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Instructor Interview

Part 3: “Tempestuous Teaching”

Masaaki Mori



We’ve come to the third and final installment in our series of interviews with Masaaki Mori. In the previous interview, he’d become one of Japan’s leading clay animators and was about to set foot in the unexplored (for him) world of college education. I encourage you to pay attention to the invaluable overview he gives of his fifteen years of life as a teacher. (Interviewer: Takanaka Shimotsuki, September 2020)

──So, after founding your company, you also started teaching the next generation of animators at Tokyo Zokei. Could you first tell me what made you want to take up teaching?

What started it was a place called the Tokushima Animation School that was around in the 90s. It was a cultural center for residents, created by Tokushima City as part of a public-private collaboration. The people teaching there included Takuya Ishida and Masahiro Katayama*1. When another teacher suddenly quit, I was asked if I’d come and teach there. This was back when I was still running my company. I’d never been to Shikoku before, so it was out of interest that I started commuting to Tokushima. I found teaching everyday people really stimulating, and that’s what got me interested in education.


*​1 Masahiro Katayama (1955-2011): Animator, illustrator, former executive director of the Japan Animation Association, and professor in the Department of Graphic Design at Tama Art University. He helped educate many young animators and artists at Tama Art University, and also taught at Tokyo Zokei.

──This experience led to you teaching at Tokyo Zokei?

“I get giddy every April when the entrance ceremony and orientation for the new semester begin, because the cherry trees are in full bloom in Tokyo Zokei’s campus. This is a picture of me, taken with the other faculty members of the Animation program: Masashi Koide, Tokumitsu Kifune, Toshikatsu Wada and our two assistants. The assistants change over about every three years. From 2021, Professor Arisa Wakami will be taking my place among the full-time professors.”

Not immediately. Teaching at a university in a formal capacity seemed like a lot of responsibility, and I really resisted that. At the Tokushima Animation School, I could teach casual workshops that ended with everyone saying, “Hey, that was fun.” But with university teaching, there is a heavy responsibility for training the students, which meant I’d have to get personal with them at times. I hesitated about this at the time because I was averse to having to get that involved in teaching people. Of course, now I get up close and personal when I teach my students. [laughs] With Tokyo Zokei, Professors Koide and Kifune came all the way to my house and invited me to become a part-time professor there, but I turned them down. Despite that, they kept coming to my house, saying I could work as a specially appointed professor instead of as a part-time one. I eventually gave in and agreed to do it. So, starting in 2001, I began holding special lectures at Tokyo Zokei. This was back when the university still didn’t have an animation program. Taku Furukawa*2 was already teaching at Tokyo Polytechnic University and Masahiro Katayama was at Tama Art University. ​When I started teaching classes, though, I no longer had the same hesitation I mentioned before. I think a big part of that was my five years at the Tokushima Animation School. Teaching everyday people, and sometimes interacting with them as friends, helped me to gradually understand how to associate with college students. While teaching a class for local residents is a little different from teaching at a university, knowing the differences helped me to do that.

*2 Taku Furukawa (1941-): Animator, illustrator and President of the Japan Animation Association. A prominent member in Japan’s animation industry, he is also involved in animation education and devotes his energy to training young animators.

──So, Tokyo Zokei was where you first started teaching at university level?

“‘Animation Theory B’ is a well-known class at Tokyo Zokei that introduces the history and techniques of puppet animation. We start with Jiří Trnka, and continue on to animation from the Czech Republic, Hungary and America. Then we cover special effects in film and Ray Harryhausen’s work. We have fun taking a detour with films such as ones about how the dinosaurs became extinct, leading into the transition to CG. And Finally, we end with a showing of some of my films.”

“In this picture, I’m on the platform and performing a live demonstration of stop motion animation with clay during a special lecture on clay animation. Sometimes, I do the same thing for cutout animation. Since I want to get the students interested and enthused to try stop motion animation themselves, I do my best to make the demonstrations look simple. When I play back the results, I often hear astonished cries from the audience!”

​Right. It was around that time Tokyo Polytechnic University started offering its Animation Studies program, so a few years after teaching at Tokyo Zokei, I also began teaching at Tokyo Polytechnic. In addition to both teaching jobs, I was also accepting work to make commercials. I was involved in making things like Saibo no Fushigi for NHK’s Minna no Uta*3, and other jobs that I wanted to do. Because I didn’t want my students talking behind my back about how I was doing work on the side, I was partially open about it. What I mean by “partially open” is that after telling my students to get to work on something during class, I’d be at the podium drawing storyboards for my other jobs. [laughs]

However, I quit teaching at Tokyo Polytechnic after four years. The reason was that teaching at two schools was making my classes become too similar. I didn’t like that they were becoming ‘cookie cutter’ classes. I decided to devote myself to Tokyo Zokei because I wanted to bring out the university’s unique characteristics in my classes.

*3 Minna no Uta: A five-minute music education TV program produced by NHK from 1961 to the present. Each episode presents songs written especially for the program and accompanied by animation. It has been responsible for the birth of hit songs, such as Yamaguchi-sanchi no Tsutomu-kun (1976). 

──Did you mostly teach clay animation at Tokyo Zokei?

This is one of the puppet animation labs where students plan and build the armature for a puppet they’ve come up with, giving thought to an easy-to-move and hard-to-break design. Then they finish it by building the body on top of the armature. One needs to be careful, though, because too many details can make the puppet difficult to animate. We then shoot stop motion, starting with the basic movements of walking and running. 

​ ​​I never really taught anything specific about how to make clay animation because it’s really tough to do. [laughs] You use different colors of clay, and college students tend to handle it roughly, so the colors get mixed together. [laughs] That’s why I start with the basics of making puppet animation. In the beginning, my class was only about four times a semester, so I’d tell the students to bring something from home to use as a puppet. Since I said “something”, some students brought plastic robot models like Gundam. [laughs] Today’s robot models can be moved like puppets, but back then, if a student asked why they couldn’t use it, I’d start out by explaining that it was because it couldn’t stand on one foot. [laughs] But then I’d add, to get it to stand, they’d have to put a wire armature in it. When we shot those kinds of models, we’d just lay them down and shoot them from above. That’s how I recall the class starting out, as a hands-on experience of casually shooting stop-motion animation. As long as you have a well-made armature it doesn’t matter whether or not you build a body from foam or clay, a puppet is a puppet. At the time, I believed if you taught students the basics, they’d start making animation on their own. Then in 2007, Fumiko Magari started teaching at the Laputa Art Animation School*4, and a steady stream of good puppet animation started coming out from there. Although the calibre of student is slightly different, with Laputa dealing with working adults and Tokyo Zokei teaching college students, I was in a panic. I suppose those results were because Ms. Magari taught her students with a strong sense of camaraderie. When I asked her what she was doing to achieve that, she just replied, “Oh, nothing special.” It was a mystery to me how her school kept putting out animation based on such mature concepts – something you don’t see much in the things students at Tokyo Zokei make.

*4 Laputa Art Animation School: An animation school in Asagaya, Tokyo, that opened in 2007. Fumiko Magari serves as its Dean. While small-scale, it showcases the creations of its students through unique activities, which include participating in the Inter College Animation Festival.

──In that case, can you explain what you meant by “bringing out Tokyo Zokei’s characteristics”?

​I don’t know if that’s the right way to describe it but in terms of making animation, I think the “My Story” course I taught is an example of doing that. In film, presenting one’s own story is called “narratage”. What students do in the class is make their personal experiences into scenarios that they narrate themselves. While an animation class, its theme is that students are required to express what they felt or thought as part of an experience and not just present the facts like a report or case file. While there aren’t many students at Tokyo Zokei who can express something like that in three-dimensional animation, they do make some very good pieces. That’s where Tokyo Zokei differs from Laputa Art Animation and Tama Art’s Department of Graphic Design. I’m also quite conscious of TamaGra*5 because the students there are good at illustration and they put out a lot of animation based on ideas built on what they’ve drawn. I’d describe it as moving graphic art that is colorful and musical and pretty stylish. It’s frustrating for me that Tokyo Zokei isn’t as good as Tama Art when it comes to illustration. [laughs] I heard from Mr. Katayama, when he was teaching at Tama Art, that they would make their freshmen and sophomores practice fundamentals like lettering and drawing until they were sick of it. Then, in their junior year, the professors would be like “Oh, there’s also animation”, and the students would just dig in and start making their own animation like crazy. [laughs] That’s because it wasn’t a big deal for them to have to draw a lot. However, at Tokyo Zokei, we tend to teach students about animation right from the start. We import a single picture into Adobe After Effects and do things like move it around or use CG to flip it over. So, unlike Tama Art, we don’t really expect our students to draw a lot from the beginning. It’s when I thought about other ways Tokyo Zokei could compete that I came up with having students do scenario creation and direction, which is what “My Story” is. That’s where I have put most of my effort in teaching. Even Yusuke Sakamoto, who is currently active as a manga artist under the pen name “Qrais”, spent the 14 weeks of the course finishing his own “My Story” animation while he was studying at Tokyo Zokei. Or rather, he was the only student who completed the assignment during the course. [laughs] I remember when I asked his classmates what they thought of it, they said, “He’s like an alien on a completely different level. Don’t treat us like him!” [laughs]

*5 Abbreviation for Tama Art University’s Department of Graphic Design, which also actively has its students produce animation. Animated pieces from the department’s students are collectively called “TamaGra Animation”. The department participates in the Inter College Animation Festival and continues to produce many up-and-coming animators.

Selected “My Story” Works (from the Tokyo Zokei Animations Archives Library)