Have you ever thought of moving to the other side of the world to pursue your dream or just because? And I'm not talking about changing State or moving from one European country to the other, I'm talking about long distances.
We met a man who did, who went from Los Angeles, the pulsing heart of the film industry, to Tokyo, the metropolitan capital of the East, heaven for Japanese manga and anime lovers. And when we asked him why, he replied, “I don't know exactly.”
Michael Arias has been living in Tokyo since 1996 and is the first non-Japanese person to have directed a major anime film.
Many might wonder how that happened, so THU decided to ask him.
Michael studied Japanese for two years at university, before dropping out. As a child he was building models at home and filming them explode. When he was 18, he began thinking of making movies and working in special effects as a career option, because it was something he was interested in and that he had been doing alone for a long time. That's how he ended up getting an internship at a rapidly growing vfx house in L.A. and eventually got staffed in what he recalls as a “good time”.
“We were working on cool, very ambitious projects,” he says. “This was old school handmade photochemical and photomechanical special effects!”
One of the VFX jobs he had was being done in collaboration with a Japanese company. The film was being done in omnimax format, and there were very few places in the world where you could do optical printing of those high resolution, very large negatives back then, and one was in Japan.
“There were a lot of Japanese people on the crew with me and we had frequent contacts with the VFX house,” he explains. “I spoke enough Japanese to hang out with the Japanese model makers or have dinner with the visitors when they were in town. So when the time came for the Director to go to Japan to handle some elements that needed work, he took me with him.”
Michael describes Japan in 1990 as an amazing place, where they had futuristic and beautiful equipment, in an old-fashioned ambience that appealed to him. He believes it was inevitable for him to be curious about the people and culture of a language he'd studied for a while. So curious, that when the people from the company they were working with offered him a job there, he accepted.
“I don't think they were serious,” he laughs. “But I was!”
You cant get a work visa in Japan if you haven't graduated, but Michael had managed to have a university consider his work experience as credits and therefore completed a degree in music technology.
“It's a shame really, because many talented people don't finish college...” he sighs.
The film industry in Japan is much smaller compared to the one in the USA, but there are many opportunties and it was already a big business in the 90s. Michael points out a few differences he noticed in his time working there.
“Japanese crafts people are paid much less than their US counterparts, so maybe people are into it less for the money and more for the love of the craft, without taking anything away from filmmakers in Hollywood,” he says.
“Even working on a well-funded Japanese film is like working in low-budget indie in the States. The scale of budgets here is ten times less – 10million dollars here is considered an incredible budget, while in the US it's nothing!” he adds.
But on movie sets in both countries, Michael noticed that people take what they're doing quite seriously and there is a very high level of professionalism. However, because the film industry in Japan is not unionized, people tend to work much longer hours and under much more difficult conditions, such as small crowded offices where people smoke at their desks.
Michael survived it all and really enjoys his life in Japan today, even though it was hard to adjust in the beginning when he was seen as a “mascott”, “the talking dog”. He was a rookie to people in Japan, who ignored the successes he had working on high profile films in the US. The language barrier was definitely an obstacle he overcame with time. He was also lucky that some people took him der their wing, while others resented the fact that he had been very lucky and been given a certain amount of special treatment.
By the time he started directing, he had been there 15 years and had had some success.
“I was quite unknown in animation, but I was able to speak and articulate what my ideas were, which helped,” he remembers. “I had a track record. People were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. I ended up directing two theatrical animations, a live-action film, and a bunch of music videos and shorts.”
But when he first decided to work on ANIMATRIX, he had to spend a lot of time trying to get people interested in the project. In Japan, if a child who loves to draw wants to make comic books or animation when he grows up, it's not considered to be a crazy idea. Many people have become very rich and successful by doing so. But the comic book he selected was not a mainstream success, just like the film he made.
“It did ok,” he tells THU. “It had a lot of dedicated fans and it did win the Japanese Academy Award for best animated feature, which was kind of a big deal. I had a huge amount of help from incredibly talented artists and even though the public likes to think the Director is everything, he is really not.”
There's still a few things Michael wants to do before moving on, perhaps back to the US to be with his family.
“When I watch the news I just get really angry about what's going on back in the States though,” he laughs. “Japan is a great place to live, especially if you're doing animation. Plus it's clean, has a strong sense of tradition and beauty, good food culture and so on. It's not going to be easy to leave.”