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Jimmy Murakami's Five Decades of Animation

Jimmy Murakami speaks with Andrew Osmond about his five decades in animation: from California's WWII internment camps to UPA, to TVC, to independent film director/producer to directing the new A Christmas Carol feature.

Jimmy, in front of the Ernest Pintoff Studio in New York while working with UPA, 1957. All personal photos from Jimmy T. Murakami's private collection.

In Giannalberto Bendazzi's book Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation, he aptly describes Jimmy Teru Murakami as a 'globe trotter of animation.' Over the last five decades, he's worked in California, New York, Japan, France, Italy, the Netherlands, England and Ireland. His colleagues include Ernest Pintoff, George Dunning, Richard Williams and James Cameron. Murakami's short films have been acclaimed round the world, while he made his feature directing debut with When the Wind Blows (1985). At present, he has just recently finished a new feature version of A Christmas Carol. Andrew Osmond caught up with Murakami at London's Illuminated Films -- the venue for the Carol feature -- to talk about animation past and present.

Andrew Osmond: During World War II, when you were only seven, you and your family were among the thousands of Japanese people interned at Tule Lake in North California. [Tule Lake is a dry lake near the Oregon border.] Obviously, this must have had a profound impact on you. How did it affect your outlook?


Family photo taken in San Jose, California in the 1930s. (l-r; back row:) Jimmy's parents, Testujiru and Shizue Murakami; (middle row) Teru (Jimmy), Jun and Sumiko (with dog); (front row) Yuriko. The Murakami family during incarceration at Tule Lake Camp, California during WWII in the 1940s. (l-r, front row:) Jun, Yuriko and Teru (Jimmy); (middle row:) Shizue and Sumiko, who died 2 days after this photograph was taken, and Testujiro; (back row:) Mitsuo Murakami, Jimmy's uncle.

Jimmy Murakami: Mainly, I was very, very bitter, to be an American citizen treated this way. My older sister died in the camp and the rest of us came out pretty bad. We had planned to go to Japan, but my mother (a second generation Japanese-American) and my father (first generation) decided to stay after Japan's defeat. My father heard from his sister that the Japanese house had been bombed and people were living outdoors... But we didn't want to go back to San Jose, we had lost our farm, so my father contacted a friend in Los Angeles who had come out of another camp. He invited us over. My mother cancelled our boat trip, went to the War Office and begged them to get us on the train to L.A. It wasn't an easy journey but we got there in the end.

AO: You went to Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, which later merged with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to become CalArts.

JM: Chouinard was an incredible place. It was a 'fine arts' school and I was training to be a fine artist. I was on a so-called working scholarship. Mrs. Chouinard, a grand lady, had followed my career from high school when I had 'Saturday scholarships' and she said, "You must become an artist." I told her I wanted to become a doctor, a brain-surgeon, and went to college for six months. But then I thought more about being an artist. I left college and called Mrs. Chouinard and she gave me a scholarship for three and a half years.

Within the fine arts course, they had everything. They wanted you to have all the background for not only life drawing, but also painting, designing and animation. Animation was then taught by people like Marc Davis, Ward Kimball (two of Disney's Nine Old Men) and Don Graham, who taught Disney animators from the 1930s. Graham was a wonderful guy, God rest his soul, and everything I learned about composition was from him.

There were also night classes in drawing, which I took. Chuck Jones was a fellow student, though of course he was already working at Warner Bros. Chuck was an incredible draughtsman; he did wonderful charcoal life-drawings. A truly fine artist. Even to this day, when I see him I say he should have worked in fine art, not with bunnies and road runners! His wife says she's told him that all his life! But each to his own. I was doing commercial illustrations and canvas painting and making pots and pans... I became an all-round artist.

After Chouinard I went to UPA, where I stayed a year. They first hired me as a publicity artist. But I hardly did anything; just a few ads for Mr. Magoo and CBS' Gerald McBoing Boing series [a.k.a. The UPA Cartoon Show], making 'set-ups' from cel drawings. Eventually, UPA set up a unit for their McBoing Boing show, and Bobe Cannon, a director at that time, asked me to move there and be more my own boss, even though it meant a pay-cut. There was Fred Crippen, Ernest Pintoff and myself. I became a designer and storyboard artist for McBoing Boing, one of the first half-hour weekly animation shows on television, each programme made up of different stories. I also worked on packages of theatrical shorts for Columbia.

AO: After UPA, you moved to New York in 1958 and worked with Ernest Pintoff on films such as The Violinist. Would you like to say anything about that?

JM: I went to visit Pintoff in New York while I was still working for UPA. At that time, he had decided to break away and start his own studio. So I went back, quit UPA and started working for Ernie. Up to that time, I had never really animated, and started by directing and animating commercials. Ernest gave me a commercial to do, with a long schedule, and I must have re-animated it ten times over until I finally got it right, but I learned a lot.

I only stayed there for a year though. Things started closing in on me as a young adult and I didn't want to stay in New York. It's a lonely, miserable city when you're on your own and I was only in my twenties.

AO: What experiences were affecting you at this time?

JM: I was basically cracking up, to be honest. I was drinking too much, my health was suffering with late nights in New York. I thought I was going insane. I wanted to find my roots as a Japanese. I was brought up Japanese, speaking Japanese at home as a kid. So I thought, I better go to Japan. No-one was guiding me... I didn't tell my parents anything, I didn't want them to worry. So I took a boat to Japan, not knowing if I would stay there the rest of my life or what; just made a decision to leave America.

Jimmy in Japan while working at Toei Animation in 1959, during a group photography trip.

I worked in Toei Animation for a time as a consultant, and all they did was give me grief because they wanted me to do everything their way, including using paper-clips for registration instead of pegs, so the picture would be 'jittery.' (Registration is where two papers are put together for tracing and ink-and-painting.) I had disagreements and left. Then I painted watercolors, made woodcuts and taught conversational English to university students and prostitutes and bar-girls. I sold some paintings, but for negligible money.

Eventually I returned to California with the intention of making enough money to go back to Japan, because I had a fiancée waiting for me. I returned to UPA and worked on their Magoo feature, 1001 Arabian Nights, as a layout artist. [1001 Arabian Nights was released in 1959.]

At that time, I got a letter with tons of stamps on it, which had followed me from London to Tokyo to Los Angeles. It was a letter from George Dunning, who wanted me to come to London to direct for him on a one-year contract. He had gone to London to run the UPA studio there, and when that closed [1958] he started TVC. When I joined, Richard Williams was there too, only a kid, and I wasn't much older myself. My first job was directing from a Williams storyboard. This was a documentary for Ford Transmission, called Power Train I think.

For the rest of that year, I was doing mostly commercials. There was a lot of work for the Coal Board, Ford, bits and pieces of things. I did more commercials in Italy, and returned to Dunning's studio after that. I made a brief return to the States with my wife, and then Dunning asked me back for another year, because they had a lot of work on. It was at that time I made Insects, which won me a British Academy Award.


Jimmy with George Dunning and others at the TVC Studio in 1961. Jimmy (left) at the British Academy Award ceremony where he won for Insects with George Dunning (in shirtsleeves).

AO: Can you say something about Insects, and the other 'personal' films that followed?

JM: I made Insects at home, writing, animating, tracing, painting, I did the whole thing. I made it with a lamp under the table as a bottom-light. I couldn't afford to shoot it, so I went to Dunning and told him about this film, all painted and ready, and asked him if he could shoot it for a co-producer credit. He said yeah, he loved the story. So the film went through TVC and they added a great soundtrack, and it ended up winning the British Academy Award.

After Insects, I worked around Italy again for awhile, and in 1965 I opened a studio in California with Fred Wolf [called Murakami Wolf]. I did quite a few personal films then, working at home on weekends and mornings, because we had enough spare time and money. The films included The Top and Breath [made in 1965 and 1967 respectively]. Breath was one of my favourites, along with Good Friends [1969].

Friends came out of a couple of films I did for the U.S. Information Agency. One was about government, made for the Third World. The other was about the Space Project, and why all these billions of dollars were being spent, the spin-offs from the project and so on. On this film, I was working with George Stephens Jr. [then director of the Motion Picture and TV service of the U.S. Information Agency], who went on to start the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He asked if I had an animation project in hand, and I got a grant for Good Friends.

Films like Breath and Good Friends express statements that were in my mind. Breath is about how people breathe in other people's oxygen and influence each other's lives. Good Friends is more cynical, about how 'friends' abuse and use people, eventually destroying them. [Bendazzi describes the film as 'a man literally giving himself to another man -- eyes, mouth and so on -- until the latter leaves with the donor's woman.'] That came out of my life, my anger.

Meanwhile at Murakami Wolf, we carried on making bread-and-butter commercials. We got through an enormous volume of work; one of the biggest commercial animation studios in America. We were forced to open up an office and studio in New York, but that ended in disaster. We couldn't keep control, and lost a lot of money. But we were still big, so big that Bing Crosby's company wanted to take us over at one point. It never happened, though. It was one of these things when they worked out how they could do it, looked at the books and said, 'Well, it's not quite what we wanted.'

Eventually, I got fed up with doing commercials, and also with personal problems. I wanted to come back to Europe; I missed the mentality, the creativity, the culture. I was bored with California.

AO: Was this around the time you worked with Roger Corman?

JM: Yes, I came over to Ireland to work on The Red Baron [1971], as a second-unit aerial director, though when you direct with Roger you do everything. I was also executive producer on Battle Beyond the Stars [1980]. Corman taught me a lot; how to think on your feet, how to not waste money, how to schedule, how to be tough at the right time. He taught a lot of people. James Cameron [director] and James Horner [composer] were on Battle. I remember Cameron as very young and ambitious: he knew he was going somewhere!

AO: What about your animation at this time?

JM: Well, I moved into Ireland at the time of Red Baron, got married (again), settled down and opened a commercial studio. It was called Quateru Film, and I made lots of commercials for Germany and France, also California. I was also still making animated shorts. There was Death of a Bullet [about suicide] in 1979, and Passing [1980]. Passing used white-on-white images, so the audience had to concentrate to see anything, and everyone saw something different. I made both films for festivals -- Annecy and Zagreb -- but missed my deadline both times!

AO: Then came The Snowman and When the Wind Blows...

JM: Channel 4 initially asked me to direct Snowman. It wasn't my cup of tea so I became supervising director. That was successful, I didn't realise how successful it would be. Then I was sent the manuscript for When the Wind Blows and said, 'This is my kind of film!' It was a much more serious, adult subject. [Both The Snowman and When the Wind Blows are based on picture-books by Raymond Briggs. When the Wind Blows is about two pensioners trying to do 'the right thing' in the face of nuclear war.]

I'll be frank, I'm not one for kid's films. It's not because I don't want to make films for kids, but I think kids would see anything that looks good and well-made; the only difference is less sex and violence, which I would never condone. Anything intelligent, the kids could love it... there's no need for dogs or bunnies. Chicken Run is a really well-made animated comedy, but Disney's Mulan puts me to sleep. Then again, one of the successful movies for me is South Park, which kids could never go to!


With David Bowie, who sang the title song for When the Wind Blows. Jimmy in Japan promoting When the Wind Blows with dolls of the main characters, Hilda and Jim.

AO: How did you go about translating When the Wind Blows to screen? In the film, there's a contrast between the naive, 'flat'-looking pensioners and the three-dimensional backgrounds.

JM: We built the pensioners' house like a set and moved the camera inside to create a sense of three-dimensional depth. I had wanted to make the film live-action, but the budget wasn't there. So we built a set and painted, textured it exactly as it appeared in the book. Then we shot it and devised a system of shooting the registration off the background. In the film, it looks like a camera moving through live-action backgrounds because of the registration. It could have been done better now, with a 'solid' set built on video, using modern techniques to combine characters with backgrounds. That might have been more 'stunning,' in a way. But I think the naive look works, ties the film together. We captured the innocence of the pensioners, the way they build this ridiculously outmoded bomb-shelter against nuclear attack.

The film could have done better in the cinema. But it was distributed poorly. It failed in America, though it was the top-grossing film of the year in Japan. It also did well in Germany and fairly well in England. It certainly made its money back. (I didn't make any money out of it, unfortunately, because I didn't control the books!)

AO: Also in the 1980s, you helped on the BBC serialisation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which involved animated creatures and effects.

JM: Yes, I worked on the animated segments. Unfortunately, there weren't a lot of feature opportunities at the time, because no-one was putting money in. It's only now that it's happening because of Disney's success, and DreamWorks. Into the '90s, I was making commercials at my Dublin studio, Murakami Films. (Quateru eventually closed down.) I was also starting to get projects for television series, which seemed to be the way to go when Cartoon Media came into being.

I set up another company with an Irish partner, a studio called Alegro (only one 'l,' a long story). We tried to develop projects for the television market, but with no success. We managed to raise money for pilots, but these didn't get off the ground. I did direct a series in Ireland called The Storykeepers, about the early Christians [shown on Hallmark and EWTN in the U.S., plus two other specials based on the series aired on Fox Kids, Latin America]. There were two feature-length specials edited from that, for Easter and Christmas, also shown on television.

AO: Finally, what do you want to say about your current project, A Christmas Carol?

Epiphany: Scrooge and the carol singers on Christmas morning in A Christmas Carol. © Illuminated Films (Chrisms Carol) LTD/MBP 2001.

JM: Iain Harvey, the producer, tapped me when another director fell through. [Harvey and Murakami had previously collaborated on The Snowman and When the Wind Blows.] I disliked the initial script: I didn't feel it was anything different or new. So I told Iain, I would direct if I could do the film I wanted to make. He agreed and we took it from there. I feel that it will be OK. It's a hell of a lot better than the script we started with, and could be quite successful. It has weaknesses, but then all films have weak points.

AO: What was wrong with the original concept?

JM: Like most animated features, there was no sense of telling the story properly: no characterisation, just standard well-known characters, and it was too like Disney in terms of cuteness. Overall, it was uninteresting. So we had a couple of rewrites, and I boarded the whole thing in terms of how the drama would play. We developed the role of the mice... [In the film, much of the story is told through the eyes of two mice, effectively 'alter-egos' of Scrooge and his fiancée.]

The film is a children's film in that it includes things I think will fascinate children. I don't think they'll be bored. I'm pleased with how the ghosts express themselves in their three segments. [The saddened Christmas Past is voiced by Jane Horrocks, who was 'Bunty' in Aardman's Chicken Run. The more joyous Christmas Present is voiced by Michael Gambon, while Murakami promises something 'very different' for Christmas Future; 'almost black-and-white.']

I also like the relations between the characters: Scrooge and the ghosts, Scrooge and Belle, his fiancée, how they interplay with each other... Scrooge and Belle's relationship was never properly exploited in other versions. In terms of animation, I think the highlights are the acting between Scrooge and Belle. The voice-track helped us a lot. [Scrooge is voiced by Simon Callow, Belle by Kate Winslet.] It helped give us those 'special moments' to move the audience.

Andrew Osmond is a freelance writer specializing in fantasy media and animation.