Who is Koji Morimoto? The Stellar Anime Director

Koji Morimoto at the “World of Koji Morimoto” Screening
Koji Morimoto at the “World of Koji Morimoto” Screening

An under-recognized Anime Director

Koji Morimoto is not a household name outside of his country, Japan. But where he is recognized, he’s known as a talented illustrated and director who makes refined animation. Cult followers know him as a key animator in major films like Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service. Initially, Morimoto worked as one animator in studio teams. But as his career advanced, he developed a penchant for directing anime, instead.  

Morimoto’s career began when he graduated from the Osaka Designers’ College in 1979. A few years later, he joined the studio, Annapuru, to animate a TV series called Tomorrow’s Joe. In 1986, he co-founded STUDIO4  with anime producer Eiko Tanaka to create creative and avante-garde films. Many of his films have the detailed style that his fans love, but it’s his work in Akira (1988) that is credited for changing the way people saw anime. 

Screencap from Akira (1988)
Screencap from Akira, 1988

Akira: Convincing the Public that Anime is for Adults

Akira is a film known for revolutionizing animation. The story (coincidentally) takes place in 2019, in an alternate universe where Tokyo is in an apocalypse. The characters have to deal with a world where authoritarian police and corruption are rampant among the chaos. The film’s visual style is very cyberpunk, which means that viewers can see advanced technology mixed with social mayhem. The film’s themes are anything but childish as it deals with feelings of depression in Post-War Japan through this gritty style.  

Akira became the 2nd most popular movie to succeed in the Western market after Godzilla. In the review, Akira: Changing the Face of Animewriter Chris Kincaid analyzed that the film’s animation style looked more like live-action than cartoons. For example, the “camera” would zoom in and pan across images as live-action films do.

Scene from Akira, Giphy
Scene from Akira, Giphy

Illustrated Scenes were hand-drawn

Achieving this effect took tremendous work. YouTube Channel Dorkly explains how in his video Why Akira is the Most Important Anime Ever Made. In the 1980s, most anime used two frames per second. This created the standard “stilted” look, where characters stay frozen on one expression for a few seconds. In contrast, standard live-action films used twenty-four frames per second.

Akira was the first anime to match the live-action standard, creating a whole twenty-four drawings per second of footage. This made the animation incredibly fluid to the eye, giving it a more “mature” appearance to viewers who were used to cartoons looking simplistic. 

The film contains blood, motorcycle racing, and beautiful shots of city lights. But none of these shots used CGI, which means that the animators had to put every single detail in the film by hand.   

Where does Morimoto fall into this? Not only did he illustrate some of these scenes himself, but he helped the film reach its cult status by directing other drawings to bring the grit, speed, and action of Akira to life. After Akira, Morimoto continued to work with major films, producers, and directors. He has directed many short films that are revered for their surreal, risky animation. 

Highlights in Robot Carnival and Magnetic Rose

Morimoto has worked on several short animated anthologies including Robot Carnival and Magnetic Rose.

Robert Carnival (1987) was a series of short OVA films that featured the work of nine popular animators. Each short had a different tone, whether it involved science fiction or romance. Morimoto’s contribution was Franken Gearsa story of a mad scientist whose robot is brought to life by a strike of lightning. In the beginning, we see the scientist roll down a long hole (not unlike Alice’s rabbit hole) filled with fossils and gears to meet his creation.

At first, he tries to bring the creature to life through his own devices. The first attempt is unsuccessful but leaves us with a beautiful array of animation to enjoy. The mad scientist’s expressions of shock, fear, and excitement are as vivid as the dance of lightning that brightens the room.

Morimoto brings the same level of detail to another anthology, Memories. He worked with famous producer Satoshi Kon (known for his 1997 film, Perfect Blue) to create Magnetic Rose as a part of the seriesOne fan describes this film as a “terrifying story of a deep space salvage cruise’s ensnarement in the siren wiles of an aristocratic opera singer.”

The film explores themes of identity and uncertainty, which is only augmented by Morimoto’s trippy style. In this short, you can see scenes of a rustic spaceship in a space void juxtaposed by windy rose gardens. 

If you’re interested in Morimoto’s concept art, you can view a collection of it in his 2004 scrapbook, OrangeThe book matches his film style, featuring a collection of industrial and cyberpunk-themed characters and places. Yet, Morimoto normally prefers to work with other people instead of solo.

Teamwork: Morimoto’s Value for Better Animation

Select drawings via KojiMorimoto.com
Select drawings via KojiMorimoto.com

Before Morimoto became a freelancer animator, he worked with other studios. One of these studios was Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. But Morimoto realized that that studio’s culture was one where the team viewed Miyazaki’s ideas as first and foremost. Everyone followed what he asked, but Morimoto values combining several peoples’ ideas to create better projects.

In the 2015 Japan Film Festival of San Francisco, he told interviewers,

I feel like the world today demands something more… At my age, I’ve finally understood that these are things you cannot do alone. You need a team of people, you need to work together, and only then can you create something that can change the world.”

He adds that when his team begins a project, they will sit down for about a month to discuss it. Once they’ve agreed on an idea, they delegate tasks according to who came up with it. Considering his previous success with this model, we expect him to continue making films that enthrall his fans. 

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