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Being a Brief Discussion with Liam O'Brien About Koi Kaze

By Way Jeng     July 18, 2006

Interviewer: Way Jeng

Interviewer (I): Today I'm talking with Liam O'Brien, voice actor in and ADR director of Koi Kaze. Let's start at the very beginning. Any discussion about Koi Kaze has to involve its central theme, incest. A lot of fans are undoubtedly predisposed against the show because of that. What would you say to them?

Liam O'Brien (LOB): Well, the main thing about Koi Kaze is that it's not propaganda for incest. That's what a lot of people seem to think. They think of the nature of a lot of anime out there, and you know, there's pornographic anime, so they hear incest and they assume it's going to be something that promotes that kind of choice. But it's actually a story about incest--not a story supporting or selling incest. I had a lot of hesitation taking on the show when Jonathan Klein, who's my boss and friend now, told me it was the first show they wanted me to direct. He kind of told me what it was about, but not really. Then I went poking around on the internet, and all that I could find were brief synopses of the episodes. Most of them spoke pretty disparagingly about it. I kept finding posts about how disgusting it was, so I naturally got pretty nervous. I watched the whole show ahead of time, though, and after that, the nerves went away pretty quickly. Koi Kaze is really just an exploration of how two people made, what I personally think, is the wrong decision. We've seen lots of stories like this, from Hamlet to Six Feet Under. People make the wrong decisions--but we're fascinated by those stories. It doesn't mean we're endorsing murder. Hamlet was planning to murder his uncle. It's not that we endorse murder, but we're fascinated by the human drama of the play. It's the human condition, and all people are fascinated by the human condition. Koi Kaze is more of a character study and delves into the more painful aspects of life.

I: Do you think the show ultimately makes a normative value judgment for or against incest?

LOB: I think it manages to go right down the center. If you go off of the last episode, a lot of people are really thrown because they expect one of two results. For those who really like incest--I'm not one of them, hope for the pair to get together. They're hoping for a really good, sexy, and sort of a "thumbs-up" thesis in support of incest. To say, "We're a niche group. Screw you all. You should like it." But it doesn't say any of that. But it also doesn't say, "Well look at the terrible thing they've done. They're going to Hell in a hand basket." This show does not wag its finger at the audience, or offer a total condemnation of the siblings' actions. It's right down the middle. It's left open-ended. It's open to debate, like a lot of good plays are. They leave it open for you decide what the story means. My personal take is that it'll go on a bit longer, but probably can't last. There's some subtle stuff going on in the last episode, like the park where they met is closing down, as well as the cherry blossoms dying (required in every anime, right?) And most likely, no one will ever know. It'll probably just be between the two of them. They know, still, that it's wrong, and they still love each other dearly, so it just presents it as it is. In life, there's no narrator when people make the wrong choices in life--to say these two have defiled humanity, or that they're proper and will go to Heaven.

I: What is it that makes art like this--art that makes people uncomfortable and we don't always want to think about--important? Why do we have to have this kind of art?

LOB: So much of entertainment--not that I don't like it; we all like it--are about feeling good or having a good time. It's about how we wish life was, and its romanticized. It's not really examining ourselves, our lives, what makes us human. It's a lie, really, that everything is "Leave It to Beaver". We don't live in Hello Dolly, as fun though Hello Dolly might be. I guess not everybody likes that, but I think to understand ourselves you have to look at--not necessarily embrace but look at--the darker side of our personalities and the impulses that we all have. We all think about killing people. Everybody's got the fantasy about robbing a bank and moving to Rio de Janeiro. We don't do it, but it's still part of us conscious mind. You're in denial if you're not willing to examine these aspects of yourself. That's why I really loved doing this show. Don't get me wrong, I love action and comedy. I love acting in those things. I hope to be directing comedy and action in the future. It's a good time, but I came out of the theater, where I made my bones digging into some pretty raw drama. And I think human beings are interested in every kind of story out there, not just the happy ones. To focus on Hello Dolly is to focus on only one side of ourselves. It's not like there's anything bad with that. It's a good time, and we all like to have a good time. But there's more than one side to life.

I: What were your memories of playing Odagiri? How did that character strike you, and what do you think was his purpose in the show?

LOB: When you go to see a really intense drama or something, they can make you squeamish. They make you squirm in your seat. The pressure builds up in you like a teakettle. Odagiri serves a similar purpose to the previews at the end of each episode. They let the steam out and let you laugh. The show probably would have survived without Odagiri, but he's there to take the pressure off a bit. A lot of the show is fairly intense, and that's why it's so hard for a lot of people to watch. So if the last ten minutes have been about growing evermore uncomfortable, an Odagiri appearance gives you a chance to laugh a moment and say, "Holy shit, this is crazy!" He's also there to counter-balance Koshiro, because Koshiro is legitimately having these feelings for his sister. They're complicated, and he knows it's a bad decision. It's very layered. Odagiri's there so you can say, "Koshiro is having a hard time, but at least he's not Odagiri." Odagiri's a stereotype, and Koshiro's a real person going through a real human experience. I also thought that I should take the hit and play him rather than making anybody I knew do it.

I: You cast yourself as Odagiri?

LOB: I don't have final say, but I can strongly recommended myself! It was a little tricky to get anybody to voice anybody in this show. People wanted to do it, but it's a touchy subject and even if I only had them come in to do two hours of work on the show I would say, "Did Jonathan Klein tell you anything about the show? Okay, sit down. It's about A, B, C, D, and E." I had to hold my breath and hope they didn't run screaming. Nobody did, but a few people did a serious double-take.

I: Did anybody ask to see the show ahead of time?

LOB: Nobody asked, but I offered. There's certainly a lot of debate over what's better or worse--seeing things ahead of time or going in blind. But I made the show available to my two leads. I think my Koshiro watched the whole show from start to finish. I don't think that Nanoka did. I believe she watched a little at a time as we went along. I personally think that if you're doing Hamlet and rehearsing it, you don't want to go into it having only read Act I. Because what happens in Act V will effect your decisions in Act I. if Hamlet explodes and just goes nuts in Act I then he's got nowhere to go in Act V, something you might avoid if you know the whole story. That's just my preference for working on anime. By the way, can you tell I'm hung up on Hamlet?

I: What did you love most about working on the show?

LOB: What I loved most was the more complicated subject matter. Again, I have a really heavy theatre background, and I really liked not yelling about chocolate bar rangers or force attacks. We really took our time, and I felt like I'd gone back to rehearsing a play. Working with Patrick Seitz on breakdown scenes and talking through it. There was a lot of fine tuning.

I: For better or worse, there's an expectation that anime is about science fiction and fantasy. It's about giant robots and magical girls. Koi Kaze is very different. It contains no speculative elements at all. What was your reaction to it, after having seen other anime and then getting the chance to work on this show?

LOB: I knew that it was one-of-a-kind. Look, I intend to direct anime as long as people want me to, regardless of what the genre is. But even if I get another drama, and drama's are rare enough as it is--what really sells is Vin Diesel movies and exploding cars--I'm probably never going to get a chance to direct something like this again. It absolutely surprised me that it was even made in the first place. It's funny, I think what really surprises us most, though, is that its animated. It is a really taboo subject, but we've explored it in films in the US and England for a long time. It's not a new thing. I think what weirds people out is that it's animated, because in America the animation we produce is for kids. That's what we're used to seeing. But the truth is, Koi Kaze is not the first drama ever to be created around incest. There's a play called Tis a Pity She's a Whore, written by John Ford, one of Shakespeare's contemporaries. It's about a prince and his princess sister, and funnily enough, they do it--and are both dead by the end of the play. And then there's their age difference. That's been done to death. I mean, look at Six Feet Under--the main character lost his virginity to a 35 year-old woman when he was 15! So, neither of the prickly aspects of this budding relationship are new its just that they've been cel shaded for the first time! But that's anime for you. I was surprised by Koi Kaze, but maybe I shouldn't have been. I mean, I've seen Grave of the Fireflies, which is very hard to watch. They've got every kind of anime. They've got comedy, they've got drama, they've even got porno. But ya know, an exploration of incest is rare, even in Hollywood-- I think it's [a] pretty brave journey to go on. No one wants to think about that kind of thing. I mean, I have a sister.

I: I was struck by Koi Kaze because of how real it was. When I look at Odagiri, I see the way the show could have gone. The lighter, funnier version that would have been less disturbing than the honest, real depiction that we did get.

LOB: I haven't seen them, but I know there are shows out there like that. Like what's the one about the teacher? There's been lots of light hearted incest humor in other anime. I think you're probably right. Odagiri's probably there so they can say, "Look, this is how this show could have been presented. But its not. He's only here for thirty seconds a show. If that's what you're thinking, then forget it."

I: It reminds you what an intense character you're looking at.

LOB: For the same reason, I think as Americans we're used to getting judgments. Real, distinctly pronounced judgments. "Here's the villain. What he's done is wrong. Let us all condemn him" In Hollywood, for the most part that's the way it is. But Koi Kaze doesn't make any decision. I pity those two. They made awful, awful decisions. I think about her-- You know, she never had a father figure growing up. She just had her mother. She suddenly gets thrown into a house with two guys, and she's going through puberty. She's blossoming, and she's just a mix of all the experiences she's had thus far, and probably walks into the wrong place at the wrong time--and leads her down this complicated road.

I: Tell me about recording with some of these actors. You're working with great people. Patrick Seitz, Tiffany Hsieh, and Michelle Ruff. What attracted you to their voices, and what was recording with them like?

LOB: They're three of the best people in this business. Michelle's a pro. I joke with her and tell her she is to Liam O'Brien, what Uma Thurman is to Quentin Tarantino-- because she can do anything. I know she gets cast as sweethearts all the time, but she has tons of range. I love recording with her. Especially that alleyway scene when Chidori tears into Koshiro. That's a one-of-a-kind scene in anime. It just goes on forever, and it's her monologue-ing for a really long time. Again, with no fireballs being thrown. I really liked going deeper with her because what she does, she does very well, but this was something out of the main stream, and not what she typically gets cast as. I liked directing Tiffany because I felt like I was directing an actress in the role of Juliet on stage. We really got fine-tuney, and with both of the leads--Koshiro and Nanoka-- I wanted them to take their time and feel things out. Sometimes this business is fast. Budgets aren't huge. You want to get things done quickly. Luckily, line counts were not that big. We could say, "Listen, the show is what it is. I don't want you to worry about nailing it the first time. Wait till the right one pops out. It just felt slow and more boutique-y, more intimate than most shows do.

I: And it was a relatively small cast.

LOB: Yeah, and I went from that to DearS. Koi Kaze was my first, and I said, "This is easy! I can keep track of all this." I went to DearS, where I had thirty characters come in, each with three lines. It should've been the other way around. I should've been baptized in fire with DearS.

I: Did you think Koi Kaze was easier than directing DearS?

LOB: Yeah and no. It was less of a scheduling nightmare. It was a lot easier to keep track of. Actually, I'll say it was easier the whole way through because even though Koi Kaze's subject matter was more difficult it was more in line with my background. We're used seeing plays and going through gut-wrenching stuff, but not really with anime. It was more in my ballpark.

I: Was it intimidating going into a controversial show? I imagine you knew that a lot of fans would see the show for the first time in the dub. They avoided fansubs and all that. There'd be a new round of controversy, if you will. Did that worry or intimidate you?

LOB: The way I experienced that show, in hearing about it ahead of time and then watching it, was the same way a lot of fans did. I watched it and said, "Well, anybody who watches it... Ninety percent of them are going to like it. Ten percent are not. It'll be too harsh, but oh well. The real challenge is getting them to watch it in the first place, no matter what you say, or what we talk about here--be that how refined it is or how honest and genuine a story it is. It's not pornographic or exploitive or anything. It was a beautiful, beautiful show long before I touched it. The word "incest" is such a flash-word that the challenge is getting people over their fears about the show. It was the same with me! I knew I had to watch it to know if I could take the job on or not. When I was reading about it I was like, "What?!? It's about what?!? They're going to do what? I can't believe this!" Then I told my wife, and I said, "They want me to do this show, and it's about incest. The guy's 28 and the girl's 15. Wahhh!!!" Then I watched the show and fell in love with it. I think that's been borne out. Those who do see the show like it. Oh! Here's a random story: Doug Stone is a foul-mouthed bastard. You will never get to see any of the terrible, terrible outtakes he's done with the father character. They were foul. Foul. They will never see the light of day. We also think that their dad looks like Hitler. He has a little moustache right there, and the haircut. So there were a lot of jokes. We thought about it, but it's really not a show for outtakes. In comedy and action you can have crude jokes, but you can't say this is a really serious subject and then have Hitler jokes.

I: What were the easiest and hardest parts of the show to record?

LOB: Both were Koshiro's breakdown scenes. One was really easy, the other was really hard. I don't know why. One of the first times Koshiro breaks down and starts crying, we had a hard time with it. Not a hard time, but it took a while. I wanted him to be comfortable, so we took time getting in. Hell, I think I was nervous about the scene, as a director! The second big crying scene, I geared up for more of the same. This is the alleyway scene I'm referring to. Patrick did that one in two takes. Also, one of the trickier parts was calming people down when they first got in and I told them about the show. The easiest parts? It was pretty easy to get into the story because I loved the characters so much. Again, for my main three characters, I had three of the best in LA. I could really just let them go to town.

I: Tell me about the scenes in the alleyway and on the abandoned dock. Tell me what that was like, watching it for the first time and then recording it.

LOB: The actors were brilliant. They were freakin' brilliant. I was excited to do that alleyway scene from the moment I first sat down to watch the whole series. That was what I had the Chidori character actresses audition with. It was that scene. Anyone can do her earlier scenes. It's just office stuff and conversational. I needed someone who could really pull off the chops in the end. Again, Michelle Ruff is normally characters like Miharu in Girls Bravo. She's cute as a button and going down on a banana. It's not that she couldn't do it--obviously she could--but it's not what she does every day. She really stepped up to the plate, and Patrick Seitz walked in and he was doing it from the get-go. Patrick's a big softie. I told him and Tiffany that they should go to conventions dressed as their characters. Anyway, back to the alleyway--That scene's not like many anime scenes, because it's just her talking forever. It goes on, and on, and on. Normally in anime it's moving images. There'll be good dialogue, but it'll be interspersed with sword slashes and ninjas. But this was just Chidori in an alley. There was no music, no nothing. She carried the whole scene on her back. At that point, we were on the third volume of Koi Kaze. We'd done two volumes of DearS, and I'd done some Rumiko Takahashi. The routine is you get some people together, you record the actors, you get the mix, you get it the way you want it, and then you bring in the producer who watches it and says, "Okay, tweak this" or, "change that." I'd probably done five producer screenings at that point, but something happened for the first time. After we had finished watching all the episodes and were wrapping up and getting ready to go, the producer said, "You know what? Can I watch that one scene again?" Never had that happen before. It'll probably never happen again, and I took that as a very high compliment because they watch these things all the time, and they want a life, they want to go home! As for the other scene on the pier, they don't even say that much but it makes the hair on my arms stand on end. This show, and especially that scene, is a lot about what's told in the silence and the pauses, when the characters aren't talking. That scene was almost a complete blank slate. We carefully chose how to say every little line so it was like a little drop in the silence. And Tiffany's performance in that scene is amazing. She's a great actress. She's my favorite in LA.

I: I was amazed by how far that scene went, and it came out of nowhere. They're just sitting there, and they've been having fun. But there's this weird, creepy moment after they leave their mother's house. They bow, and there's a reverse pull, and it's a little creepy.

LOB: Yeah. You watch it, and then after you're like, "Oh, god. They're saying goodbye."

I: And then she asks.

LOB: And you never expect her to do that.

I: Right, and then he says, "I don't know." And oh my gosh. It's like somebody hits you in the face, then hits you in the stomach. It's a great one-two punch for the scene.

LOB: They know the things that they're doing are not the right things to do. You can't say that this show is an endorsement of incest. This guy knows the whole time. His spiritual awakening in life just happened to coincide with the worst decision he ever made. I don't recommend it.

I: [laughs] Oh, you don't?

LOB: There's millions of people in the world. Go next door.

I: What did you think about the fact that there are two issues: there's the incest and there's the age. Did you think that they both got enough attention?

LOB: I think it's like sleight of hand. Both issues bother people, but some don't even realize it. This was a big deal when we started it. Have you ever met or talked to Reiko [Matsuo, President of New Generation Pictures, Inc.]?

I: I haven't had the pleasure.

LOB: She runs New Gen with Jonathan [Klein]. She's actually from Japan. When I saw the show the first time, it was two big things for me as an American: the age thing and the incest. For me, the age thing bothers me more than the incest. Okay, I don't recommend incest. I have a sister who's older than me. I would never do anything with her because it physically revulses me. But if two grown adults do it, that's their decision. I don't recommend it, but they're not hurting anybody else. But the age thing, in this country that's statutory rape. He's grown up. He knows what's wrong with it. She's still a child, really. She matures as the show goes on, but she's still not a full-grown adult by the end of it. He knows exactly what's going on from the get-go. That's what freaked me out, but the two things are so close together. I think the viewers can't decide which thing they're offended by. And Reiko told me at one point that the only thing that bothers people in Japan about this show is the incest. The age--not at all. She says that every man in Japan wants to have a teenaged girlfriend. I thought she meant in a laughable/pathetic laughable. Like, "Ha ha--Look at that doofus. He's going for a girl in high school." But apparently, it's not seen in that kind of light. And I'm like, "Well, just some people, right? Or social misfits?" and she's like, "No. Everybody." She swears (and maybe this is just her because she's just one person) that the age thing is not an issue. For me it was a big issue.

I: That's interesting because for me because my experience walking away from Koi Kaze was that the show missed something. They missed a certain opportunity. But I suppose that's a cultural difference that shows through in the show's scripting and sensibility.

LOB: Did you ever read Lolita? It's about a man and a young girl--he's in his 40's. He lusts over her, and she's absolutely attracted to him at the beginning of the book. He moves in with the mother and daughter, and the mother dies in a freak accident. Sorry for the spoilers, people. The two of them go on the road together, and they start having sex regularly. And she's a willing participant, she's not being held down. She's responsive to his advances. Then two years later, they're still together, still on the road because they can never settle down. If anybody sees this guy with the girl they'll freak. They're just driving and out of nowhere she says, "Where was that hotel we stayed at that one time? It had the white stucco walls. You know... when you raped me." When it happened she still was a child. She didn't know the full ramifications of what he was doing, or what was involved. Just two years later she can look back and say, "Oh, well I was an idiot then. I didn't have any understanding of what was happening. He raped me." Same thing going on here. She's the same age. She's fifteen. It's dangerous territory.

I: Do you think that in the show's future history Nanoka would have a feeling like that? Do you think she would look back and think that Koshiro took advantage of her?

LOB: I don't know. Maybe. It's not black or white. They know what they're doing is socially forbidden, and they feel terrible about it. But as to what happens next--that's anyone's guess. By the way, another interesting thing is that the end of the show was changed from what the Japanese saw. There was a thirty-second sequence that got swapped out for something else. The show you saw, they're out there and they have their mud fight. She says, "I'm going to clean up," and she runs off. He interacts with a toddler in the park, and then Nanoka comes back. That scene wasn't there before. Instead, the mud scene continues you a hair longer--she looks up and says, "We got a little dirty, didn't we?" and he says, "Yeah, I guess we kind of did." Now I would have adapted that to, "We kind of made a mess of ourselves." Two minutes later they leave the park smiling, but in this cut scene she's saying we've done something really bad here. As much as they love each other, they know. It was a sad little moment, and I actually miss it being in.

I: Is there anything you think the fans should know about the show?

LOB: Again, I think it was a beautiful show long before I ever touched it. I think its one of the better anime ever made. I'd put it up there with Grave of the Fireflies, Akira, and the greatest of the great. It's carefully made and beautifully told. The characters are very complex. I just hope that anybody anyone left out there with a preconceived notion of the show might actually give it a shot. Is it painful? Is it complicated? Of course--but our lives are painful, and that's the truth. You can't have a full understanding of this life unless you examine every aspect of it.

I: Did you find watching it painful?

LOB: Oh yeah. At the same time, I was relieved that it was not the show I was afraid it might be, the dirty show. I fell in love with the characters. [Sees Jonathan Klein] What about you? What do you think about Koi Kaze?

Jonathan Klein (JK): What do I think about Koi Kaze?

LOB: Yeah.

JK: I think the dub was brilliant and I think the content matter was very well handled. It's a show that essentially handles the idea of what happens when two people separated for twelve years develop feelings for each other, and they know it's wrong.

I: I think I was actually more disturbed when I found out it wasn't the dirty show I thought it might be.

LOB: Because we're more willing to deal with parody.

I: Yes.

JK: They didn't laugh at it or say it was okay. They didn't go that route. There were consequences to the acts.

LOB: It's something that nobody makes shows about, period. Six Feet Under is about a family brought up in a funeral home and how awful their lives are. Who knew that would make for so great TV? But life's hard. And beautiful. The reason that we love life so much is because it's so complicated and fleeting. Yet there are these glimpses of real happiness. Nanoka and Koshiro found it where they could... I don't agree with their choice, I don't even need to. But I'm moved by their plight. [EXIT JK]

I: Is your greatest fear that people won't watch it at all?

LOB: Yeah, because we worked really hard and it meant so much to us. Another thing I can remember is being with Tiffany in the recording studio and saying, "We're working so hard on this, and it's so good. Is anyone going to watch this?" We were really getting into it. You know, you work on some shows, and I'm not going to name any because I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, but you know it's like bing-bang-boom. Get it in, get it out, get it out. "I'm a warrior! Grrrrr!" But with this we knew we had something that was truly unique. We really treasured it when we had it and were very sad when it ended. Then I went on to my harem comedy.

I: Which everybody needs to direct one of.

LOB: We all have to have a harem of harem comedies. Luckily my next one is not a harem comedy, but I can't tell you about that.

I: I think that people not watching a show and judging it regardless is one of the biggest wrongs a fan can do to a show. I don't know why fans do it, but it's always too bad when it happens.

LOB: I heard more feedback about Koi Kaze than I thought I would, but there's always going to be a certain chunk of people who are too wigged out by it, and that's a shame. I'm a big fan of David Mamet plays, because they don't always tell you what's right or wrong. I don't know if you're familiar with the play Oleana, but it's about a teacher and a student. Possibly sexual harassment. You don't see it on stage. People saw that show, and yelled at the stage because they couldn't believe what they were seeing. But by the end of the night, everybody had a different opinion of what the play meant and what would happen next, who was right and who was wrong. Anything that makes you walk away and argue with your date about what it was about, and what the consequences are, that's a good work of art.

I: It's haunting.

LOB: It stays with you, and it's more than, "Yeah, that was fun. Let's get something to eat."

I: I was also concerned for Koi Kaze because it's a very slow show. There's a lot of silence.

LOB: There's no ninjas.

I: Do you miss working on it, even now?

LOB: Yeah.

I: What was it like to wrap that show?

LOB: It was quietly sad, because it wasn't like we were all together. There was no wrap party, but we all knew we were going back to ninja fights and stuff. Which we all love, but a lot of us are actors in general and we like doing plays and film. A lot of us became actors for that, to go into the dark areas of life. And we knew that this was not going to happen again, or at least for a very, very long time. So it's like if you're playing Juliet, and it was your last performance. It's a bummer. We really got to run the gamut on that.

I: What was it like when you had wrapped the show and started to see the first fan reactions?

LOB: Well, it confirmed what I was afraid of, that a lot of people were going to be too scared--because a lot of people were like, "What? I'll never support that kind of filth!" Some of those people did end up seeing it, and some of them still haven't. I was happy it went over as well as it did. It got more appreciation than I thought it was going to. It didn't get recognized by everybody, but a lot of people saw it. Just not everybody saw it.

I: Any last words?

LOB: Watch the show. Watch the show. Watch the show! See the show! It's perfect. It's gorgeous. I'd say watch the dub, but I'm a little biased. Watch it subbed, dubbed, watch it both ways. It's a brilliant, brilliant show.

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