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Japanese director Kenji Iwaiawa’s debut film “On-Gaku: Our Sound” was a hit at the 2020 Annecy Animation Festival, where it screened in the festival’s Contrechamp competition and won the award for Best Original Score. This year, the filmmaker returns to Annecy to present his next film, “Hyakuemu.”, in a special Annecy Work in Progress session.

Based on the original manga “Chi: Chikyū no Undō ni Tsuite” by Uoto, the film tells the story of Togashi, a child born to run. The boy wins every 100-meter race without much effort. In sixth grade, an exchange student named Komiya arrives with a lot of motivation but little technical skill. Togashi begins training with his new classmate, who gives him a new goal: to win at all costs. Years later, the two meet as rivals on a race track.

“Hyakuemu.” is produced by Pony Canyon, Asmik Ace and the Tokyo Broadcasting System. Iwaisawa’s Rock’ N Roll Mountain is animating the film, which is well underway in production and is scheduled for release in 2025.

This year’s Annecy WIP panel will feature Iwaisawa, as well as the film’s art director Keikankun Yamaguchi, animation director and character designer Keisuke Kojima, and Asmik Ace producer Akane Taketsugu.

“Hyakuemu” will be Iwaisawa’s second feature film. His third, “Hina is Beautiful,” is already in the works and was a hot title at the 2023 Marché du Film Annecy Animation Showcase, and is scheduled to be completed in 2026.

Ahead of this week’s Work in Progress presentation, Iwaisawa spoke to Variety about his new project, working with different aesthetics and delegating responsibility. He also shared some exclusive first-look artwork from the film.

Kenji Iwaisawa

How important is it for Japanese productions to participate in events like Annecy during development or production and to experience such a presence in the West?

Iwaisawa: I think this is an important place to directly address countries other than Japan.

In “On-Gaku” you took on seven roles, including screenwriter, director and animator. Are you doing that much on this film?

On-Gaku: Our Sound was a really individual production, so I played many different roles. For example, I think the students who submit works for the final film categories in Annecy also play multiple roles. This is also true for short films. On-Gaku: Our Sound is a feature film shot in the same way as a short film. Because I made the film this way, I played multiple roles.

On the other hand, this time I can focus on the role of director since “Hyakuemu.” is being produced as a feature film. When I made “On-Gaku: Our Sound,” the director’s role was the one I was least able to take on because I had to do other things as well. With “Hyakuemu.”, I finally feel like I can take on the role of director.

The images we’ve seen from “Hyakuemu” are more detailed and realistic than those from “On-Gaku.” Can you talk about the aesthetic differences audiences will see in this film?

In my short films, my style has always been detailed drawing. In “On-Gaku: Our Sound,” I kept it simple to match the original work. “On-Gaku” has a rather unusual style for me, but since it was my debut work that was released first, people might feel that my style changed a lot with “Hyakuemu.” In fact, I think the look in “Hyakuemu” is closer to my own style.

I pay a lot of attention to the visual effects/aesthetics. I think character design is extremely important. Character design is the first thing the audience sees, so I pay a lot of attention to things like the balance of the characters’ proportions. Also, it’s more like live-action or somewhere in between than the so-called orthodox visual effects of Japanese anime.

Like “On-Gaku,” this film is set in a school. What appeals to you as a storyteller about this world?

I’ve never thought about that. In Japan, youth films are often set in schools, but abroad this may be unusual. I didn’t have a particular preference, but both films were based on original works, and when I chose them, they were set in schools. It’s not like I consciously decided to make films set in schools.

“Hyakuemu.”
©Uoto, Kodansha/Hyakuemu. Film partner

“Hyakuemu.”
©Uoto, Kodansha/Hyakuemu. Film partner

“Hyakuemu.”
©Uoto, Kodansha/Hyakuemu. Film partner

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