Koji Yamamura: When I was 12 I have read in a magazine about how animation is done and about the use of the 8 mm camera. That was practically when it started. But since I was 10, I loved drawing very much. I’ve been drawing a lot and even did Manga for a time. But I remember a very specific moment in my childhood when one of my teachers brought for class a Canadian animation film. Then I realized that the world has much more to offer than just the old and unique Anime style that I knew until then and that it was displayed all over in Japan. That really opened up my perspective about animation.
Ioana Sărăcilă: Were there any difficulties to face? Did your parents support you?
Koji Yamamura: Well, my parents didn’t know anything about this form of art, but they supported me all the way through. They encouraged me to draw. They even let me go to college despite the fact that were very confused about my choice.
Ioana Sărăcilă: You were explaining today, at the master class session, how the work “Three Worlds” of M. C. Escher inspired you. Are there any painters, animators or writers in whose works do you find a source of inspiration?
Koji Yamamura: I can’t help but tell you that my favorite literature is the Argentinian one. I get very inspired by Jorge Louis Borges. He is a great, great writer. I was also mentioning Ishu Patel, Yury Norshtein and Priit Pärn at the master class as being the men that influenced the way I do animation. I also love some traditional Japanese woodblock printing painters. This form of art is called Ukiyo-e in the Japanese culture. I am talking here about the works of the well-known Hiroshige and Hokusai. Hiroshige, who is considered the last great master of Ukiyo-e tradition, is the one I admire most. Also, I can’t ignore the XIX-th century French illustrators, especially J.J. Grandville. I usually like those illustrators that are not famous. It is a strange feeling to find yourself fond of the idea that these illustrators didn’t really have something special to share. I like this feeling of anonymity.
Ioana Sărăcilă: How important is tradition when it comes to storytelling because you are animating stories in a very modern way. How is this related to the fact that you are also expressing the Japanese tradition in your work?
Koji Yamamura: I discovered by mistake that mixing tradition with my way of telling stories is working out for me. I obviously didn’t study all these traditional elements for inserting them in my films. It just happened to feel them right for the ideas I was going to uphold. Japanese tradition is a part of our lives even today and the conventions that are established between the audience and the interpreters when going to theatre or to other form of arts are very important. I think that these established conventions come as a general given fact. This is why when I was mentioning Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor choice for the voiceover I said that we were trying to explicitly depict the feeling that the book gives to the reader when lectured. We have this tradition where two or more guardians are standing in the back of the main character of a play and they are interpreting his inner voices. In my film, I choose to represent these guardians in the form of the two little black creatures that where always standing in the back of my main character voicing his feelings, his thoughts, giving him a three dimensional state. So, the recorded voiceover is actually something like of a free and on-the-spot interpretation of the actor/singer.
Ioana Sărăcilă: The Old Crocodile is extremely expressive. You’re only using black and white (and red in the end) and you manage to deliver such a strong message. Why did you choose this story?
Koji Yamamura: The Old Crocodile is a story inspired by the French writer of animal tales Leopold Chauveau who gathered all this fantasies in a book for children. At first, I intended it to be a love story animation, but with time I’ve learnt that people gave it multiple interpretations. I know, it is a story for children, but I wanted to give it a more deeply and profound meaning by showing the evolution of a normal love relationship between two people using the crocodile and the octopus. The octopus loves the crocodile and she always finds a way to feed him; the crocodile, he also loves the octopus but despite that, he still eats her arms and tentacles. The crocodile is a character that is always confused. He doesn’t know why the other crocodiles banished him, he tricks us into thinking he knows to count, but he doesn’t, he fights with uncertainty. Uncertainty is a recurrent theme in my films.
Ioana Sărăcilă: Does a certain theme requires a specific animation technique
Koji Yamamura: Well, in The Old Crocodile case, yes, it does. The main use of black and white and then, his sudden transformation into red would make sense only in the context of the story theme. That is why we can equate the strong relationship between the big, old, red crocodile, that scares the people who eventually turn him into a God, with the Japanese reference to divinity. This reference is often described as based on the supremacy of the powerful gods over the helpless human kind. It was meant to be a sarcastic commentary on the way things usually happen in the world because the crocodile is very confused but still, he is all of a sudden made a god. This is not related to this animation film but when I started to draw it, the American-Irakian war began and the media showed G.W. Bush as being very disoriented regarding this event. The way I saw it then, he was very much alike my crocodile. Nonetheless, this is a more personal interpretation of the story.
Ioana Sărăcilă: You have mentioned that your wife is the one that helps you during the animation process and she is also your most harsh critique. What about your children? Have they showed any interest in the animation field?
Koji Yamamura: My daughter and my son have a deep knowledge and understanding of the art but they are not working in this field. My son, since he was a little boy thought that he would not ever be able to be better that his parents in animation and this is why he didn’t take this path. But it is funny because he now works as a juggler, he is pretty famous in Japan and our work is somehow connected because we have to deal with the question of time, its irreversibility, its movement and rhythm.
Ioana Sărăcilă: Do you prefer the hand-drawn technique or the claymation?
Koji Yamamura: I started doing claymation and I really liked it at the moment but as doing them both I have come to realize that I prefer the hand-drawn technique more. I like the old traditional method and I am trying as much as I can not to involve the computer when animating.
Ioana Sărăcilă: How much time did you spend working on Mt. Head?
Koji Yamamura: Six years. But I also worked on some other projects like illustrating books. I also did Your Choice while working on Mt. Head. But yes, there were six years.
Ioana Sărăcilă: Your works are strongly impregnated by metamorphosis. Why metamorphosis? Is it because the freedom of expression?
Koji Yamamura: I happen to believe that the world is always in a constant and permanent change, it shifts from one form to another. My graduation film Aquatic shows that. I am very interested about the fact that during the transformation of a thing from one form to another, there is a state in which that thing cannot have a name because it doesn’t have a recognizable form. In animation we are able to transform a plate into a fork and also, to show this process, to show the intermediate state of the plate before it becomes a fork, but in real life this is impossible to see. That fascinates me. It is also a reconfiguring catharsis moment caused by the feeling of destructing the plate and reshaping it into a fork. And this is why it is very hard in animation to make a character evolve, because you constantly have to change it, or not depending on your story.
Ioana Sărăcilă: Have you ever tried filming or directing something else besides animation?
Koji Yamamura: I’ve done some movies when I was younger but I know that I do love animation more than anything else in cinematography. I believe that animation gives me a better chance to express myself and my vision on things without anyone coming in between. It is harder for your film to be the way you want it to be when you have to deal with other people that have their own visions on things and when you’re a better worker all by yourself. I like expressing just my own creativity in my films.
Ioana Sărăcilă: I have watched A Child’s Metaphysics and I’ve loved it. Why did you choose animation for children?
Koji Yamamura: When my children were about 10 years old they experienced some emotional transformations while being in school. The teaching system hasn’t found a solution to bullying problems and I wanted to show that during these experiences and many others, kids change exponentially. So my reasons for making animation for children is personal.
Ioana Sărăcilă: Any future advice for young animators?
Koji Yamamura: It is easy to copy, but hard to find your own style! I am always encouraging my students not to copy but to express themselves and their own vision and personality. They can use other people’s works of art as sources of inspiration but I am against teaching a certain style of drawing. That is why I believe that everyone should be original not trying to imitate, but trying to know what they want to communicate to the world in their own, personal way.