The renowned Japanese commercials and features director and AOI Pro Chief Creative Officer on the importance of speed, Japan’s evolving production scene and crossing over to the feature world
A commercials director moving to features is, according to Akira Nagai, akin to a tennis player trying to take up baseball. Sure, you’re swinging some sort of bat around but ultimately it is – pardon the cliché – a whole different ball game. That’s not to say Akira’s commercials directing background hasn’t come in handy; the energy and diversity of his movies comes from the versatility required to excel in the advertising world.
And Akira has excelled. He joined production behemoth AOI Pro in 1994 and these days he’s the Chief Creative Officer, nurturing new talent as well as bringing his stylish visuals and comic touch to his own commercial work. LBB’s Laura Swinton talked to Akira about his top spots and views on the changes facing the production world. But mainly, it was to ask why he chose to include a commercials director as a character in his debut feature film – a movie about judging an advertising award show.
LBB> Do you remember when you first picked up a camera?
AN> Originally, I studied painting with the aim to become a designer. So I went to an arts university where, in a film class, I encountered a movie camera. I remember being enthralled with the infinite possibilities of what could be accomplished with camera work and sound design, to which paintings could not even come close.
LBB> Did you always want to be a director or did you explore any other options?
AN> Ever since I began experimenting with films at university, my goal was to become a director. I love to be in charge, you know.
LBB> You grew up in Tokyo – what kind of childhood did you have and what sort of experience did you have of creativity when you were young?
AN> I lived in the outskirts of Tokyo, so the environment around the house was rural. But a short train ride would land me in a big city. So I was able to experience both the beauty of the countryside and the stimulation of a big city.
LBB> You joined AOI Pro in 1994 – how has the company evolved since then?
AN> AOI Pro has undergone mesmerising growth since I joined the company. With the emergence of the internet and smartphones, there is a demand for different kinds of content. So going along with the market flow, we are now producing a wide variety of content, from TVCs, feature films, TV dramas, online videos to video content for games.
LBB> These days you are Chief Creative Officer as well as being a director – what does your CCO role involve?
AN> My mission is not only to produce great TVCs but also to succeed in the world of feature films. By breaking new ground, we can inspire the younger generation which is great for nurturing talent.
Nissin Cup Noodles spot ‘Globalization’ won the Adfest Grande Lotus in 2014
LBB> What was the best piece of advice you got when you were starting out?
AN> I was advised that given the same skills as a director, the one who can accomplish the work faster becomes the sought-after talent. Speed is very important in a professional’s work.
LBB> Over your career, what commercial projects have you been proudest of and why?
AN> I consider all my projects both precious and lacking at the same time. So it’s hard to boil it down to a specific project.
LBB> I think one of my favourite project of yours is BIG TRAP – it’s a great build up and punchline. What are your memories of working on that ad?
AN> Yes, that’s one of my favourites too. The circumstances around that shoot were miserable. We were shooting in a bustling city centre with lots of extras. By closing off the street we got into trouble with the police and the shoot almost had to be cancelled. In addition, it was in the height of summer so one of the extras fainted and we had to call for an ambulance. I love the final product but I must say, I don’t like recalling the process of it being made!
LBB> All over the world, it seems that the commercial production scene is changing – how are things changing in Japan?
AN> Everything is advancing, from digital cameras, editing instruments, drones, to CGI. So now there are infinite ways of expression.
However, there are some clients that are under the misunderstanding that digital makes things cheaper and faster. I do wish that they understand that because the things we can achieve have expanded so do cost and time.
LBB> And you’ve been working increasingly in feature film! One of the side characters in your debut feature ‘Judge!’ was a commercials director – how did you find sending up your own profession on screen? Did you add in that character on purpose?
AN> I did it to show how hard the position of a TVC director is.
LBB> How did you find the transition from working on commercials to working on features?
AN> The experience gained through producing TVCs was totally useless. It’s like a tennis player trying to play baseball. But I think my skill as a director has really gone up.
LBB> Looking at your feature movies, they’re pretty diverse in tone and subject matter – from the drama of ‘After the Rain’ to the crazy, stylised sass and comedy of ‘Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High’… so what is it that you look for in feature projects?
AN> It’s precisely because I have been a TVC director that I do not fear diversity of tone or theme. I do want to continue trying my hand in all sorts of genres. And I hope to change people’s lives with my work.