Katsuhiro Otomo, the director of the watershed Japanese animated feature “Akira,” will make a rare personal appearance at REDCAT in downtown L.A. on Saturday to receive the first lifetime achievement award from the Platform International Animation Festival and to screen his new short film, “Combustible.”
Otomo, who began his career as a manga artist, has written and directed numerous features, but he’s best known for “Akira” (1988), which was one of a handful of key films that created an audience for anime in America. Based on his own manga, the film offers a dystopic vision of a future divided between the opulent towers of Neo-Tokyo and the slums beneath, where cultists and biker thugs fight brutal police officers. Like Wagner’s Valhalla, Neo-Tokyo is built on greed and corruption and is doomed to destruction, even at the height of its splendor.
“Otomo’s ‘Akira’ broke down the door between Japanese animation and Western audiences, especially for viewers hungry for sci-fi creativity in a tired medium,” says Roland Kelts, the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.” “Otomo was the punk rock maestro who shook up the norms. Even today, I meet kids in Los Angeles who cosplay [costume play] as Tetsuo, the biker antihero of ‘Akira’ — they feel Otomo’s world is their own, writ large.”
In contrast to the dark depictions of young men rebelling against corrupt authoritarians that characterize many of Otomo’s films, “Combustible” is a romantic tragedy set in 18th century Edo (as Tokyo was called then). Owaka and Matsukichi, the children of two wealthy merchant families, grow up next door to each other. Matsukichi’s father disowns him when he gets his arms tattooed and joins a fire brigade. Forced into a loveless arranged marriage, Owaka triggers a blaze that summons her adored Matsukichi — and destroys a large area of the city.
“Combustible” is a visual tour-de-force that evokes traditional Japanese paintings and 19th century woodblock prints of life in Edo, including the terrible conflagrations that ravaged a city built of wood and paper.
Otomo talked about the creation of “Combustible” in a recent interview conducted via email. “There are many story limitations on feature films,” he said. “I chose this story precisely because it could be made into a short. It’s based on classic tales from the Edo era, which are commonly used in Kabuki and Bunraku plays.”
For “Combustible,” Otomo had his designers study the great 19th century woodblock print artists. “The patterns of the textiles and kimonos are taken from real fabrics from that era,” he said.
The film contains little dialogue, but is driven by an often propulsive score based on traditional Japanese festival music.
“Because the soundtrack was originally music for dancing, we believed it would fit the throbbing fire scenes,” Otomo said. “The opening song, ‘Kiyari,’ is a firefighters’ chant from the Edo era.”
Otomo was one of the first Japanese directors to create effective character animation using computers in his 2007 featurette, “SOS! Tokyo Metro Explorers: The Next,” about a group of boys hunting for lost treasure beneath the modern city. He used computers again for “Combustible,” although he said, “I wanted to do everything in drawn animation, but we created the characters in CG during production. I believe whether an animated film is done in CG or drawings should be determined by the story.”
When asked about the enormous popularity of his work with audiences outside Japan, Otomo replied, “Of course, I aim to satisfy all viewers when I create a film, but that’s not the same as creating something to fit a trend. I am always pondering what is interesting and what I should make.”
— Charles Solomon
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