Michael Arias on Harmony

Michael Arias made a name for himself when he joined Studio 4°C to direct Tekkonkinkreet, one of the landmark animtion features of the 00s. Ignoring the 1 minute short he made for Ani*Kuri15, he returned to the world of anime in 2015 to co-direct Harmony with Takashi Nakamura. The film is an adaptation of a Project Itoh novel and marks a welcome return to a more conceptual and cerebral style of anime. I was lucky enough to ask Arias some questions about his latest film, here's what he had to say:

Michael Arias on Harmony

Niels Matthijs: My guess is you're probably tired of telling people what it's like to work as a foreigner in Japan, so instead let me ask you what it's like to work at Studio 4°C. Many Western fans are familiar with studios like Ghibli, Gainax or Production I.G, but Studio 4°C is a clear outlier. Does it also feel different working there?

Michael Arias: It’s ironic that I’ve become associated with the 4°C brand, despite having remained freelance all these years. But I’ve done a bit of work at other animation studios, and though each studio has its unique workflow and institutional knowledge, there’s a great deal of overlap as well. So, if audiences perceive a “house style”, I think that’s more likely due to the chemistry of the returning cast of artists that are employed by each studio, than a deliberate effort to create a consistent look and feel. As far as what makes 4°C unique, that’s tough to answer, but I will say that the period between 2000-2007 was a pretty great time to be at the studio (and it felt that way then too). The Animatrix, Mind Game and Tekkonkinkreet and many smaller projects were all happening and shared a great deal of creative DNA. Koji Morimoto was still at 4°C and was a very inspiring figure (well, he continues to inspire, but he’s no longer at 4°C). I wish I could say that the studio didn’t suffer when he left, but at least some of us missed his presence. His output may have been sparse, but his contribution on a spiritual and artistic level can’t be overstated. Hard to say, but the studio seemed quite different by the time I started Harmony. (Then again, I was very different too.)

You co-directed Harmony with Takashi Nakamura [Robot Carnival, A Tree of Palme], another Studio 4°C regular. How did you guys team up and how did you divide the work?

I’ve always been a great admirer of Nakamura’s work. Shinji Kimura introduced us and at our first meeting I actually had him sign a DVD of Tree of Palme, which I love. Harmony had a fairly tight schedule and limited budget to begin with and several months into preproduction, we were still lacking a finished script and character designs. So by the time Nakamura was invited to co-direct, we were quite behind schedule and didn’t really have the luxury of planning how to divide our tasks. It was kind of a shotgun marriage, to be honest. But I still think he’s a genius.

I must admit that I hadn't heard of Project Itoh before. I read up on him afterwards and it seems it's my mistake for missing out. Where you already familiar with his work or where you assigned to this film?

Before being approached by the Fuji Television folks producing the three Project Itoh anime films, I had spent a year trying to get a live-action adaptation of Harmony off the ground. So, yes, I was very familiar with Itoh.

At first I thought Itoh referred to Kazunori Itoh, not in the least because Kazunori Itoh is also known for his conceptually strong writing. Those very conceptually expansive stories have been missing from anime features for a while now, can we expect a revival or is this just a one-off?

I have no idea! The three adaptations of Itoh works are certainly all very conceptually expansive, as you say. I like this kind of material very much.

Sadly Mr Itoh passed away a couple of years ago. Was it difficult to adapt his work without having the author of the source material around. You did a similar thing with Tekkonkinkreet, but there you had the support of Taiyo Matsumoto.

Having Taiyo on my side when I was making Tekkonkinkreet was definitely great encouragement. And I had a million things I would have liked to discuss with Itoh, had he been with us. On the other hand, movies and novels are such different vehicles for ideas that, with any adaptation, you kind of have to be comfortable acknowledging that your movie is just one possible interpretation, and that you are diluting the original with your own DNA and hoping to synthesize something interesting from that combination. Obviously, you’re not overwriting anything in the source.

What surprised me the most is that the future in Harmony is some kind of utopia, where sci-fi typically deals with negative, destructive post-apocalyptic stories. Was it a challenge to bring a rather novel vision like that to the screen? 

The "brave new world” shown in Harmony is most definitely a satire of modern society. That’s something that attracted me to the material and that’s the kind of sci-fi I like. Look at Blade Runner: if that isn’t swiftian, I don’t know what is! But so much of what passes for sci-fi these days is just so dreary, watching is like a bad Ambien trip.

Harmony feels very dense. The world building is quite extensive and there's a lot of ground to cover. A novel gives a writer plenty of time to explore these things, but a film is more limited in scope. Did you have trouble cramming everything in?

Harmony the novel is pretty crammed—Alexander O. Smith did a wonderful English translation of it, by the way. So there was a certain amount of pruning some of Itoh’s digressions, and of trying to show the story rather than tell the story. That had the overall effect of emphasizing the search for Miach, and backgrounding some of the more esoteric sci-fi details (though I think we got plenty in there). That said, I don’t remember having trouble getting it all in, per se. I think the challenge was to tell this story in an interesting and visceral way, since some of the characters are quite, um, cerebral.

The entire film revolves around the tension between free choice and global peace. Even though the plot itself comes to a conclusion, I felt the film left the answer to this morale predicament wide open. Was this a conscious choice or did I miss some pointers somewhere?

No, you got it, and that’s the way the novel works as well. Itoh was very ill when he created Harmony. (I believe much of it was written from a hospital bed.) And I’ve wondered if perhaps that moral ambiguity is what happens when an atheist stares death in the face. Maybe he also wished at times that he could give himself over to the collective mind.

I've seen quite a few sci-fi films, but never one that looked so pink. I have to say it was a little jarring at first, on the other hand it lends the film a very unique flavor and it does fit the setting. How did you arrive at this particular aesthetic?

The pink city is a visual detail from the novel. And we thought it was a very nice way of embodying the idea that this society actually kills with kindness. Somehow it works on you in a different way than, say, Big Brother posters everywhere.

I heard you used a different approach for Tekkonkinkreet's soundtrack and I felt the difference was noticeable. It's not that Harmony's score is bad, but it does feel more like an afterthought. Was it a budgetary decision, a time restraint maybe? Or did you just want to try something else?

I was not involved in any of Harmony’s postproduction. Music, casting, dubbing, sound design were directed in large part by Nakamura and the film's producers, while I stayed focussed on completing the digital effects. Needless to say, it was a very different experience from Tekkonkinkreet (and all of my subsequent work with Plaid and Mitch Osias).

Mamoru Oshii is known to treat dialogue as part of the soundtrack. I agree with him, as the difference between a Japanese and English dub can make a big difference on the atmosphere of a film. Are you involved in that process and if so, for both dubs or just the original one?

I would have to agree with Oshii-san also. Tekkonkinkreet and Animatrix, yes, very involved.

With Harmony finished, what's next? Will it be another 6 years before we see a new Arias project?

I have a few things in the early stages. I certainly hope it won’t be that long.

Carte blanche, no budgetary limitations, no producers or investors wanting to make their money back ... What would be your ideal project?

Material I love, a producer I trust and a team of artists I pick.

If I can make a final suggestion: please team up with Mr. Morimoto once more. The work you did on the original Tekon demo was phenomenal and he really needs to make something longer than those frustratingly short anthology entries. Maybe extend Noiseman Sound Insect into a feature?

Perhaps though Morimoto-san is more of a sprinter than a marathon runner. But I do keep telling him that I’ll be there for him when he finally makes a feature film!