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Press Session: Ohnishi Nobuyuki
—by Kenneth Cho

To anime fans, both in Japan and America, his works have become as much a cult favorite as the movie that showcased them, WINGS OF HONNEAMISE (1987). Ohnishi Nobuyuki is not your typical anime artist. In fact, he doesn't consider himself, and really isn't, an anime artist. Ohnishi's only involvement with anime to date has been a series of haunting lithographs seen in both the beginning and ending credits of HONNEAMISE. And yet, Ohnishi came to Anime Expo '99 as a guest with a full collection of works prominently displayed at the Art Show.
  Between meeting and talking to fans about his works over the weekend, Ohnishi also fielded a press session, impressively handled in English. Here are the highlights of this session.

Q: I take it you have an interesting background of the various arts, involving both the traditional Japanese form and the more modern Western form. How does that work?

Ohnishi Nobuyuki: Of course, I'm Japanese but I was born in Tokyo and Tokyo is a Western city. I've been studying Western culture and Western art. I went to an art university, Musashino Art University in Tokyo. I studied oil painting, lithography, illustration, photography—all the Western formats. And I like Western culture, especially American culture, and movies, rock'n'roll, many kinds of music and TV programs. I used to watch the TV programs when I was a child, American TV programs like THE UNTOUCHABLES, RAWHIDE, and LASSIE. And of course, TOM AND JERRY. I was influenced by Western culture but I am Japanese by blood. I stand between East and West, I think.

Q: Regarding the series of the paintings you did for the WINGS OF HONNEAMISE movie: The ending is kind of ambiguous and seems to be about man's search for space. Your series of paintings seem to be about our society's race for space. What were your influences for those paintings, as they almost seem to be of historical photographs?

ON: When I did the artwork for HONNEAMISE, director Yamaga said to me that this is not Earth but another planet almost the same. A little different, like Japan and China. I looked at many many photos of East Asia, North Africa, Egypt and many ethnic cultures. And I used normal Western ships and planes with a little bit of ethnic taste.

Q: Being an artist, you have worked with a lot of different mediums. What's your favorite?

ON: That's a difficult question to answer. I use many lithographs but when I was a student at art University, I used to paint oil paintings. I like oil paint. But oil painting is a Western tradition. I tried to paint like Rembrandt. I tried again and again to copy his oil paintings. It's almost the same but something is different. Of course, when I draw by hand and watercolor, it's very different and I don't use the whole canvas. Western artists use the entire canvas but Eastern artists don't use it all.

Q: I'm left with the impression that most people in the industry are people who are either former manga artists or those that are self-trained and those who generally do not have the classical training background that you have. I was curious how you ended up doing the animation work that you have.

ON: That's a very good question. In Japan, high art and manga/anime are separated. Many Japanese think that anime is low culture and fine art is high culture, there's a long distance between. I don't think anime is low culture but I've been involved with fine art, it's my job. But when I was a child, I watched TV of Western animation and Japanese anime. My first favorite artist was Osamu Tezuka: ASTRO BOY, that's my favorite. But I grew up and when I was an adult, I forgot about anime, manga and then so on. But suddenly, the director of HONNEAMISE called me and asked me to join their production. I thought, animation? I said I wasn't interested in it at first, because animation is just for kids and I'm an adult. Then he said to me, "No, this movie is NOT for kids but for adults. It's science fiction, boy meets girl, victory and many, many elements of a wonderful movie." And he said to me that the music director was the famous composer Sakamoto Ryuichi. He was brought in to be the movie's music composer. I like Sakamoto's music so Yamaga said you can meet him and I said that's nice, I'll join. (laughs)

Q: I understand you're now progressing to the point that you're going to have your own animation project in the near future.

ON: It's not my own animation, I will be doing artwork for Yamaga-san's next animation project. I don't change my style even for animation. Some artists may change his style for different jobs but I can't. I usually work my own style regardless the project.

Q: How do you balance your projects between the animation and traditional art world?

ON: After HONNEAMISE, I've only done fine art. Everyone in Japan doesn't think of "Ohnishi" as an anime artist but only as a fine artist. My work is shown in art galleries and museums. Even anime fans still think of me as a fine artist. If a good script and good director and a good story is involved, I may do artwork for anime. But nobody called me. (laughs) But now, ten years after, director Yamaga-san met me last year and he said, "I'm working on a new project and I want you to join" and I said of course I'll join.
  This year, I met him in July in Tokyo before coming to Anime Expo and he asked me to explain about Yamaga's new project for him. It hasn't actually begun yet, but is just in the planning stages. He's writing the story and the next stage is to actually animate it.

Q: With you bridging Japanese pop culture and fine art, what do you think of Andy Warhol? Was he an influence on you at all?

ON: Yes, I like Andy Warhol's work but I want to do my regular artwork. Pop culture is like anime and it can't be original as in only one person's style. I want to my artwork to be my style, my name.

Q: With your artwork, are you a storyteller? Do you try to tell a story with the art you do?

ON: Well, maybe. But the audience decides what that is, I only paint. In Japan, there are many fine artists but I want to be an artist like 19th century ukiyo-e artist. They were fine artists. Ukiyo-e was considered pop culture, not fine art in 19th century Japan. In Japan at that time, fine art was actually a copy of Chinese art. All Japanese fine art until then was a copy of Chinese art, but Japanese pop culture, like ukiyo-e and kabuki, were Japanese originals, not copies. And now, Japanese fine art is a copy of Western art. Almost all Japanese fine art works are a copy of America, France, Spain, Italy and then so on. Of course, I'm impressed by Western culture but I don't want to make a copy of Western art. But many Japanese artists want to paint like Western artists, like contemporary American artists. I want to paint in my own vision... I can't really explain.

Q: I know you've mentioned that Yamada is still only in the planning stage of his next project. Has he told you any details about it, as to what to expect, how to prepare for your part in it?

ON: He hasn't told me any specific details. He just said, do as you like. I think he told me to paint as I like and he'll use my work in his movie how he sees fit.

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