It's a story that fans of Yoshiki Sakurai know well. A Tochigi boy who grew up in London, was inspired by sociologist Masachi Osawa and dreamed of being a research scholar. Yet armed with an economics degree from the University of Tokyo, he somehow landed in the subculture mecca of Japanese animation.
Speaking on the sidelines of his Global Career Seminar lecture at Tohoku University recently, Sakurai's advice to students is to keep an open mind about their future and never say no to opportunities. Everything, he said, is worth a try, even if the benefits are not immediately apparent.
He cited his own experience of visiting anime powerhouse Production I.G. at the urging of his university professor during a course on media environment.
"I went because my professor advised me to go, and they were making a new series of "Ghost in the Shell." I wasn't interested at all because I didn't see any merit in visiting the studio, but I was determined not to say no. So I went there, talked to the director, and that opened the door for me."
Of course it also didn't hurt that once he committed to the visit, he went prepared with ideas. "When I first visited the studio, I came up with some ideas for the series. I didn't know whether it was useful or not, but since they gave me permission to see the studio, I wanted to bring something to give in return. So I came up with several ideas and the director happened to like them and he asked me to come back."
Sakurai continued to visit the studio for six months and was about to quit in favour of returning to the university when the director made another suggestion - why not try writing an episode?
"I was very, very surprised! I didn't expect that he would let me write. Still, at that time, I think he expected nothing from me, it was just a compliment. And when I wrote, I thought he was probably planning to re-write it all himself. But then after I wrote the episode, he really liked it and he suggested that I write another one. So I wrote another and he liked the second episode that I wrote as well, and then I was on the team!"
And with that, his original dream of being a research scholar was effectively put on hold.
"I had an idol. He was a sociologist named Masachi Osawa and he was a very intelligent person. I read all of his books and that had a big impact on me in my first year of university. His lecture about nationalism was so interesting and he talked a lot about animation as well and he talked about how it was related to nationalism. It was very interesting and I wanted to become like him."
Although he eventually gave up on being a professor, Sakurai credits many of his screenwriting ideas to his studies at university.
"All the ideas that I gave to the "Ghost in the Shell" series were ideas I got from my studies at university. For example, one of the criminals in the series recites lines from Karl Marx and that was my idea. Karl Marx wrote poetic lines, so I gave that idea to the director and he really liked that. And I also gave the idea of a unified currency in Asia, like the Euro in Europe. He said that's an interesting idea. Which countries do you think would agree to this? And I told him my opinion. Those are the things that I studied at university and those were very useful for the sci-fi ideas of "Ghost in the Shell."
Looking ahead, Sakurai said it's an encouraging time for Japanese animation and for students looking to go into the industry. The expansion of available media platforms has led not only to a bigger audience, but also to more opportunities to experiment with content and styles.
"Twenty years ago we had to make something for the investors - for the Japanese investors - to make them happy. So it'd be like something for DVDs or theatres or TV channels. And it was all very domestic. But now we have the SVoD companies like Netflix, which show content worldwide. They have channels worldwide, so we don't necessarily have to focus on the domestic markets. It's not like the domestic market isn't important anymore. But we have more options now."
Attendees at Sakurai's lecture at Tohoku University were treated to samples of his work, most notably the award winning "Giovanni's Island," on which he debuted as a producer after many years as a successful screenwriter.
"Giovanni's Island" is an animated feature film based on true events on Shikotan, an island off the coast of Hokkaido, in 1945. Although relatively unravaged by World War II, the island found itself occupied by Soviet troops following Japan's defeat. The film shows how both communities came to terms with living together.
The film's visuals have often been described by critics as both a homage to the classical anime style, as well as something fresh and unique. Sakurai attributed this to an international creative team that included members from countries as diverse as Japan, Russia, Argentina and the United States. "We don't have to stick to the business model that we had for more than 2 decades anymore. We are becoming very open to foreign creators as well."
When asked his thoughts on the increasing use of computer graphics - or CG - over hand-drawn animation, he conceded that, although unfortunate, going digital is an inescapable sign of our changing times.
"The quality of hand-drawn animation is declining little by little. The '90s was the best period of Japanese animation. Now everything is slowly turning to digital and using more CG. The problem is that many hand-drawn animators cannot make a living out of simply doing animation. So the technique is becoming a lost art. The simple fact is that we are losing good hand-drawn animators. (Studio) Ghibili has now stopped producing hand-drawn feature animation. So within the next 10 years it's possible that hand-drawn animation is going to vanish or get wiped out. We're trying to do something about it but the industry itself has to change, which means more reliance on and shifting to the digital side."
Sakurai's lecture was organized by Tohoku University's Global Learning Centre and was attended by students and members of the Global Leader Programme.
For information about the Tohoku Global Leader Programme:Tohoku University Global Learning Centre
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