An Animator Blending East and West
©ANKAMA ANIMATIONS - 2017
Known for his one-of-a-kind character designs and explosive action sequences, NISHIMI Shojiro is one of the most original animators working in Japan today. After a long career at Telecom Animation Film, participating on films like Akira and Lupin III, NISHIMI went freelance and blossomed in his work with STUDIO4℃, one of Japan’s most innovative animation studios. There he’s racked up credits on mind-blowing films like Mind Game and Tekkonkinkreet, on which he served as character designer and chief animation director. In recent years, NISHIMI has turned to direction, helming 2017’s Mutafukaz, a full-length theatrical adaptation of the French comic by Guillaume “Run” RENARD.
In a wide-ranging conversation with Tokyo University of the Arts vice president and professor/vice president OKAMOTO Mitsuko, NISHIMI discusses the twists and turns that brought him where he is today, collaborating internationally, and his advice for young animators.
Born in Fukuoka in 1965. First project in with STUDIO4℃ was original drawings for a musical scene in Mind Game. Served as chief animation director and character designer on Tekkonkinkreet. Mutafukaz marked his first feature-length work as director.Creator’s File
Interviewer OKAMOTO Mitsuko
Producer/Vice President, Tokyo University of the Arts; Professor, Department of Animation, Postgraduate School of Film and New Media.Full Profile
Produces and curates numerous TV programs, visual works, and events.
Early Days and Influences
OKAMOTO: Could you tell us about your early days in the industry?
NISHIMI: I started at a company called Telecom Animation Film when I was about 21. When I was there, I largely worked on collaborations.
OKAMOTO: International co-productions?
NISHIMI: Right. Shows for Disney or Warner Bros. Animaniacs, The Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries, Ghostbusters, Spider-Man… things like that.
OKAMOTO: Your early credits also include Akira, the classic OTOMO Katsuhiro film from 1988. What was your involvement in that production?
NISHIMI: I just got lucky on that one. It was relatively soon after I started at Telecom. To be honest, I only worked on a few in-between frames, but even then, I received credit on the film. I was really thrilled. I think that was the first time my name appeared in the credits for anything.
It’s funny, but while I was at Telecom I mainly worked on international productions. I wanted to work on things being released in Japan, to come out from behind the curtain, as it were. Finally, when I was 38, I thought to myself, this is my last chance, and left Telecom to go freelance.
©2004 MIND GAME Project
DVD jacket cover artwork for Mind Game
For the first three or so months, I wasn’t doing much of anything. I was having drinks with some old high school friends, including YUASA Masaaki, who was directing Mind Game at STUDIO4℃. I told him I had quit and wasn’t doing much of anything, so he asked me to help out on Mind Game. I’ve been here at STUDIO4℃ ever since! Sometimes I think about how lucky I am to be surrounded by such great friends.
OKAMOTO: It's fascinating for anime fans to think that you and YUASA were classmates at the same high school in that production?
NISHIMI: (laughs) YUASA is a genius. We used to draw a lot together in high school. He was great, even back then.
OKAMOTO: Did you both plan to be animators back then?
NISHIMI: No, not at all. I stayed in Kyushu and worked part-time. I wanted to draw for a living, but there was no work like that in Kyushu. Back then, in books about animation, big studios like Telecom and Tokyo Movie (TMS Entertainment, formerly known as Tokyo Movie Shinsha) placed ads to recruit new animators. I sent a sample to Telecom, but it was rejected. It was a shock. I definitely took some psychological damage. It took me about a year to recover, but I decided I really wanted to draw for a living, so when I was just about to turn 21 I applied again, this time to Tokyo Movie. Are you familiar with OTSUKA Yasuo?
OKAMOTO: Yes, the legend and pioneer of Japanese animation who helped train animators like MIYAZAKI Hayao and many more.
NISHIMI: I took a correspondence course from him for about three months. He would ask me to draw something, I would send it again, it would come back with corrections in red pen, I would send it back, and so on. After a while, he told me to come to Tokyo to take an exam. I had assumed it was an exam for Tokyo Movie, but it was for Telecom, which surprised me a bit. Thinking about this again really takes me back.
OKAMOTO: It sounds like being under OTSUKA’s personal tutelage helped make you what you are today.
NISHIMI: Yes, I’m an OTSUKA disciple.
OKAMOTO: You’re known for your unique character designs, as well as your animation style itself. When you look at something, you immediately know it’s from the mind of NISHIMI. How did your style come to be?
NISHIMI: I’m not sure. What I can say is that I applied myself to the fullest. Maybe it comes from the fact that I wanted to stand out.
OKAMOTO: You just spoke about OTSUKA Yasuo’s influence on your style. Who else influenced you?
NISHIMI: Well, again, OTSUKA looms large. But he didn’t actually accept me at first! I heard this years later, but it seems he initially rejected my work. However, the animators TANAKA Tatsuyuki and YAGINUMA Kazuyoshi saw something I had drawn, which OTSUKA had rejected, and told him, “you can’t overlook this guy.” It’s like they brought me back to life. It was a lucky break.
BATMAN and all related characters and elements are trademarks of and ©DC Comics. ©2008 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved.
NISHIMI directed the first episode, Have I Got a Story For You, of the six-part anthology film, Batman: Gotham Knight.
OKAMOTO: You worked on international productions for a long time. Did any of that work influence you?
NISHIMI: Oh, definitely, I thought a lot of stuff was amazing. Are you familiar with Bruce TIMM? He created Batman: The Animated Series. The first time I saw it, I was blown away. So stylish, so cool, so simple. That had a big influence on me.
I like all kinds of stuff from abroad. This may tie in to Mutafukaz, but I’ve always thought French illustrations were great. They’ve influenced me a lot too, artists like Nicolas de CRÉCY.
OKAMOTO: Being introduced to STUDIO4℃ was another huge step in your career.
NISHIMI: Yes, it’s thanks to STUDIO4℃ that I’ve been able to come this far. It’s a studio that lets you do things other places won’t. They forgive a lot. There are things you can only do here. To a certain extent, the producers’ stance is, “well, give it a try!”
OKAMOTO: It also gave you the chance to work with people like director Michael ARIAS and art director KIMURA Shinji, who later worked on your film, Mutafukaz.
Storyboard for Tekkonkinkreet.
NISHIMI: Yes, I met them both working on Tekkonkinkreet. I couldn’t have imagined doing Mutafukaz without KIMURA.
Speaking of Tekkonkinkreet, the camera work Michael ARIAS brought to that film was incredible. That plus KIMURA’s art direction. It took us forever to animate the opening sequence. I didn’t believe doing such a thing was even possible. We kept telling Mike it was impossible, but he held out and won in the end. That’s Mike.
OKAMOTO: Mutafukaz was your debut as a director. How did that come about?
NISHIMI: We were working on Batman: Gotham Knight, and things were incredibly busy. TANAKA Eiko, the president of the studio, came to me and told me she’d like me to direct Mutafukaz. Without thinking too hard, I casually agreed. Once we started work on the film, there were times I wished I had said no! Many things about the film were quite difficult. Now that it’s finished, they’re good memories, but there are definitely a lot of hardships when it comes to international co-productions.
OKAMOTO: For example?
NISHIMI: You’ve got the language barrier, so communication takes twice as long. Run (Guillaume “Run” RENARD) created the original comic, so I asked him to create the scenario, but his scenario was just a shortened version of the comic, and I wasn’t sure how to use it. There were problems like that. Then the Great East Japan Earthquake hit in 2011, which basically halted production. The future of the project was uncertain.
About a year later, TANAKA told me, “congratulations, the project is back on.” I went back to work on revising the storyboards. I think it was tough for Run too. He worked really hard on them.
OKAMOTO: The screenplay and storyboards were basically made by you and Run discussing back and forth?
in that production?
NISHIMI: That’s right.
Scale setting for the characters
OKAMOTO: The original Mutafukaz is from the French comic tradition called bandes dessinées. There must have been parts that were difficult to understand as someone from Japan. A culture gap, if you will.
NISHIMI: I didn’t understand any of it! The characters are quite odd, aren’t they? Why do they have those round faces? Why do they look like skeletons? Run himself understands, of course, but I didn’t really get it. The story itself is quite simple but quite heavy. It could be that there’s a culture gap, or that it requires a wider background. I’m not that studied myself, so it really made me think.
OKAMOTO: Plus, it’s a French comic but it’s set in the US.
NISHIMI: Right! I’m not that familiar with the US, but thankfully, an animator I knew from there was helping us out on the film. When he went back to the States, he sent a bunch of photos as reference material, which really helped me out.
Mutafukaz setting from US downtown area
OKAMOTO: Why do you think Run set the film in the US and not France?
NISHIMI: I asked him myself several times. It seems he simply likes it. You know how MIYAZAKI Hayao sets many of his films in a European-like setting? I think it’s like that.
OKAMOTO: It sounds like there was a lot of trial and error in getting the film made, but I thought it was really wonderful. I think it was due to the fact that you’ve got a lot of experience with co-productions, going all the way back to your Telecom days. I feel like Mutafukaz is the fullest expression yet of the “NISHIMI world.”
NISHIMI: Thank you.
Looking to the Future
OKAMOTO: It seems with current trends in the industry that international co-productions will continue to increase in the coming years. Mutafukaz is a prime example. And I imagine more animation students or animators from abroad will want to come work with you at STUDIO4℃. What do you think about working with animators from outside Japan?
NISHIMI: If they’re good, I’d be happy to have them on my staff. There are a lot of great animators abroad these days.
OKAMOTO: If you’re good at your job, you’re welcome regardless of nationality?
NISHIMI: Of course. I’d be honored and thrilled if such people wanted to work with me.
OKAMOTO: Personally, I can’t wait to see your next project. Is there anything in the works?
NISHIMI: Yes, I’m working hard at preparing the new project, while complaining all the way through. Anime is really tough! Sometimes I wonder if I’m really suited for it, but all I can do is give it my all.
OKAMOTO: Let’s end with a message for young animation students.
NISHIMI: I think you should definitely take good care of the ideas you have now. As for animation skill itself, if you practice hard, you’ll get good at it. But great ideas don’t come along that often. If you keep those ideas safe and sound, you’ll eventually get the chance to make them. So yes, I often tell people: hold on tight to your ideas.
- Interview Date