Synopsis :Poupelle of Chimney Town is the story of young Lubicchi living among the thick smoke from the chimneys of his isolated town, yearning to see the “stars” — to know the truth — his father always told him about. One Halloween night he meets Poupelle, a man made of garbage, and together they look to the sky as their adventure begins.
An Exclusive interview with Creator/Writer/Producer Akihiro Nishino on “Poupelle of Chimney Town”
Q: In the beginning of your animated film, there are scenes with flying stones which recalls Hayao Miyazaki’s film, “Castle in the Sky.” The trolley sequence recalled the film “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Are there any films that influenced you to make this?
Akira Nishino: There are so many films that I draw inspiration from such as the “Indiana Jones” series and, of course, there are the movies and animations I watched as a kid. But rather than name a specific film, I remember particular scenes, for example, in Hayao Miyazaki’s film, “Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro,” in which Lupine III runs on the roof while it’s collapsing. I like that kind of action and have been influenced by such details.
Q: Personally, I find it very courageous to make a bold statement such as, “I’ll make a film that exceeds Disney.” Was that a commandment to yourself to make something close to the level of Disney animation?
Akira Nishino: There was something inside me that came out. I’m a comedian, a children’s book artist, also a movie maker, and I have created a musical, and a Kabuki. However, when I look at people who are expressive in various fields like myself, they always regard Disney as above the clouds. We always felt like we were working under the Disney’s clouds. There are a lot of people who are very active in the entertainment industry who think Disney’s is impossible to beat. But isn’t it rude to your own fans? If you don’t show your No.1 work or at least have a winner’s mentality, you don’t want to tell your fans that. I don’t think it should be said, “I’ll show you something less interesting than Disney, please come to see my movie”?
Whether it’s a Disney movie, a Hollywood movie, or Cirque du Soleil, I’m dishonest as an artist if I don’t make them my competitors, that’s what I thought. I think this is true in every field, not just with Disney. The intention is to compete with the very best and make something more interesting than their works.
Q: Mamoru Hosoda’s latest outing, “Belle,” will be released next year, and Makoto Shinkai’s works are also highly regarded in the U.S. From a worldwide perspective, what is the current position of Japanese animation? Of course, it’s hard to talk about many things by making only one film, but how do you plan to compete in the U.S? Do you have any concrete ideas?
Akihiro Nishino : Actually, I’m not thinking of just competing overseas with anime. Of course, animation is important, but musicals, Kabuki and children’s books are also important. Making great works is a matter of course, and I think creators do so without discussion. However, if you don’t make it with a proper business model in mind, you won’t be able to successfully change Japanese works or surpass overseas works.
I sold the script a year before the film was released. By doing so, the audience read the script first, and then asked themselves, “What if this script became a film?” I thought that some audiences would come to see the film, and would see how the script turned into the film. So, even during the production, I was marketing the content by showing the making process.
Q: To some extent, you had to do the work of planting visuals with clients and producers in advance. You were doing crowdfunding from a very early stage, which is not well known in Japan. What were the hardships that you faced when you started at such a completely unknown stage?
Akihiro Nishino: One of the hard parts at that time was that there were moments when people hated it. People tend to hate what they don’t know. It could be because of fear. At that time, most Japanese didn’t know about crowdfunding, so the moment I said, “I’m going to do crowdfunding!” I was treated almost like a scammer by the people in Japan, like “I don’t know what’s that?” or “strange way to collect the money.”
When I started about 10 years ago, there were some conversations like that. The moment that I said that, I got ganged up on by people who didn’t really know about crowdfunding. The method of putting the script out to the public a year prior to its release, which I just talked about, was not really well received by Japanese folks. Some said, “ If you do that, people will not be able to go to the movie theater on the contrary.” There was a lot of bashing from inside and outside of the entertainment industry. Also, in terms of “Poupelle of Chimney Town,” all the pages were released for free on the internet at the same time of the publication of my children’s book, “Poupelle of Chimney Town.”
Q: That’s a new idea.
Akihiro Nishino: Yes, that was the case at that time, but my theory was right. Because most parents don’t have enough money to buy a children’s book every time a kid wants one, parents read the book to some extent at the bookstore, and bought it for their children if it was interesting. There was a process of browsing a children’s book.
In other words, if you start from a place where the contents of the children’s book was spoiled, by increasing the denominator, it’s better to have 100 million browse than to have only 10 people browse. For that reason, I released a children’s book for free, but it was bashed unreasonably. I was told, “If you do that, your work won’t sell.” As a result, I think that many people responded to this idea. Every time I tried something or did something that people didn’t understand, I was ganged up on by people in Japan.
Q: You were fulfilling your dreams one by one. “Poupelle of Chimney Town” was finally released in the U.S. Your film also got entered into the competition for feature animation Oscar the same as a Disney film — that’s quite an accomplishment. Are you still being criticized by Japanese folks?
Akihiro Nishino: Of course, at this point, crowdfunding is no longer mentioned as something that people would detest. And if you publish a children’s book for free on the internet, it’s OK now. However, when I made the first move — I don’t know if this is the Japanese temperament — there were people who ganged up on those who try to do the first effort, and there are some artists who don’t challenge themselves because of that.
Q: In the United States, a good idea is appreciated by Americans, and it’s easier to actually act it out there than in Japan. But getting back to the film, I heard that one of the best known Japanese entertainers Tamori (who had a popular talk show for 32 years) recommended that you draw a picture after you mentioned that you would quit appearing on TV as a comedian. How did that lead to the children’s book and this film?
Akihiro Nishino: I became a comedian when I was 19, and soon, was a comedian in the theater. Then I went into the TV world from 20 on and worked hard until I was about 25 years old. So my comedic ability on TV was assessed by audiences from an early stage of my career. As a comedian, it went well, and I rode the tailwind and ended up on top of the game. I thought I would see the bigger picture in the TV industry, but that wasn’t the case. I’ve been on TV every week as a routine, and I’ve had a lot of people watch the TV program that I was in, but the world of TV wasn’t as big as I thought it would be. So when I was 25 years old, I decided to quit TV. I told Mr. Tamori, “I’m thinking of quitting TV,” while drinking with him. At that time, Mr. Tamori said something like, “You should draw a picture!”
I was contemplating what my next job would be…either my work would be something nonverbal or my work would be something that’s easy to translate into other languages. When I became a comedian, I was too dependent on the Japanese language, so I thought my works wouldn’t go across the sea. So, even though I hadn’t drawn pictures to sell to the public, I was willing to accept Mr. Tamori’s suggestion. I said, “I will become a children’s book writer.”
Q: Were you involved in selecting the American voice actors for “Poupelle of Chimney Town?”
Akihiro Nishino: There was a manager in the U.S, and I asked him to make his suggestions. When I heard their voices, I said that these people were great, I felt like I could appreciate their work.
Q: Did you decide on the Japanese voice actors?
Akihiro Nishino: Yes. In a way, the American voice actors had to have either similar voices or worldview. Our manager found those voice actors.
Q: Japanese entertainment content is often superseded by South Korean content when competing for the overseas market. In South Korea, the film “Parasite” won the best picture at the Academy Awards. TV shows like “Itaewon Class,” “Crash Landing on You,” and “Squid Game” are very popular globally. And when it comes to music, BTS has swept the world. What do you think is missing in the Japanese entertainment industry?
Akihiro Nishino: I think there are two reasons. For example, even when we’re making musicals, our government doesn’t have a system to fund most of them. Therefore, Japanese people understand that if they don’t get funding from our government, we have to redesign how we properly get funding. I don’t know if such a system exists in the U.S, but in Japan there is the online salon (a general term for a closed community developed on the Web with a monthly membership fee) and there is the selling your content by showing off the process of your works. For example, when you are making a musical, you can show rehearsals of your musical to viewers who subscribe through an online salon for 980 yen ($10 dollars) a month.
We don’t have a form of national funding in Japan, not only in making movies, but also with musicals as well. Therefore, Japanese people understand that if they don’t give money to help in Japan anymore, we have to redesign the way of making money properly. I don’t know if such a system exists in the United States yet, but there is an online salon (a general term for a closed community developed on the Web with a monthly membership fee) in Japan, and I will continue to make it there. Therefore, by showing the process of making your work, you can make a certain amount of money which can be used to make more content or films. By doing so, the mounting is rarely taken at the production cost.
In South Korea, they spent a lot of money on producing a drama, so one can afford to spend more time making it. First, you need to secure the budget properly, so you raise the funds yourself, and do it yourself, and then you can start from there. Secondly, and this may be a Japanese thing, but artists and creators often sway between empathy and imagination in the production process,
Japan is the type of country where people’s empathy is highly valued. Basically, [if you are] getting empathy from viewers, you can make a living as an artist. However, when you’re competing against the world, it is important to make something that is rich with imagination. But if you rely on your imagination in Japan, viewers like housewives say, “I can’t understand this idea.” But in the end, without being concerned about “Empathy,” you need to have an imaginative idea and make something that people haven’t seen before. If not, I don’t think you will be successful as an artist. Most Japanese creators become commentators on TV talk shows or news programs, because they can’t make a living as an artist.
Q: Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa said that there are so many talented young directors in Japan, but those directors don’t often see the light of day. Why don’t Japanese animators and creators form a production company and compete against U.S companies?
Akihiro Nishino: Right now, I’m doing a children’s book and making a movie. Our company (Akihiro Nishino Entertainment Institute) is also doing a musical and kabuki production, so I’m thinking of taking this out to the world at large. However, we are creating these concepts within an existing system with no budget. It’s unreasonable that these talents operate in such a situation.
If you don’t have a proper budget for creation, nothing will change. However, when Japanese people talk about money, they say, “you shouldn’t talk about money, such a dirty thing to talk about.” However, South Korean [companies] properly allocate a budget as part of a national entertainment strategy. If you don’t go from there, I don’t think anything will change in Japanese entertainment.
Q: It’s interesting that there are people involved in various fields in your company unlike other production companies which are only devoted to, say, anime. There is a lot that each department can do to stimulate each other within the company, isn’t that right?
Ahikiro Nishino: That’s right. Everyone is on good terms, but of course, [each team in various] fields are conscious of each other. The team that makes a movie is different from the one that makes the musical. However, there are many things that can be shared.
Q: Why don’t you settle down in the U.S to do all that?
Akihiro Nishino: As a matter of fact, I am doing that. My musical team finished a musical in Japan the other day, but now that I’m in the US, we’ve decided to do it on Broadway next time. So I’ll live in the US for a while and try various things.
Here’s the trailer of the film.