In his animation directorial debut, the manga illustrator and character designer on anime like ‘I Want to Eat Your Pancreas’ and ‘I Fall in Love With You Through a Robot’ explores the mystery and fragility of life and death through the story of three troubled teenagers who summon a spirit that can answer any question.
We encounter life and death daily, whether it’s something we can see and touch, or simply a feeling that something has come to an end or something new has begun. People and seasons come and go as assuredly as the sun rises and sets. But though life and death are part of our every day, they remain a mystery in so many ways.
And it’s this very mystery that’s influenced artist, animator, and director known as loundraw for many years.
“The relationship between my style of illustration and the topic 'life and death' goes back to the time when I first started to draw in this style,” loundraw explains. “At the time, I was very into things that felt fragile and mysterious. When I drew things like that, I used faint details, shadows, and/or flairs of light covering the faces of the characters that should be showing. I thought life and death were almost the same thing. Everybody knows its existence and it is always around us, but nobody understands it one hundred percent either. Come to think of it, I personally think the way it has worked has been quite natural.”
Loundraw did character design for anime such as I Want to Eat Your Pancreas (Kimi no Suizou wo Tabetai), I Fall in Love With You Through a Robot (Boku wa Robot-goshi no Kimi ni Koi wo Suru), and Before You Wake Up (Yume ga Sameru made), all of which deal heavily with topics of life and death. Loundraw uses a similar animation style in his recent short film, Summer Ghost, which had its North American home entertainment release on Blu-ray and all major digital platforms just last month.
“I was drawing themes like this as an illustrator, and so to direct my first movie, I applied the same style of illustration,” says loundraw of Summer Ghost. “And it is true that this style has been my favorite style for quite a while.”
Summer Ghost is Flat Studio’s first short film and loundraw’s first time directing a film of his own. The GKIDS-distributed, 40-minute story follows three troubled teenagers - Tomoya, Aoi, and Ryo - who all get together at an abandoned airfield and light sparklers in hopes of summoning the “summer ghost,” a spirit that, according to local legend, can answer any question. Before too long, a ghost named Ayane appears, and she reveals she is only visible to those “who are about to touch their death.”
As the film goes on, the story takes each character, including Ayane, on a journey of intensely emotional self-discovery. The story of Summer Ghost’s origins goes back to 2018, when loundraw was on a bit of a self-discovery journey of his own.
“At that time, I was busier than ever working as an illustrator, but I felt there was a big difference between what I wanted to personally create and what was expected from my clients,” says the director. “One day I felt the urge to draw freely and create whatever I pleased, and so I created an illustration titled ‘Summer Ghost’ as a ‘personal work’ for myself. Thankfully, the illustration caught a lot of attention, and that made me realize that there’s important meaning in pursuing one’s passions, and I had newfound determination to do so.”
From there, talk began to circulate about taking loundraw’s illustration - featuring two boys and a girl gathered in a circle with lit sparklers - and expanding it into a film. Steadily, the story of Summer Ghost began to take shape.
“I think it actually took a little less than a year to finish the script from the time I first met Otsuichi-san; however, the way we worked on the script was a bit unusual,” says loundraw, who worked with Hirotaka “Otsuichi” Adachi (Goth, Zoo) on Summer Ghost’s screenplay. “First, we made a script, then we made a scene-by-scene storyboard, and then we revised the script and remade the storyboard.”
He continues, “‘A ghost appears when people shoot fireworks' was the idea I thought of first, and we didn’t exactly have to change things as we went back and forth between text and visuals, but we did add more ideas to build up the story.”
The following year, in 2019, loundraw founded Flat Studio with writer Tetsuya Sano not only to see Summer Ghost come to fruition, but to find the freedom to create from the heart, without any boundaries or limits that would come from being part of the mainstream anime industry.
“I felt that I couldn’t draw the illustrations I wanted to draw and that was why I couldn't express myself as a storyteller,” says loundraw, who had been working as an illustrator and character designer for anime and manga since 2014. “I wanted to deliver the same detailed quality of my illustration in animation, and I thought that might be difficult with the existing system. That’s why I made my own studio.”
Loundraw clarified that his desire to separate from the larger industry of animation was not a result of him finding faults with any part of the system, but rather wanting to have as much freedom in animation and directorial work as he does producing personal illustration projects.
“I like the current animation industry,” he explains. “It’s not that I came to dislike it, and I have a lot of respect for the works that are being created. It’s just that, in order to do exactly what I wanted to do, I had to make some changes to the process that otherwise wouldn't have been possible without creating my own studio. That’s all.”
He continues, “For example, in Summer Ghost, I changed the colors of the characters scene by scene. In order to have better control over the process, we had to figure out a way to create a new system to keep track of the colors of the characters and evenly micromanage them using our software. I also added a process just like the grading process of live-action films to this animation so that I have more accurate control of colors the way we wanted. This is coming from me being an illustrator and wanting to oversee everything myself from the backgrounds to the angles.”
On top of having his hands in many pots on this production, loundraw also put a lot of himself and his life experiences into the characters of Summer Ghost.
“When I say the four main characters contain elements of my personality, it's not that they reflect actual events that happened in my own life, but I think there are similarities in what or how we felt in our experiences,” shares loundraw. “Tomoya is struggling to decide what he wants to do with his future. I, myself, once faced the decision of whether I should become an illustrator or not. The negativity that Ryo, Aoi, and Ayane carry with them has perhaps been caused by uncontrollable occurrences that happen due to their relationship with society. Everybody has moments when we wonder why we are alive, and we all sometimes are not able to feel like we are really alive.”
Though he says it may not be exactly the same, loundraw believes that the “air” he’s felt in these more introspective moments in life is similar to the “air” felt by Summer Ghost’s four main characters.
“I personally put a lot of effort into the story's ending, as well as creating Tomoya's message that he carries,” says loundraw. “It’s hard to explain further without spoiling the ending, but the last three to four minutes of the film, that’s where the story ends, and the words the characters speak carry the message I wanted to convey through Summer Ghost. These are the true feelings of the characters, and so it’s an important scene. When I decided on this ending, I knew the film was going to be okay.”
But while he got the chance to oversee every aspect of the film’s development, going over the visuals with a fine-toothed comb, and had the ability to pour so much of his own soul into the story’s script, the biggest challenge for loundraw was remembering to take a step back and make sure that these universal struggles with the concept of life and death stayed relevant.
“I had to view the story with a wide lens and from a step back in order to make sure the story was relatable,” says loundraw. “We had repeated staff meetings on this point: in order to make it true to my message but still something anybody could relate to. Exactly what words we needed to use with what kind of scene and tone, that was a difficult part, for sure.”
Of course, one of the advantages of short films, which loundraw has developed an affinity for during his career, is that a creator can hyper-focus on the core messages of the story more clearly without worrying about too many drawn-out details.
“The longer the story becomes, the more time it requires from audiences, and the more the audience requires detailed explanations of the setting and the reasons for the story's events while maintaining perfect consistency with all of the aspects of the film,” notes loundraw. “Short films are a special platform because both creators and audiences see them with a mutual unspoken understanding. It is possible to omit some details on both the setting and the emotional growth of the characters, and there is more focus on the core message. We can have speedy story developments and a direct way to have a short message.”
The only downside is that, when you have a gifted director and a moving story, you don’t want it to end so soon.
“Sometimes I hear comments like 'I wish it had been longer' from the audience,” admits the director. “I also have things I would have wanted to depict if it had been longer. For example, with the 'spark' gimmick in the film. Time pauses and the soul leaves the body. But what happens to the body while having an out-of-body experience? If the movie gets longer, we have to explain more things like this and I think a lot of unexplained contradictions start to pile up. With short films, we don’t have to worry about things like that and we can simply focus on the core theme.”
Death has been a core theme of loundraw’s personal and collaborative projects for a long time and he’s not shy about his attraction to the theme and how enriching it is to unpack as an illustrator and storyteller.
“I would love to continue working on 'death' as a topic in my future projects,” he says. “However, how directly I will approach it will probably change. In Summer Ghost, death was approached rather straightforwardly. But the next project might have some distance from death. The most important thing is, as long as I create stories about humans, there’s always death waiting for them in the end.”
It may sound morbid, but those who have seen loundraw’s other works know his gift at taking this dark topic and transforming it into a beautiful exploration of life itself, our brief time on this earth and how one makes the most of that time.
“Regardless of the personality or liveliness of the characters, there never is a moment that mortality isn't felt,” explains loundraw. “In my creations, even when it’s not clearly stated in the film, I always see my characters as people who will eventually disappear. So I think 'death' as a topic will always be included in my creations.”