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Otakon 2012
Masao Maruyama/MAPPA Q&A

by Justin Sevakis,

Masao Maruyama, best known as the founder of Madhouse, hosted a panel on his own career and his new studio MAPPA, which recently saw the broadcast premiere of its first project, Kids on the Slope. Maruyama is also a longtime supporter and regular guest of Otakon. He started the panel (assisted by a translator) by greeting the audience and briefly talking about his new studio and the series. He showed a clip from the series, as well as a commercial for Meiji Gummies candy that was also produced by the studio.

On the ending sequence for Kids on the Slope, Maruyama noted that "the odd air date for the show was decided a long time ago, but the music composition kept getting pushed later and later, and so we had to animate it without hearing the music at all. We were worried it wouldn't come together. Usually with anime, the same staff does the opening and ending sequences, but in this case the staff was too busy with the first episode, so we had to bring in completely new staff for those. It's not something you see with anime very often. It went so well because we had really great people working on it." He likened the opening and ending to the cover of a magazine, in that they're designed to draw in an audience.

With that, the floor was opened up for questions. First question, what's the possibility of animating the manga Pluto? "That's actually one of the things I'd really like to animate right now. But the problem is that the original work is very long -- it'd come to about 8 hour-long episodes. Which means we'd need a lot of money. Where will this money come from? Give me money!"

Is there any chance of a US release for The Tibetan Dog? "You are right in that I produced that animation, but unfortunately it's sold by my former company Madhouse, so I really don't know anything about that anymore. But one thing I can say that I'm fairly certain that if some American company wanted to release it, I don't think Madhouse would say no. Naoki Urasawa designed the characters for that film, and he usually only works on his own manga -- it was the first time he did anything for an anime, and I think it's unlikely to happen again." He went on to describe the story of the film, for those who were unfamiliar. "This film was developed as a co-production with China, before problems between China and Tibet arose. I love Tibet, and I love dogs, so I was really enthusiastic about this project. I took four trips to Tibet over the course of production, and that was really tough -- the altitude is very high up, so I got altitude sickness every time. That said, because we went so many times, we were really able to capture the essence of Tibet."

How did director Shinichiro Watanabe become involved with Kids on the Slope? "I was working with Watanabe from back in the Madhouse days. Unfortunately there were about three years where nobody got to see his work -- his projects always got stopped at the planning stages. So when I got Kids on the Slope, I handed him the manga and said, 'here. You're doing this.' At Madhouse we had developed a feature -- it was already scripted and ready to go, but then I left the company and the project fell through, so I gave him this as something to do. I really think he's one of the top directors in Japan, one of the top 5. That's why I wanted to create a theatrical animation with him. Up until this project, he'd only worked on original projects, so this was his first adaptation from a manga, and as a result, he didn't really know how faithful he had to be, or if he had room to adapt, so he put up a lot of resistance at first.

"Mr. Watanabe loves music, and has a lot of deep thoughts on the music. So I told him that it was a jazz anime, and that he was likely the only director that could pull it off. That convinced him. Then Yoko Kanno said, 'if Watanabe is working on this, I'd like to work on it too,' and so that's how that show came to be."

The animation of musicians in the show is very realistic. What sort of research did the animators have to do? "About half of the time, work and money for this project went into all of those musical performances. Back when I was at Madhouse, I actually worked on a lot of musical animation, such as Beck and Piano no Mori, so I had some confidence going into it, but the jazz performance turned out to be a huge challenge -- especially the drummer animation. We found an 18 or 19 year old drummer, who has since debuted, who we had in the studio all the time, as well as Mr. Matsunaga the famous pianist. We based the animation on pictures and video of his performances. Just creating the level of movement required would've been twice as much work as normal animation. But matching the music, we had to study each note and match it perfectly. It was a lot of work and took a lot of money.

"When I was planning out the first episode with the director, we were both very insistant that we have a musical performance in each episode. By the time episode 3 came around I was begging him to have at least one episode without one! But he insisted on having one each episode. Episode 7 was especially crazy -- having one musician is hard enough, but a whole band!"

Kids on the Slope was released in Japan, the US and France at the same time. What were some of the difficulties in doing that? "Unfortunately, simultaneous releases are up to the sponsors, so I'm probably not the best person to answer this question. Distribution in the U.S. is really up to the American distributors. If they see the materials and want the show, there really aren't too many barriers to them doing so these days."

With the new studio, are there any new genres you'd like to tackle? "Back when I was at Madhouse, my stance was that we should do anything we can -- we'd do anything. If the artist wanted to do something, I'd say 'do it!' My stance at the new studio really hasn't changed. But one of my fetishes is that I want to create animation that other people aren't interested in creating."

What kind of goals would you like the new studio to accomplish? "MAPPA is actually a soliloquy of 'Madhouse' -- it's short for the Japanese for 'bare naked'. We started with absolutely nothing, and we're starting something anew and making something. So there's that connotation as well. Some staffers told me they hated answering the phone, 'hello, this is Bare Naked,' so they pressured me to come up with something more professional sounding. So I came up with this:
M) Maruyama
A) Animation
PP) Produce Project
A) Association

"But this formal name doesn't really matter. YOU know the truth! I hope you will support us the same way you supported Madhouse."

Would you consider making another Vampire Hunter D? Or work with Yoshiaki Kawajiri again? "There's more hurdles to creating a piece of animation with him now, since he's still at Madhouse. But I've known him for 50 years, and I'd love to work with thim again. If we did, his past works would come up, but I'd rather that he show us a new side of Kawajiri."

There are a lot of anime that use CGI to show musical instruments being played. What are your thoughts on this technique? "Which is more cost-effective, which is more expensive? It's a hard question -- there are ways to produce either one cheaply or expensively. It's really more a question of how much money you're willing to invest. Though some people do say that more CG means less manual work by people. If the work is all CG, that's fine, but if the character designs and the rest of the anime is 2D, they won't look the same. My philosophy is that they should look uniform. With Kids on the Slope, we were very careful to make it impossible to distinguish between the 2D and 3D work. If someone can, I'd be very impressed."

Which animators did you rely on the most for the performance scenes? "The animation was finished because we did have a main staff of key artists that I relied on greatly for the performance scenes. There are three that I relied on a lot, and they were working 24-hours-a-day. I wouldn't be surprised if they refused to ever work for me again. Unfortunately it becomes complicated if I name them at a panel, but if you read the credits you can probably figure out who they are."

What's the latest on the final Satoshi Kon film? Last we heard, you were looking for more funding. "Unfortunately, we still don't have enough money. My personal goal is to get it within five years after his passing. I'm still working hard towards that goal."

What were some of the major decisions behind starting the new studio? "There have really been no changes at all behind the creative decision-making, and many of the staff at the new company are people I've worked with a long time. Our goal is to make new shows that we wouldn't have been able to make at Madhouse. I would like to make something really silly -- very cheap and funny. Of course, we'll still do the tough things that nobody else wants to do, but I also want to make something that just makes people go, 'huh?' So I hope you'll continue to support us in the future."

The panel then concluded.

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