Interview with Nintendo Animator Yoichi Kotabe

The Search for Greater Creativity

Iwata When you first joined Toei Animation, what kind of work did you do?

Kotabe You can’t draw movement right from the start. First, there’s someone who draws the main points, called key frames, within a movement, and then someone who works on the next stage. Newcomers like myself worked as hard as we could at taking what they had done, cleaning it up, and drawing the frames that would come in between.

Iwata How long did you do that?

Kotabe After about three years you begin to understand movement and are able to start drawing it yourself.

Iwata In other words, you can begin to draw key frames.

Kotabe Right. After that, I worked on a number of different projects, and while I was absorbed in that, about ten years passed. At first, the company had a great deal of creative enthusiasm, but gradually it came to prioritize profits. Rather than producing original works, it started looking for popular manga serials and other materials to adapt. Even my own desire to create something fresh began to disappear.

Iwata You slowly became restricted in what you could do.

Kotabe Yes. But then Hols: Prince of the Sun came out in 1963, I think.  (Hols: Prince of the Sun: An animated film released to theaters in 1968.) Mr. Takahata was director. That was when I got guts with regard to animation.

Iwata Guts?

Kotabe Until then I’d been taking it relatively easy. But Hols: Prince of the Sun was Mr. Takahata’s first piece as director, so he gave it all he had. He put a lot of thought into what was expected of it, what he wanted to express, and the underlying psychological characterization. He also expected a lot from the staff. And while I was trying to keep up with him, I started to get my own guts.

Iwata I see.

Kotabe After I was done working on Hols, I was never afraid to work on anything else.

Iwata You had been tested by fire and gained confidence.

Kotabe That movie made us proud of the work we’d put into it. After that we had the courage to face whatever came our way. Later, after I’d been there about 12 years, I left Toei Animation.

Iwata There’s no way I can go without mentioning another particular topic. How did you come to work on Heidi, Girl of the Alps? (Heidi, Girl of the Alps: An animated television series consisting of 52 episodes and broadcast in 1974. Produced by Zuiyo Eizo Co., Ltd).

Kotabe I came to the Heidi project as a result of leaving Toei Animation. As I mentioned earlier, I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to make any more highly creative works at Toei Animation. Just then, a certain production company contacted Mr. Takahata, Miya-san and me about adapting a certain famous work of children’s literature.

Iwata When you heard that, did you immediately leave Toei?

Kotabe No, I didn’t know what to do. I’d worked with some of those guys for a long time. But I really wanted to make that animation, so I shook off my fetters and took flight. That was all fine and dandy, but then the original author didn’t give the OK.

Iwata That must have been a shock.

Kotabe I’d been making preparations.

Iwata If you had been able to make it, I wonder what it would have been like. I wish I could see how it would have turned out.

Kotabe So Mr. Takahata, Miya-san and I were at a complete loss. It was quite a jam. That project was the whole reason We’d left our company, and now it was dead in the water. But the demise of that project preceded the birth of Tokyo Movie Shinsha’s Panda! Go Panda! (Panda! Go Panda!: A medium-length animated film released to theaters in 1972. Produced by Tokyo Movie Shinsha.)

Iwata Oh, that’s right.

Kotabe Then, after we’d made Panda! Go Panda!, a different company approached us about Heidi. And again, I worried about what to do. I’d quit Toei Animation, so if we quit Tokyo Movie, too, and moved on, it would be our third company. But if we could be certain Mr. Takahata would be able to direct something there, Miya-san and I said we would follow. That led to Heidi.

Iwata I see.

Kotabe But at the time, people were saying there was no way Heidi would be a hit.

Iwata Really?

Kotabe Those were the days when sports stories like Star of the Giants were popular.

Iwata I suppose Heidi stood out a little at the time. But I think it is a powerful story that stays in your heart.

Kotabe Besides, television animation was under budget constraints at the time. There was a limit to how many frames could be used. We wanted to use lots of frames for a full mode of expression, but couldn’t.

Iwata Because of budget considerations, you could see the restraints as early as the planning stage.

Kotabe I knew about the limitation on frames, but Heidi is actually a relatively short story. However, Mr. Takahata wanted to delve deep into it and show her daily life up in the mountains and all the human relationships, so we plunged into production, but it was quite rough. We stayed up all night for several nights in a row. I thought I might die. It was really awful.

Iwata I feel like I’ve heard that somewhere before… (laughs)

I’d like to ask about one other thing. I’ve heard that you were involved in a very important scene in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind: A multiple award-winning full-length animated film released to theaters in 1984).

Kotabe Yes, I participated in drawing the key frames.

Iwata It’s the key scene toward the end, when Nausicaä has been hit by the Ohmu and died, but comes back to life. I heard something about you working on that part.

Kotabe All of a sudden Miya-san came up to me and asked if I could help him out. I agreed without giving it much thought. We talked it over, and I whipped off some drawings. Remember the scene where the tentacles reach out? Miya-san had drawn some layouts, and I was to trace those to create the key frames, but it kept turning out lifeless and ruined. So for the first frame of the tentacles I just used the layout itself. When I saw the finished movie and what an important scene it was, I was shocked.

Everyone (laughs)

Iwata I heard Miyazaki-san said you got mad at him. (laughs)

Kotabe Of course! It’s such an important scene, but he didn’t even show me all the storyboards!

Iwata I suppose he wanted you to draw that scene.

Kotabe I used to argue with him quite a bit. Like when we made 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother. I argued with Mr. Takahata, too. Even though we had a precise dramatic structure for a scene, I would go and draw something however I felt like it. Now that I think about it, all we ever did was argue! (laughs)