After the overwhelming positive response to his stop-motion samurai epic, the director of Hidari, Masashi Kawamura, agreed to do an in-depth Q&A.
Tito W. James: Congratulations on the Hidari feature being successfully funded! When I saw the pilot for the first time I thought the action was so good, I burst out laughing. When I showed the short to my friends they jumped up and down while crowding around my computer.
Masashi Kawamura: Thanks! I appreciate your feedback! That’s exactly the type of reaction I was hoping for. I incorporated all the action scenes I personally wanted to see, so it’s heartening to know they’re resonating with others as well.
TWJ: This is a unique and ambitious project combining stop-motion with Anime-styled action. How were you able to pitch something so original?
Masashi Kawamura: Interestingly, we didn’t really need to pitch the idea, as this is a self-initiated pilot film, and essentially, we were our own clients. The goal was to produce this pilot, then use it as a launching pad to present the concept to platforms, studios, and investors to turn it into a full-length film, around 80-90 minutes in duration. So, the pitching is actually starting to happen now, using this film. Please give us a shout if you know anyone that might be interested!
We invested in creating this pilot ourselves, so the only pitching I had to do was to rally my team around the idea. When I proposed the concept of an action-packed stop-motion samurai film featuring wooden puppets, the reactions were mixed — some were baffled, asking, “What on earth are you talking about?” while others were instantly onboard, exclaiming, “This is amazing, count me in!”
TWJ: Anime used to mean “limited animation” then morphed into slang for Japanese animation. Now Anime is more fluidly animated and incorporates CG and mixed-media elements. Do you consider Hidari to be Anime? Do these labels really matter?
Masashi Kawamura: I believe that hinges on one’s definition of Anime. Personally, I perceive Hidari more as a stop-motion film crafted with an Anime aesthetic, rather than a quintessential Anime (not that these two categories are mutually exclusive). The texture and overall atmosphere derived from the fact that we used zero CG and everything was shot in-camera — a unique characteristic of stop-motion — that’s the essence for me. However, I certainly wouldn’t object if Hidari were to be categorized as Anime. In any case, it defies conventional parameters of both stop-motion animation and Anime.
TWJ: We both clearly love Anime. However, Anime can sometimes get repetitive in terms of visuals and character designs. Do you hope Hidari will open the door to new art styles and techniques being explored in Japanese animation?
Masashi Kawamura: Absolutely, that’s my hope! I firmly believe there’s so much untapped potential within Anime and stop-motion animation, but these avenues often remain unexplored for various reasons. I aspire for a project like Hidari to stimulate creative experimentation and encourage people to venture into new territories.
TWJ: You pay homage to many other films that have come before. I feel like you captured the spirit of your influences, like Robocop, Evil Dead, and Lady Snowblood. In your opinion, what separates a spiritual successor from a derivative copy of a film?
Masashi Kawamura: Considering you’ve mentioned Lady Snowblood, it and Kill Bill might serve as apt examples. While Kill Bill also revolves around a revenge narrative and includes scenes directly influenced by Lady Snowblood, I perceive these as distinct films. Personally, I view Kill Bill as a “spiritual successor” if I were to borrow your words. Like many Tarantino films, Kill Bill integrates references from various other films, but the whole is something unique — it creates a different world and storyline, by reassembling elements borrowed from the original films in a fresh way. I believe that’s why it’s not a derivative copy.
In the present times, discovering something genuinely original and unique can be challenging. Although I don’t want to abandon the pursuit of true originality, more often than not, it’s about crafting a “new and unique combination” of these borrowed creative elements that instills a work with an “original” feel. I hope that in the case of Hidari, we’ve managed to accomplish this.
TWJ: What’s your process for plotting out a fight scene? Do you use the kishotenketsu structure during fight scenes? If so, could you break down each part of the structure?
Masashi Kawamura: One of our initial objectives was to challenge ourselves by creating fight scenes that involved dynamic camera movements, something we felt hadn’t been extensively explored in stop-motion before. The kishotenketsu structure was certainly an important component in this process. I wanted to kickstart the action with a captivating and straightforward move that would immediately seize the audience’s attention (such as the initial saw swipe that slices the henchman in half). The action then gradually evolves to become more complex and varied. Relying solely on the saw would eventually become monotonous, so we introduced different elements like the elbow for the second henchman, and the memorable vertical split, to prime the audience for a series of increasingly “creative kills.”
I was cautious about revealing the prosthetic arm too early, so Jingoro initially wields just the saw, since after all he is a carpenter. However, when he finds himself under attack from two adversaries at once, he finally unveils the arm. The intention was to maintain a steady build-up of audience anticipation and surprise right through to the film’s conclusion. Corresponding to the ‘Ten’ phase of the kishotenketsu structure, we introduce the chainsaw arm, serving to elevate the stakes yet another notch and also to start including some fantastical elements to the film.
TWJ: Many people in critical circles ignore action adventure as artistic expression and just think of it as “noise.” There is a lot of complex artistry and action in Hidari. In your opinion, what makes an action scene or an action film artistic?
Masashi Kawamura: While that perception may be prevalent, I’m firmly convinced that action films can indeed embody artistic expression. Crucially, it’s about integrating action sequences that contribute meaningfully to the emotional arc of the story, rather than inserting random action scenes for their own sake. Exceptional choreography, akin to the climactic standoff in Sanjuro or the revolutionary bullet time in the original Matrix, definitely confer the distinction of “artistic.” From this standpoint, action films such as The Raid, Kingsman, 300, and Old Boy, to name a few, strike me as more artistically engaging than many non-action films.
However, I do agree to some extent that a film populated solely by action scenes may fail to captivate the audience sufficiently. Due to budget constraints and our aim to showcase the most visually striking part of the film, our pilot focused primarily on the action sequence. But our aspiration for the full-length version is to incorporate a deeper storyline and explore the emotional drama associated with each character.
TWJ: You incorporate real Japanese historical figures and events and mix them with stylized elements. What is your process for finding the balance between what to make realistic vs what to make fantastic?
Masashi Kawamura: I believe employing real history as a backdrop provides an engaging way to narrate a story, as it’s something universally relatable. However, my aim wasn’t to maintain historical accuracy but to harness history as a springboard for introducing more fantastical backstories and speculative scenarios, thus blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction. At one point, I described Hidari’s full story to be “Forrest Gump starring John Wick” and I hope you get the idea here. We won’t explicitly delineate every historical element we incorporate into the film, but some people will recognize these as Easter eggs, enjoying them as elements that deepen the film’s context. For instance, the “Sleeping Cat” featured in the film is actually Jingoro’s most renowned sculpture.
While this might seem tangential, the term “believable” was frequently in my mind as we planned and designed the characters and stories. The characters and set designs don’t necessarily adhere to historical accuracy, but it was crucial to ensure everything was designed to feel “believable” and authentic within the world we crafted. Elements like the prosthetic arm, chainsaw, and the Inumaru Robot at the conclusion are purely products of imagination, but we endeavored to design them in a way that makes it plausible they could have existed in our fictional Edo world.
TWJ: There’s a whole new generation of young people in America who are discovering Anime, Manga, and Japanese pop-culture for the first time. How does it feel to add something potentially impactful to that experience?
Masashi Kawamura: I would be thrilled if Hidari could become a part of that burgeoning movement. Japan has traditionally struggled to export the wealth of remarkable art forms and cultural treasures it has cultivated, so it would be an honor if Hidari sparked a global interest in Japanese creations.
TWJ: The blog I write is called “Adult Animation Revolution” — we believe that “animation is a medium not a genre.” This is hardly a new concept in Japan. However, in America it’s still rare to see animation being taken seriously as a mature form of artistic expression. If you had to advocate for animation’s potential as an artistic medium what would you say?
Masashi Kawamura: I 100% agree with you that “animation is a medium not a genre.” It’s rather perplexing to witness how Anime, in some contexts, is dismissed from an artistic perspective, especially given that in Japan, Anime is indeed recognized as a mature form of artistic expression. Perhaps this is because we have a long history of visual storytelling, dating back to the Edo era with Hokusai‘s ukiyo-e prints, which later evolved into manga (graphic novels) crafted by revolutionary artists like Osamu Tezuka, who fundamentally transformed the way anime is produced. This paved the way for anime artists like Hayao Miyazaki, whose work unquestionably appeals far beyond a younger audience.
To me, anime represents a medium that can deliver profound and emotionally resonant narratives without the constraints inherent to live-action. No medium is inherently superior to another, but animation offers greater freedom in terms of visual expression, which means it possesses immense potential to yield unique and original works. I sincerely hope more artists will venture into this field and produce work that helps others realize the inherent potential of this medium.
I would like to thank director Masashi Kawamura for taking time to do this in-depth interview. We look forward to seeing the full feature film in the future.
After the overwhelming positive response to his stop-motion samurai epic, the director of Hidari, Masashi Kawamura, agreed to do anCOMICONRead More