Today’s double dose of Violet Evergarden goodness also includes the translation of an interview with its director Taichi Ishidate, originally published in the recently founded Shin-Q magazine. Ishidate talks about his personal approach to the project, its themes, and the particularities of the production, such as the impossibly detailed designs and the unique coloring process.
─ First, we’d like to hear the details of how this was chosen to be animated. Violet Evergarden is a title that was published by the KA Esuma Bunko label from Kyoto Animation, right?
Yes. It’s a title that was almost unanimously chosen by the judges to be the first grand prize in the awards sponsored by the studio, the Kyoto Animation Awards. A grand prize winner… now that sounds amazing. (laughs)
─ It was chosen beating many other entries, right?
Right, it pretty much won the gold medal, the only title that’s achieved that. I was one of the judges, though it was the result of everyone coming together and feeling it deserved to win. Once that happened, it seemed inevitable that Kyoto Animation would animate it.
─ We heard that during that time, you desired to become the director for Violet Evergarden, director Ishidate. Is that so?
Rather than desired, I’d say I was already posing myself to be its director. While the main staff at Kyoto Animation were looking over titles, my attitude was along the lines of “man, wouldn’t it be nice to handle Violet Evergarden!” After a little while I got asked to be the director and here I am now.
─ Violet Evergarden won the grand prize, was published and announced that it would be animated, and then you were chosen to direct it. What points did you stress as important when you were adapting it into a visual medium?
Just as the title says, the story itself is about the main protagonist, Violet Evergarden, so I felt figuring out her portrayal was key. Claiming that this title only focuses on her would be going overboard – it’s more akin to an omnibus of episodic tales, though in the end she’s always at their epicenter. The way you present characters in novels and film is different of course, so I worried that placing her in a new medium would alter the feel of her character from the original. Thinking about how I would visualize my impressions when I read the novels was my first worry.
─ Of course this story is about Violet, but it feels that simply categorizing it as a growth story would be a bit incorrect.
Violet herself has an ephemeral feel. She’s the protagonist, but while the story is based around her growth, her actual presence is quite sparse. You wonder if she’s really here or not. And because she’s that type of person, you can’t deliver a straightforward, orthodox tale; you have to include portions that show the various filters through which she perceives the world. I feel that’s one of the entertaining parts of this show. One staff member said “it feels like we’re watching a Violet prism”, referring to how light passes through her and disperses. But she’s not a mirror. Instead of Violet having an effect on the world around her, it’s through the people she meets that she finds how to improve herself and begins to change who she is. Violet’s that kind of character.
─ At the 3rd KyoAni & Do Fan Days event held in October, you said that the theme when producing this show was “Seriously, Earnestly, Not Messing Around.” Without getting into spoilers, could you tell us about that theme?
Putting it in one word… actually, it’s not easy to sum up. You could say “it’s about ‘love’” but that isn’t quite right.
─ Having read the novels, I did feel that love was part of the story. Watching the first two episodes of the series at the preview, however, I felt that it wasn’t just that. Instead, a wide breadth of emotions were focused upon.
That’s the case, without a doubt. It’s quite challenging to sum up the range of emotions people feel and express. You can pile up some terms like and end up with amalgamations like “happy sadness,” but even that’s only a taste of all that they’re feeling – you really can’t express that in simple terms. But in order to examine a work seriously, you’re asked to find a way to categorize it, place it into a genre space, and summarize it. And when you do that and re-examine it, are you able to see things that you weren’t able to notice before? That was my approach when producing this show. In the end, it’s an omnibus series where we’ll show something different each week. Violet has that kind of core inside it.
─ So that idea of “something you can’t express in simple terms” is a theme depicted in this title?
Yes. It’s difficult to sum it up.
─ Please tell us the important points that you wanted to keep from the novels.
By having Violet constantly searching for the meaning a certain phrase that Gilbert told her as the axis of the show, we felt that we could delve into Violet herself and find out more about herself as she does. We made that the core of this series.
─ You mentioned earlier that the novels were an omnibus of episodic tales. Did you use that to your advantage when making the anime series?
Right. I started by thinking about the charm of the format itself. After all, it’s entertaining to go to various places on a trip, similar to a road movie type of scenario. So I pondered about how best to use that in the series. During the script meetings, there was a passing mention of how it’d be nice if the afterlife allowed us to traverse the world as she does. She’s what people would call “ignorant of the world,” she’s strong yet not exceptionally so, and feels “close.” That’s why she goes on this aimless journey. It would be nice to follow her on that path she treads. That’s why I think we had no other choice but to depict Violet going to these various places. It became a key part of this show.
─Two original anime characters, Erica and Iris, appear in the TV show. You thought about adding these two characters after the initial stages of planning, right?
Frankly, at the beginning, I didn’t think any original characters were necessary. I mentioned it earlier, but this is an omnibus style of series revolving Violet, so it’s already supplemented by characters she meets week-in and week-out. Because of that, I thought original characters were unnecessary. However, when I spoke with series composer Reiko Yoshida-san, I came to realize that we wanted companions to appear in the place where Violet returns to. We thought that having people there close to her, allowing her to contrast how she felt when she met all those outsiders, would be the best way to manifest her incipient feelings. Otherwise I think she’d be too much of a wanderer! (laughs) Erica and Iris are what we’d simply call friends, and as observing Violet from close-by, they’re in a position that’s easy to sympathize with. On a more pragmatic level, there’s also the fact that Cattleya wouldn’t be working by herself in the writing division of CH Mail Services, where Violet is located.
─ So CH Mail Services became bigger in the end.
I wanted it to be smaller, but it also needed to capture the atmosphere of a company that you could be working at too. As the story grew in scale, so too did the company unfortunately. It felt like the building itself grew to an extent as the characters who undertook the writing roles also increased.
─ I’d like to talk about the design and animation aspects too. Akiko Takase handled the illustrations for the novels and was also in charge of designing the anime designs, also serving as chief animation director. What did you two talk about during that process?
Back during the design and illustration process for the novel, I wasn’t involved at all. After all, it Takeda who read the novel, deciphered what sort of image to draw, and designed the characters herself. It feels like a very personal job that she did.
─ And so when it came time to revise the designs for the anime, Takase-san continued working on them herself?
We created a couple of commercials for the novels too, but for those we thought to use the design sheets she had already made for her illustrations. However, when it came time to animating, Takase-san requested to make the eyes a bit smaller; rather than accentuating the fantasy, she wanted to ground it in reality a bit. Taking her opinion into account, we altered the designs when we worked on the novel commercials. Although I say we, it essentially still was all her drawing them.
─ Speaking of anime character designs, usually they reduce the amount of lines to be drawn, but it seems like they weren’t decreased in this show.
They really weren’t, for the most part. The illustrations in the novels gave a distinct identity to the series, and it would be bad to take that away, so we challenged ourselves to keep it as it was.
─ When I looked at the character design sheets I was impressed at how many lines were present still. There were almost exactly like the original.
And yet if you compare them to the novel commercials, they’ve decreased some. We didn’t change anything at that time, so it was hell for us. (laughs) We even drew lines underneath clothes! Furthermore, it was all hand-drawn without tracing materials. Those were things we could do because it was only a commercial, but this time we had to hold back a bit as you’d expect.
─ Were there any requests that you made to Takese-san during the process of converting the original designs into animation ones?
I didn’t intervene during the designing process, but when it came time to draw the key animation, I wanted Violet’s main point to be her eyebrows. She’s a character who doesn’t understand peoples’ emotions and her own feelings, but that doesn’t mean she’s lacking something we’re all born with. It’s only because she was in such an environment that she doesn’t know; she simply wasn’t taught these lessons in humanity. Though she can’t express them that well, she does have these emotions we all possess. In the novel Gilbert points out to her “You should have those emotions. If you didn’t, then why are you looking like that?” so there has to be some subtle emotion placed on her. When thinking about where to introduce that nuance, I couldn’t say to put it in the eyes themselves, but I thought we could place them in her eyebrows as means to show her expressions. We then talked about how we could control the nuances of her eyebrows with that goal.
─ Looking at those detailed bits is another joyful part of watching this series.
We really gave it our all on her eyebrows. They’re just one line, but we were constantly revising them, working on things like the way they wrinkled and such.
─ When looking at the finished visuals, they look incredibly vibrant and impressive.
I thought that a lot of people who read the novel would imagine the cities as having an atmosphere like London or some English town. Not just the London fog, but that sense of calm and gray tone city giving it this solemn image. But when I was hammering out the details with Yoshida-san she mentioned “Violet could be in that type of city, but there wouldn’t be any discomfort for her; it’d be too ordinary.” So from there we re-worked the image of the location and brought up various ideas. Tofu appears in the novel, so therefore we has to establish the concept that Oriental trade came through from the East via the Silk Road. So with that as our base, we thought some type of flashier mix of various cultures like the bank of the Mediterranean Sea in Europe would be better. Violet’s own stoic image would create a sense of discomfort with her surroundings, and that could be a point where characters ventured off. We really gave it our all during the compositing for this work in order to display that warm environment.
─ That would be relating to the shading and effects, right?
We used techniques that we’ve employed previously as well, but for points that needed to be brilliant, we introduced a lot of individual colors like never before. They’re not “highlights” per se, but we would reflect light in individual colors so that it would appear that there was extra shading in each shot. Additionally, when scanning the drawn key animation and in-betweens we would adjust the lines there. We didn’t fade the lines themselves, but rather matched their color to a nearby tone to emulate a reflection. If it’s a flesh line, then their flesh color, if it’s clothing, then the clothing color. And thus the colors of the lines changed depending on the location.
─ I get it now. Even if one line in the shot is brown that doesn’t mean that all the lines will be brown.
Right. And at the same time there were processes to make the lines sharper. The composite staff really gave it their all in so many areas.
─ Was it always your intention to apply this kind of treatment to the whole series?
Well, it happened as we went through the promotional videos and while producing the first episode’s footage. While I was looking at the finished materials, I said something along the lines of “the lines are big and obtrusive and that makes it look unstylish.” And then someone started pondering how to address that, then offered to help fix it. I felt like the staff were truly tough troopers during this project.
─ The visuals are brilliant, and it’s not just the character art – the entire shots come together to feel as one gorgeous image.
We don’t see solid lines in objects when we look at them, do we? That’s why we worked exceptionally hard at making these drawings feel as palpable as possible. That’s not just the result of my own vision – I’ve been blessed with staff who gave it their all.
─ Please point out some highlights and aspects to look out for in the first episode.
It’s a relatively straightforward episode, so don’t expect it to have any tricks that will take you by surprise. If I’m pressed to say something, then I’d like you to pay attention to Violet’s presentation. We made this series with her character as the focal point, but despite my intent to put her under the spotlight to that degree, I don’t think it’ll be difficult for people to find other ways to enjoy it. It’s not an assorted pack of sweets or a sampler box though!
─ Since Violet herself doesn’t know a lot about the outside world, it’s enjoyable to see Hodgins and Benedict share their knowledge with her. It felt like a parent struggling to educate their naive child.
I’d say that’s perhaps a point to look for – the parents trying to teach their child. I’d really like fathers all over the world to watch this series, because they’d be able to sympathize with those characters. They may be too busy and not have time to watch anime, but I think this is a series that anyone who raised a child would enjoy watching.
─ This series has had introductory events in a world tour. How did that go?
When we went to the United States, that was the first time other people could see this series, so I was immensely nervous. I knew that the culture was different, so I imagined that their reactions would also differ, but they clapped their hands so much and reacted strongly to the episode. I heard so many voices going “whoa!”, though I couldn’t tell if their enthusiasm was directed at the show itself or the event. After the screening, there was a gentleman who was supervising the entrance to the backstage area who explicitly showed me his smartphone which had translated a message saying “that was awesome!” Once I saw how happy he was to communicate that to me, I felt so happy, thinking I was very glad to have made this show. I thought it was a nice country where someone could be so open to say that and bring it to me.
─ He was supposed to be simply helping out backstage, but he went so far to show you his reaction. You must have been happy to see that.
You bet! (laughs) I felt similarly when we went to Germany too. The reaction from the crowd and everyone’s delight were the same, but I’d have to say that my interactions with the staff side in Germany left even more of an impression. When I was answering questions for an anime magazine, the woman who interviewed me said that she felt the first episode was simply excellent. I don’t know German, so I couldn’t communicate something back in return, but I was happy that she conveyed that message from the bottom of her heart.
─ So finally, please leave a message to all the readers looking forward to the broadcast.
I’ll say something frankly: Violet Evergarden feels like it’ll be a harsh work, but it’s also one that steadily becomes a worthwhile experience. Please watch until the very end, and I hope you’ll be emotionally moved by sticking around with us.