Kenji Kamiyama interview: 009 Re:Cyborg, terrorism, anime

Ahead of the release of his latest film 009 Re:Cyborg, we chat to director Kenji Kamiyama about its making, Japanese anime and terrorism...

Studio Ghibli’s movies aside, it’s relatively unusual to see Japanese anime get a screening in UK cinemas. Yet this week, along comes 009 Re:Cyborg, an action-packed, lavish production that deserves to be seen on the big screen. Created in stereoscopic CG, it combines the clean lines and vibrant colours of classic Japanese 2D animation with the kinetic movement and huge scale of a Hollywood superhero movie.

In fact, its story, which deals with post-9/11 meditations on terrorism and religion, and a group of nine superhuman characters who must unite to deal with a threat that threatens to destroy the world, is so akin to recent Marvel movies that it might be hard to believe that it’s based on a manga series dating back to the 1960s.

Yet writer and director Kenji Kamiyama has taken this hugely popular staple in Japanese comics and television anime, and reworked it as a modern, widescreen spectacle, replete with the kind of mad combat that you’d expect to see in a videogame. Kamiyama was formerly the director of Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Eden Of The East, and worked on such projects as Blood: The Last Vampire, Roujin Z and Burn Up. He’s brought all his experience to bear on stunning feature debut.

As 009 makes its debut in selected London cinemas, we spoke to Kamiyama-san about the making of the film, its possibly subversive themes, and what he thinks about the current state of animation in his home country.

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As manga and anime, 009 has been around in Japan since the 1960s. So what made you want to revive that property, and make a movie based on it?

The idea was to make a 3D animated movie, and there were various titles put forward. 009 is very well known in Japan, but quite old, so I wasn’t sure what I could do with it. But when I read all the manga again, I thought it was a quite contemporary and interesting idea, of getting these nine characters together from all over the world.

And also, despite the fact that it’s at least 40 years old, it had some interesting messages; a deep theme about humanity: what is justice, what is evil. I thought it would be worth making a film of this property using today’s technology. 

As you said, it’s very contemporary. Also, it’s quite broad; it’s the kind of film that could play well to audiences in the UK and America – all over the place. Was that something you had in mind when you came to write it?

Yes, you’re right in that the characters come from all over the world, and in other superhero films – for example, in The Avengers – they all come from one country. So I was aware, as I was making it, that people in other countries might find that element interesting.

There’s a lot of strands in there to do with religion and politics, and you could even say that it’s a quite subversive film in places. Was that your intention, and what is the film’s underlying message?

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The political aspect – there isn’t a particular political message I wanted to put across, it’s more a gateway into the story. It’s true that you could look at it and think that these towers represent the height of capitalism, and that there’s an anti-capitalist message in there, but that’s not what I wanted to say.

What I wanted to say was, what is the common justice in the whole of humanity? And if God wanted to destroy humanity, how should we react? That was mainly what I wanted to get across, and not the political message.

Right. But it does seem to be inspired by the War on Terror; it’s very post-9/11. Those are topics that are still present in people’s minds in the west. But what did those events mean to Japan? What impact did they have in Japan, do you think?

Anything that happens in the States is very widely reported in Japan, because Japan and the US are very closely linked. What happens in the US economy affects the Japanese economy. It’s been more than 10 years since 9/11, but it did have a big impact in Japan; probably a different impact from the one it had in the States, but it made us wonder, “What next? Where is the world going now?”

It also made us aware of how the Islamic world viewed the west, and made us wonder where we stood, because like the States, we’re also a successful capitalist country. Where does that put us? That had a big impact. 

The 3D graphics in the film are quite extraordinary. Is this the future of animation for Japan, do you think, a moving away from traditional hand-drawn animation?

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I don’t think it’s going to go in that direction. I think the amount of 3D technology used will increase, but I think that majority will still be created by 2D animators, and that’s not going to disappear. So I think, going forward, we’re going to see more of a hybrid using 3D technology, but using the good bits of 2D animation as much as possible. I think it would be difficult to go 100 per cent 3D CG.

The techniques used in this film, are they as labour-intensive as 2D animation?

I think, if it had been a 2D film, not stereoscopic3D, but still using CG, it would have been tougher to make using traditional, hand-drawn 2D. The 3D CG made it easier because, if it had have to have been hand-drawn, there aren’t many people who could have done that by hand, so we would have had to have relied on a small number of people to do the whole thing.

But because it was in stereoscopic CG, it was much tougher. There’s no room for mistakes with CG, even if you’re a tiny bit off. If you see a mistake in a 3D CG film, it scrambles your brain and it’s horrible. And so we had to try to eliminate any mistake, so it was very detailed, very painstaking work.

You’ve a big animation industry in Japan. Is there still the same influx of new artists working their way up through the ranks, or is there more competition from videogames and special effects, which require similar sorts of artistic skills?

They are still coming in, especially for 3D. But there are fewer and fewer artists coming in as 2D animators. This is because there are more possibilities for them if they go into 3D animation. They’re probably not increasing, but there are more people going into 3D, because they can go into games, they can go into movies. 

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I think it was last year that Katsuhiro Otomo, who created Akira, said that Japanese animation isn’t in a good state right now. Is that a statement you’d agree with?

[Laughs wryly, then pauses for thought] I think, for someone like Otomo, or someone like Hayao Miyazaki – directors who’ve been in the business for a long time – they might well feel that, because young staff, they don’t want to be told what to do. They want to do their own thing. And if they work for one of those directors, they can’t do what they want to do, so they don’t go and work for them. They want to do their own thing, even if it’s small scale.

Even I feel that: the young staff don’t necessarily want to work for me. But if you were to interview the young staff, they’d probably say that Japanese animation’s going very well! [Laughs] 

The way that 009 ends, there’s clearly plenty of scope for more adventures, perhaps even branching out into TV as Ghost In The Shell did. Is that likely to happen?

Unfortunately, I don’t have any specific plans at the moment. I do have an idea in my head, and it would be good to make it if there’s the opportunity. It would also be good, in the same way that Mamoru Oshii made Ghost In The Shell, and then I made my debut with the TV series Stand Alone Complex, if some young director could take this and run with it as a TV series. That would be really interesting, I think.

Kenji Kamiyama, domo arigato.

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009 Re:Cyborg is in selected UK cinemas from Friday, 7 June in 3D, but also available to stream online.