The Godfather of Tokyo

“So the Madhouse studio was in debt,” says Masao Murayama, “and there was this big buy-out. I was happy to sell it on to someone else, and then I thought: now what am I going to do? I put people together. We make things that we love. Am I going to stop?”

Which is why, at the age when most Japanese workers are long-retired, Maruyama found himself setting up Mappa, the Maruyama Animation Produce Project Association, which soon established its credentials with the critical smash of Kids on the Slope. But even then, Maruyama bowed out in 2016, as the studio unleashed In This Corner of the World and Yuri on Ice.

Did he retire? Hell, no. “People like me and Hayao Miyazaki,” he said, “we’re all born in 1941. We were there for the beginnings of anime as we know it. We don’t know when to quit. We don’t know what we would do if we did quit!” And so he founded his newest start-up, the studio M2, at the age of 75.

“This is probably my last,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “Or is it?”

He is wearing an Astro Boy sweatshirt that recalls his first-ever job, but is remembering a figure from much later in his career.

“I said to Satoshi Kon: I like you. I like your work. There’s greatness in you, but the mainstream just can’t see it. We just don’t get the box office on your films. We did horror with Perfect Blue, we did film history with Millennium Actress. So maybe let’s do something entertaining. And he says: ‘I want to do a thing about three tramps who find an abandoned baby.’”

The result was Tokyo Godfathers, anime’s good-natured, sardonic Christmas movie, in which a foundling child inadvertently propels the cast into a series of increasingly unlikely coincidences that fix their issues, solve their lives, and reunite them with their estranged families. The message, arguably, was universal, but the medium was incredibly, well, Christmassy, unleashed on a Japanese population with barely 1% believers.

“Yeah,” sighs Maruyama. “Nobody came to see that one, either.” He looks out over the packed cinema at the Edinburgh Filmhouse, and raises a quizzical eyebrow. “What did you think?” The crowd bursts into raucous applause for his 14-year-old movie. This frail old man, so shaky that my heart’s in my mouth every time I have to watch him climb some steps, beams with pure joy.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in NEO 171, 2017.

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