Creative Control

Creative Control

Set to speak at the Club this month, an illustrator behind anime blockbuster Your Name explains why he needed to wipe the slate clean.

Mateusz Urbanowicz knew he had to go for it.

It was 2013 and illustrator-animator Makoto Shinkai (dubbed the new Hayao Miyazaki) had just finished a guest lecture at Kobe Design University. Urbanowicz, then a graduate student on a Japanese government scholarship, introduced himself and proffered a DVD of a 30-second trailer for his final animation project.

He asked Shinkai to watch it and started for the door.

“I was, like, ‘OK, I managed it,” says Urbanowicz, 32, of that nerve-racking encounter with a hero. “Then Shinkai said, ‘Wait, wait, wait, I’ve already seen it. Just come back here. I would like to talk.’” 

The man whose digital illustrations Urbanowicz would scrutinize for hours back home in Poland had already watched the work-in-progress clips Urbanowicz had been uploading to YouTube. Shinkai invited him to tour his Tokyo studio, Comix Wave Films. A job offer followed. 

Over the next three years as a background illustrator at Comix Wave, Urbanowicz honed his skills. He built up credits on primetime anime series and directed his own team producing TV spots for real-estate developers.

In 2016, Shinkai and Comix Wave released Your Name, Japan’s highest grossing domestic release since Miyazaki’s Spirited Away 15 years before. More than 120 of Urbanowicz’s backgrounds made the final cut.

Sitting on the tatami-matted floor of his Kanagawa atelier, Urbanowicz flips through three Shinkai concept albums. Two, from before his time at the studio, he pored over to replicate Shinkai’s techniques.

The third, from Your Name, reveals the heights few Japanese illustrators, let alone foreign-born ones like Urbanowicz, ever achieve. 

“I’m still full of pride when I look at this,” Urbanowicz says. “I learned from these two, but I’m here in the third one.”

Then, shortly after Your Name and Shinkai became global sensations, Urbanowicz quit. He and his wife, Kana, moved out of Tokyo and became full-time freelance artists. 

“If you’re working as a background artist in a studio, you’re doing someone else’s ideas,” he says, explaining the hierarchy of a typical studio. “Actually, you’re pretty down the line in the idea department.”

During his time at Comix Wave, he would take long strolls through Tokyo, absorbing incongruous or odd urban scenes: an electronics store wedged under an elevated train line, a health clinic with a façade of frosted glass bricks.

“I always had in the back of my mind creating my own work,” Urbanowicz says. “I always had ideas that were [of a] higher level.”

He started sketching the storefronts. Ten full-scale, meticulously detailed watercolors emerged. They lack a single human subject yet still seem lived in. Battered bikes lean against walls. Laundry hangs on second-floor verandas.

“It was really nice to do some work that connects to people directly,” Urbanowicz says. “Maybe people will go to these stores and do some shopping and help them survive.”

Urbanowicz connects with a wider audience through social media. He posts technique tutorials to YouTube and in-progress images to Instagram, offering budding artists a chance to learn the way he did. 

When he posted the 10 original watercolors to his blog, the response was overwhelming, with websites in Japan and beyond featuring them. Interview requests began rolling in and Urbanowicz’s YouTube channel racked up subscribers (now 100,000, with 67,000 followers on Instagram). A Japanese publisher approached him to expand the series into a full book.

“I had the ability to do something of value and not just as a product,” he says. “Something that would make people’s lives richer.”

Freelancing is not always easy, Urbanowicz explains, but when commissions come, he has the financial freedom to be picky. His online activity helps, and Tokyo Storefronts tripled the publisher’s sales targets in nine months. 

That success has real-estate conglomerates regularly soliciting him. They want their high-rises and superstructure projects rendered in Urbanowicz’s lush watercolors. Almost always, he turns them down.

“I don’t like skyscrapers much,” he declares. “Skyscrapers are my enemies, I would say.”

Urbanowicz is at work on a new collection of watercolors, Tokyo at Night, due out in the spring. With watercolors, the details of night scenes—lampposts, street signs and illuminated office windows—come first. Until he adds the darker background layers, he frets over possible mistakes he’s already made. 

It’s a much more arduous method than the one he employed for Tokyo Storefronts. Maybe there’s a simpler way, but that’s not where Urbanowicz’s creative compass points. 

Who’s to say he’s right?

A framed, handwritten letter hangs on his living room wall. “Thank you for sending me a copy of Tokyo Storefronts,” it begins. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

Signed: Hayao Miyazaki. That’s who.

Meet the Author: Mateusz Urbanowicz
Jan 30 | 7–8pm

Words: Owen Ziegler
Image: Kayo Yamawaki