First published by Little White Lies
Interviews don’t always go as you hope and expect they will. This conversation with Yoshiura Yasuhiro, conducted awkwardly through an interpreter just before the theatrical release of his anime Patema Inverted, had so many false starts and misunderstandings that towards the end of our alloted time I was losing the will to live, and wondering if we were even talking the same cinematic language. He was reluctant to say anything about his film’s themes, I kept trying to avoid overly technical questions about the animation process, and so there was no meeting of minds. But then he said something right in the last minute that utterly floored me…
Yoshiura Yasuhiro’s six-episode Original Net Animation (ONA) SF series Time of Eve, an Asimovian exploration of the relationship between androids and humans, proved so popular that it was turned in 2010 into a feature film. His follow-up, Patema Inverted, imagines a Romeo-and-Juliet dystopia in which a past scientific calamity has left half the inhabitants with their gravity reversed, forcing them to live underground. Yoshiura chatted with LWLies about subterranean worlds, inversions and sex.
Anton Bitel: The underground worlds of Patema Inverted recall your earlier short Pale Cocoon (2006). Did your feature gestate from Pale Cocoon?
Yoshiura Yasuhiro: It actually started from this concept of an upside-down person falling into the sky. The proposal for the film was basically this picture, but there was no world, there was no story, there were no characters at that point. And when I was trying to think about how she would survive if she were upside-down, I thought, “Well, if I were her, I would probably dig my way or climb my way underground.” And as I was working with that idea, the underground world came into being, and so it is coincidence, but it does have some similarities to Pale Cocoon. Maybe that reflects my interests, because I do like underground worlds.
AB: Patema Inverted started out as a four-part ONA of the same name in 2012. How does the feature film relate to that, and how has it changed in between?
YY: It was always going to be a film, and those five-minute episodes — the four five-minute episodes that are online — are a kind of advertisement for the film, so it’s just five-minute chunks from the start of the movie. Because it’s an original idea, it’s not like there’s a manga and the fans of the manga are going to come and watch the film, so it was a way to give people a way into the film.
AB: Lots of characters face one another or embrace one another in an inverted relationship, and that immediately reminded me of a similar image at the end of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight — and indeed Patema and her tribe refer to the other tribe as ‘bat people’. What was your thinking behind this — if indeed there was an intended allusion here?
YY: Batman and Joker? That’s an important shot for the theme of the film, right? Like they’re two sides of the same coin?
AB: They’re like a moral reverse of one another.
YY: I wasn’t aiming for that, and until you mentioned it I’d forgotten about it, but now you say it, yeah.
AB: Aiga is a city of the future, but her isolationism, xenophobia and aggression in certain respects reflect Japan’s prewar history. One of your antipodean characters is called Lagos, sharing his name with the capital of a country on a continent on the other side of the world, to which Japan has for some decades been making overtures. Did you intend the dystopia of your film to represent an allegory of Japan — past, present and future — and her position in a globalised world?
YY: It wasn’t an intentional theme. I started out to make entertainment the principle, so the theme is more of an afterthought, it’s secondary. The motifs come from the classic sci-fi that I love — the dystopian, dark futures. But sci-fi itself reflects real-world problems and real history, so taking sci-fi motifs means reflecting reality in a way, so maybe there is Japanese history, because this theme of a closed society having to communicate with the outside world is a common theme throughout history
AB: One of the most thrilling — and confounding — aspects of Patema Inverted is the way that you keep flipping perspective. What were the particular challenges of designing this bi-directional world?
YY: It was very difficult. To begin with, the staff wondered whether, in drawing these character anime faces upside-down, you would still be able to read their expressions, for example, [or] whether the backgrounds would work once you’d turned them upside-down. But it went okay, so the things that we were worried about seemed actually to work out alright. As for getting confused, I didn’t get confused at all because I had it all mapped out in my head, but the other staff did. For example the animator drawing these characters would have to draw it one way up, then turn it upside-down and draw the other character — he said he would get confused.
AB: In Patema Inverted, you present empathy, understanding and cooperation — not to mention rule-breaking — as key values for a better life, and you leave the question of who is on top as something that is entirely relative to point of view. With these themes, were you aiming to express philosophical views or political views, or both?
YY: People often tell me that Patema Inverted and Time of Eve have this same basic theme running through them — in Time of Eve the humans and the robots, or in Patema Inverted the humans and the upside-down humans. It’s not intentional. For me, they were different stories, but it turns out that they have the same kind of theme running through them, so maybe subconsciously it’s something that’s important to me. That’s what I’ve started to think. First and foremost I was trying to create entertainment, so it’s not like I had a theme that I wanted to make a film about. That’s the same for both films. But I think that in the process of making entertainment these themes have found their way in.
AB: And do you consider yourself, as an animated filmmaker, to be a rule-breaker like your characters?
YY: You probably get the rule-breaking idea from Time of Eve and Patema Inverted, but actually in the screenplays there’s a strong element of keeping to the rules. In Time of Eve, the humans and the androids are definitely separate, that boundary is never broken. And in Patema Inverted, gravity never reverses itself, it’s always that way or that way. So I think the sense of wanting to play by the rules and break the rules — both of those exist in my work.
AB: Your characters are oriented towards one another in a manner that is very reminiscent of a sexual position, the 69. This never becomes, shall we say, explicit in the final product, but it must have been an association that was very difficult to avoid. Was that a real problem for you in making the film?
YY: People often say that, actually, and I am aware of it. There’s no, as you say, sex in the film, there’s nothing explicit in the film, but a lot of people watching it feel something sexual about it, and it is to do with this position and the fact that they have to embrace the whole time. And that is something intentional.
AB: Intentional because you wanted to show a sort of interdependence, or…?
YY: I felt that sensuality was necessary to the film, and you actually find that even in famous children’s films like the Disney classics. I see that — and I like that hidden sexuality.