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Japanese Animator Balances Creativity With Pragmatism

Studio Ghibli's President Emphasizes Need for Skills; Casual Emergence of Ideas

Posted without permission for personal entertainment purpose only.

Text from the Wall Street Journal Online.

October 16, 2006

WSJ: What was your first job and what was the biggest lesson you learned from it?

Mr. Suzuki: My family ran a small clothes-manufacturing business, so even as a child I helped my parents. To make clothes, you cut the fabric according to a pattern. The way you draw the pattern determines how much of the fabric will be wasted. To minimize waste, you have to think creatively. My first job outside the family business was at a rubber-making factory, a manual labor job. Being involved in manufacturing in both of those jobs made me want to become a person who makes things, rather than a white-collar office worker. I still have that tendency today.

WSJ: Who gave you the best business advice?

Mr. Suzuki: It was from the late Yasuyoshi Tokuma [the former president of Tokuma Shoten Publishing]. He told me, "money is just paper." Money is money because people think it is, but it's nothing but a piece of paper.

WSJ: What advice would you give someone starting out in your field today?

Mr. Suzuki: To those who are trying to make animation movies, I would tell them to brush up their skills. You need skills before everything else.

WSJ: What was the toughest decision you've had to make as a manager?

Mr. Suzuki: It was the decision to make "Princess Mononoke." Investors and distributors were against the idea. First of all, they thought historical dramas wouldn't sell. The second reason was timing. There was a Hollywood blockbuster scheduled for the same year. I think it was "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" . The third reason was that the budget was too big. It was a tough decision but turned out to be rewarding. I think having people who are against your plan is a positive thing because it creates tension that forces you to try harder to improve your plan. I've never yielded to opposition. I always struggle and push it through.

WSJ: What is the biggest mistake you've ever made?

Mr. Suzuki: Agreeing to become president. I really didn't want to assume that role, so I looked for someone else to take that position. But people I approached said the idea of working above me and Hayao Miyazaki [Japan's most famous animator and director of many Studio Ghibli films] is too intimidating. So in the end, I had to do it. What I don't like about being president is that one tends to become more conservative and miserly. When you are working under someone, you can do whatever you want and let the boss worry about the consequences. Even though I'm president, my role as a movie producer is my priority. I think that's because our company is very small and there isn't much need for management. In our office people rarely refer to me as president. Hayao Miyazaki calls me president only when we are in trouble.

WSJ: Managing a group of independent-minded creators sounds difficult. Is that so?

Mr. Suzuki: The most important thing is to give them an attractive, convincing project. Nobody loves to work for their bosses, but if there is a project that they think is worth their effort, they will work hard. I explain to all of them what the project is about so that they can share the vision. The ideas for such projects often emerge in casual, everyday situations, rather than at formal meetings. "Howl's Moving Castle," for example, was first conceived in a men's restroom. Hayao Miyazaki was there and he asked me what we should do for the next movie. That doesn't necessarily mean the ideas are random and spontaneous. Rather, we are always thinking about these things and always ready to talk about them. I don't think formal meetings are effective, because people may start thinking that meetings are special occasions for thinking hard and the rest of the time they don't have to think as hard. It takes much more effort to be prepared at all times.

WSJ: Why do you think Japanese animation is so popular and successful around the world?

Mr. Suzuki: Let me answer that with a metaphor I borrow from Japanese social critic Shuichi Kato. When building a house, traditional Japanese builders start with the tiniest detail and gradually expand from there. Western builders are the opposite. They start with the picture of a whole and add details to it. When Westerners look at old Japanese buildings, they often wonder how the builders drew the blueprint for such a complex shape. But the secret is that there never was a blueprint. It is this fundamental difference in approach that makes Japanese buildings fascinating to their eyes. The same thing can be said about animation. The way we create large images for movies is similar to that traditional architectural method. I think that explains the appeal Japanese animation can have, particularly in the western world.

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