Tomomi Mochizuki’s seamless, all-encompassing approach to animated storytelling made him one of anime’s most brilliant directors in the 80s and 90s, setting him on a path he’s still walking through nowadays. Time for a primer on this terrific yet overlooked director!
This is a guest piece by alex_swak, edited by us. Hope you enjoy it!
Rewatching the Maison Ikkoku movie hit me with the strength of a truth I’d somehow forgotten, or at least allowed to phase out of my mind over time: Tomomi Mochizuki was one of the most brilliant anime directors during the 80s and 90s. I’d always been a fan of his, but this strong reminder reinvigorated my passion to the point where I feel the need to write a piece on his career—especially its early stages where he forged his captivating style.
Let’s start at the very beginning then, as creator profiles usually do; while it’s not as if Mochizuki’s entry into the industry was terribly unique, his immediate focus really helps you understand the style he developed. He first joined the industry through studio Ajia-Do, after dropping out of university. And just after a single year in that common introductory stage, he already made the jump to episode direction, making his debut on Tokimeki Tonight #14. Although that’s quite the fast promotion for someone approaching directional duties from an animation angle, it seems like he didn’t have much of a plan or reason to make that leap other than grasping an opportunity that presented itself—fortunately, it turned out to be a great choice.
It was soon after that, in the episodes of Creamy Mami the Magic Angel subcontracted to Ajia-Do, that he started developing his own style; one that, in spite of working in the confined environment of TV animation, stood out for its dynamism. One of the most prominent characteristic in that regard were his fondness of dynamic camera pans and especially full rotations—so-called 回り込み or mawarikomi in Japanese—which weren’t as commonly used back then as they’re much harder to pull off without computer assistance. The usage of such techniques is noticeable in his episodes of the TV series, but it’s in the OVAs Eien no Once More and Long Goodbye that he started flexing those muscles, making good use of the extra freedom and time. Incidentally, allowing him to handle both OVAs is also testament to how quickly his talents were acknowledged.
Attractive as his style was, the reliance on such shots comes with an obvious downside: even if you’re capable of envisioning sequences where that dynamic camerawork actually draws you in, only so many animators can handle that kind of workload when working under strict deadlines. Mochizuki found the solution to that problem in the late Hiroki Takagi, a well-regarded contemporary of his, as well as Michitaka Kikuchi, better known nowadays by his mangaka pen name Kia Asamiya.
Back then, Kikuchi still belonged to Studio CAM, where he worked alongside the likes of Hideki Tamura. As one of the most technically skilled animators of the early 80s, it’s no surprise Tamura had a strong lasting influence over him that we can likely trace back to those days; you can notice that in his sequences in Prefectural Earth Defence Force (1986) for example, a title they both worked on. Despite its name, CAM was more of a group of animators than a proper studio—a phenomenon more common back in the day, as seen in cases like Studio Graviton—which made that process of learning from your coworkers all the more likely. And in this case, it happened to strengthen Kikuchi’s fundamentals to a point he could handle Mochizuki’s demanding vision.
Takagi, on the other hand, was still at Ajia-Do—mainly because he enjoyed working on Urusei Yatsura and the various magical girl shows they tended to contirbute to. Now this is no irrelevant piece of trivia: once the studio’s affiliation with Urusei Yatsura ended, Takagi lost his reason to be there and instead joined the aforementioned animation circle Graviton, precisely following Urusei Yatsura comrades who had themselves altered their own careers to maximize their opportunities to work on that series, such as Katsuhiko Nishijima. This goes to show the profound influences it had over an entire generation of animators, changing the anime landscape in a way. Takagi’s style, for one, was influenced first and foremost by the contributors to Urusei Yatsura he admired. This is easily appreciable in the work he supervised in that era, such as his animation direction work in the Kimagure Orange Road OVAs (1989), with the rounder eyes and smaller chins. Having drawn so much from a notoriously energetic series, we’ve got yet another person who was well prepared for Mochizuki’s needs.
So, back to Mochizuki himself we go. After participating in Magical Emi the Magic Star (1985-1986), another entry in Pierrot’s classical magical girl series, it appears that he’d fully settled on that style he’d been developing; his signature camera pans are all over his episodes of Magical Emi, making it look less like a curious quirk and more like one of the major pillars sustaining his work. Besides the aforementioned Takagi and Kikuchi, crucial to that type of scene as we said, it was during this period that Mochizuki met some of the most important people in his career—and his life for that matter. It was in those productions that he met Masako Gotou after all, an Ajia-Do coworker whom he later married, and whom supervised many of his episodes throughout his career. If you want to get a good taste of Mochizuki’s work at the time, his episodes in Magical Emi were #07, #11, #15, and #37, while for Creamy Mami it’s the OVAs that showcase the most interesting style.
By the mid 80s, Mochizuki was already recognized as a rising new director to keep an eye on, appearing in magazines and amassing a bit of a fanbase already—something not many directors at the time could boast of before handling a series of their own. While he had indeed not directed an entire series yet, the fact that he kept getting entrusted with OVAs and theatrical releases for major long-running series is again proof of that trust he’d earned.
That leads us to what I believe is one of the best displays of Mochizuki’s directorial style: Maison Ikkoku’s conclusive movie The Final Chapter, released in 1988. It might very well be my favorite work of his, and perhaps most importantly, it’s one of the most distinctly Mochizuki experiences out there. We can only assume that he fully storyboarded the movie as he’s the sole director with no specific credit for the boards, and if that wasn’t enough, he was also one of the two scriptwriters. This turned out to be a step in his natural growth towards having complete control of the atmosphere; besides all the classic directorial roles, he came to become a regular writer and even sound director for his works. Which is to say, having direct control over every individual aspect as means of fine-tuning the atmosphere.
And in the end, that’s what it was all about. The seamless experience he crafted through the camera and perspective tricks isn’t a self-indulgent one, but rather one that puts those techniques to use in building a convincing atmosphere. It’s something that still shots and even short clips will never do justice to, so it’s hard to convey what makes this movie so special with snippets alone. Instead, it’s best to take a step back and appreciate how the whole movie takes place in the same physical location, sharing the same characters and setting. By its very definition, this entire movie is one scene—one that lasts for a whole hour and yet keeps you engaged all the way through. This is where Mochizuki’s style shines: in creating uninterrupted sequences, with seamless and smooth transitions from each cut to the other. The sense of continuity he evokes is essential in keeping the viewer glued to the screen even in such extreme conditions.
This clip above is a good example of this seamlessness I’ve been talking about. Watching cuts like this brings to mind the words of character designer Yuji Moriyama, who once brought it up to explain “[Maison Ikkoku] is full of daily life scenes; eating, sitting and talking, and so on. Animators grow frustrated from having to draw the same simple drawings over and over, so you end up doing stuff like rotating a beer can to let out that frustration.” So not only it is beneficial to the audience’s engagement, but also allows the more action-minded animators to blow off some steam!
Again, you might think that watching the same characters doing the same thing at the same place for a whole hour may get boring, or is be limiting on a creative level. And that’s because it is… or it should be, at least. Working under such constraints—deliberately at that!—is nothing less than challenging, but Mochizuki managed to make a lovely and thoroughly entertaining movie out of it. Though it’s not as if there aren’t other movies or episodes with a similarly confined approach, I can’t say that any comes to mind as so extreme and yet so successful as this one, which speaks of Mochizuki’s memorable delivery. If I were to name another example, episode #09 from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya’s original run, which was mainly limited to the club room and made use of as few cuts as possible, easily ended up being a favorite of mine in the series. There’s something about this approach to direction that simply makes me gravitate towards it.
As a side note more focused on the animation, the change in character designs is quite noticeable. While I’d take Akemi Takada’s original ones any day, as she’s one of the best character designers out there, I must say that Moriyama’s designs fit the movie and Mochizuki’s own style quite well. I believe the movie’s goal was to sustain its funny atmosphere on the more grounded character interactions, rather than relying on the outrageous gags that Rumiko Takahashi’s works are known for, and that’s why he asked Moriyama to reimagine them in a more realistic way. It’s worth noting that this movie was screened simultaneously with Urusei Yatsura’s fifth movie—also sharing its Final Chapter subtitle—in a Ghibli-style double feature focused on Takahashi’s works, which made for an interesting duality.
Going back to Mochizuki, 1988 brought us yet another movie that showcased his skills not only as a director, but especially as a storyteller: Kimagure Orange Road: I Want to Return to That Day, based on another popular romantic comedy series. As you can imagine coming from someone I’ve mentioned does a lot of writing work, Mochizuki isn’t here just to regurgitate existing material, so he’ll make liberal changes if he feels it benefits the story he’s been entrusted with telling. And while his usual tricks are present, that’s what I feel this movie embodies the best.
In a way, I Want to Return to That Day is the Beautiful Dreamer of Kimagure Orange Road, going as far as developing characters that the original series failed to do justice to. While I don’t want to go into specifics too much as it’s worth experience on their own, I’ll just say that the whole movie technically adapts a single chapter of the manga—arguably the one with the most important development in the story. As if to rectify that puzzling limitation for the climax, Mochizuki stepped in with one satisfying movie.
Since I brought up Beautiful Dreamer, I’d like to add that the parallels continue with a similarly troubled relationship with their original creators too. Mochizuki recently tweeted that the late mangaka Izumi Matsumoto wasn’t even informed of the movie at first, as it was greenlit and pushed forward into production without his knowledge. Even Mochizuki was surprised by that, since you normally need the author’s consent at the very least to move forward. And when Matsumoto finally took a look at the script, he simply said it was wrong, criticized the movie for its writing, and later commented on his website to think of the movie as “an alternate universe.” It’s obvious that his proactive approach to storytelling comes with its risks, especially if the producers don’t do their job properly.
Regardless, Kimagure Orange Road features another of Mochizuki’s most brilliant works, namely the third opening of the TV series. I’d say it’s one of the most striking intros I’ve ever watched, which might sound shocking at first glance as it’s relatively unassuming. It’s upon rewatching, though, that you start to notice that it’s a perfect loop using camera tricks; being literally one single cut, it stands as an extreme example of Mochizuki’s style. Incidentally, the animation director for that sequence was Mochizuki’s wife Masako Gotou, and it was key animated by another Gotou: Takayuki Gotou, who later handled the character designs for Kimagure Orange Road’s last movie Summer’s Beginning. In the end, it’s all related!
Rather than KOR as a franchise, though, it’s the aforementioned Beautiful Dreamer that feels key in understanding how Mochizuki’s early career was shaped. That it had an influence on him shouldn’t be surprising since Mochizuki’s a self-declared fan of Mamoru Oshii, and one who considers Beautiful Dreamer his best work at that. According to Mochizuki’s own words, that influence is best seen in the third episode of the OVA series My Dear Marie, appropriately titled Dreaming Android.
Mochizuki was again a scriptwriter there, deciding to allocate almost the entire runtime to the dream of the main character. While fun and joyful for the most part, it wasn’t afraid to dip into psychological waters at points, making for a good representation of his range. That said, its most impressive achievement related to that subject matter: as a dream, the episode consists of a series of non-sequiturs with different settings, which he still managed to thread together in a way that didn’t feel too incoherent. This time around, he relied on framing and points of focus rather than the camera movement to achieve that coherence between the different segments. Overall, it’s not the introspective ride that was Beautiful Dreamer, and to some degree Mochizuki felt constrained by the original material, but in the end he managed to create something clearly of his own that also allowed the main character to come to understand herself better.
As I mentioned earlier, much of these achievements are owed to Mochizuki’s willingness to get directly involved in many aspects of the production process to tightly control the atmosphere of his works. And it might very well be that attitude that, while still in his early thirties, made him the perfect candidate when studio Ghibli set out to find a young director for their Ocean Waves TV film—a youth drama that also had the goal of cultivating fresh talent at the studio. To this day, it remains the only major Ghibli project directed by complete outsiders alongside The Cat Returns, which I suppose is yet another recognition of Mochizuki’s talents as a storyteller.
While his direction feels right at home with Katsuya Kondo’s beautiful designs and the very grounded nature of the story, and despite all the Ghibli talents he had at his disposal, it wasn’t the smoothest production by any means. Be it the tight production timeframe of only around 8 months, the resource limitations as it wasn’t a theatrical project, or the fact that Mochizuki himself was so overworked that he had to be hospitalized—keep in mind he was working on Here is Greenwood at the time too—the result was undoubtedly compromised. So, while it might be his most popular work, it’s one that I’m torn on and simply couldn’t just point to as his best and most representative work.
Now, don’t take that to mean it’s a poor film—on the contrary, it’s amazing! As someone whose favorite genre is youth drama, I can say for a fact that it’s a very hard thing to get right, yet Mochizuki proved again to be quite capable of that. The wholeness of his work manifested in a different way than his early dynamism, being mindful of the tone of the film. Mochizuki opted for a fixed camera in all of its scenes, instead relying on other tricks like masking to smoothen the transitions. Regardless of how well it still flows, the move away from camera pans may seem very unlike Mochizuki… but it all makes retroactive sense as you hit the final scene, the only one with a moving camera—and a full rotation at that, literally giving the audience a complete perspective. Easily the most memorable scene of the movie, and the most Mochizuki-like moment for sure.
You might think that having such a troubled production might have soured his relationship with Ghibli, but that wasn’t quite the case. When Mamoru Hosoda walked away from the production of Howl’s Moving Castle in the early 00s, its production manager Takashi Nozomu—who’d also been in charge of Ocean Waves—returned to Mochizuki and invited him to take over. While that obviously didn’t work out in the end, it shows that people at the studio did appreciate his work.
Ever since then, Mochizuki’s career has spanned for decades, chockful of fascinating tidbits and a fair share of truly memorable works even after he left Ajia-Do in 2009 to become freelance. Though covering his whole career this thoroughly in a single post would have been too much, I hope I was able to properly introduce you to his style; not only were his early works the ones that resonated the most with me, but they’re also the ones that set him in the path he’s still walking nowadays, so it felt like the best period to focus on. Whether you were already a fan of his works or didn’t even know of him, I hope this has given you a better grasp of Mochizuki’s appeal as a director and complete storyteller.