THE TALK was over. But for fans of anime, the nerd-out, dude-can-you-believe-this? moment was just about to begin.
As attendees at the Library of Congress’s Anime for All event were about to stream out of the Coolidge Auditorium on Thursday, special guest Kihara Hirokatsu suddenly called out. His Japanese interpreter then yelled up in English: “Do you guys want to see some originals?”
Several fans stopped in their tracks, pivoted and, curious, made their way back down to the stage apron. Just what did Hirokatsu — a veteran of the legendary Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli — have in mind?
The art albums opened. Then fans’ mouths did. Gleaming from the portfolio pages were beautiful, irreplaceable animation cels from such classic Studio Ghibli films as “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “My Neighbor Totoro,” which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
The several dozen holdover fans were enchanted not only by the valuable art but also by the complementary backstage anecdotes, some of which Hirokatsu acted out with all the antic, over-the-top expressiveness of a Studio Ghibli film character. (It’s no coincidence that some of the studio’s motions and characters, including “Totoro’s” 12-legged Catbus, have been modeled after him.)
The cel session began to run long past the event’s scheduled end time. No one was leaving the anime love-in. This was a special “Otakon moment.”
Otakon, which runs through the weekend at D.C.’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center, is the annual pop convention that celebrates Asian arts and culture, with sessions covering everything from manga comics to pepakura (paper modeling), from martial arts to dance.
Coinciding with Otakon, the Library of Congress’s Anime for All exhibit includes displays featuring comics such as Astro Boy and 47 Ronin, novel adaptations of Studio Ghibli movies, historical woodblock prints and picture scrolls, and paraphernalia from Akira Toriyama’s pop-phenomenon franchise “Dragon Ball” .
Hirokatsu, who will appear at Otakon, arrived at the library Thursday extolling the uniquely transcendent powers of anime.
“The art, as it is moving, instantly transports you to a fantastical world,” Hirokatsu told Comic Riffs through an interpreter, shortly before his library talk. “Ever since Winsor McCay [animated a century ago], the hand-drawn line becoming a life” moves us.
That’s because animation is unique in how it depicts “the heart and the soul of the character,” he says, “and you can see such honest feelings in their faces.”
Hirokatsu, 58, first became fascinated with the art form while watching Japanese animation on TV and in theaters, including the 1968 film “Horus: Prince of the Sun.” A key animator on that movie was Hayao Miyazaki, who nearly two decades later would co-found Studio Ghibli.
Watching “Horus,” young Hirokatsu thought: “I really want to work with those people. Twenty years later, that dream came true.”
Hirokatsu studied art at Osaka University, then got in at the ground floor at the Oscar-winning Studio Ghibli. He got hired on the production desk for both 1988’s “Totoro,” in which two girls discover forest spirits, and 1989’s “Kiki,” in which a young witch runs a courier service.
With the studio determined to get off the ground commercially and creatively, Miyazaki was both visionary and taskmaster, Hirokatsu says.
“He is strict on himself, and he is strict with others,” says Hirokatsu, who also worked on the studio’s 1986 film “Castle in the Sky.” “He expects genius from the people he works with. . . . He can extrude things [you] didn’t now you had in you and make it into a fine blade.”
Miyazaki, 77, who has retired and unretired multiple times, has honed talent over decades at Ghibli, but what will become of the studio once he retires for good? Are there enough fine blades to carry on his towering legacy?
“No. I do not think so,” Hirokatsu says. “Nobody else can reproduce [his genius]. . . . There aren’t that many people who are super powerful and super talented enough to see a production through to the end. . . . That hasn’t been passed down to the next generation.”
Hirokatsu himself left Ghibli to gather and write ghost stories. He talks excitedly about once seeing a young child’s shoes, hat and coat while driving in the middle of the night and then — poof! — the child was gone.
After that, Hirokatsu came to believe that most everyone has a true-life ghost story or mystery to tell. He began collecting these tales, and his writing was adapted for the 2004 horror film “Tales of Terror from Tokyo and All Over Japan: The Movie.”
Now, Kirohatsu says, he’s happy to be an ambassador for anime, and for ghost stories and horror. Because the best Japanese storytellers, he says, know how to create art that rings universal.
Otakon 2018 runs through Sunday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, beginning at 8 a.m. each day; for ticket and schedule information, visit: Otakon.com.