It’s time to examine Kyoto Animation’s present and future with an interview featuring their current creative leader and the up-and-coming star who looks up to her! Naoko Yamada and Haruka Fujita speak frankly about their beginning at KyoAni, what’s it like for people who aren’t good at communicating verbally to direct anime (a job that’s all about conveying information to staff and viewers!), the role of music in anime, and more.
- Naoko Yamada (Liz and the Blue Bird, A Silent Voice, K-ON!, Tamako Love Story, and so on)
- Haruka Fujita (Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll, series co-direction in the TV series)
Interview originally published within KyoAni’s 2019 Watashitachi wa, Ima!! books, now restocked and available for purchase here. Translated by bitmap.
Remembering the trainee days
— Can you tell us about how you came to work at Kyoto Animation?
Yamada: I believe I saw the job description that Kyoto Animation had posted in the university career center.
Fujita: I think that was the case for me as well. A classmate had let me know that Kyoto Animation put a job listing up.
Yamada: I bet it was in the same place I had seen it.
Fujita: It must have been, since we share the same alma mater. Kyoto Animation was working on K-On! just around the time I was looking for employment, and it became the talk around campus. That was when I first started to take notice of Kyoto Animation as well.
Yamada: I wasn’t aware of Kyoto Animation before I had joined them, but I chose an animation studio because I knew I wanted to work in filmmaking or some kind of creative field. My education was in the arts, so there was also the mindset that I should probably get a job related to drawing.
Fujita: I was enrolled in the animation course at university, so I knew I wanted to go into animation from the start. I applied to several other animation studios as well, but ended up joining Kyoto Animation.
— What was it like when you first joined the studio?
Fujita: This year marks my 10th year at the studio, but when I first joined, all I could do was just worrying about myself. I found it to be a comfortable environment to work in, stern yet kind at the same time. My first job as an animator was in-betweening for episode 12 of K-On!!, “Summer Festival!“, where I was feverishly cleaning up keyframes filled with crowds of people.
Yamada: The key animators for that episode were mostly fashionable folks, so everyone’s outfits were full of personality, even outside of the main characters’.
Fujita: That’s right! It was fun to work on because the audience at the summer festival were all wearing great clothes. My key animation debut was on Nichijou, which followed thereafter. I still remember getting back the evaluation for the test to become a key animator, which read “Neither excellent nor terrible” (laughs).
Yamada: This is my 15th year, and my first job was in-betweening for a production subcontracted to the studio. I had joined Kyoto Animation around the time that production began on their first in-house title, Air. It was an exciting time where the whole studio was bursting with enthusiasm. In that sense, Air is a work full of memories, and I start to feel emotional whenever I hear the opening song and (Tatsuya) Ishihara’s face comes to mind.
Fujita: When did you first become a key animator?
Yamada: I can’t remember exactly, but it was between six months and a year after I joined the studio that I took the test to become a key animator. My first experience in the role was the Air in Summer special. I was blown away at the time by how good the character designer and the rest of the senior staff were at drawing.
Fujita: I love your storyboards, but I haven’t had much of a chance to work on the projects you’ve lead yourself.
Yamada: Huh, you’re right! I think it was only that one time in Nichijou. Because of our production workflow, once you stop working with someone once, you often end up in a loop where you never work with them.
Fujita: Yeah, I haven’t had much of a chance to work on the feature-length films until now. While you were working on movie productions, I was always on the concurrently working production teams working on TV series. I hope I can work on a title directed by you someday!
— I’m sure you’re often asked to take part in interviews. Do you spend time beforehand preparing for them?
Fujita: No, I don’t. I’m awful at interviews and yet I don’t prepare (laughs). I’ve never been good at talking, so I avoid thinking about it until the day of the interview.
Yamada: I do want to know what the interviewer is interested in, so I make sure to give the questions provided beforehand a thorough read. However, I always play interviews by ear, and don’t really prepare. I wouldn’t want my answers to feel like they were cobbled together just for the sake of the interview.
Fujita: Because Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll was my directorial debut, I actually haven’t had many opportunities to be interviewed before. When I was series co-director for the Violet Evergarden TV series, director (Taichi) Ishidate was always there to come to the rescue during interviews. For Violet Evergarden, I attended an overseas anime convention and went up on stage; what do you do for stage greetings?
Yamada: I don’t prepare for stage greetings, either. You’re usually up there on stage with cast members or other production staff, and they all have great things to say. So I feel like you should say something everyone else hasn’t touched on already. If I were to prepare a statement, only to have someone else beat me to the punch with what I was going to say…
Fujita: I’m sure you would just end up blanking out on the spot.
Yamada: Well, my mind is almost always completely blank when I’m up on stage anyway (laughs).
— Could it be that you two are both poor speakers?
Yamada: We’re awful at it. I decided to speak on behalf of the both of us (laughs).
Fujita: Guilty as charged.
Yamada: I’m fine talking with someone if they approach me first, since the fact that they started the conversation means that they hold some interest in me. I have trouble starting conversations because I’m scared of the remote possibility that they might hate me deep down. I wouldn’t want them to get frustrated…
Fujita: Even when it’s someone else reaching out, there’s a lot of times when I don’t respond appropriately. After the conversation is over, I end up going over it in my head, thinking about why I couldn’t give a good answer or say something clever back then…
Yamada: You end up constantly playing things back in your mind.
Yamada: And you also notice things afterwards and beat yourself up over it.
Fujita: I go back over conversations and think to myself, “Sorry about that one time!” I don’t mean to go over everything like that, but I suddenly start thinking about it when I’m by myself.
Yamada: It’d be nice if all of that self-reflection would lead to future success, but it never seems to do so.
Fujita: For whatever reason, it doesn’t serve any practical purpose…
Yamada: You just end up putting yourself down in new ways every time.
Common director experiences
— When you work as a director, what makes you worry and what makes you happy?
Yamada: I get anxious that the staff members working on productions that aren’t mine may be having more fun. Everyone sounds like they’re having such a good time during those meetings (laughs).
Fujita: I know what you mean! When I hear laughter coming out of the animator meetings for other works, I can’t help but feel anxious about how everyone is having fun on that production.
Yamada: And then you hold your own animator meeting, and everyone’s so quiet you could hear a pin drop…
Fujita: You can’t help but wonder what you’re doing wrong…
Yamada: The question is always on my mind as to whether everyone’s having fun doing their job, since that state of mind undoubtedly has an effect when it comes to the production itself. That’s why when I direct a title, I’m determined to do anything to make it great—so that everyone walks out of it thinking it was worthwhile, glad to have been involved.
Fujita: Personally, I get really happy when the directorial staff takes the time to really look over and try to make sense of my storyboards, and explain them to the rest of the crew. For Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll, I drew all of the storyboards, and then different people acted as unit directors for each act. I got worried while I was storyboarding, truly starting to feel the pressure of my role as director. But when I saw the unit directors handle each segment I felt so relieved. I’m truly thankful for all of their support. I’ve had episode directors work off of my storyboards in the past, but becoming director this time around has given me a newfound appreciation for their role.
Yamada: I know what you mean. When you’re leading the project and other people act as unit directors, you get a sense of the depth of it all. I think that’s what makes Kyoto Animation and Animation Do so strong. We lean on each other and deepen our bonds in the process. Differences in opinion may arise, but those come from our mutual support, and I feel that I’m surrounded by very reliable folks.
— Do you prepare reference materials to help the other staff members get a feel for the title?
Fujita: I try and gather as much as I can. Violet Evergarden in particular has fantasy-like elements to its world, so I thought it’d be good to have as many references as possible for drawing, so I shared what I had compiled.
Yamada: I think it’s complicated. I share materials with staff when there’s something I can show that completely nails what I’m going for. However, there’s the danger of the references becoming the end goal in and of themselves, so generally I don’t provide them. Of course I do research and prep work, but I carefully consider how much of that to share with others. Everyone will interpret things a little bit differently, so I think it’s best to err on the side of not showing your hand when you’re not sure.
Fujita: I’m not great at explaining things, so I share whatever I used to draw the storyboards as is—my train of thought is simply that it’ll also save everyone some time gathering their own materials. However, when searching for references, sometimes I’ll lose myself in all of the possible options. In situations like that I have to restrain myself and choose with care.
Yamada: I actually took a lesson from watching you interact with the rest of the staff for the Violet Evergarden side story: the ability to share a collective, clear vision is quite the feat. In that respect, the way I handle things is pretty questionable, since it relies on everyone’s creative skills as well as our ability to communicate. What I want is not to work haphazardly or without a sense of responsibility, but rather to have everyone give their utmost to see eye to eye with each other, and come together to create a singular work. I want to preserve the vision that comes from the exchange of ideas.
About finding common ground
— For example, how do you approach the meetings regarding the soundtracks?
Fujita: For Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll, we mostly used the background music from the TV series, so I would also love to hear from Yamada about meetings for the soundtracks!
Yamada: There’s something I’d like to ask you as well, actually. The Violet Evergarden side story has a ballroom scene that had some great music. What was the meeting about that track like?
Fujita: I let them know that we wanted a conventional ballroom piece, and shared a song with a similar tempo to what I was imagining as reference. That was it from me, and from there, we ended up getting back a wonderful piece from the composer, Evan Call.
Yamada: I thought it was a lovely piece, with a nostalgic, exotic feel that brings to mind Eastern Europe. I love music and have always respected its important role, so I want to make sure that it’s treated as such in my works. How the meetings play out depends on the musicians involved and the work itself. For K-On!, I requested it be technopop, but I’ve taken different approaches for all of the titles after that. I give guidelines that vary for each title, or let them know what kind of instruments I was hoping to use, but it’s not like I have a fixed template I use every time. I try not to bring up existing music and ask for something similar, since that music was already created by someone else for its own purpose. There’s little point in using that unless you’re just trying to make a carbon copy of their work. The person I’m talking to also won’t know whether I’m looking to match the tempo, the melody, the instrumentation, or whatever else.
Fujita: Does it depend on the modus operandi of the musician as well?
Yamada: I do pay attention to the kind of person they are. I think about how they look at things as I talk to them, and try to find what we have in common in terms of how we see things. Sometimes, I can talk to them in very concrete terms, like what a song’s tempo or musical genre should be, but that’s only a single case.
Fujita: It’s hard to describe the feel of a sound. I know the sound I’m thinking of, but what words do I use to let the other person know what I mean? And sometimes you’re not even sure of the sound itself. When it comes to visuals, I feel like I can sort of convey that, but music really is quite tricky, so I struggle to get my ideas across. There are also times where a verbal response isn’t necessarily the one you have to a sound, which is why lately I’ve been trying not to squish everything into nice words and just say what comes to mind when I listen to a song, like that it “feels round” or “has a warm color” to it.
Yamada: Musicians are creatives as well, so I imagine they take inspiration for sounds from all kinds of media to make music. So it might be worth it to trust that they’ll understand and just give it a shot. For Tamako Market, it felt like I got through when I started talking about a song in terms of colors, so we ended up using that as our means of communication; rather than just words, we used colors and visuals to communicate our ideas. You need to have a solid vision in your head, but at the same time you don’t want to limit the musician’s imagination as you look for a path forward, and prepare to see what they’ll make of your ideas as you continue to talk. The visuals and the music should both be based not on what you want to do, but on what kind of work it should be, building on each other’s words to create them… You could say it’s like two sculptors, working together to carve out a sculpture from the same block. I’m always thinking about how valuable the process of creating something new from nothing is.
Fujita: There’s a lot I can learn from this. I can see how important it is to find that common ground. I feel like that’s where I need to start.
Yamada: There are a lot of ways to get your ideas across, but when I want to get someone on the same page, I often find it the fastest to draw some storyboards. Of course, you can’t just draw storyboards for everything, but since I’m not that articulate of a speaker, and my facial expressions don’t do the trick, I’m always left thinking, “I’ll put it all into storyboards so please take a look!” (laughs).
— As a creator, is there anything you pay attention to or think about on a regular basis?
Yamada: I think about all sorts of things. My philosophy is that all of the things you feel and learn from everyday encounters affect the creative process. Your daily actions are what lead to opportunities to create, and the act of living provides the stimulation you need to make something new. You could say my brain is always stuck in creative mode (laughs). I’ve never tried to turn it off. It’s probably the same for anyone who makes things. If you were to ask me what I think about, I wouldn’t be able to give you a concrete answer; it’s all very shapeless. Sometimes I reflect more deeply on the things I’ve learned or felt, and sometimes my mind starts there and wanders off.
Fujita: Lately, I’ve been trying to be more careful in how I lead my life and deal with others. I feel like I would be able to better understand people if I could face them as they are, instead of trying to stick them into categories. I try to look at things as objectively as possible, but you always end up inserting your own personal standards, so what I try to do is mentally take a step back first. For example, when it comes to looking over key animation, every artist has different foundations, obvious as that may be. It may be a bit much to call it tolerance, but I’d like to be able to accept that person’s drawings for what they are.
— Thank you very much for your time today.