Nearly every seat was filled inside REDCAT's small theater on Saturday night when Katsuhiro Otomo took to the stage. The anime auteur was on hand to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award for this year's Platform International Animation Festival. The crowd cheered for a screening of his latest short, "Combustible," part of a forthcoming omnibus called Short Peace that's intended to be released next year. (Otomo is one of five directors slated to participate in the film.) The student-heavy crowd asked him a multitude of questions. Irene Kotlarz, director of the festival, presented him with a hot pink "God of Animation" statue created by famed toy designer James Jarvis. Jerry Beck, the animation historian and producer, called him a "game changer." It was a reception that was well-deserved and, maybe, a bit overdue.
Otomo, who began his career as a manga writer and artist before delving into film world, is best known for Akira. He created the cyberpunk epic as a manga series before distilling it into a feature-length film. Akira was one of those crucial film moments that helped spread the popularity of Japanese animation across the globe. Devotion to Akira has remained strong over the years, with fans sparking a major outcry recently as rumors of a Hollywood remake of the film circulated. (Beck, who was instrumental in bringing Akira to the U.S., asked Otomo about this on Saturday night and the filmmaker said he was not personally involved in the proposed remake.)
Otomo avoids watching his old movies, he says through his interpreter backstage at REDCAT on the day after his event. There are things he would have liked to do differently and, besides, he would rather concentrate on the future. Otomo has made relatively few films in his decades-long career. His last animated feature, the steampunk masterpiece Steamboy, came out in 2004. It was, he says, his most difficult film project, mostly because of budget problems. He followed up Steamboy two years later with a live action adaptation of the manga Mushishi. Since then, though, he's been keeping a low profile.
The thing about Otomo, though, is that he lets his ideas gestate for a long time before he puts them into action. Sometimes his notes will sit for two or three years before he returns to them. He's not trying to hit the trends, he says, so if an idea still seems viable after a few years, then he knows it's a good one. He does a lot of research, spends a good chunk of time in pre-production, to flesh out the ideas. This much is obvious in "Combustible."
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Set in Japan's Edo period, "Combustible" is a story of love and fire that packs a lot of heartbreak and action into 12 minutes. The story itself, Otomo says, is familiar to people in Japan, one that was often told in kabuki form. Stylistically, the short is based on Japanese art, particularly the long, painted scrolls known as Makimono.
"Combustible" previously appeared in France at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, where it caught the attention of Platform's curators. Irene Kotlarz, who launched Platform in 2007 in Portland, Oregon, teaches a course on the art of curation at California Institute of the Arts. She took her students, who helped curate this year's Platform event, to the festival in France. "When we were at Annecy," says Kotlarz, "one of [the students] came up to me saying that the film from Otomo, it was worth coming just for that."
Certainly, the same can be said for Platform International Animation Festival. Animation students and fans had the chance to check out the latest work from a man whose influence has affected everything from comic books to television shows to live action films. (Both fans and Otomo made comments about similarities between Akira and the new time travel movie Looper during Saturday night's session.) It was a rare opportunity.