Hiroyuki Yamaga was 22 years old when he became an anime director. The ink was still drying on his college degree when he was suddenly catapulted into the limelight, and sent off to make Royal Space Force, a vaguely defined science fiction epic about the race for the stars. There was also, somewhere in the pre-production meetings, a second vague assurance to the sponsors that there might be some merchandise tie-ins.
Yamaga doesn’t admit to feeling out of his depth. He went in supremely confident; he came out with an anime masterpiece. He knew what he was doing right from the start, and claims that, even though he graduated in film, the best possible training for directorship is to pick a movie and watch it ten times. Once is entertainment, twice is repetition… by the fourth or fifth time you’re climbing the walls. But then you start to see lighting you would have fixed, lines you would have rewritten, shots you would have reblocked. By the tenth pass, you hate the movie, but you are ready to make a better one.
Which is why, like all filmmakers, twenty years later he isn’t going to sit in the theatre while his work plays to an audience for the thousandth time. Instead, he’s with me, whiling away 90 minutes until the movie ends, sitting outside a bar in a square in Switzerland. He fiddles with his pipe, a sleek metallic artefact from Porsche Design, and sips his Italian wine.
I refuse to believe that his movie went that smoothly. I remember the first day I was given control of a meagre £17,000 magazine budget. I spent the first day vomiting. But he was 22 and running a six-figure production.
“Oh,” he admits, “there were the grown-ups, I suppose. The people who had to sign off on everything. The producers who’d put up the money. They left me to it largely, which is why I am still pleased with the film, but every now and then they insisted on some little tweak.”
It’s only when he talks of the changes made during production that we catch a glimpse of how outnumbered and outgunned he could have been. With Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind topping the box office, one of the “grown-ups” made the handy suggestion that The Something of Something would be a better title and would draw more audiences into the theatres. Since one of the movie’s sponsors was All Nippon Airlines, someone else helpfully suggested that something aerial-sounding should be in. And so Royal Space Force became The Wings of Honneamise.
I ask Yamaga how it felt on the first day, standing in front of a crowd of expectant animators, all waiting for him to tell them what to do.
He shrugs and tinkers with his pipe.
“They’re animators. They’re professionals. It’s their job to do what I tell them. If I don’t like something, I am free to ask for changes. That’s my job. It’s much easier telling professional animators what to do, because they’re being paid to follow my orders. Like waiters,” he adds with a cheeky smile, as more wine is put in front of him.
“The most difficult thing is telling amateurs what to do. After you’ve run a fanzine… After you’ve run a convention, when the only staff members are volunteers and everyone is there out of love, and your only means of control is charisma and pleading… After you’ve done that, running a bunch of movie professionals is a piece of cake.”
(This article first appeared in NEO #67, 2009)