you’re looking at a painting and it’s up to you to find the answer, so you continue to watch until you find that answer. There are times when the creator themselves don’t know the answer. Words about the piece tend to come out with a delay, so earliest it can be three years before they explain the piece in detail. Your works have this feeling; I know the story and I know what kind of answers were given to us by the story, but talking about these works now, it makes me realise that maybe I don’t really understand them. What these works have given me is something that I won’t understand without more experience in life, and so I think that your works stay like this, like a painting. Today, I wanted to talk to you about various things, but saying it out loud has made me think, no that’s not right, or there’s a better word for that. I’m thinking about this now, and I’m sure that I will continue to think about this in the future. Thank you very much for today.
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