This is the first of a series of articles dedicated to Yutaka Nakamura, without a shadow of a doubt the best known contemporary Japanese action animator, but at the same time an often mystified and trivialized figure. Before expressing some of our considerations on the artist we thought of translating some interviews and talks to know what Nakamura himself thinks of his output and what other important figures of the industry think of him. The quotations present here are a translation made by myself of the report from the event Shin Bungeiza X Animestyle Selection vol. 123: Yutaka Nakamura’s superaction animation done by YNKL, who we thank as usual for his assiduous presence in this kind of events.
Date: January 25 (Saturday) 2020, 22:30
Location: the movie theater Shin Bungeiza
Yutaka Nakamura and Masahiro Ando were the main guests while Yuichiro Oguro served as a moderator.
About Sword of the Stranger
Ando At that time Bones had several animators roughly of the same age, so the main idea behind the production of the movie was to specifically deploy that generation of artists in one full-fledged work. My intention at that time was to challenge myself to make a pseudo-historical drama with all the animation techniques available at that time. I talked with (Masahiko) Minami and he agreed on doing it.
Oguro There are only a few female characters in the entire movie. You wanted to create somewhat of a mature, realistic film?
Ando It was inevitable to devise a mostly male cast for that movie. It’s not like I deliberately wanted to not include female characters. I’ve understood their importance only after the voice recording.
Yutaka Nakamura’s Sword of the Stanger
Nakamura Just like Cowboy Bebop, Sword of the Stanger was a turning point for my career as an animator. Thinking about the whole course of action, for an entire year my focus was on the movie. Being able to participate in the film alongside my idol Masahiro Ando as one of the main staff members makes me proud. Even today, Sword of the Stranger is the work that mostly represents Yutaka Nakamura as an animator.
Ando I wanted to create a 100 minute movie rich in action from the beginning to the end. Even in its second half, the movie goes to its competition through a whole lot of action.
(Here was supposed to be a part where they talk about the limits of their respective roles but since YNKL admitted to be distracted in that moment I don’t really want to translate his guessing in proper words)
Nakamura Well, if the director is amazing, I’d try to follow him.
Ando Well, since it was my first work as a director I was quite nervous. When Nakamura showed me a collection of his cuts for the first time I did some correction, but more than anything I wanted to let him do his thing. When I made vague demands like “This is lacking in something” or “I’d like something more extreme”, Mr. Nakamura answered thoroughly, emanating a great sense of security.
Nakamura Since the animators involved in the movie were so capable, I felt like, “well, since this time we really can, let’s meet all the demands of the director”.
Ando As fellow animators, we mutually encouraged ourselves to do our best. At a specific point of the overall flow of the movie, I tossed out the storyboard and leaved everything to Nakamura to enrich the scene.
Nakamura I tried to be more particular on the staging of the action when thinking about the depiction of pain of the characters.
Ando Yeah, there is a feeling of “fighting until the end of their rope”.
Nakamura Even if the final battle is definitely a clash between superhuman strengths, it doesn’t feel too out of place since all the animators that worked up to that point had animated and drew very realistically.
Ando At the end of production, Nakamura persistently asked, “I want another cut”. I was well aware how that cut would inevitably become a complete animation really dense with information so I was like, “Can you ever make time for that?!” because the schedule was tight. In the end I was persuaded against it because there was already too much drama during that production.
Nakamura Even if a skilled animator had been chosen for that scene, Ando would have corrected the layout quite a lot.
Ando Since it was an original work, I directly adjusted the sense of “reality” of the movie with my bare hands. I wanted to elevate personally all the non-action scenes. This, to me, is the job of a director(1). I deputed the duty of expanding the direction of the action scenes to Nakamura as the main action animator, asking him to launch the ending’s fireworks.
Nakamura For the first three months of production, I was supposed to animate the opening scene with the background animation. But the same motion in the latter half of the movie was in 3D so I asked “Isn’t this supposed to be 3D animation?” so, I dumped 3 months’ worth of work. I was also in charge of the layout of the temple on fire.
Oguro What’s the meaning behind your proselytism of the movie on Twitter?
Nakamura I still wonder why so many people haven’t already seen this movie. I want to make it a big cult while director Ando is still here. It’s something that should not simply be thrown away and then forgotten.
About Cowboy Bebop
Ando Since Nakamura asked me to help out on such a demanding project, I clenched my teeth and I worked hard.
Nakamura When suddenly asked to change one cut of the storyboard, Mr. Ando’s eyes transformed to the gaze of a killer, I really hoped he would have behaved like an adult that time. He got super angry with (Yasushi) Muraki, who was like “Why that guy is so furious all of sudden?” With my participation in Sword of the Stranger I felt very relieved that I was able to pay off my debt with him.
Oguro In an interview Nakamura once said: “I never received corrections from Ando”.
Ando Saying it like that it feels like a distortion of History. I was planning with correcting him but I was in the end satisfied with his output on film. You all can understand what I mean by watching the movie .
Oguro Action scenes centered on human performances (2) are also present in the television series, can we say that Cowboy Bebop the Movie is the pinnacle of that?
Nakamura There was that intention. However, I must say that I was way slower back then so I thought “Damn, I have to rely on the other animators(2) otherwise we’ll never finish” so I asked them to help me out and in the end we finished just in time. One time, I was really politely asked to go at the disc meeting, I met the director Watanabe who said to me “YOU came here to do what, exactly?” He really saw me through, because the real reason I was there was to discuss my job position at the company.
About The vision of Escaflowne
Nakamura I only did 40 cuts in a whole year.
Ando Even after watching the till the end, the scenes animated by Nakamura are the most memorable.
Oguro Some scenes were pretty dark, so it wasn’t that easy to see everything. When I saw the keyframes I was surprised to see that the armors were still drawn carefully.
Nakamura Even though the episode director said to me: “Don’t worry, you don’t have to draw everything because the scene is dark I felt like it wouldn’t be a real Nobuteru Yuki Anime without drawing everything carefully. Still, the settei were pretty incomplete. I was so disappointed that I wasn’t able to see the blood droplets even in the Blu-ray version, so I did something similar also in Sword of the Stranger.
Ando Yeah, there are a lot people that in their next works still try to give life to what the they had previously failed to implement for reasons of force majeure.
About Yutaka Nakamura himself
Ando Yutaka Nakamura is the man who broke my sword by clamorously winning the duel against me as an animator. After seeing his works I felt that the only thing possible was to move on directorial roles. Especially when it comes to his most recent output, I watch his animation as I were a normal spectator. I get so excited: even if there are definitely some technicalities to it, I feel like I’m becoming a child again by watching his animation, the sensation that animation can expand to infinity the possible representations of everything. That’s something that can be only soiled by the direction. Recently, 3D animation is starting to embrace some of the limitation of expression typical of 2D animation but in Nakamura’s animation, you can see the characteristics of both all drawn traditionally.
Oguro Like saying “How can this lose to 3D?”
Ando More like: “How can someone express this by hand?”
Nakamura Well, If I wanted to use 3D animation I’d be using that. But there is no time to prepare 3D animation because I have also to work on the storyboard of my parts, so I end up drawing all by hand.
Ando But when I see your scenes It still feels like a battle cry like “I’m still fighting!” Now I wonder what 3D animation can really do.
Nakamura “Well, aren’t you planning to use 3D for this?” Is a question that I’ve listened an endless amount of times.
Ando If we compare Nakamura’s animations to the sport of rings, we could say that he pulled the rope almost to the point of breaking it. This ultimately means expanding the expressive possibilities of animation.
(1) it is extremely enlightening to note how Ando, to indicate his role on Sword of the Stranger, used 演出 (enshutsu) instead of 監督 (kantoku) i.e. the episode / unit director instead of the general director. The reason is pretty clear: it is much more typical for an enshutsuka to work on the mise en scène of each scene in a detailed way just as he had done in that film compared to a “normal” kantoku.
(2) Oguro refers to action scenes without vehicles or large elements of FX animation, in which the real protagonist becomes the human body and its choreography.
(3) It is not clear whether Nakamura is referring to a 2dkey animation / nigenga process ante litteram or whether he has entrusted other animators with scenes that he would originally have had to do himself. The first hypothesis is not so implausible if we think that the first official ending credit position dedicated to the nigenga process was created just to credit some animators who had dedicated themselves to finishing touches to complete Nakamura’s cuts on RahXephon in time.