Interview: Cindy Yamauchi

by Jonathan Mays,
Cindy Yamauchi's anime background spans both sides of the Pacific. Beginning her anime career in Tokyo, she worked as a key animator in Akira, Ranma ½, and Record of Lodoss War. After moving to the United States, she founded Region Free, a Japanese artist referral service. Currently, she represents Super Techno Arts, the US division of Another Push Pin Planning Company. Fluent in English and Japanese, Cindy provides a key link between the Japanese and North American sides of anime production.

Volume one of Super Techno Arts' first DVD release, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, is scheduled for a June 10, 2003 release.

How did you first enter the anime industry?

I auditioned for an in-betweener position in an anime production in Tokyo, and I used to live in Tokyo, so I had an opportunity to visit the studio. I was still in high school, but they hired me part-time. And that's how I first got into the industry.

How long were you involved with production?

This particular one?

Yes, this first one.

Probably... two years. Until I graduated.

What was the stress level during animation projects like Akira or Lodoss War?

I would say that the stress level would be very high for any production—anime or otherwise. Since you brought up Akira, I think that was the most intense project I ever worked on. Not just the stress level but also the creativity, the talent that the studio was able to bring together was really amazing. My past experience, I think that's up at the top of my list being very rewarded—not so much what I did (It really wasn't all that good!) The fact that I was there when the things were happening was very, very rewarding.

If you had the chance, would you ever go back to animation?

In fact, I am! *Laughs* This month actually, in a couple of weeks, I'm going to work for Madhouse. I'll be working for them as an animation director for a project called Gungrave. As you may or may not know, Gungrave's a Playstation 2 game; it will be adapted to a television series, and I am supposed to be working on [the TV series.]

I didn't know you were still involved with animating...

Well, STA is one of the things I do. Unfortunately, it doesn't pay all my bills, so... *Laughs* Conveniently, I can run this operation from my apartment, so it turned to be very good that I took on this client, Super Techno Arts. I will still be overseeing the work for JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. It really doesn't matter where I am physically, because I do run everything virtually. My move to Tokyo most likely will not affect Super Techno operations very much.

What would be your dream project?

Just as long as I'm surrounded by talented people, I'm pretty happy. It's about chemistry with the staff. You could have the best staff in the nation, and you may not fit into it. So my dream job, my dream project would be to be surrounded by people with the same chemistry in a very creative environment. Once that's there, I'm sure we could get something really amazing out there, so that would be an ideal environment for me.

Many fans dream of the chance to participate in the anime industry. Do you have any advice or caution for the aspiring animator?

For... are you speaking... specifically animators or just people who want to get into, for example, AD Vision?

Either side of it.

For an average person, to get your foot in the industry, it's probably just to get hired by one of these US distributors, including Super Techno Arts, but, you know, most likely AD Vision, Media Blasters, etc. In those companies, you won't be doing anime yourself. You're just selling anime. If you're a creative type, I wouldn't even bother. I would rather pursue another career outside of anime. If you absolutely want to be anime animator, I suggest first learning Japanese. There's absolutely no way around that; you need to know the language. I don't care how creatively talented you are. It doesn't mean anything if you can't communicate. So that would be my advice, and from there, it's really about getting jobs like everyone else.

It's rare for a studio representative to have had such direct involvement in the production side of anime. How have your experiences affected your current position with STA?

I cannot really compare myself to other distributors because I really don't know them enough. How they operate; I've never worked for another anime distributor in the US before. I do have other clients, but as far as anime distribution, this is the only thing I really know.

With that said, I approach... let's see, we've only done JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, so I can only speak from that experience, but what I find important is to listen to the fans because we're doing this for the fans. And I'm sure other distributors are doing that also, but we come from the standpoint that we're the actual production that created this property. We have more control over what we can do. We're not restricted to a piece of paper, the license agreement. We have a lot of flexibility in doing things, and I think that differentiates us from other distributors. And my experience as a hand-on anime person gives me more insight. Doing the localization I knew where the director was coming from. I was there when we were doing the sound mix and I believe I was able to closely relay the intentions of the director when doing this localization, which is usually not a luxury that US distributors have.

A few years ago, only a couple of companies competed in the domestic anime market. But recently it's become a crowded place with two websites turned authoring houses, Disney and Sony entering the market, and over fifty companies releasing region 1 anime DVDs.

Really! I didn't know that. Wow.

So how does Super Techno Arts fit into this market? What are some of your goals as a distributor?

Our positioning is quite simple. We only distribute APPP titles, which is our parent company. It's really the only the reason that we exist, the Super Techno Arts label was incorporated for APPP titles. If something else comes along the way, that's fine, but it won't be our main gig. Our real interest is to be the US division of APPP. So I don't think we're competing against anyone as far as the market share goes. I mean, we're not trying to take anything away from AD Vision or Media Blasters.

So you're not looking for the same licenses for which they compete?

No, not at all. So if it comes along, fine, but it's really not our main interest.

JoJo Volume 1 is finally hitting the shelves.

*Laughs* Thank you!

How do you feel now that you've achieved this milestone, STA's first DVD release?

You know, I imagined it to be... more emotional. I mean, we put in so much of our lives—myself and everyone involved. We put in so much and, indeed, put up with so much. But once it's out, it's like... it's done. The work is done, and it's for the fans to enjoy it now. We learned from the experience, and we still have five more volumes to go. There really wasn't that emotional moment for us. But it's really an accomplishment, and it will probably hit me once we finish the series.

What's the best reason to stop reading right now and go check out JoJo?

I'm an anime consumer myself, so... we did a pretty good job of keeping the original intact in many ways. We did everything to keep it intact; we didn't tamper with it at all. So I think that would be one of the reasons to buy the disc. Otherwise, if you don't care for that type of title, don't bother. It really isn't for everyone, and we understand that. For those who like that particular genre, and if you want to hear what Skywalker Sound can do, it's a pretty good deal, I think. It's pricey, but the production value is there, and we stand by that price because we did what others didn't do.

This first release suffered several delays; what kind of surprises did you encounter during this first attempt at DVD authoring?

Authoring is hell.

I imagined it to be the easiest part of the production, just finishing it off. It's less about being creative. It really is about making it work smoothly; it's all about programming. Apart from the visual attractiveness of, let's say, a menu, there really wasn't much that was creative about the whole process, and yet, it was probably the most difficult thing I encountered throughout the process. I had no control over it. The rest I did, authoring I didn't. I don't talk their language. I don't know how it's done, so all I could do was let them know, "Dammit, it's not working!"

And it's still a struggle. We're working on volume two, and I hoped it would be more of a cookie-cutter but, apparently, it's not. It's fuzzy science. It's hard.

Other companies have much more experience, but they still have troubles with authoring.

It's horrible! *Laughs* And I don't blame it on the authoring house, it's just that we need to work it out. That's how every distance relationship goes; we just need to find out how each other works and make sure that our expectations are reflected in the authoring process.

JoJo doesn't seem to be available at many larger retailers right now. Should fans expect an STA presence in major retailers in the future?

Yes. We're working on it. We weren't able to come up with a deal that we could live with prior to this release of volume one. We just couldn't do it; we didn't have enough time. But we're talking to the right people now to get our product on the shelves of, let's say, Best Buy or Tower Records—all the big retailers. There's a certain risk involved with going through them, and we're just too small, really, to live with that kind of risk. I'm just hoping that these mediators will cut us some slack and allow us to start small and grow bigger instead of being big from the very beginning, which we just can't do. In the near future, it will happen, yes, but not right now.

Speaking of size, how many people were involved with the localization?

Not many. Super Techno is just myself, and we have a sound studio called MarcoCo. It's owned by a composer who composed the music for JoJo, and he also has a facility from which we did the dub recording. We also have the casting/voice-over director, from another studio. So, with all the actors... twenty at most.

As I'm sure you're aware, online communities can become quite... combustible.

*Laughs* Well put!

... even for the most trivial reasons. In recent days, a number of fans have voiced concerns about the box included with the first JoJo volume. What seems to be the issue, and how has STA reacted to the comments?

The box, in my opinion, serves its purpose... it's a box. Is it spectacular? No. Why did it turn out to be that way? We have a reason. And, you know, I've been following this on other anime forums, which... they're pretty nasty. *Laughs*

Actually, their comments are valid. As a consumer, they're entitled to make those comments. I'm totally fine with that. It's just that I try to let them know again and again that we had a reason that the box turned out to be that way. I'm sorry we couldn't live up to the expectations, but that was the best we could do. I wouldn't cut back on a penny from the production to give an extra millimeter on that box. I wouldn't do that. A box is a container, and that's not my priority. The disc is a priority to the fans, and the box—we'll do what we can do. At this stage of our company, we weren't able to any better.

Some fans voiced that we should have waited until we had more capital after the release. But no, we won't have that capital after the release. We don't recover costs that quickly. We have to live within our means. But again, this isn't really a consumer concern. We'll do a better job next time, but I'm sorry, this is what we have right now.

Is it ever hard to stay cool when people expect everything from a startup company like STA?

It's fine. It's okay, the interest is there, and that's good. Can we live up to all of their expectations? Probably not. But I'm okay with it. I tend to ignore people who are too... self-centered. I don't live for them. I listen to them, and I have incorporated most of the comments I received concerning the disc. That's why, I think, they're not making too many bad comments about it. Maybe they're saying it behind me; I don't know. But apart from the box, I think that we're getting very good reviews from the disc itself, and that's probably the result of listening to them.

What, to you, makes it feel like a success?

Basically if the fans are happy with it. Although, you know, we get complaints, but we do get complements at the same time, and I think that's what makes it worth it, that we did a good job. Those are the moments that make you feel like we succeeded.

What's in the immediate future for yourself and STA?

Super Techno Arts' immediate future is to finish off JoJo, which will be released every other month if we don't see any delays. It will go well into next year. That's my main concern right now. The next project will be Sci-Fi Harry, and that will come along very soon, so that's what's on my plate right now.

Is there anything you'd like to say about Sci-Fi Harry, or is it a bit too early?

You know, whatever I blurt out now won't be really official, as I haven't received any official timeline or information on it. I know Newtype USA has recently printed an article about Harry being released in the Fall. Although the source was not us, I know where it came from, and we need to live up to that, so... we'll figure something out! *Laughs*

Your contributions to the anime world extend beyond animating and distributing. The "Region Free" Japan Artist Network you own and operate is an important link between Japanese artists and domestic projects. What inspired "Region Free," and what are your aspirations for the referral service?

Initially, my goal was to introduce Japanese artists to the US market. I knew that the desire was there. However, because of the language difference, the culture difference, and many other factors, I knew that these US companies weren't really able to reach out to these Japanese artists. I was hoping to be the mediator to bridge the gap between the two cultures.

It turned out to be more difficult that I thought in many ways. I think US companies need to be more patient. There is a difference. You live with that. If you can't accept the difference, don't do it. That's kind of my attitude. So that's basically my goal, to bridge the gap.

What are a couple of your favorite anime and manga titles?

You know, it's really old, so I'm not going to say it. *Laughs* No, it's like I'd be blurting out titles that people wouldn't recognize. But I do like older anime, definitely. It's like... liking the songs that you grew up with. I feel the same way with anime; I like the ones I grew up with. There are very good recent shows out there, but they don't hold the same place in my heart.

Outside of anime, what are a few of your other interests?

Um... *Laughs* That's always been a very difficult question for me. I'm not much outside of work and anime. I made what I like into my career, so... I really can't say anything outside of, "Oh, I like reading or working out or whatever," just the normal stuff I do like everyone else.

Any final words for the readers?

I kind of like the type of fans who visit your website. I can only judge by the forum, you know. I think they're more sincerely interested in the content, as opposed to other anime forums *Laughs* which are more about the technicality of the DVD. It's just the nature of the forums.

I think part of that is just a difference in goals...

Yeah. That's why I think the fans are more vicious and critical elsewhere. And it's fine; they're entitled to be. But I find Anime News Network readers, forum members are more about the content, and it should be that way. Anime is about whether you enjoy it, whether you like the stories and characters, the experience of watching anime. That's why people make anime. And I would like for them to stay that way. It's really good to see that there are fans out there who actually enjoy the content and worry less about other things, the cosmetics of the product.

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