Animating the Souls of Objects
Japanese director Shuhei Morita talks about his influences and the making of his Oscar-nominated short, Possessions.
Japanese director Shuhei Morita talks about his influences and the making of his Oscar-nominated short
Shuhei Morita’s haunting animated short Possessions is arguably one of the most intriguing nominees in this year’s race for the Best Animated Short Film Oscar. The 14-minute film is set in 18th century Japan and centers on a man who loses his way during a stormy night and comes across a mysterious shrine in the mountains. After he discovers discarded kimonos and abandoned umbrellas in this world, he selflessly sets out to mend each one of them. Possessions is part of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Short Peace anthology project, which also included Otomo’s 2012 short Combustible. Morita was kind enough to answer a few questions about his acclaimed short via email:
Animag: Can you please tell us about the origins of the project and how you created the animation? Morita: It is a peculiar theme in Japan that ob- jects possess a spirit … I had conceived some projects based on this concept, for which I was inspired by the picture books created by Mr. Keisuke Kishi, a model/sculpture artist. I asked him to create some scenarios and illustrations of the Japanese traditional ghosts, and I began to construct a simple story based on them. Ghost stories tend to have “fight” or “escape” themes, but while I was pondering it from other angles, an idea came to me. Then I was able to picture
Can you elaborate on the title of the film? It seems to resonate on different levels. Tsukumo-gami (the original Japanese title of the film) is an old thing possessed by a spirit. Tsukumo, meaning 99 in Japanese, also means “long” or “many.” Possessions, the English title of the film, has such meanings as occupied or hounded by something, which sounds quite good and appropriate. Since the film can be enjoyed visually and is not dependent on dialogue, it has received favorable responses at foreign film festivals as well. The Japanese traditional ghosts appearing in the film were a bit unique, or peculiar, so they may be recognized by seeing the film repeatedly, say more than five times. I am happy that the film can be enjoyed in such a way.
When did you decide to be an animator? When I was a college student. I really liked watching foreign science-fiction and fantasy movies. Meanwhile, I felt that there were Japanese anime titles of equal or better quality than what I was watching, so I thought, “I want to get involved in anime.” The more I understood anime, the more interested I became in the processes (script, storyboard and the characters’ expressions) of creating one.
How did you come up with the visual style of the short? I believe it came from being born and raised in Nara, known to be a rich source of Japanese culture. I was interested in nature, culture, history, folk stories and tradition there. Needless to say, I love Japanese ghost stories. Old Japanese folk stories usually don’t have big action scenes or surprising twists; they are very simple. But I was more and more interested in this genre. I thought, “Isn’t this one style of new (but old) entertainment!?”
Tsukumo-gami is a folklore concept that objects which have existed for a long time become alive and have souls. I wanted to try to show these objects in the shrine having real existence. So, I focused on the 3-D textures of clothes and other items as well as the basic concepts of the drawings in the hope that those characters might have designs that gave rise to unique sounds, such as “ding,” “bang,” “crack,” etc. The ghost that appears in the final part of the film is con- structed of these objects. Though it looks complicated, we were able to create it rather easily — in our way [laughs].
The ghost is made up of only about 20 components, but using 3-D CG technology (LightWave software), we could make them look different by changing the angles and layouts. The “traditional” color palette was not intentional, but came from our use of patterns. It would have cost a lot if we had it designed and colored by professional designers. … Fortunately, I have a small child, and I was inspired by the colored traditional craft papers (called chiyogami). Like skin color for skins, blue for blue things, I selected the traditional colors from the existing craft papers, within limit of the budget. I originally thought the Japanese red and green were beautiful colors, and as a result of using those colors, the final coloring was rather Japanese. Then I found a mole on a man’s face, which was not on the original design or on the model, mysteriously. It turned out to be a little piece of dirt on the craft paper and was scanned in by accident. It was an unexpectedly nice effect, so I instructed the artists not to remove it — I was lucky to have such an interesting accident!
How long did it take for you to finish the short at Sunrise Studios? It took about four months to finish with a small staff. We have worked together for a long time, so I wasn’t worried about team’s technical skills! I am still young in this field, so we did it with pure enthusiasm. It was hard to complete a lot of work with so few staff, but we worked together pleasantly and flexibly according to the circumstances.
Can you tell us what you’re working on next? For now, it is a secret, but I will announce it in the near future. What I can say is that I hope to deliver lots of big action and surprising entertainment next time!
What do you enjoy about working in the short-film format? I believed that the challenge of presenting Japanese folk stories in an entertainment format could only be done through shorts. In the case of short films, there are two ways of creating them. One is to have a large volume of ideas so that it overflows from the plate, another is to concentrate and simplify the story so that it will fit on the small plate. Possessions is the latter. We made it very simple; nothing extra is added. I’m attracted to flashy styles such as [illustrated book] Hyakki Yagyo or [woodblock artist] Utagawa Kuniyoshi, because I really like Japanese ghosts. But the time format is too short for that, and it meant I couldn’t create the Japanese ghosts that I imagined. It was very challenging to make it short, but I think I was able to visualize the entertainment of Japanese folk stories.
Do you have any advice for animation students want to create original, artistic shorts like yours? I think believing in your work and your abilities is very important. I didn’t have any confidence when I was a student, but I had a strong desire to make animation some day. There are so many talented people in the animation industry. You need to accept advice from others, learn from others, grow and believe in yourself, that you will make a film some day!