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Mitsuhisa Ishikawa: On Vampires and Other Weirdos

Will Ryan talks with Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, founder and President of Tokyo's Production I.G.

On November 14, 2001, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosted the 7th Annual Marc Davis Lecture on Animation. Entitled "Drawing from Japan," its subject was anime and its influences. It was a lively review produced for the Academy by Randy Haberkamp, hosted by Jerry Beck and featuring a gallimaufry of clips and an international handful of guests. An audience favorite was Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, the founder and President of Tokyo's Production I.G., Inc. His company produced Blood: The Last Vampire, a stunning film which was ineligible for Academy consideration due to its less than 70-minute running time.

Mitsuhisa Ishikawa. All photos by Justin Leach.

Mitsuhisa Ishikawa. All photos by Justin Leach.

Mitsuhisa Ishikawa had several provocative and amusing comments, which surprised and delighted the audience regarding the "harmfulness" factor of anime and the "weirdo" nature of some of its practitioners. A follow-up conversation seemed to be in order, so I caught up with him at a restaurant near the Los Angeles airport shortly before his return to Tokyo.

Our conversation was made even more delightful by the presence of Maki Terashima-Furata, Production I.G. USA's international representative, who acted as our interpreter.

Will Ryan: You got quite a reaction from the audience at the Academy with your blunt statement that, while American animation is harmless to children, at Production I.G., you make films that are harmful to children.

Mitsuhisa Ishikawa: In Japan, there aren't any "harmless" shows that do well commercially. And by "harmful," I don't mean 100% harmful.

WR: You mean, a narrative, which contains material suitable for adult sensibilities.

MI: Yes and this may be only 1 or 2 percent of the show.

WR: I suppose we might get philosophical and suggest that the supposedly "harmless to children" American animated productions are harmful in a more subtle and insidious way, in that they may turn children into mindless zombies of consumerism.

MI: I agree.

WR: So maybe we should all get out of business.

MI: The argument for that would be to point out that the very act of living in this world puts each of us in harm's way.

WR: You mean there is the potential for danger everywhere and yet we persevere?

MI: Yes.

WR: I think we can agree that some things are more harmful than other things.

MI: Agreed.

WR: Whilst avoiding life's perils and pratfalls, one thing I do enjoy is seeing films with beautiful artwork and stunning storytelling. Skillful timing, sound and visual design, and a hint of mystery make the experience even better. I saw all of that in Blood: The Last Vampire. And I congratulate you on that.

MI: Thank you. I had highly qualified experts handling each section of the production. That's why we were able to make such a beautiful film.

WR: Speaking of your co-workers, something you said about some of them evoked noticeable merriment at the Academy.

Ishikawa-san with Kunihiko Ikuhara, the director of Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena.

Ishikawa-san with Kunihiko Ikuhara, the director of Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena.

MI: Ah, yes. I said, "As a producer, the best directors I work with are all considered weirdos." But I didn't mean that in a bad way. They're considered a bit strange by society in general because, even though they are adults in age and appearance, they are still like children. They still haven't "grown up." They have their pure kid's mind in themselves. And this is not considered socially acceptable in some places. However, because they have that child-like purity, they are extremely talented filmmakers.

WR: If they had been regular "salary man" types, they would have been useless as filmmakers.

MI: But because they have that unique sense of mind, they make wonderful films.

WR: The "weirdos" line was a refreshingly direct way of stating that.

MI: I think it shows how close I am with the directors. Usually, if a person says somebody is "weird," they would probably upset that person. But I can guarantee that they are not upset by what I said, because we have a very good relationship between director and producer.

WR: You are the founder and president of five companies involved in the development, production, marketing and licensing of animated television shows, theatrical releases and games. What is your early background? Did you begin as an artist?

MI: I never went to art school. I produce. I studied economics, but in college I was already interested in traditional Japanese puppet plays. I worked as a puppetmaster.

WR: Sort of a "real-time" animator.

MI: Yes.

WR: Are there any American animated films that you've enjoyed over the years?

MI: Most recently, I liked Monsters, Inc.

WR: How about as a kid?

MI: I was a big fan of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon movies. All the old black and white movies. As a kid, I also liked the Kurosawa films because I like action.

WR: An appreciation you bring to your animated films.

MI: Yes.

WR: As a producer, how do you work?

Left to right: Maki Terashima-Furata, Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, Kunihiko Ikuhara, Randy Haberkamp, AMPAS Program Coordinator, and Ken Wakita, the evening's translator for Ikuhara-san.

Left to right: Maki Terashima-Furata, Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, Kunihiko Ikuhara, Randy Haberkamp, AMPAS Program Coordinator, and Ken Wakita, the evening's translator for Ikuhara-san.

MI: In the Japanese animation industry, there are three types of producers: (1) the executive producer, who collects funds for the production; (2) the line producer, who manages the production; and (3) the producer who plans the production. I do all three of those roles. I try to train the young people at I.G. who want to become producers in the same way: to manage all three categories. This production method is one strong point about Production I.G., and helps explain why we have been able to last this long while targeting solely the Japanese market.

WR: Do you see the American market as part of your future?

MI: Definitely. The Japanese animated films that are most commercially successful are the ones that are targeted toward the U.S. and other English-speaking territories. Seventy to eighty percent of non-Japanese profit comes from English language sales.

WR: Would it be a fair prediction that your next feature will be 70 minutes or longer?

MI: (laughing) Yes. The Academy, you know.

Will Ryan is an Emmy and Writer's Guild award nominee for his work as a writer/producer. He has also done voices for more than 1,000 film and television productions including The Little Mermaid. Among his current projects is the Annie Award-winning series Elmo Aardvark: Outer Space Detective!, which he created.