This year marks the 35th anniversary of My Neighbor Totoro, and Hirokatsu Kihara attended FanimeCon 2023 as a Guest of Honor to discuss his time at Studio Ghibli, working on the production desk for the film. During a panel, the former production manager dove into how various scenes were created, while sharing projections of numerous animation cels, both originals used in the film and others that were scrapped.
APA sat down with Kihara to chat about his perspective on why Totoro remains a beloved film to many, what it was like handling production management on the movie, and how a silly incident with Hayao Miyazaki led to Kihara inspiring Catbus’ iconic broad smile.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
APA: It’s been 35 years since Totoro’s release, and over 1,500 attendees came to your panel to learn more about the film. Even after all this time, what do you think continues to draw people to the film?
Kihara: Firstly, the film is told from the viewpoint of a child and that is something that will resonate with people who saw it when they were young. Secondly, no one in the movie doubts what a child says or does. They’re treated like real people. When a kid wants to do something, they’re often told what they can and can’t do, but it was important that we make a film where the child gets to decide. Thirdly, there is no enemy in the story. It’s rare that there’s no enemy for a protagonist to defeat in a film. I think that’s why people all around the world resonate with the film.
APA: If we can take a look back to the beginning, what inspired you to get into the animation industry?
Kihara: There was a ton of animation on Japanese TV; Japan has to be the only country in the world where there would be 40 to 50 anime on TV any given week. There’s all kinds of characters you’d see on TV like kaijuu and Ultraman. There probably wasn’t a single kid growing up in Japan who wasn’t influenced by seeing animation on TV. During that time, there was a big hit, Space Battleship: Yamato. That and Hayao Miyazaki’s works really inspired me to get into filmmaking.
When I was in college, I went to school with Hideaki Anno, the director of Evangelion, and Masahiko Minami, the president of animation studio Bones, which created anime like Cowboy Bebop and My Hero Academia. I think it is no coincidence that all of us were in college at the same time together and went on to do big things. I think just instead of making normal friendships, we were able to bond over animation.
Look around us [everybody at FanimeCon], we’re all friends here. This makes me remember about how I used to be, how I was inspired by animation, and everyone here is similar. But that time, it wasn’t like this and I didn’t have friends. Now otaku has an image of a “specialist,” but back then, otaku were discriminated against. I think the way things are now is like a paradise.
APA: At Studio Ghibli, you were responsible for production management. Can you share what that entails?
Kihara: I was responsible for making sure everybody was on the same page on the production. Basically outside of what Miyazaki was doing, it was my job to run the show. I did everything you could think of from buying supplies to managing schedules and negotiating deals. The most challenging part was the level of responsibility I felt knowing that Miyazaki asked me to take on this role. It’s not typical that somebody who is moving into their second year at the company is given that many responsibilities. Think about it. Here I am, this young upstart inside the company, managing all these people with some who were probably older than me. Would you ask a middle schooler to manage a bunch of college students?
The toughest thing about the job wasn’t about buying pencils and paper; it was getting everyone’s trust that I was someone who could lead. For example, when I would go to do contract negotiations, people would look at me and ask, “Are you lost? Are you missing your mom or dad? Even though Miyazaki has a strong reputation for being strict, he let you do this?” No, no, no, I was put in this role by Miyazaki. Then, their attitude changed: “OK, you must really be able to do good work then.” It was actually easier to get external validation over validation within the company. It was far scarier to be involved in the production of Laputa, Kiki, and Totoro than to do stuff like that, because I was the boss of everybody. It was really tough [sighs], please understand.
APA: Totoro is a really peaceful film filled with nature. Balancing that with a stressful work environment must have been challenging.
Kihara: That’s a good point, but that’s one of the jobs of the director. We actually brought in a lot of women into this project. As the main characters are young girls, we thought it was important to have women on the team to help convey the protagonists’ experience. It’s probably not widely known this was something we did for the film, and there probably aren’t a lot of other movies like that. This is not to say we didn’t need men on the project, but we definitely had more than the average number of women on this project. Please take a look at the credits. From roles in production to drawing, you’ll see a lot of women being credited.
The real job that was given to us was to think back, ‘When you were a kid, how would you have felt if you were in this really fantastical place?’ I think women are really good at drawing these sorts of fantastical creatures. I think the reason why I’m standing here right now is because that was a good decision on my part.
APA: During your panel, you mentioned something interesting. You said that Catbus was modeled after you. How did that come to be?
Kihara: Let me explain. I was so busy when I was making Laputa: Castle in the Sky, I couldn’t even go home. I actually decided to move close to Studio Ghibli. Because when I would go home, it was too late, and all the public transportation would be closed. I basically worked until 3 or 4 a.m., went home, and then went back to work at about 10 a.m. I was so, so, so busy. I commuted to work by bicycle. If I were to point out anything that Miyazaki and I share in common, it would be that we’re both stubborn, and we hate to lose.
One day, I was returning to my apartment on my bike. And then, somebody pulled up right alongside me. I saw that it was a silver 2CV, a French car, and I immediately knew it was Miyazaki. We both came up to the traffic light and looked over at each other. When we locked eyes, we knew neither of us wanted to lose. Even though it was obviously a race between a bike and a car, neither of us wanted to give up. As soon as the light turned green, we set off. I was pedaling as hard as I could, and we were just laughing as we raced each other. It was so exhausting, but it was so fun that I couldn’t stop smiling. I had this unbelievably big smile on my face in spite of this vain effort. Of course, Miyazaki won. He rolled down his window, looked at me, and said, “Well, you tried your best.” Meanwhile, I was just panting and trying to catch my breath. This is something that happened during the production of Laputa: Castle in the Sky.
The idea for Catbus was kicking around since 1975, so the idea for the character itself wasn’t new, but the idea for Catbus to be super happy with this big smiling face and was all out running came from this incident. This is reflected in the latter half of the film, when Catbus makes its appearance. For example, the scene in the movie when Catbus is smiling while running with all its might and taking the girls to see their mom, that was inspired by this incident. I’m really happy that you asked this question, which I don’t get often. I actually have some original cels that I can show you.
APA: Whenever I see Catbus running now, I’ll imagine you racing on your bike.
[Kihara brings out book of animation cels and shows different originals of Catbus smiling and running]
Kihara: Basically the identity of Catbus is an always smiling face. But he’s not just some little cat. He’s the same as Totoro. He looks so happy, smiling the entire time. Even to the very end of the film, look how happy he is. Sometimes I wonder, ‘Just what is so funny that you’re smiling like that?’ So I think that’s because of that incident reflected here. I’m really glad I have these cels that I can show you while telling you this story.
APA: I really appreciate you bringing and showing the original cels for our conversation. You’ve shown some of your collection during your panel as well. Why do you think it’s important to share hand drawn animation with people today?
Kihara: I think humans are uniquely capable of leaving their legacy with something as simple as words or drawings. Think back to ancient Egypt and the hieroglyphs, those are things people enjoy and continue to look at today. I think we are kind of veering in a dangerous direction, where we do things for the sake of ease or convenience.
I think we may be in a perilous situation. If we don’t hold onto the idea that we can create things by hand and leave things for the next generation, we may end up becoming subservient to computers. With computers, there are creators and operators. I won’t necessarily say that a world purely of operators is the worst, but I wouldn’t want us to lose the tradition of leaving things for the next generation. You can have data of a creation, but data is not the creation. Of course, I think it’s important to use computers, but it’s that we’re working with them. I just want to tell people not to give up on hand drawn animation.