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).
Making sharp title letters by cutting out the letterings on black flock paper with a box cutter and taking multiple exposures. Taken in 1978.
── That’s really amazing. I think any film fan would lose their mind after an experience like that. [laughs]
As a result, when the Osaka version of the late night program, 11PM, featured independent films, I was asked to participate. I was included in a group of people, like Kazuki Omori*17 and Sogo Ishii*18, and they also promoted my work. That time, they showed my film, The Godfather of Fantasy, which was a parody of Ray Harryhausen. After I appeared on TV, my status went up and people started seeing me differently. You could say that was the impetus for me becoming a professional.
A beaming young otaku (geek) with his collection of homemade monster puppets. He glued sponge onto a fuse-wire frame and painted it over with liquid adhesive mixed with color pigments. Taken in 1978.
I entered one more film contest after FUJIFILM 8 mm. It was the Japan Parody Commercial Film (JPCF) Contest, sponsored by PARCO, in 1977. I spent about a week making a parody of Close Encounters of the Third Kind*19. I called it Mapo Tofu no Sogu and submitted it to the contest. That year, 1977, was the year the first Star Wars movie was released in the United States. It had a big impact on me and was part of the reason I created a space movie parody. However, when Star Wars was released in Japan the following year and I went to see it, I really wasn’t that impressed. [laughs] What did surprise me, though, was the motion control*20 that enabled the scenes where the X-wings zoomed by in front of the camera. That made me want to try special effects myself – things like multiple exposure shots and combining the footage of puppets and backgrounds. I received the PARCO Award, which was not the Grand Prix, but it was my second award, so I was happy that people thought I was no one-hit wonder.
*17 Kazuki Omori (1952–): a film director and screenwriter who made his commercial debut with Orange Road Kyuko (1978), after receiving positive reviews for his independent film, Kuraku narumade Matenai (1975). His other well-known works include Disciples of Hippocrates (1980).
*18 Sogo Ishii (currently Gakuryu Ishii, 1957–): a director known as a standard-bearer for Japanese independent film. Following his first film, an independent movie, Panic in High School (1976), he continued to film ambitious works, such as Crazy Thunder Road (1980).
*19 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): a hit movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, which portrays contact between humanity and aliens. Together with the first Star Wars film, and released the same year, it sparked a worldwide craze for science fiction movies.
*20 Motion control: refers, in this case, to a method of filming using a computer-controlled camera. The development of this technology enabled the capture of precise and flexible angles of movement in the first Star Wars movie.
── How did PIA’s Summer Festival go?
Mori filming his first 16 mm movie, Taketori Monogatari, in a temporary studio made by dividing the President’s Office at PIA’s Editorial Department in half with a curtain. You can’t fight on an empty stomach. Taken in 1979.
I showed Taketori Monogatari in July of 1979 at the Animation Summer Festival, the same year I graduated from college. It was produced by PIA and written and directed by Mayumi Amakusa, a manga artist. I was in charge of animation, technical direction, photography, art and editing. Up to that point, I had filmed everything in 8 mm, but for Taketori I wanted to use 16 mm. So, one of the people at PIA went out and bought a Bolex*21 and loaned it to me. Thanks to that, I did my first 16 mm film next to the President’s Office at PIA by hanging up a blackout curtain. [laughs] However, because I was about to graduate from college just before the release, I had to work on the movie while writing my graduation thesis. I forced my way to graduation. [laughs]
*21 Bolex: a 16 mm motion picture camera brand. It was professional equipment developed by camera designer, Jacques Bogopolsky, and was also available in 8 mm and 9.5 mm versions.
── When you graduated, had you decided to pursue animation as a career?
Mori was busy every month, building monsters designed by Goh Nagai and Ken Ishikawa, and photographing them in the studio for Mashin Zaura, a manga series carried in Kodansha’s children’s magazine, Tanoshii Yochien. Taken in 1979.
The reason I entered the department of certified public accounting at Chuo University was because my father was a CPA, as well as a certified tax accountant, and he wanted me to follow in his footsteps. I failed the daytime course, and ended up in the evening course instead. [laughs] The tuition was half-price, and the classes were held in the afternoon and at night, so I thought it was perfect. [laughs] After six months, I realized I had to study bookkeeping, so I went to a bookkeeping school in the morning, attended college classes in the afternoon, then spent the rest of my time in my room making puppets. Somehow, I passed the bookkeeping exam for the certified tax accountant. At that point, I was no longer interested in that career path. So, one day, I nervously called my father and asked him to forgive me for not wanting to take over his business. Even though I’d decided to pursue animation as a career, I didn’t have a job lined up after college. So, I spent a year after graduation without a real job. I worked part-time to make ends meet. One of those jobs was writing for Starlog, which I mentioned before. While I was still in college, I wrote commentary articles on special effects. I also did some stop-motion work for TV commercials, and even did some film work at a company called Nippon Tokusatsu. They made the TV series, Saiyuki (1978–1980). Searching for an animation job, I took my 8 mm films and projector around to various places and pitched myself. Eventually, I ended up at Animation Staff Room*22. During that period, I was building up work experience while, at the same time, worrying a lot about what I should do with my life. With the way things turned out, I’d say it was a real stroke of luck that I landed there.
*22 Animation Staff Room: an animation production company, founded in 1972. The company excels in film and video production using the latest technology, and has been involved in numerous projects, mainly commercials, including puppet animation, special effects, and computer graphic imagery with its own brand of motion control.
── It was 1980 before you finally found employment. We’ll talk in depth about what happened after that in our next interview. Thank you.
Mori was one of the amateur models used in the advertising campaign for Kakukinkan PIA, which went from being a monthly magazine to biweekly, released on Friday. Taken in 1979.