Part 1: “Aiming for the Top”
Masaaki Mori (born 1955, Shizuoka Prefecture) is a leading Japanese clay animation artist who, as a professor at Tokyo Zokei University, has been involved in training many young animators for over two decades. Ahead of his retirement in 2021, I am exploring his achievements and the appeal of his work in a series of three interviews. In this first interview, he spoke with me about the path he took during his youth that led him to the decision to make animation his career. (Interviewer: Takanaka Shimotsuki, September 2020)
── When you decided to become an animation artist, there must have been artists and works that influenced you to do so. I’ll be asking about the latter in the third interview, but for now I’d like you to tell me about who inspired you to choose this career.
While my methods are my own, I’d have to say that I was influenced by Ray Harryhausen*1 and Will Vinton*2, as well as Robert Abel*3. I actually met Harryhausen and Abel when they came to Japan while I was a writer for the Japanese edition of Starlog*4 during my college days. Vinton also came to Japan when his works were released here on LaserDisc, and I got to meet him then. It was right after I had spent six months studying at an English conversation school. I remember starting off the interview, saying something like “My English is really bad, but do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” [laughs] I was really lucky to have that opportunity.
*1 Ray Harryhausen (1920–2013): an American motion picture special effects producer referred to as the “God of Stop Motion Animation” for his unique methods. He was known for his work in films such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).
*2 Will Vinton (1947–2018): an American clay animation artist who defined an era with numerous outstanding works, including the ‘California Raisins’ series of TV commercials and specials.
*3 Robert Abel (1937–2001): an American visual artist who drew attention with his creation of unique imagery in commercials that utilized various light sources and multiple exposure techniques. He was also known as a pioneer of early computer graphics. His brilliant and sophisticated typography, with a sense of transparency, also had a major impact on modern motion graphics.
*4 Starlog (published 1976–2009): a monthly American science fiction movie magazine. With the support of core readers, the Japanese edition was published from 1978–1987 by Tsurumoto Room Co., Ltd. The original American version is no longer in publication.
A young Mori in 1978. He untiringly built puppets and filmed stop motion sequences with them in his tiny room in a Nakano boarding house, which had no bath, and everyone shared a toilet. The ZC-1000 camera, seen here, was his prized possession!
── Which artist had the greatest influence on you?
I’ve never told anyone this because I thought it would be too much of a giveaway. [laughs] But to tell you the truth, it was Jim Henson*5. His puppets, with their big eyes, and his use of primary colors were pretty flamboyant, right? Well, that’s what I liked. I often watched Sesame Street on TV when I was in high school, and it also had a big impact on me.
*5 Jim Henson (1936–1990): an American puppet creator and motion picture director known for creating the Muppet characters featured on TV programs, such as Sesame Street (1969–present), as well as being the co-director of films, such as The Dark Crystal (1982).
── Do you recall the first animation you saw as a child, before high school?
I don’t remember too clearly, but I probably started out with something like Felix the Cat or Popeye. Shizuoka City, where I grew up, had weak TV signals and poor reception, probably because it was close to Mt. Hakone. At that time, we only received two public channels, NHK and NHK Educational, and one commercial station that mainly broadcasted TBS series, so I ended up watching a lot of TBS network programs. I enjoyed Disneyland*6, but it was broadcast on alternate weeks with a pro-wrestling show. You don’t know how disappointed I was when pro-wrestling was shown two weeks in a row. [laughs]
*6 Disneyland (broadcast 1954–2008): an American TV program produced by Walt Disney Productions. Broadcast in Japan from 1968–1970. Initially it was shown biweekly, alternating with Live Japan Professional Wrestling.
── On your website, you write that you were deeply moved by bunraku, the traditional Japanese puppet theater, when you were in second grade, and screamed that you wanted to become a bunraku performer. So, you liked puppets as well.
In addition to anime, I loved shows with puppets too. It started with Chirorinmura to Kuruminoki*7 and went on to Hyokkori Hyotanjima*8 and Kuchu Toshi 008*9. While hand puppets were used on Chirorinmura, the Hyotanjima puppets were controlled from underneath the sets using rods, and Kuchu Toshi 008 used strings. I found all those methods interesting, so I started making my own puppets imitating those three types. So, my mother bought me a book on making puppet shows. It started with how to make your own papier-mache by soaking newspaper in water. This was before you could find clay at a dollar store. [laughs]
Thanks to that book, by the time I was in third grade, I was making my own puppets. I’d buy the materials at the stationery store across the street from my school, take them home and make them by myself.
*7 Chirorinmura to Kuruminoki (broadcast 1956–1964): an early TV puppet show produced by NHK. Performers underneath the sets wore hand puppets of anthropomorphized vegetables and animals.
*8 Hyokkori Hyotanjhima (broadcast 1964–1969): an NHK-produced TV puppet show using rod puppets and based on an original story by Hisashi Inoue and Morihisa Yamamoto. A long-running series, a remake was later produced and shown on TV.
*9 Kuchu Toshi 008 (broadcast 1969–1970): an NHK-produced TV puppet show based on the original story by Sakyo Komatsu. Osamu Tezuka was involved in designing the puppets used in the show. It was produced right after Hyokkori Hyotanjima, but this one used string puppets.
── So that’s how you also became interested in puppet animation?
It was during my early years at elementary school that I saw King Kong*10 on a black and white TV. When I asked my mother how they made the puppets move, she told me it was “stop motion animation.” I had an uncle living in Funabashi City, Chiba Prefecture who was a graphic designer. His hobby was shooting 8 mm movies, and he would film me with beautiful title designs. For the opening credits, he would write my name and my older sister’s name, along with some illustrations, on a long piece of paper, attach that to a sliding door, and simulate a panning shot by sliding the door past the camera. For the closing credits, he cut out a picture I had drawn of the castle at Yatsu Yuen*11 for the backdrop and shot the stop motion animation using soft vinyl figurines from the local credit union. Since this was back before video cameras, he used a Standard-8*12 film camera capable of stop motion filming. I can say this was the formative experience that got me interested in making animation. I started making stop motion animation after my father bought a Single-8*13 camera. The problem with early Single-8 cameras, though, was you couldn’t shoot one frame at a time. I’d hook up a cable release to the camera and hit the button with my palm. The camera would click away and take about three frames at once. [laughs] However, when I got to junior high school, since I was also into special effects, my friends and I started fooling around, shooting those kinds of films. I went in the direction of live action and trick films. My high school was a prep school, and since I wasn’t doing club activities, I just spent my time making little things. My mother used to yell at me to study more. [laughs] I ended up failing the college entrance exams the first year and spent another year preparing before getting into college. Once in college, I spent most of my time going to movies to make up for my ‘dark’ high school years. [laughs]
*10 King Kong (1933): an American monster movie that combined live action footage with puppet animation. With Willis O’Brien in charge of special effects and puppet animation, the movie became a massive hit among ‘special effects’ films during the pre-war period.
*11 Yatsu Yuen: a theme park that opened in 1925 in Narashino City, Chiba Prefecture. The park included swimming pools and became popular as a leisure park near Tokyo. However, it closed in 1982 due to financial problems within the managing company, Keisei Electric Railway.
*12 Standard-8: a small film format developed by the Eastman Kodak Company in 1932. It uses 16 mm wide film divided in two, with each half separately exposed from start to finish. This enables two reels of 8 mm film to be shot on one Standard-8 reel. Cameras and projectors that conformed to this standard were also called ‘Standard-8’ for short.
*13 Single-8: another small film format developed by FUJI Photo Film Co., Ltd., now FUJIFILM Holdings Corporation, and released in 1965. The FUJICA Single-8, a popular movie camera using 8 mm film, helped to popularize the format.
Mori, shooting stop-motion footage by hand, with fellow Arugo Tankentai members, at a member’s house. They gave up in the middle of the project, exhausted from the heat of the lighting equipment in summer without air conditioning. Taken in the summer of 1976 in Kichijoji.
── I assume there were some animation films among the movies you went to watch.
When I went to Tokyo to study at a prep school in Koenji before entering Chuo University, I bought a copy of PIA*14 at a neighborhood bookstore and found an announcement about an independent screening by ANIDO*15. There was a picture of The Cyclops on the cover with the words “Harryhausen Special”. I knew The Cyclops from watching Jason and the Argonauts on TV, but I didn’t know that Harryhausen was the creator until then. Since the screening was also in Koenji, I ran to go see it. [laughs]
After that, I discovered an ad in PIA inviting people to “make films like Harryhausen!” It was an ad from a group called "ARUGO-TANKENTAI (a reference to the Japanese title of the movie "Jason and the Argonauts")”. [laughs] I immediately sent a letter to the group’s organizer. There were about fifteen to twenty members, with some from as far as Takao City and Chiba Prefecture, so at first, the group met in Shinjuku – the middle point for everybody. We brought our own films to the meeting, but we didn’t have a place to watch them. So, we did things like going to Yodobashi Camera and asking the salesperson to test our film on their projector while pretending to listen to the sales pitch. [laughs] Later, the group split in two, to the east and west of Shinjuku. My group had a member whose parents had a calligraphy school in Kichijoji, so we gathered in one of their rooms to shoot films and have fun. However, we would only watch the films we made together, sitting in a closet, and never showed them to anyone outside. This was the point when I started making my own independent films.
*14 PIA: an entertainment magazine that covered movies and music. Its first issue was published in 1972 by PIA Corporation, a company founded by student members of Chuo University’s Film Research Club. The only magazine of its kind in Japan, it was a major hit, and the company contributed to the development of independent film production there. It discontinued publication in 2011.
*15 ANIDO (Tokyo Animation Dokokai): an animation research group founded in 1967. Primarily active in Tokyo, the group carries out a variety of activities, including publishing animation-related books and organizing its own screenings of animation films.
── Following this, your commercial series won the Student’s Award at an 8 mm film contest held by FUJIFILM in 1977.
Mori takes multiple film exposures against a black background of an Adamski-style UFO he made from a tin can, aluminum saucer and ping-pong balls strung up with fishing line. He always worked alone. Taken in 1978.
I started entering some of the films I was making at the time in contests. PIA was the reason I started making movies to show to people. The announcement for the Animation Summer Festival sponsored by PIA was calling for entries, and since the office was in Sarugakucho, near Chuo University, I brought my films there. They were like, “This is great,” and sent me a telegram asking me to contact them. They used telegraph because the boarding house I lived in didn’t have a telephone. [laughs] So, I called them from a payphone, and they asked me if I had made any other films. So, I brought some other films and an 8 mm projector to show them. At that time, they had a tatami room in the office and used it to show 8 mm movies on weekends. There was a lot of independent film production going on at that time. When they were showing my film, Yoshimitsu Morita*16, still an amateur at the time, was there too. They even told me that Nobuhiko Obayashi was coming that day, and boy did my knees shake. [laughs] I was very nervous as I ran the projector but I showed them the various works I had brought. This was my very first personal screening. At the end, everyone gave me a big round of applause, and Mr. Obayashi came up to me with a smile on his face. He shook my hand, saying, “You’ve got talent, kid.” At that point, my life went completely out of whack. [laughs]
*16 Yoshimitsu Morita (1950–2011): a film director and screenwriter who first gained attention with his independent film, Live in Chigasaki (1978) and made his directorial debut with No Yona Mono (1981). His best known works include The Family Game (1983) and Lost Paradise (1997).