Redline Creators: Takeshi Koike + Katsuhito Ishii Talk

Redline managed to combine the visceral ferocity of old-school Madhouse titles like Ninja Scroll with a modern style that felt as familiar and nostalgic as it was fresh and exciting. The film appealed to fans who felt like their interests had been abandoned by the modern anime industry, while still entertaining those with zero interest in VHS-era classics.

But, as Daryl Surat wrote for Otaku USA Magazine, “It will most likely be the last anime movie made that is primarily hand-drawn animation, and it’s not painstakingly calculated to appeal to the Japanese otaku demographic at the expense of everybody else.”  Unencumbered by production committees, full of vigor, style and purpose; Redline was a labor of love, as this interview illustrates.

Takeshi Koike, Director

Koike began working for Madhouse in 1986, doing in-between animation on Yoshiaki Kawajiri projects like Wicked City (1987) and Demon City Shinjuku (1988). He moved up to key animation duties for titles like Cyber City Oedo 808 (1990), Ninja Scroll (1993) and Birdy The Mighty (1996) before starting to direct his own projects in the 2000s. After working on Trava Fist (a prequel of sorts to Redline) in 2003, he directed the The Animatrix short World Record and directed, storyboarded and created key animation for the pilot episode of Afro Samurai. After completing Redline in 2009, Koike went on direct the Lupin III film, Daisuke Jigen’s Gravestone in 2014.

Katsuhito Ishii, Producer

Best known for live-action films like A Taste of Tea or Funky Forest, Ishii also worked on the anime sequence of Kill Bill: Volume 1. Following Redline, he worked again with Koike as a creative advisor on Lupin III: Jigen’s Gravestone in 2014. He’s currently directing the forthcoming Gamera reboot.

The following interview is from Plus Madhouse 5, published in 2010. Plus Madhouse was a book series highlighting the creators and works of the animation studio Madhouse. Translation by: Matt

Director Ishii, you drafted the idea for Redline, right?

Ishii: Right. The initial push came from producer [Daisuke] Kimura, who said, “hey, let’s try something new.” At that time Koike was working on the pilot for Afro Samurai. We figured the longer we spent thinking about what to do the scarier it would be to actually start writing, so we quickly decided on something sci-fi. Koike and I had made a short for Grasshoppa! called Trava, and we figured something in the same universe might be cool.

Koike: This is five or six years ago, right?

Ishii: About seven, no? We were working on the pilot seven years ago.

Koike: Wow, seven years ago. [laughs]

Ishii: I’m getting nostalgic. [laughs] Seriously. Even before talking to Koike I was thinking of him while writing the rough draft. Setting it in space, making the characters cheerful yet cool, somehow involving cars and races…

When did you start thinking about Koike as director?

Ishii: When I was in the middle of editing Taste of Tea, I also did some work on Kill Bill. Tarantino really likes Japanese animation, so he assembled a bunch of Japanese animators. I did the character designs. There was some vague chatter at the time of “we could do this kind of anime in Japan too, you know.” At that time Kimura said to me, “if we want to make something cool like Kill Bill, maybe Koike’s the one to do it?” It was a kind of hunch. [laughs]

Koike: The moment I had a look at Ishii’s mechanical designs, I was jumping with excitement, thinking, “I’ve gotta animate this!” [laughs] I thought “these characters are so cool, I want to use all of them.” It hadn’t been decided whether or not I would be on the staff of the Afro Samurai series, so when I saw Ishii’s designs, I quickly decided to join up on Redline.

What part of the draft attracted you?

Koike: The way I like to draw, characters are done in completely BL (black) shadowing, with backgrounds that are also hand-drawn and painted to match the cels with all-black shadowing. Ishii’s designs looked like they’d be cool in that style.

In other words, they would good in black.

Koike: Right. There were also a lot of leather jackets.

Ishii: Aha [laughs]

Koike: When the screen is filled up with blacks, bright close-ups really pop off the screen. For the way I work, that’s a very effective method. So I thought the Redline designs really suited my own talents.

Why did you decide to consider Koike as director?

Ishii: After directing Trava, he did the opening animation for my film Party 7. I thought, “man, Koike is amazing.” With all that in mind I decided on him immediately.

Koike is known in the industry as a virtuoso animator. Did you ask Koike to direct thinking of him as an animator?

Ishii: As an artist.

Koike: [laughs]

Ishii: I’m from the American comics generation. I grew up reading Spiderman and Captain America, and also watching the anime of Yoshinori Kanada and Yasuo Otsuka. I even knew the way to Hayao Miyazaki’s house. [laughs] So by the time I was in high school I liked American comics, animators, and also got into modern art. Koike has all those elements. That’s what I wanted from Redline.

He’s not just an animator, not just an anime director.

Ishii: He has the power to pull everything together. He can draw, he can write stories; he can do it all. Those kinds of people hardly exist in the anime world. Hayao Miyazaki… that’s about it. I would show Koike designs or art books I liked and he would adapt those materials using his own outlook.

Koike: Ishii is really good at that. He just keeps showing you stuff that makes you really inspired. He also gives you a lot of freedom. Once he shows you a rough idea of what he wants, you can arrange it how you want, which is great.

Could you talk a little more about that level of freedom?

Koike: In the world Ishii created for Redline, there has a been a great war, so society and culture have basically been reset.

So you could decide what remains and what’s been lost?

Koike: Right. We could do that because we chose a sci-fi setting, for one thing. Being able to create our own setting like that was a lot of fun.

Ishii: Using racing as a framing device was a big part of it. I really like the novel Flanagan’s Run, and I wondered if we couldn’t use that as a kind of basis. Right now it’s out of print so it’s hard to get a hold of, but it’s really interesting. After the war, a bunch of people from different countries around the world have a footrace from Los Angeles to New York. It’s a race to see who’s the best from each country, and while these racers transverse America a lot of different stuff happens. It’s a really interesting book.

Koike, did you read it?

Koike: Nope. [laughs]

Ishii: We also wanted to do something that felt like [the Osamu Dazai story] Run, Melos! Basically, we decided to do a road race, but weren’t sure on the details. We thought it would be fun to have a lot of different aliens and create a world where you can basically do what you want.

Koike, About how many of Redline’s key frames did you draw?

Koike: For Redline I was really concentrating on my role as director, so I didn’t draw that many. I did do cleanup work [sakuga shuusei], though.

Ishii: Koike’s drawings have a certain sex appeal. Kind of like Yoshinori Kanada. Kanada’s drawings have a feminine feeling no one can really replicate, right? In the same way, Koike also has this special “Koike” feeling no one can copy.

You could say the women Koike draws are well fleshed-out.

Ishii: Exactly! He draws grown-up women. They really move properly, and he draws both their rough and gentle points. There are a lot of animators out there who can draw child-like women, but not so many who can do grown-ups.

One of the highlights of Redline are those grown-up women.

Koike: I like western movies, and so I end up using the women in those movies as references. The voluptuousness of their lips, for example, is really erotic, and I want to use that in my work. For me, rather than being inspired by other drawings, I take inspiration from real life. Non-Japanese people’s ruggedness, things like that I feel are really cool. They have the atmosphere of a sculpture. When I watch western movies, I feel like western actresses’ faces are sturdy and beautiful.

Ishii: They feel solid.

Koike: Right. That’s the feeling I want to show in my drawings. And if you exaggerate them a little bit, you get a drawing with a lot of impact. That’s how I think when I’m drawing. [laughs]

In Redline, the close-ups of Super Bons’ lips are really memorable.

Koike: Yeah, I really like those lip and eye close-ups.

Did you have to teach the staff how to do that kind of erotic style?

Koike: I left those parts to animators who are good at that kind of stuff. Yutaka Minowa, who’s famous for his work on Yoshiaki Kawajiri productions, did a great job on the Super Bons’ close-ups. Like, extremely great. [laughs] I didn’t really explain what I wanted, but just let him do his thing. If you have great partners like that, making a movie is fun.

The cars aren’t CG, are they…?

Koike: Hell no! Everything is done by hand. [laughs]

There’s a real feeling of elasticity in the cars. It’s surprising how extremely precise the drawings are.

Ishii: It’s erotic. Just as the people are erotic, so are the cars. You can’t get that feeling from CG. Whoa, these are really hand-drawn – that’s the feeling you get when you finish watching. It’s kind of like feeling drunk. [laughs]

Koike: Those angles or distortions or exaggerated passes I can do to my liking. That’s what it means to draw by hand. The excitement of hand-drawn animation is necessary for my work, so from the beginning, we decided “definitely by hand!” But during the production, a lot of staff members starting saying, “yeah, but can’t we do this part with CG?”

[both laugh]

Koike: I said, “No! I’m doing it by hand, dammit!” [laughs]

Ishii: I believe if we don’t show the liveliness and forcefulness of hand-drawn animation now, everyone will fall back on CG. Everything done so tidily. I really hate that stuff. How can I say this… from the beginning, we decided against that kind of Production I.G, cutting-edge look.

From the beginning.

Ishii: Yeah, we wanted to make something that you could, like, smell.

Koike: Places like Studio Ghibli and Production I.G that get labeled as the pinnacle of animation… it’s precisely because they’re so supreme that we wanted to do something different, to take a different path.

Ishii: I wanted to raise anime to a level of artistry that no one – not Takashi Murakami, nobody – could beat. That no one would even try to beat. Something about which people would say, “whoa, you can make something this cool?” Something where anyone from any country would understand the greatness of anime. That’s why I really want car-loving kids around the world to be able to watch Redline. Sonoshee’s tits might be a problem, though. [laughs]

When we were first putting the film together, we were imagining the audience as those kids in midwest America who have nothing fun to do but fiddle with cars. We really wanted to send a message to those kids, even if they’re not particularly smart. [laughs] We gave it an cool American touch, and it’d be great if they watched it not even realizing it’s not from their own country.

Koike: When I first heard those kids existed, I thought, “hey, that’s not too far from my own childhood.” With that kind of commonality in mind, I hope a lot different people can enjoy the film.

By the way, when you guys were young, were cars a part of your life?

Ishii: The “super car boom” was happening right when we were kids. Ferrari, Mueller, anime like Speed Racer and Machine Hayabusa.

Koike: Man, those were great. [laughs]

Ishii: I really loved stuff like that. The first episode of green-jacket Lupin had an F1 race that was great. The staff of that original Lupin series were all kind of hippies, you know? They weren’t otaku. Sure, they liked anime, but they made anime while thinking about cool, manly stuff.

Koike: Yasuo Otsuka animated those great jeeps and watches and stuff.

Ishii: Yeah, exactly. When I was a kid I wanted to design cars like that. These days I drive a regular ol’ Beetle though.

The Beetle has nice curves, though.

Ishii: Yeah, it’s nice and cute. [laughs]

Koike: I also loved super cars, and I really loved the film The Cannonball Run. The first five minutes of that film are so great, and the two girls who race in the Countach are just so cool, the way they drive the Countach and shake off the police car that’s chasing them. To be honest, they were my inspiration for Super Bons.

Are you two about the same age?

Ishii: Close. I’m 43.

Koike: I’m 42.

So you basically grew up watching the same stuff.

Ishii: Yeah, pretty much. [laughs]

What’s your strongest impression of one another?

Ishii: Koike is a genius. They aren’t many directors who can create such an original universe down to the last detail like him. Not to mention his ability to draw women so well. Being able to express the sexiness of women – and the sexiness of men, for that matter. He can draw with real depth. The detail with which he draws cars is just amazing too. From now on, even if someone makes an anime like this, I don’t know if anyone will be up to trying to top him. [laughs] That’s how good he is. The curves, the designs, the feeling of speed, everything’s amazing. From the beginning, I thought it would be great to make an anime that really felt like pop art, and I’m really happy he made that happen.

Koike: Thank you. [laughs] I think Ishii is the true director of Redline. I think the role of a director is basically to take all the interesting ideas the staff dishes out and use them in your own way. There are things I really admire about Ishii. During the production of Redline, whenever I wasn’t sure how to effectively communicate with the staff, I thought about what Ishii would do. That went really well with some people, others got pissed off… there were a lot of different reactions. [laughs]

Ishii: [laughs]

Koike: I was always thinking about what Ishii would do throughout the course of the production. I really consider him the true director of Redline.

Ishii: Thank you.

Can you recall anything specific Ishii said to you?

Koike:Redline is your movie, so do what you want.” [laughs]

That was basically your ticket to do things your own way.

Koike: Exactly. [laughs] I’ll never forget it.

Ishii, how about you? What’s something that sticks in your mind about Koike?

Ishii: His ability to keep on going. I get tired of things really easily. No matter what it is. I can never settle on a single tone for a movie because I get bored. I even fall asleep at my own films’ preview screenings. Koike can keep his level of motivation high and just keep on going. That power is something amazing. Redline really benefitted from that power. Man, I want manga artists to see this film. People like that, whose job it is to draw with such detail, can really understand the greatness of Redline. I really want those kind of people to see it.

Thank you very much.

Translation by Matt