October 27, 2022
By Andrew Osmond.
The name Summer Ghost may sound oxymoronic to British viewers. We tend to associate ghosts with cold, dark months, as with A Christmas Carol and the BBC’s tradition of putting up scary spook stories over Christmas. Actually, Summer Ghost isn’t a frightening film as such, though it deals with fears, intense emotions and a shocking tragedy in the past. Also, Summer Ghost director loundraw points out, there are ways in which summer and ghosts fit together particularly well in Japan.
For one thing, Japanese summer is the season for fireworks, whether it’s kids waving sparklers around at dusk or blockbuster bangers. loundraw’s film starts with three teenagers hearing a rumour that a ghost will appear if they light fireworks at a particular spot during summer. loundraw notes that sparklers, like cherry blossom, have become a broad symbol in Japan for mortality, the brevity of life. “Fireworks are used for remembering the dead,” he told me, “but most of the time they’re just fun.”
Summer is also the time of the Buddhist Obon festival, when people remember dead relatives. Obon is represented in films such as Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking and Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering with You, though it’s not specifically referenced in Summer Ghost. “I wasn’t particularly intending to invoke Obon in the film,” loundraw says. “But in the background, you do have that connection in the Japanese mind between summer and the dead. There’s a natural connection there which I thought might make the story more convincing. It’s not explicit, but I didn’t think it would hurt.”
The first seed of the film was the idea that a ghost could be summoned by lighting sparklers. Then the scriptwriter, Hirotaka Adachi, came up with different ways to flesh out the idea, and the one that stuck was having the ghost being summoned by three youngsters. These are the boys Tomoya and Ryo and the girl Aoi, each of whom has personal issues and secrets. The film concentrates especially on Tomoya, who strikes up a strange relationship with the ghost – one that enthrals him, but which may have darker implications.
Tomoya is alive, but he does feel the allure of death, says loundraw. In one sequence late in the film, the action cuts between Tomoya with his living friends and Tomoya with the ghost, as if the boy’s occupying different realities at once, in a Satoshi Kon-ish way. “He’s attracted by death, and that was what I was trying to show, that he’s going back and forth between the two (realities),” loundraw says.
The film also juxtaposes the sky and the earth, and specifically under the earth. We see Tomoya soaring with the ghost above the clouds – there’s a romantic tinge to the scene, as the ghost is in attractive young woman called Ayane. But then Tomoya is suddenly in a subterranean realm, pictured as if he’s deep underwater. “The idea of flying came from the scriptwriter, Hirotaka Adachi. And Ayane’s body is in the ground. In terms of anime code, the sky often represents action and fun, whereas in this case I wanted the ground to represent reality and death, and I wanted that contrast between the two.”
More broadly, loundraw wanted to blend the film’s characters with their environment, in ways that aren’t usually done in commercial anime. “A lot of the time you’ll find in animation that the characters stick out against the background, they don’t fully integrate. But I wanted to change the colours (of the characters) with the backgrounds, so (the characters) felt like they actually exist in the scene. That’s apparently something not normally done when making animation.”
loundraw’s dissatisfaction with normal anime procedures led to him founding a brand-new studio, Flat Studio, where he could make Summer Ghost and other anime his way. Before making that bold move, loundraw had worked as an illustrator; his projects included the character designs for the novel I Want to Eat Your Pancreas, another story of teens and mortality. loundraw’s designs also found their way into the anime film version in 2018, made by Studio VOLN.
“When I found that I wanted to tell a story, over a timeline, then it felt that the natural way to do that was through animation. But when I tried it, the conventional way of doing that didn’t work for me. So I needed to find people who would work with me, and I set up a studio to be able to do that.” loundraw adds that Flat Studio gave him “a team that I could share my ideas with, and show them how I want things to be done. And the staff really grew through Summer Ghost, and now I think I would be much more comfortable leaving more things to them.”
One unusual feature of Summer Ghost is its 40-minute length. “I did think about making a longer film, but then I thought that there was no real precedent for ‘a film by loundraw,’ so my priority was just to get people to come and see it, and so I decided that a short film would be the way to go. And then I thought that this story would work as a short film; Summer Ghost itself was always going to be a short film.”
Even with the freedom of a new studio, you might guess the film’s length would make it hard to get it into cinemas. Actually, Summer Ghost did have a Japanese release in cinemas, in November 2021. It premiered outside Japan on the very same day (12th November) at the Leeds Film Festival, and it’s had many more screenings since. loundraw’s comments suggest he wasn’t involved in setting up these screenings, but they left an impact on him nonetheless.
“I don’t know the details of the distribution. I do understand that it’s harder to get an audience for a short film versus a long one, but despite that, Summer Ghost was screened in some big cinemas, so I felt the weight of expectation.” After all, the world’s eyes were on loundraw now, and on the ghost that a new director and new studio had summoned up with a sparkler at twilight.
Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Summer Ghost is released in the UK by Anime Limited.