Animated films have been a fundamental part of visual storytelling since the first films in the genre released in the late 1800s.
Today, they're a lucrative business, estimated to be worth more than $372 billion globally in 2021, according to Statista.
But regardless of how far the industry has come technologically, or how trends and tastes change, the often solitary hand-drawn work of the artist is the only way true storytelling should begin, believes writer and animator Hirokatsu Kihara.
“Imagination does not quite come automatically through digital,” Kihara tells The National. “You mostly pour your spirits and soul through a pencil and paper.”
Kihara, who attended the Middle East Film Comic Con in Abu Dhabi earlier this month, is one of Japan’s most well-known ghost story writers.
His popular serials have been translated into seven languages, including Tsukumo Kwaidan, Tonari-no-kai, Kinkiro and the science-fiction show KuusouKagaku Dokuhon, which has sold more than three million copies.
Before his prolific writing career, Kihara was a production co-ordinator at pioneering Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli from 1985 to 1990.
There, he worked with the renowned co-founder, animator and director Hayao Miyazaki on three of Studio Ghibli’s classic animated films, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Over the years, Kihara has seen first-hand how Japanese animation culture, with its focus on hand-drawn animation, has became hugely popular among fans of animation around the world.
“From my perspective in Japanese animation, the main characters usually don’t speak specifically to boys or girls,” Kihara says.
“We have a freedom to expand our feelings and imagination into the story as well and that makes us very unique. It's why Japanese animation is very outstanding [and] inspirational. For example, there's no cat with six legs in the world, as you see in My Neighbour Totoro. That kind of creation is very unique.”
Kihara elaborates that the animated films Studio Ghibli have produced over the years, aren’t based around religion or political ideologies and don’t include modern, fast changing technology such as smartphones or gadgets.
“That's why the atmosphere is always timeless and accepted by many generations and you can watch it over and over again,” Kihara adds.
Studio Ghibli films have also influenced western animators, directors and studios in how they approach storytelling within animation.
The reason for this is two-fold, Kihara says. First, it’s Miyazaki’s unique, singular vision and approach to storytelling, which is unusual even in Japan.
“As a director, Miyazaki's inspiration is not really usual as a Japanese person. He was thinking outside of the Japanese context,” Kihara says.
“He himself was influenced by the Second World War and other kinds of world conflict. He studied a lot of history about how foolish people can be for fighting. After removing all of the unnecessary elements, he keeps a lesson inside of the story.”
The second reason, Kihara says, especially relevant for the new generation of animators and storytellers, is to grow and expand the power of imagination.
Today, many young animators or writers may depend on technological tools, Kihara points out, but that doesn’t make them better in the craft of storytelling.
“You want to be story creators and not programmers,” he says.
But while technology has made animation more accessible, creation is not limited by what someone can or can’t afford, Kihara adds.
“Even if you grow up not wealthy, you have access to pencil and paper. Don't limit your creation," he says. "I really want the kids to understand that on any level, that they can and should use their imagination and creativity and to never stop.”
To get his creative juices flowing, Kihara often steps out of his home or office and heads to a restaurant. In Japan, speaking on your phone in public isfrowned upon and “everyone minds their own business".
This is how he has been writing his most recent book.
“Have a space for yourself or space of creation where you won't be interfered by anything else,” he says.
“Self-discipline is not being harsh on yourself. It’s self-care. It’s taking more care of yourself, your imagination and your creativity. That's self-discipline.”