One year after the devastating arson attack on Kyoto Animation, we’ve decided to share a series of articles shedding light on what makes them such a unique existence in the anime industry. For starters, here’s a roundtable talk from 2017 featuring many of their series directors, where they have lighthearted yet in-depth discussions about their creative methods and mindset, but especially about the attitude they feel you need to be a proper anime project leader.
- Tatsuya Ishihara (Euphonium series, Nichijou, Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions, KEY titles such as Clannad, and so on)
- Yasuhiro Takemoto (Hyouka, Maidragon, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, High Speed!, and so on)
- Naoko Yamada (Liz and the Blue Bird, A Silent Voice, K-ON!, Tamako Love Story, and so on)
- Eisaku Kawanami (All recent entries in the Free! franchise, such as Dive to the Future and Take Your Marks)
Interview originally published within KyoAni’s 2017 Watashitachi wa, Ima!! books, which are sadly no longer on sale. Translated by megax and checked by bitmap.
Facing your works and yourself as a director
— Is there anything special you do to prepare as a director before production begins?
Ishihara: What I do is immerse myself in the role.
Takemoto: You mean like roleplaying as Rikka? Do you go around saying you’re Rikka now? (laughs)
Ishihara: For example, I’ll go to work wearing a shirt that Rikka would wear. Also, I’ll change my phone charm to be what I’m currently working on. Then I’ll swap it out when I start work on the next series. Of course, I do the usual research to prepare as well (laughs); I mean on top of all that. Also, I create a production notebook, which has become somewhat of a rite of passage before every anime. I always liked filling up notebooks as a kid.
Yamada: You always were the organized kind. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing one of Ishihara’s childhood scrapbooks. Even back then, he put so much attention into making it, and I couldn’t help but think that he really hasn’t changed one bit! (laughs)
Ishihara: Personally, as soon as it’s decided that I’ll be acting as director, I need a notebook so I can jot down whatever I think of, with the logo drawn on the cover. It works out when the logo has been finalized, but when we don’t have one yet, it’s annoying because it feels like the notebook is incomplete… (laughs) I use a notebook with A4 paper size, which is important. That size is really handy because you can fax or make copies of pages as is. You receive a lot of materials in A4 as well, so you can just stick them in your notebook and use it as a makeshift folder.
Yamada: I also try and immerse myself in the role of a director. If I were my usual self, I wouldn’t be able to garner the trust or have the presence needed to drive the production along, or at least that’s what I’ve led myself to believe (laughs). I put myself in the role of a director so that people will see me as a director that they can believe in.
Ishihara: That’s an admirable mindset.
Yamada: Of course, like Ishihara said, I do the usual prep work as well… The beret Ishihara has on is great; it really has a directorial feel to it. I love small details like that. Takemoto carries himself like a director as well.
Takemoto: I don’t think that’s true.
Ishihara: This beret might be a part of what Yamada meant when she talked about putting yourself into the role. It’s what we think of when we talk about a movie director.
Takemoto: As for me, I start off by typing things out, by writing a summary or making character profiles. The process of putting things into words helps organize my thoughts about the series. The anime and its characters come into a clearer definition, which both deepens my own understanding and helps me convey these things to the other members of the production staff. I suppose it’s a bit like sculpting, where you start with the wood or the stone that is the raw spirit of the work, and you carve out the anime that’s inside with your words as your chisel.
Kawanami: Free! Timeless Medley (Free! TM hereafter) was my first work as a director, so I paid a visit to a shrine with the producers and prayed for its success. But it turns out that shrine houses a god for safe childbirth (laughs).
Takemoto: Oh, I get it. You prayed to give birth to good films! (laughs)
Kawanami: Even though I was directing for the first time, it all felt very natural in terms of getting work done. I didn’t feel burdened by the pressure of working on such a big franchise, and was able to be myself. I didn’t try to play the eccentric artist, and ended up putting out a perfectly normal movie… Hehehe (laughs).
Kawanami: Looks like my real voice slipped out there (laughs).
— What are the tools you use when you’re in the midst of the actual production?
Takemoto: I use a lot of sticky notes. Also, I want to go as paperless as possible, so a computer.
Ishihara: I find it easier to look things up when I’ve physically written them down, so I guess my notebook, although I do have stuff on the computer as well.
Takemoto: I’ve digitized all of my notes as well.
Ishihara: Isn’t it scary having everything be digital? It feels like it might all just disappear. Also, it’s a pain to make backups.
Takemoto: Well, that’s just how backups are. I still think it’s convenient, though, since you have to deal with materials like video files as well nowadays. Once production has wrapped up on a series, I transfer all of the relevant files to a USB stick and store them.
Kawanami: For me, it’s a large helping of snacks (laughs). As a director, there’s a lot of times where you have to ask staff members to get things done, so I thought it’d serve as a nice little incentive. But the requests for snacks have grown lately… Everyone puts in requests for things that they wouldn’t usually buy (laughs).
Yamada: For me it’s paper and pencil, since I work 100% analog. Oh, but when I say pencil, I mean a 0.3 mechanical pencil. In the past, I used to try and keep a proper notebook, but it didn’t work out… Nowadays, I exclusively use the paper for correcting animation as my notepad. I only really use it for quickly jotting down things that pop into my head, though. I’m afraid that if I take the time to write things down properly and archive them, they’ll become set in stone exactly as they’re written.
Ishihara: So you keep all your ideas in your head?
Yamada: That’s right.
Ishihara: Don’t you end up forgetting things? That’s my biggest fear, which is why I write down everything that comes to mind as a memo.
Yamada: Hmm… I feel like writing things down constrains them to those words, which is the scarier notion to me.
Ishihara: You know how you come up with good ideas right as you’re about to fall asleep? I keep my phone right next to my pillow, and type things out just as I’ve thought of them, so I can send it to my own work email and fall asleep. I don’t have the confidence that I’d remember it.
Yamada: If I did that, I’d end up feeling satisfied and that’d be the end of it, which is why I can remember it. So it’d be pretty bad if I ended up losing my head (laughs).
Takemoto: Don’t worry, I think that’s true for most living things (laughs). But I get what Yamada means. Putting things into words gives them greater clarity, but you end up inevitably losing something in the process… You have to be extremely careful when you write things down, in my opinion.
Ishihara: Oh, but my memos are extremely vague, and I end up fleshing things out afterwards. There are a ton of memos where I look back at them the next day and can’t make any sense of it.
Yamada: The act of writing something down sets it in place, and when it comes time to turn that into a visual sequence, you have to either chip away or add on to this defined quantity. So I prefer to leave things up in the air in this vague, undefined form until the very end.
— How do you draw your storyboards?
Yamada: Having worked with my desk right next to Ishihara’s, I’ve come to the conclusion that he and I are the complete opposite of each other when it comes to how we work, the memos from before being another example.
Ishihara: We really are the total opposite. When it comes time to Storyboard (絵コンテ, ekonte): The blueprints of animation. A series of usually simple drawings serving as anime's visual script, drawn on special sheets with fields for the animation cut number, notes for the staff and the matching lines of dialogue. More, I need to draw everything out off the top of my head first or else I won’t be happy. I draw out everything from start to finish as roughs, with the intent of redoing things if they look off. I use that as my outline and flesh things out from there. Yamada spends a lot of time thinking things out before she ever touches a pencil.
Yamada: That’s right. That’s why if you look at me from the side, it looks like I’m not doing any work at all. (laughs) I spend the most time laying everything out.
Takemoto: I work with roughs first as well. It gives me peace of mind to have something down on paper. In that sense, I guess I’m the opposite of Yamada. I draw roughs for all the cuts before I put down anything on storyboarding sheets, although they’re so rough that other people might not be able to tell what anything is. For a 20-minute episode of anime, you need anywhere from 300 to 400 shots of footage, and you can’t start the actual storyboards until you’ve figured out how to arrange all of those shots from start to finish. Having to go back and redraw them later is a real hassle, so I try my best to draw the final storyboards on my first try. Of course, there are times when I change things for the final storyboards compared to the roughs if I feel it should be different. And sometimes I come with new ideas as I’m drawing the storyboards.
Kawanami: I start by drawing roughs as well. I spend my time thinking, and wait for the pictures to come to mind, is how I’d put it. Like a photograph being developed, you’re not sure which parts are going to fill in with details as it slowly comes into view. There are scenes that come to you faster than others, so I use those as the basis to start drawing, while keeping the whole in mind. If you don’t start drawing, you can’t tell what’s good or bad. There are scenes that I draw roughs for that don’t end up being used in the end. The roughs themselves are drawn on smaller sheets of copy paper that I draw rectangles on to mimic storyboarding sheets, which is an idea I picked up from other members of directorial staff.
Facing the staff as a director
— What are things that happen all the time working as a director on a production?
Takemoto: You go on lots of business trips (laughs).
Ishihara: Well, it’s less than it used to be, since things like cutting can be done in Kyoto nowadays.
Yamada: You have to make sure you’re on your best behavior, since you’re representing all the staff members at Kyoto Animation.
Ishihara: We certainly have to pay attention to that.
Takemoto: No matter the anime, you’ll always have meetings with people from outside the studio, whether it’s table reads or meetings with musical staff. Anime is made by exchanging ideas with other people, and there’s nothing that makes you happier and is more valuable in that process than immediately hitting it off with someone who understands you. Of course, this isn’t limited to just people outside of the studio.
Ishihara: I feel like Yamada must have met some great people, like for A Silent Voice.
Yamada: I’d have to agree. It might be because I myself love music, but I tend to get along with a lot of people who work on that side of things.
Kawanami: I’m glad to have met all the people I have since becoming a director as well.
Yamada: We’re like ships that pass in the night.
Ishihara: It’s always sad when an anime production ends. You get melancholic, wondering if you’ll get the chance to meet these folks again.
Kawanami: Just like that.
Yamada: I try and treasure the opportunities I get to meet and interact with outsiders, since they often lead to sparks of inspiration. I believe that those experiences enrich the final product as well. Those encounters end up broadening your horizons.
Ishihara: Let me think, what else… I don’t know about everyone else, but I always end up worrying about whether everyone on staff enjoys working on the anime or not.
Takemoto: I’m the same. I feel like that’s true for all the directors out there.
Yamada: I worry all the time. I’m always trying to figure out where I should stand.
Ishihara: Where you should stand?
Yamada: As a director, I mean. I don’t think being the director automatically puts you above everyone else.
Ishihara: I’d agree that it doesn’t entitle you to sit back and lord over everyone else.
Yamada: That’s right. That’s why I worry about whether it comes off as condescending to thank everyone for their hard work when production wraps up.
Ishihara: Well, as far as I’m concerned, the director is on the same level as the rest of the staff.
Yamada: I think so as well. But you know, it makes me happy when I’m working under another director and hear them thank everyone for all of their hard work. I feel like the director is relieved. But when it comes time for me to speak as a director, I’m still not sure about where I should stand.
Takemoto: I know exactly what you’re talking about.
Yamada: I don’t know what the best way is to let everyone know how much I take pride in the final work, and that it’s all thanks to everyone’s full efforts as a team. And so I worry about choosing my words poorly and having everyone think I’ve got a big head. What does it mean to be a director, anyway? It’s all very difficult.
Takemoto: I do think there’s a certain responsibility you hold for the work.
Ishihara: Yeah, it’s the director’s job to take responsibility for how it all turns out in the end.
Yamada: I think of myself as doing my job with that in mind, but I worry as to whether it comes across when it comes time to speak as the director…
Ishihara: But I think the director also has the power to tell the staff what to do because they’re the one who will deal with the consequences when all is said and done. And maybe it’s because it feels like you’re imposing your will on them that you end up giving thanks at the end. Kyoto Animation and Animation Do have everyone working in-house, and making anime in the same building, which might enhance that feeling as well.
Yamada: That might be it. I do always feel like we’re all one big team. I guess I still don’t fully grasp what it means to be a director. Of course, there’s no such hesitation when I’m actually directing the work. It’s when I have to face the public as a director that I feel out of my element. Back when Free! TM had its test screening within the studio, I was in Kyoto. I was really impressed by Kawanami’s statement, which they read off at the end.
Kawanami: I attended the screening in Osaka with the rest of the Do staff, so I couldn’t be in Kyoto at the same time.
Ishihara: That statement was great.
Yamada: It really was! It came off as so confident. I think all of the staff members who heard that came away feeling proud of their work. It really was wonderful…
Ishihara: I think you’re good at giving speeches as well, but if you’d like them to be even better, maybe you should start bringing some notes with you (laughs).
Yamada: You’ve got a point. I always end up speaking off the cuff (laughs).
Takemoto: I always play it by ear as well (laughs).
Ishihara: I’ve gone empty-handed too until now, but after this conversation, I think I might start bringing some notes with me next time I have to deliver a stage greeting.
Yamada: I think I might do that too!
Ishihara: I’ll try and be a little more prepared from now on (laughs).
Kawanami: My comments sounded good because it was someone else reading what I wrote down. In Osaka, I had to give the speech myself, and I think I came off as reserved. It’s hard to put how you feel into words.
Takemoto: When you write things out, you can read over it again and again… So it probably ends up more polished that way.
Ishihara: Oh right, speaking of common occurrences in the life of a Series Director: (監督, kantoku): The person in charge of the entire production, both as a creative decision-maker and final supervisor. They outrank the rest of the staff and ultimately have the last word. Series with different levels of directors do exist however – Chief Director, Assistant Director, Series Episode Director, all sorts of non-standard roles. The hierarchy in those instances is a case by case scenario.: do you ever feel conscious when you walk by a meeting for a title you’re not involved with and hear them laughing and having a ton of fun? Like wow, they sure are having fun over there!
Takemoto: I think to myself, “I could never brighten up a room like that…” (laughs)
Yamada: I know what you mean! When I hear everyone having fun, I think, “Ah, that anime must have one charismatic director…” (laughs)
Ishihara: It’s like, “Oh man, everyone’s having such a good time!” (laughs)
Yamada: I feel like you can tell what the energy going into the production is gonna be like, just from the mood at the meetings.
Takemoto: What I try to do is match the mood. I can only hope that the people who worked on the anime get something out of it for themselves when they look at the finished work. Of course, I love to hear people say that they like the work, but everyone’s tastes are different.
Yamada: It sure would be easier if I could think like that.
Takemoto: But there’s still a part of me deep down that wants them to fall in love with the anime.
Yamada: I knew it! I feel a lot better now! (laughs)
— What do you think it means to be a director?
Ishihara: I want to say the captain of a ship, but that’s not quite right. All the captain has to do is steer the ship to where they want to go, so maybe more along the lines of someone who guides a large group of people so they all move in the same direction.
Takemoto: I often use the analogy of a flag-bearer.
Yamada: Let me think… I think of a director as a switchboard operator who connects a work with its viewers. Also, they need to do so with unwavering resolve.
Kawanami: That’s true. A director needs to trust their vision, and they need to let everyone know exactly what that vision is.
Yamada: I often hear people say that everyone on staff watches the director. They watch closely to see where the director is trying to take them. That’s why you can’t just leave it to the group to decide what to do. The director needs to firmly decide on the course of action first, and then ask everyone for their input. I feel like this is a part of immersing yourself into the role of a director.
Ishihara: I want to be a director people have faith in.
Yamada: That sure would be nice!
Takemoto: It’s not limited to my role as a director, but I want to become a person with better communication skills.
Yamada: You’ve got plenty good communication skills.
Ishihara: I’d say you’re on the higher side if anything.
Takemoto: I’ve never been the social type… I prefer to play by myself (laughs). That’s why I think if I could improve my communication skills, I could also act the part of a director much better.
Kawanami: Circling back to an earlier topic, I want people to like me without the use of snacks (laughs).
Yamada: Oh… I can tell that comes from the heart (laughs). You wouldn’t want everyone to start calling you “the snacks guy” (laughs).
Kawanami: No I wouldn’t (laughs). Snacks aside, there are times when out of necessity, a director has to end up asking for the unreasonable. I’d like to be a leader for everyone so that they can find some fun even in stressful times like these, and find themselves rewarded in the end for their hard work.
Yamada: What’s always on my mind is how I want to be the number-one advocate for both the anime and its staff. I don’t have a lot of opportunities to talk with fellow directors outside of my own productions, but it’d be great if there could be more!
— Thank you for your time today.
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