-When told that I’ve captured the ‘normalness’ of the child, I felt like I understood my place-
Interviewer: This time, before the storyboarding, was there also a script written in text?
Kondo: “I don’t think there was a proper one. There was only something that Mr. Miyazaki had roughly written on draft paper. Based on that, we had extensive discussions about how things might work and then proceeded to actually create the storyboards.”
Interviewer: When did you do the character design?
“During the same preparatory stage. My usual method is to copy the original work. Whenever different angles or expressions come up in various panels of the original, I copy them each time, paste them onto a single paper by character, and look at them all. Once I understand the essence of the character from those, I start drawing for animation.”
Interviewer: When Mr. Miyazaki was drawing the storyboards, did the characters you designed change into his style?
“To a degree, yes. Our approach was for me to refine and finalize the preliminary storyboards that Mr. Miyazaki sketched. This method was clearer for me, and even Mr. Miyazaki believed it might be more effective. For about half of the project, I polished the storyboards and drew all characters in my distinct style. But, as key animations began to arrive before we finished the storyboards, I reviewed them, and they largely retained Mr. Miyazaki’s signature style. By then, the character designs overseen by the animation director, Mr. Kitaro Kosaka, were available, and the key animators began working from those. I subsequently oversaw both the designs and characters simultaneously.”
Interviewer: During the process from storyboarding to the actual film, were there parts that you specifically added?
“To be honest, I can’t precisely recall (laughs). Beforehand, Mr. Miyazaki proposed some objectives and ideas for this work, and we discussed and prepared based on them, so my opinions were already included from that stage.
Even after the storyboard work started, I would occasionally show it to Mr. Miyazaki and give my impressions and preferences. Thus, the content of the completed storyboards felt consistent with my feelings.
In that regard, if I could capture what was depicted in the storyboards, I’d be content. I wasn’t particularly striving to make it ‘in my style’ or overthink it. It felt as though I had the freedom to execute it just as I envisioned.
However, something that sound director, Ms. Naoko Asari told me was, with Mr. Miyazaki’s works, when giving voice actors directions, she often felt unsure whether she truly understood Mr. Miyazaki’s intentions. But this time, there was none of that. She said every scene was easy to understand, from the characters’ emotions to the content.
Also, producer Mr. Toshio Suzuki told me that if Mr. Miyazaki had done it, he feels it might have turned into a story where a special child struggles with their unique abilities. But in the version I did, even though the character movements lacked some dynamism, it felt like a regular child trying to write a ‘story’.
Only after hearing this did I feel like I understood my place, or rather, how others saw my work.”
-I thought it was most important to let the animators draw freely-
Interviewer: As with previous Studio Ghibli films, did you use the method of enlarging the storyboards to utilize them for the layout this time?
“Yes. Fundamentally, there was the principle of “faster, cheaper, better,” so to speak (laughs). Based on the enlarged copies, we had the animators draw the layout, and then we’d check proportions and make character corrections before returning it.”
Interviewer: For the specific movements of characters, gestures, and timing, did you personally provide each animator with guidance, akin to directing their performance?
“During our meetings, I generally asked for certain things, and when the animation drafts were returned, if there were any issues, I asked for corrections and adjustments.”
Interviewer: In what order were Mr. Kousaka’s animation supervision and your checks conducted?
“In principle, I would draft corrections to the animation sketches, and then Mr. Kousaka would clean them up. Depending on the cut, there were parts where I left it up to him.”
Interviewer: In that case, were you particularly mindful of Shizuku being an ordinary girl?
“I didn’t specifically dwell on that aspect. It wasn’t about defining what’s ‘normal’ or pinpointing when something veers into the ‘extraordinary’. My main thought was allowing the animators to draw uninhibitedly. When it comes to expressions, having depth and richness is preferable to a lack thereof.”
Interviewer: In films like “Only Yesterday” and “Pom Poko”, it seemed you adopted a method of closely observing actual people and objects for animation. For this project, you proceeded with a much freer approach, didn’t you?
“Of course, the staff has experience from “Only Yesterday” and “Pom Poko”, so that accumulated knowledge is there. If the content gradually became more realistic, they would animate in a more settled and realistic manner. But if something was meant to feel more like a manga, they would draw it freely and in a manga-esque style.
In that sense, there were no restrictions this time; we proceeded naturally. The degree to which this was applied might vary from person to person, but we would review what was returned to us — if something went too far, we’d tone it down, and if it was lacking, we’d expand upon it. That’s how we went about it.”
“I thought it would be good if it looked just a bit cleaner than the actual scenery of Tokyo.”
Interviewer: At what stage were you involved in the art?
“From the preparation phase, we discussed what kind of art we should have, including with the art director Kuroda (Satoshi) and Mr. Miyazaki. Initially, I asked them to depict Tokyo as it is, not omitting things like telephone poles. On top of that, I requested them to draw a townscape that’s just a bit cleaner than reality. You know, after it rains, colors become more vibrant, and the scenery looks a bit cleaner than usual. I wondered if we could incorporate such a touch. I thought it would be nice if it gave a slightly nostalgic feel.
When depicting Tokyo, the color of the sky leans more towards the hue of the buildings rather than a true blue. This is influenced by smog, resulting in a whiter hue. That’s the foundation. So, instead of the clear blue sky or greenery you’d see in the highlands, we aimed for a feeling that’s more in line with present-day Tokyo. But as it stands, that would be a bit depressing, so I asked them to make it just a bit prettier.
If the perspective or mood changes just a bit and produces a feeling of ‘Oh, it looks like this?’, I’d consider that a success.”
Interviewer: What was depicted in the very first art board that was presented?
“When we scouted locations around Seiseki Sakuragaoka, we also took photos. Kuroda used those as references and drew a depiction of the hilltop area. There was a hill beyond the road, and the far-off clouds had a yellow tone. The coloration, reminiscent of sunlight breaking through after the rain, was incredibly appealing. The hint of yellow in the clouds gave it a touch of nostalgia, and the reflecting light produced a dazzling feel, which was very appealing. I believe that became the base style.”
Interviewer: Was there a specific model for the “Earth Shop”?
“During the storyboard phase, there was a suggestion from Mr. Miyazaki saying, ‘How about something like this?’. I believe Mr. Miyazaki had always intended for it to be built on a slope. As preparations progressed, however, even the finer details started becoming clearer. Minor details like the position of the stairs weren’t decided at first; how one enters and such were determined as the storyboard progressed.
For the underground workshop, photos from Mr. Miyazaki’s trip to Italy served as references. As for the furnishings and furniture above, Mr. Kuroda himself visited furniture shops, searched extensively, took photographs of old-looking items for reference. Moreover, there are several violin workshops in Tokyo. We took photos and visited them for inspiration.”
I had been wanting to somehow provide relief regarding what happened next with Yuko and Sugimura.”
Interviewer: The concluding storyboard simply depicts Shizuku and Seiji crossing paths, followed by a broad indication of people moving about, correct? Yet, in the final rendition, we see students, working professionals, elderly joggers, and many others. It’s such a vibrant and striking scene. Who was responsible for illustrating it?
“It’s Shinji Otsuka. When he returned to the studio after his break following “Tanuki”, I asked him to handle that scene, partly to get him warmed up. I said, ‘I have a good scene I’ve been saving just for you,’ (laughs). It wasn’t directly related to the main story, so I asked him to also design a bit. It depicts early morning, noon, and evening. We initially discussed showing students going to school in the morning, then a lunchtime scene, and then evening… After that, we decided on how many people and to what extent they’d appear, while checking the original art and giving our opinions. Mr. Otsuka also thought of various types of cars for the scene. And then there’s the direction in which people walk – right, right, left, or left, right. We progressed by letting Mr. Otsuka decide on those timings and intervals. If it felt good, we’d move on.”
Interviewer: In the evening scene when students are going home, Yuko and Sugimura are subtly depicted waiting for each other. What prompted you to include that?
“As Shizuku and Seiji’s relationship took shape, the narrative increasingly centered on Shizuku’s personal challenges, which made it challenging to weave Yuko and Sugimura into the storyboards. I felt a lingering concern for those two and wanted to offer some resolution. Initially, we envisioned a scene in the storyboard where Shizuku steps outside and spots Yuko and Sugimura walking together, hinting at their well-being. However, integrating that proved difficult. So, I requested Mr. Otsuka to incorporate them into the conclusion. The characters in that final scene have such fluid walking animations, and each student carries a distinct aura in their stride. I’m grateful to Mr. Otsuka for his contribution.”
-At first, I also thought middle school students wouldn’t say “Marry me.”-
Interviewer: Regarding the ending where he says “Marry me”, did you have any reservations?
“At first, I did wonder, ‘Would a middle school student really say that?’ (laughs). Discussions like ‘Wouldn’t high school students be more likely to say that?’ were held with Mr. Miyazaki. Regardless, the main purpose of this scene was to convey the ability to honestly express one’s feelings and for the other person to accept them. As someone who has regrets about his youth (laughs), I tried to express the way I wish things had been. It’s often said nowadays that young people don’t go deep in relationships, they superficially get along to avoid conflict. As an older person like me who had a lot of heated debates in youth, I felt it was okay for such things to happen. I’ve also heard from school teachers that many students either don’t get emotionally moved or can’t express their emotions. We were conscious of these points. Some time ago, speaking honestly could make you the butt of jokes or ostracized, but times are changing. That’s why we decided to include such a straightforward scene. To put it in Miyazaki’s style, just saying ‘I like you’ is weak. In general, that’s the pattern in shoujo manga. If we really wanted to express what the boy felt, a stronger statement like ‘Marry me’ made sense. That line shouldn’t cause the world of the story to collapse, it should be convincing based on what’s come before. If that was done right, then even saying such a thing, the girl would genuinely accept it. We confirmed this approach from the beginning. Mr. Miyazaki also gauged reactions on this scene from various young women, even colleagues, playfully inquiring, ‘Would you respond affirmatively to such a proposal?’ (laughs). Some quipped, ‘Maybe after ten more dates?’, but one lady ended up tying the knot with a decade-long friend by the narrative’s conclusion, leaving Mr. Miyazaki quite content. So, the line was crafted on the premise that it would be convincing.”
Interviewer: In this work, the lively depiction of the everyday life of middle school students is a major appeal, isn’t it? Director, have you had opportunities to encounter middle school students in your personal life?
I had an exam student in my home three years ago. Because of that, I had many chances to listen to stories from mothers around me, and I truly felt that there were many wonderful young boys around. I could strongly sense their youth and potential. I’ve always had the desire to express that feeling.
Regarding casting, I had a vivid impression of those children’s voices, so I told Asari-san, “Just record the voices of the children, and we will choose from them. I’m sure we will find Seiji and Sugimura among them.” I wanted the feeling of a real middle school student, not the voice of a typical adult.
In that sense, you could say that this work contains half of my youthful regrets and the other half represents the parent in me. In daily life, I often find myself saying things like “study hard!” but I wish I could trust my children more and refrain from such words. I wanted to depict that kind of adult figure in the film.
Interviewer: Looking back at the entire process, what was the most challenging part for you?
I had worries about everything (laugh). Expressing free-spirited movements is difficult, and on the other hand, portraying casual, everyday acts is also tough.
Miyazaki-san’s storyboards go beyond portraying the daily lives of middle school students; from start to finish, they incorporate specific scenes he envisioned. Every scene has its unique demands. The spectrum is broad. Grasping that essence was certainly demanding, reinforcing my belief that animation is a complex art.
Interviewer: If you were to direct again, what kind of project would you like to tackle?
I haven’t thought about the future yet, but as with this work, I’m very interested in the current image of Japanese children. I’d like to try something with that theme again.
Nonetheless, orchestrating such a project is demanding.