After the first screening of short anime film Ylion & Callysia, we sat down with director Takashi Nakamura (AKIRA) and other members of the staff to talk about the work and what CG means for the future of anime.

Ylion & Callysia is a surreal and beautiful work of artistry in design. After the screening at the “Short Shorts Film Festival & ASIA 2017,” there was a brief staff Q&A session, after which we reconvened for an exclusive Anime Now! interview with Director Takashi Nakamura (AKIRA, A Tree of Palme, FANTASTIC CHILDREN, <harmony/>), Deputy Director Mitsunori Murata (AKIRA, Steamboy), and CG director Hiroyuki Yoshida (from studio “Shirogumi”).

Yoshida’s animation studio, Shirogumi, recently received much acclaim for its handling of the visual effects in Shin Godzilla. The big challenge there was to make photorealistic computer graphics that at the same time evoked the classic, man-in-a-rubber-suit movement of past Godzilla films.

With their success on that project, Shirogumi has proven itself to be a highly adaptable studio. Though that doesn’t mean that teaming up with director Nakamura wasn’t a brand new challenge. Yoshida admitted that it was really tough to portray the 2D anime designs of Ylion & Callysia in full 3DCG.

Nakamura himself described his career as being based in 2D work—so for him, it was only natural that he would work in 2D design work first, and then the team would see how to go about rendering them into 3D. However, he emphasized that nowadays there are more and more 3DCG animation works using 2D designs as a basis. The reason for that, he explained, is that in Japan, the culture of manga itself is deeply entrenched in society. Particular drawing styles and imagery have become the default Japanese shorthand through which audiences are able to empathize with the characters—allowing the story to flow smoothly.

Image source: ショートショートフィルムフェスティバル‏ on Twitter; ©DWANGO Co., Ltd.

Interestingly, this appears to apply not just in terms of the drawings and designs, but also the fluidity of movement itself. Japanese animation is traditionally “limited” in nature, using much fewer drawings than typical Western animation. “Full animation” is the term for 24 drawings per second (a different illustration for every frame of film) which gives the illusion of smooth movement. Meanwhile, Japanese “limited animation” economizes the number of actual drawings to keep labor costs down and efficiency up, saving time and money. In this case, they would typically photograph the same single drawing over two or three frames of film. In other words, images are repeated. That way, they are drawing fewer images for the runtime. As a result, the movement appears less “smooth.” During quieter scenes, those with just dialogue and not much action, the same drawing might be photographed across many more frames of film, sometimes spanning several seconds of footage. These days, of course, there is no physical camera or physical film to be exposed, but the image-frame-ratio is still limited even when using digital tools. That remains one of Japanese animation’s distinctive characteristics.

This is also mimicked—consciously—with 3DCG in Ylion & Callysia. The movie can be simply divided into two main parts: The first is an action-packed monster battle while the second is a calmer, more elegiac, sentimental series of moments between the characters. Murata explained that the staff made a conscious effort to employ two distinct approaches in animation, one for each section. One is a “full animation” approach for use during the opening battle, with the challenge being how to translate Nakamura’s “pose-to-pose” animation style into a full 24fps CG sequence.

“On the other hand,” Murata said, “during the ‘human’ scenes, we’re actually reducing the number of frames and avoiding movement which is too smooth, meaning that we can control the human emotional gestures. In that sense, too, we start from Mr. Nakamura’s imagined idea, and we figure out how to realize it within our workflow.”

In some ways, then, Ylion & Callysia is like two animated works in one, with its “action” part and “drama” part—with a distinct animation style for each. Yet, as the film is being screened as part of international film festivals, the question becomes if general audiences who are not used to the Japanese style of limited animation would be thrown off by the “visual language” shift of the film.

While Nakamura conceded that it is possible that some people outside Japan may see a discrepancy within the work, he asserted that “in Japan, we do not employ those traditional cartoon ‘squeeze and stretch’ methods of animation, like Disney or Pixar. In Japan, if someone is standing still, they hardly move at all. This is an extension of the limited animation approach.” He added, “In Ylion & Callysia, it would probably actually be more of a discrepancy for the viewer if the characters moved with the squeeze-stretch, charge-release style.”

On the subject of viewers outside of Japan and their media literacy level, Nakamura then made a very insightful observation. “If you look at live-action movies today, like Mad Max [Fury Road], they’re actually taking out [in-between] frames. That’s very ‘anime-like.’ That’s very ‘Japanese.'”

The Lady and the unicorn Desire

In terms of the story and characters of Ylion & Callysia, Nakamura laughed as he struggled to recall where the idea initially came from. “Maybe it was from that tapestry?”

Murata explained that Nakamura’s inspiration was most likely from visiting the The Lady and the Unicorn (a 16th Century Flemish artwork, which incidentally also appears in Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn) exhibition a while back. It is important enough to even make an appearance in the actual film. “That image formed the key visual tone, then everything else came together almost immediately.”

This magical, fantasy world of unicorns and monsters has a clearly distinct, textured feel to it, almost like a moving painting as opposed to a realistic depiction of a fictional world. Yoshida describes much of those artistic choices coming down to a conscious choice to move away from the over-detailed information overload seen in regular anime on TV right now. By simplifying the overall settings, the characters and their emotions take center stage and become easier to understand.

Asked about the use of dark earth tones for the underworld and ethereal pink hues and pastel colors for the overworld, Murata made a key observation: “This may be just my thinking, but in Japanese animation today, ‘screen composition’ is given priority over the actual movements. How much information is presented within the layouts, how high a level of realism can be achieved, how much more detail can be added at the compositing stage… We wanted to take a simpler, more abstract route. We wanted to take a step away from that and go in the opposite direction of ‘realism’… what would you call that? Impressionism?”

The three were in agreement regarding taking a break from realism in anime. “If you look at all the effects employed in anime right now, like lens flare and harikomi sozai (the digitally pasted-on details like signboards in the street backgrounds, or logos and designs on the costumes of the characters), they’re competing in terms of how much detail they can cram in,” Yoshida explained. “We want to go back to the essence of the work, returning to a sense of the ‘opus’.”

The analogy of Impressionism versus Realism is a brilliant one, not least of course because it alludes to the radicalism of the late 19th Century art movement. The irony is of course, that the original impressionist movement was a challenge to the status quo of realistic painting in Europe by artists that had been influenced in no small part by Japanese art, namely ukiyo-e woodblock prints. And now, Nakamura and company were alluding to the reversal of this situation, some 150 years later.

Nakamura drove the point home when he came to the realization that, “Actually, we have been doing that for a while, haven’t we? We did AKIRA, and with that, we had a sense of accomplishment. We questioned what it would be like if there was ever anything even more ‘realistic’ than that. I’m not sure how the director [Katsuhiro Otomo] feels about that, though. At that point, it’s probably just better to make live-action.”

This is the dichotomy of Ylion & Callysia: It is a return to the classic essence of Japanese animation by using completely different, state-of-the-art digital tools.

©DWANGO Co., Ltd.

Those in Scotland can catch a screening of Ylion & Callysia as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2017, on June 27. The event brochure can be viewed here. Additionally, at the festival, Director Nakamura will also be making an appearance not only in a Q&A session on Ylion & Callysia but in a full talk covering his entire career, spanning three decades. Details for this special animation section of the EIFF are here.

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