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Gio's Note: This Akadot feature is half article, and half interview, and judging by the context, was written in 2001.

Akadot: Coming to America

Kunihiko Ikuhara Discusses "Utena," the Future, and Moving to Los Angeles
by Shizuki Yamashita

Along the Chuoh Line in the Tokyo metropolitan area there is a quiet city called Mitaka. Stepping out of the train station, I spot a slender man with yellow highlights in his hair. Kunihiko Ikuhara, the director of hit TV series "Sailor Moon" and "Revolutionary Girl Utena," trots over to greet me. Over the course of year 2000 he introduced himself to thousands of fans at six conventions in North America, where "Sailor Moon" especially has enjoyed a tremendous success (and has inspired countless enthusiasts, young girls and large hairy men alike, to don the uniforms of the Sailor senshi for cosplay). At these conventions Ikuhara earned a reputation for flamboyance, one particularly bold outfit consisted of a bright red shirt, bright blue tie and pink socks. Meeting me in Mitaka for this interview, Ikuhara wore slighty less conspicuous clothing: a red turtleneck, slacks and a black letterman jacket. The thought struck me that perhaps his loud attire was all a show for the American fans. Of course he did grace the "Schell Bullet" CD cover clad in a leather suit that he claims now, in an on-line interview with this past October, to still have and wear while shopping.

But before I had a chance to speculate further, we made our introductions. Ikuhara then introduced me to Michiko Matsukura, the general manager of Ikuhara's production collective Be-Papas, who had come with him to the station. They told me that we had to stop by the Be-Papas office first before heading off someplace more comfortable to chat.

Walking super-briskly through the streets of Mitaka, Ikuhara explains that Be-Papas has moved to a new office, smaller than their previous space, because of his planned move to the U.S. "It's just one room now," he explains. "But there are only three of us working there," he adds to counter any misconceptions that the one room isn't enough space for an internationally famous creative entity.

Ikuhara formed Be-Papas in 1996 after he left Toei, where for four years he was involved directorially with "Sailor Moon." The original Be-Papas line up included five people: Ikuhara, who served as director and producer, manga artist Chiho Saito, screenwriter Youji Enokido, character designer Shinya Hasegawa and composer J.A. Seazer. They were primarily brought together to create "Utena" and, consequentially, when the "Utena" movie was released in Japan late last year, they disbanded. The company still exists but it engages in smaller projects such as Ikuhara's Schell Bullet releases and Hasegawa and Enokido's "Shounen-Oh," which ran in Newtype Magazine.

Ikuhara, walking nearly half a block ahead, speeds up his pace even more, a wide stride that Matsukura matches deftly. However, I, laden with my LA-wed loyalty to the automobile, try to keep up with an injured gallop. People in Tokyo, maybe all of Japan, walk quickly along the streets, and creative people like Ikuhara are no different in the fast-paced business world milieu of Japan. Or, perhaps, Ikuhara fits into both the category of artist and dealmaker. Or maybe he was in a rush to get paperwork done. One of the reasons for my visit was to aid Ikuhara in preparing to take a sabbatical in the US, a step about which I understand him to be extremely nervous.

The five-kilometer walk ends in front of a contemporary but aging European-style building. I raise my camera to snap a photo of the Be-Papas sign on the door. "Oh, if you're going to take a picture, photograph this one instead," Ikuhara says excitedly as he leads me up an austere black iron staircase to Be-Papas inner door. "It's cuter." On the second door hangs another Be-Papas sign featuring a black cat reminiscent of Luna, the black feline companion of "Sailor Moon's" Usagi/Serena.

Just as Ikuhara described, Be-Papa's office is a one-room area housing three desks and lined with bookshelves filled with manga, videotapes, art books and production material. While filling out paperwork for his move to the US, which is in fact why we hurried from the station, Ikuhara picks up a velvet-covered photo book of the eccentric band Malice Mizer. Malice Mizer is famous for dressing up as European aristocracy with a goth lilt.

"I didn't know who Malice Mizer were, but Mana said she's a fan of 'Utena.'" Mana, a member of the band, was fascinated by the visuals and direction of "Utena" and had asked Ikuhara to direct a promotional video. Since those outside of the anime industry have recognized Ikuhara's directorial skills, he's decided to try non-anime projects in the US & Japan. He tells me of the proposed project of the cross-dressing musician/performance artist, then goes on to explain that he had to refuse the offer because he already decided to go to the US by the time they approached him. Ikuhara finishes the paperwork quickly, and we migrate to a coffee shop in the neighborhood to conduct the actual interview. Along the way to the coffee shop, Ikuhara points at a building, "JC Staff used to be here. They're not in this building anymore." JC Staff is the animation company that did the animation production for the "Utena" TV series and "The Adolescence of Utena" movie, as well as other noted titles such as Gainax's "Kareshi Kanojo no Jijyo" and Kadokawa's "Sorcerous Stabber Orphen."

The coffee shop is evocative of a café in some small European town, replete with wood paneling on the walls, hardwood floors and short, stumpy chairs. I'm starting to draw parallels between the European design of Ikuhara's professional environment and the definitively European style of "Utena." We sit in the corner table, order drinks and finally start the tape recorder. With the paperwork complete, Ikuhara is far more relaxed. He's still slightly nervous about going to the US and asks about driving a lot, which he's going to have to start practicing again. He's what they call a "paper driver" in Japan - he has a license, but hasn't driven in over 10 years. I assure him that I would be more than willing to help him practice driving in parking lots of supermarkets and other open areas.

For someone who adorns pictures in poses that even a super model wouldn't strike - someone with yellow streaks in his hair, and who dresses in audaciously bright clothing - Ikuhara comes across as a very down-to-earth person. He's a creative person, but also a businessperson, a duality responsible for his being able to both direct and produce "Utena" - a skill that allowed him to leave a highly successful anime company and turn "Utena" into an independent hit. Overall, though, he is extremely laid back - except, of course, about coming to the US, which frightens him. He's not going to back out of the trip because he's already made the decision, but he worries nonetheless.

Once the actual interview starts, he's back to exercising the same kind of iconoclastic self-confidence that branded his personality on his North American convention rounds with "Shoujo Kakumei Utena" manga artist and Be-Papas partner Chiho Saito. Their rapport became legendary. When recounting the first time Ikuhara, who had fallen in love with Ms. Saito's work and desperately wanted to turn it into anime, approached her about the "Utena" project, he claims to have been greeted with inhospitality. "I went to her house," Ikuhara explains. "But she slammed the door in my face. So I was persistent and kept going back." "That's not true. I always ask guests in," Saito retorted. Ikuhara also made many a girl (and some guys, I'm sure) swoon when he mentioned he'd be looking for a girlfriend in the US. He is a bishounen type - thin, big eyes, long slender fingers. It's no wonder that fans of series like "Utena" find him intriguing.

At the conventions, fans that expressed their adoration of "Shoujo Kakumei Utena" by cosplaying as Utena characters received Ikuhara and Saito warmly. "There were a lot of cute girls overall," Ikuhara says of the North American cosplayers. At Animazement in Raleigh, North Carolina last year, Ikuhara remembers a group of "Utena" cosplayers suited up as the entire cast of the student council of Ohtori Academy. Autograph sessions of Ikuhara and Saito, and even the stages of the masquerade at Anime Expo, were flooded with rose brides and duelists.

"I thought there were more 'Utena' cosplayers than other series for the most part," Ikuhara continues. This despite that fact the each character sports a highly detailed school uniform and long, brightly colored hair. "The clothes are European, so I think it's easier to make. Kimonos are probably harder. 'Utena' costumes are not only easier to make, but each character is also distinguishable. And the colors stand out and are pretty."

Attending the conventions, Ikuhara got to witness the popularity of "Shoujo Kakumei Utena" first hand, even though so far Central Park Media has only released the first 13 episodes. He has high hopes for the remainder of the series, which includes 26 more TV episodes and one feature-length movie. "The Adolescence of Utena" premiered last July at Anime Expo to an enthusiastic fan response.

"In Japan, there are a lot of fans of the second season. A character named Mikage appears, and a lot of girls like him. The second season is the most popular of the series, among girls." Mikage is a male-version of Utena that appears in the second season who plots to turn Ohtori high school against Utena and Anthy. He looks like Utena, right down to the pink hair. Mikage wants Chida, the male counter-part of Anthy, to become the rose bride, and therefore schemes to get rid of Anthy.

Central Park Media recently announced the acquisition of the "Utena" movie, for which they plan to reassemble the cast from the first 13 episodes of the TV series.

Aside from wanting to meet fans in North America, Ikuhara also had another motive for attending conventions, location scouting for his planned move to the US, where he plans to get involved with the North American release of the "Utena" movie.

"I plan on critiquing and checking the DVD subtitles and other translations for the movie. So the quality of subtitles should be okay," he says.

When asked about whether or not he plans on attending more U.S. or Canadian conventions since he's going to be living in Los Angeles, Ikuhara said he has nothing planned, but he may attend if the opportunity arises. "Since I'm going to be living in California, I would like to get to know the local fans as much as possible," he says with a smile.

His primary concern, though, is to pick up conversational English and, as he re-iterates constantly - each time exposing his underlying nervousness - relearn the art of driving.

Shoujo Kakumei Utena (Revolutionary Girl Utena) is © Kunihiko Ikuhara, Chiho Saito, Shogakukan and bePapas/TV Tokyo and/or their respective copyright holders. The US release of the Revolutionary Girl Utena series and movie was © Central Park Media and now belongs to Right Stuf. The US release of the Utena manga is © VIZ. The various sources used in this site are noted where their content is presented. Don't sue us, seriously. Blood. Stone.