Anime pioneer Mari Okada on how she went from writing porn scripts to feature films

Narjas Zatat@Narjas_Zatat
Wednesday 27 June 2018 09:45
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Picture:(Mari Okada, supplied )

​A writer by heart, Okada spent many years honing her craft and writing anime scripts.

It hadn't been unusual to see young Okada huddled over a book or a video game in her room. A victim of bullying and domestic violence, she recalled an incident in her autobiography when her mother took a kitchen knife and attacked her with it.

She had fought back - Okada had been in middle school, no more than 13 at the time - and restrained her mum, who dissolved in tears.

The encounter left a mark on her, and she would later revisit the complex relationship between mother and child in a number of her projects, including her directorial debut, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms.

After graduating from high school, she moved to Tokyo where she took up odd jobs, but always with a plan to continue writing.

Fast forward some 20 years and Okada is one of the most well-respected anime scriptwriters in Japan, with dozens of projects to her name.

indy100 sat down to speak with the writer about her creative process, her fans, and the long road to the top.

There are a couple of jobs you took in the process of becoming a screenwriter. You wrote porn?

"The way you write screenplays isn’t that different [in porn]. I was in my early 20s when I was writing porn. I didn’t actually know all that much about it.

(Picture: Mari Okada, supplied)(Mari Okada, supplied)

"The head of the [porn] studio used to tell me off for not having enough experience.

[However], I did learn a lot that I make use of writing for anime. For example, writing about things that you’ve never experienced yourself. In this case I was writing porn for men.

So I wasn’t even particularly interested in it. But I learnt to try and put myself in someone else’s shoes.

And think about what they would enjoy.

A little known fact is that Okada once directed a short film while writing porn scripts. The experience, she recalls, actually came in useful for her newest feature anime film, Maquia.

(Picture: Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms)(Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms)

The reason that they [the pornography company] wanted me to direct it is because they said that as a writer I have no experience of what went on, on the ground.

Things like the position of the camera. I had no idea that in order to shoot a particular scene, the camera would need to up here, but there’s no way you could put the camera there.

"I would always try to imagine it as I was writing but I realised that things that worked in my head didn’t necessarily work in reality and that’s what they wanted me to realise."

She laughs. "That was a really useful experience for directing the [porn] film."

The film industry can be difficult for a female writer/director to navigate. What kind of challenges did you face as a woman in the industry, and how did you overcome them?

When I first started working in the industry, the number of female writers was increasing, but there still weren’t that many.

 Interestingly, in the anime industry there are, depending on the section, some [areas] where you have lots of men, and others were you have lots of women.

(Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms )(Maquia: When The Promised Flower Blooms)

"In PA Works [where Okada works] for example, most of the animators are female.

"It was quite hard when I was starting out, as a female director, but now there are a lot more female directors in the industry in general and a lot of the women working in the industry are very strong willed and a lot of places want to make use of that."

In your autobiography, you reveal your struggles with anxiety. What strategies do you use to cope with it?

"I’m not sure how well I manage it [laughs] but writing has really helped me.

"Writing helps me to organise my feelings, and writing also helps me realise that the anxiety I felt as a student - it’s not just me that feels that way.

When people who watch my work contact me and say they feel the same - that has been a big help to me.

I want to tell people who watch what I write that if they are suffering, they are not the only one

(Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms )(Macquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms)

Is there a particular message you remember from a fan?

"When I went to Anime Expo, in Los Angeles, a fan asked what kind of anime I wanted to make in the future and I said that I wanted to make anime that would have an impact on people’s lives.

"That would change the way people think, or that would change the colours of the world for them.

"Because that’s what anime did for me.

When I said that this is the kind of anime I wanted to create [in the future], this girl said that I already did.

And I cried. 

Okada’s first foray into directing comes in the form of Maquia, a feature length anime that follows the life of a girl who doesn't age, and her relationship with an orphaned boy she raises.

At its core, Okada says, "It is about a mother and child relationship."

The film will be released in select cinemas in the UK on 27 June.

(Maquia: When The Promised Flower Blooms )(Maquia: When The Promised Flower Blooms)

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