Anime Director Yamakan Wants Tohoku to “Blossom” Once More

April 22, 2013


Photo: Daniel Szpara

Japanese artist + world-renowned musicians = good things for children.

A simple equation at the heart of Zapuni, a charity project collecting aid for the Great East Earthquake and tsunami that hit the northeastern Tohoku region of Japan in 2011. Yutaka Yamamoto, anime director better known by the moniker Yamakan, is one of the variables in this altruistic proof.


The other contribution to Zapuni to date is artist UrumaDelvi’s “Psychedelic Afternoon,” featuring music by David Byrne and Ryuichi Sakamoto. MTV 81 sat down with Yamakan at his studio Ordet in west Tokyo to discuss the animated short “Blossom,” his offering to Zapuni.

How did the choice of music affect the animation?

I had a strong vision for “Blossom” before the project producer, Gregory Rood, approached me. He selected the Sigur Ros track “Hoppipolla” based on my storyboards, and everything just clicked.

What do you want people to take away from the short?

Dwelling on your doubts won’t solve anything, so I wanted to give people the hope to act. Flowers won’t bloom unless someone plants them. The farmer in the video doesn’t know if the seeds will sprout, just as we don’t know if the region will fully recover. But we have to try.

The angels support the farmer, albeit passively, right?

Everyone wants a speedy recovery for the Tohoku region, but we’re not sure how to move forward. Living in Tokyo, hundreds miles removed from the destroyed coastline, I’m an outsider looking in so it’s not my place to say what’s the best course of action for the locals.

This isn’t your first time using anime to mobilize aid, is it?

In May 2011 I took part in a fan event for an anime I directed, “Kannagi: Crazy Shrine Maidens,” which was held in Shigahama-cho, the author’s hometown that was razed by the tsunami. While the event helped raise money, they treated me like a VIP and my presence actually took attention away from the refugees we intended to help.

So to research for “Blossom” I went incognito. Travel agents offered volunteer tourism plans where you bus with 40-odd strangers to the affected areas where you help with the cleanup efforts, stay at a hot spring hotel and buy local delicacies – basically to put money back into the towns.

It must have brought you close to the people…

My works focus on the human element. If it doesn’t grab your heart, if you can’t relate to it, then I’ve failed as a director.

The farmer is based on a real person I met during my time in the region, an old man from Otsuchi City in Iwate prefecture. He started an initiative, removing trash from the tsunami-swept riverbed and tilling the land. He inspired others in a city-wide planting project – and me to create “Blossom.”

What did you learn as a volunteer?

The people I met were upbeat and hopeful despite everything. They turned hardship into slapstick. One of the inns I stayed in would have been taken away by the tsunami, except the front and back doors happened to be open so the torrent passed through. The owner laughed, “I should have drowned!” as they proudly pointed to the shoulder-high water damage on the wall.

The only thing the locals fear is indifference. It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you do something. A blog post. A YouTube video. Anything to remind, to mobilize people. Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son donated 100 billion yen. I don’t have that sort of money… who does! So I work within my means as an anime director. The point is to raise awareness.

So anime has proven to be a medium with the power to move people?

Definitely, it provides a great business chance. We’ve started pre-production on “Wake Up Girls,” a show about an idol group aspiring to make it on the local circuit in east Japan. Hopefully it will raise interest and bring tourists into the region, then in turn speed up the recovery.

It sounds like you have a long-term plan!

Zapuni aims to be a sustained project, not a series of a few short films. “Awareness” is one of our key concepts. Even if people don’t donate, I ask that they please get the word out. Indifference is something that we can all change.

If you would like to get involved, please visit the Zapuni homepage for links to help donate and share.