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Otakon 2010
Japanese Producers & Directors Panel

by Gia Manry,

Attendance at the Japanese producers and directors panel was small, so the panelists and translators sat in a circle with the attendees rather than sitting at the panel.

The panel took the form of a Q&A, but first the panelists were introduced:

  • Tomonori Ochikoshi, producer of Welcome to the Space Show, Kannagi, and others.
  • Kouji Masunari, director of R.O.D. and Welcome to the Space Show
  • Madhouse's Hiroshi Koujina, director of the anime Rainbow
  • Madhouse producer Yuji Mitsuya, also of the anime Rainbow

The first question was about R.O.D.: what was the process of coming up with all of the unique ways in which the main characters use their paper-manipulation abilities? Masunari said that it was tougher for the animators to create what he wanted than it was for him to come up with it. For the OVA, all of the pieces of paper were hand-draw, but it was too tough for the television series, so a lot of the background pieces of paper were CG while the principal foreground pieces were hand-drawn.

Koujina then fielded a question about his work on the 1987 anime OVA Crystal Triangle, which he was an animator on, and Koujina said he's completely forgotten because it was so long ago.

A question for all of the panelists was asked: how does the budget for a series affect the quality of its animation? The panelists laughed and wondered where to even start, and Ochikoshi wondered if this was the right place to discuss it. Mitsuya said that it wasn't just the money-- finding the right director and staff was a large piece, and sometimes you can get away with not spending too much money on a project. Mitsuya noted that in a Madhouse title there are a lot of lines to be drawn. So when it comes to the budget it depends on whether it's a theatrical release, a TV series, an OVA, etc.

Ochikoshi said that budget is an important factor, because if you have the budget then you can create a good working environment for animators to work long hours, but even a good working environment doesn't guarantee a quality piece. It all depends on the passion of the creators. He added that the majority of an anime's budget goes into the labor. Koujina followed up by saying that it's not the time you're allowed, it's the time you spend, and it's the creators. If they have a month to do something they'll do the best they can up until the very last minute, and they'd do the same if they had a week. Creators try to maximize the time they have to do the best they can, so it's not really about time or money.

Masunari went last and said that over the years, they've always appealed to the good conscience of the people who work on the project, so there's a lot that money hasn't bought,, though he takes his staff out to Korean barbecue often. Masunari also recalled a director who kept working on key frames-- he was running away from his project manager, so he didn't know his episode had already aired.

A video game journalist said that he had heard some studios complain that they lose staff to the video game industry and asked the panelists if they experienced that at all. That was the trend four or five years ago, Masunari said, but they were now coming back. Asked why, Masunari said he could only speculate, but perhaps the game industry was an even more severe work environment than the anime industry. Masunari commented that it's likely that animators have a better sense of accomplishment creating film rather than a video game's cutscenes.

The next question was about the panelists' experience of American fans in comparison to their Japanese counterparts. Masunari commented that when he was at an anime convention eight years before he felt the same way: U.S. fans are much less shy and ask direct questions, which makes answering them easier. Translator Toshifumi Yoshida recounted a story of a director showing Giant Robo at a convention who was moved by how straight-forward the fans' reactions to each scene were compared to Japanese fans. Masunari said he felt similarly about the reaction to Welcome to the Space Show, and Koujina said he heard from the Trigun director that he had been impressed by the reactions of fans watching the Trigun film at Anime Expo. Ochikoshi suggested that the fans at the Welcome to the Space Show screening at Otakon were too busy laughing and wondered if they missed the heartwarming ending; one fan assured him that they didn't.

A fan asked about the TV anime Kamichu's many key animators, and Masunari explained that it was actually somewhat embarrassing to have so many but that he would try to put a positive spin on it. But there are only so many animators that you can call upon, and there was a multi-level chain reaction of people calling colleagues who called colleagues to get the animators for the show. Translator Yoshida suggested that they had been on a really tight schedule, and Masunari acknowledged it was true.

R.O.D. opens in Washington D.C., and a fan asked why they made D.C. look so much more elegant than it actually was, and if they had visited D.C. before animating the series. Masunari said that they hadn't been, and that this trip to Otakon was their first time even being close. The fan suggested that he'd like to live in that Washington D.C., and Ochikoshi reminded him that the White House explodes in that version.

A question about a new government program in Japan devoted to training young animators for a career in anime was presented by another fan. Koujina offered that in the anime industry, which he's been in for twenty years, is always evolving, and that you have to get new blood to keep it going. He feels that training new animators is very important. Masunari believes that his predecessors brought in the skills to bring the format to its current place, but that in the past ten years it's a skill that's being lost, especially to the young animators. They're good at showing, he says, but the ability to bring stories that make the audience feel strongly is less prevalent, especially on TV. He wonders if this might be an inevitable change, but feels that it's a necessary storytelling skill.

Following up, Masunari noted that with respect to storytelling, it's the responsibility of the director and writer, not the animator; it's a different department. Mitsuya agreed, but also noted that in order to teach young animators, he has a project creating a show using only younger talent. When you let animators just work and create you get really imaginative things. Madhouse has a lot of higher-ups with a lot of experience and the young talent doesn't always get a chance to grow, so doing a project like this gives them that opportunity. Masunari said that it was possible that young animators may just not know what to do despite having the skills, and that makes it the older animators' responsibility to tell them their potential. Koujina added that it was their responsibility to recognize and raise talent.

On a similar note, an attendee asked about the new program for foreign animators to do a brief residency in Tokyo, and whether they thought bringing in foreigners would have a positive affect on the industry. Ochikoshi said that he hadn't heard about the program but that anime wasn't exclusive to Japanese nationals and they're always interested in new ideas, so the program is very welcome. However, one of the most important tools working in anime is communication, which means they all have to speak the same language. When the language barrier is broken they can come up with something great and he hopes that's part of the program.

Returning to Kamichu, a fan asked what the inspiration for the kotatsu episode was. Masunari said that it came from himself and writer Hideyuki Kurata, who grew up spending a typical New Years in a similar fashion. Ochikoshi added that the challenge was to see what kind of episode they could come up with if the protagonist didn't leave the kotatsu (a heated blanket attached to a table) for the entire episode. The next challenge they're interested in is an episode in which a character never leaves their beer box.

The panelists laughed when asked about the highly-regarded noitaminA anime block, and Ochikoshi noted that he is working on a new noitaminA show. The intent of the block is to make shows for a mature audience of both men and women, to make an animated show that is like a live-action drama and is consistent to that spirit, and can draw in viewers who may not be interested in watching anime otherwise. Mitsuya added that noitaminA is broadcast on FujiTV while Madhouse tends to run on the late-night NTV block, generally aimed at men.

Asked whether they were seeing an increase in digital sales in contrast to the sale of physical media, Ochikoshi replied that he thinks visual works aren't so affected by what medium they're shown on, and it's very savvy to be compatible with whatever new media shows up. He hoped that sales would not drop, which would diminish salaries for animators and therefore diminish quality.

A fan then asked about the increase in the number of anime films and the difference working on a film compared to working on a TV or OVA series. Ochikoshi said that feature films were much more difficult, but that in the Japanese market there's been a decline in DVD sales. When they expand into media such as theatrical distribution, it reaches out to another market that compensates.

Did the panelists miss anything from old-fashioned cel animation compared to modern digital animation, another attendee asked. Masunari corrected him that the actual animation is still done as pencil and paper, analog, and that it's the post-production that's all digital. Koujina did note that effects like fire and water, which are very difficult to draw by hand, are made much easier and faster than they were. But he misses the feel of hand-drawn fire and water effects. Mitsuya added that it comes down to being able to maximize the use of time right up to the last moment, although he commented that he wasn't sure if it was a good or a bad thing.

Masunari also noted that by going digital, the load for technical directors really increased because it's their job to be responsible for the production all the way to the end, and rather than telling camera operators what to do, it's easier for the technical director to do it all themselves-- so they do. If they have time, though, they can communicate with each other so that the director of photography can get details from the technical director, but it's a luxury they don't tend to have. Koujina said that going digital adds work to the director of photography as well, because he has to take orders from the director and have directorial skills. It used to be that they were simply given cels and told to create specific effects. Mitsuya wondered if this time sometimes takes away from the creative aspect.

A fan followed up on declining DVD sales and asked if sales of a few really big titles were subsidizing the release of smaller titles. Ochikoshi admitted that the discrepancy between titles that sell and titles that don't is getting bigger, but an increase is expected to come thanks to Blu-Ray sales. The industry has to keep up with changes, and can use them as an opportunity to catch up and break even.

Asked whether the noitaminA show he is working on was Kuragehime, Ochikoshi said that it's an unannounced title.

Translator Yoshida, who has also worked as an ADR director and manga translator, asked the audience how many of them had bought a DVD during the convention, and explained that if every single anime con attendee in the U.S. bought a legitimate DVD, it might save the U.S. anime industry. He then apologized for soapboxing.

Asked how often the panelists get to spend time with other anime staff that they don't necessarily work with, Masunari said that it's usually while they're drinking, but it's his first time sitting next to Koujina. These situations don't normally come up in Japan, he said, but not because they don't want to hang out. There's always some connection between industry members, and Ochikoshi added that if the industry lost its lateral communication they would all fail, except Kyoto Animation.

Anime and manga events in Japan, one fan suggested, are often focused on acquiring exclusive materials while American events which are more social. The fan asked if this paradigm was understood by the Japanese, and wondered if they felt that the animation itself might sometimes be dismissed by fans at the events. Masunari said he that he's heard before that American events are more of a social gathering where you meet with friends compared to Comic Market, which is more for individual fulfillment. He has not been to Comic Market himself, but has heard that attendees may spend 100-150,000 yen per day, and suggested that they may spend so much time buying that they may run out of time to socialize.

A fan asked about Blu-Ray releases in comparison to DVD releases, and Yoshida noted that it was more of a U.S. industry issue. He added that the biggest problem is that for Blu-Ray the U.S. and Japan are in the same region, so it's difficult to release them at the same time because so many Japanese fans would reverse-import the Blu-Ray releases from the U.S., where they would be cheaper.

Following up, a fan asked about the occasional Japanese release that includes English-language subtitles. Ochikoshi said that the American market for anime would need to be much larger for that to become a standard.

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