Interview: The Cast and Crew of My Hero Academia

by Jacob Chapman,

At Anime Expo this year, we had the opportunity to sit down with the Japanese crew and English cast of My Hero Academia. Director Kenji Nagasaki, producer Wakana Okamura, the voice of Midoriya Justin Briner, and the voice of All Might Chris Sabat all gathered around a table to share their varied experiences working on this exciting production.

ANN: So My Hero Academia is a long-running shonen series with many chapters of manga. Usually, these stories are not adapted with high-quality animation in split cours like this. What is your production philosophy on adapting a long-running manga to Bones's animation standards?

Wakana Okamura: When I first tried to put this project together, to create an anime version, I saw the potential of this IP becoming a mass hit. I know that shonen anime tends not to have such high-quality production, but I saw it differently, and I saw that this anime can be both high-quality and shonen. Because I believed it could have a wider audience, from kids to adults, that was the one thing I really wanted to focus on in creating a high-quality shonen anime from the get-go. I had previously worked with Studio Bones on Blood Blockade Battlefront. That show targets an older audience, but I saw the potential in Bones to create shonen anime with such quality that it can have a wider reach internationally and domestically as well. So that's one of the reasons why I chose Bones for this project, and also why I ordered that from the director as well.

Kenji Nagasaki: As the name says, Bones—it is said that Bones was named with the intention, or with the message, that they want to make anime with a strong core and backbones. The staff that we've gathered, that have signed up for this project, also has the same philosophy of creating great anime with a strong core, so just putting together that group of people raised the bar to create a higher quality anime. So that's also a factor as well.

From the perspective of directing this material, how do you feel about long hiatuses between seasons? Is it easier for you, more difficult? How do you feel about it?

Nagasaki: Actually, there's a break so that we can take time to work on this show and not lower the bar. That's one of the reasons why there's a break between the seasons, so that we can take what we learned from the first season and make it better, so we have that time to adjust and assess what we've learned from the first season and make it better for the second season.

You talked about a global audience for My Hero Academia. That's interesting because American fans like a lot of anime because it's so different from what we see in America. But in America, there's a lot of superhero cartoons. In producing a superhero anime that's like a lot of the DC/Marvel stuff, do you take influence from American cartoons more? What do you think makes MHA stand out as anime compared to them?

Nagasaki: As you might know, the original author is a very big fan of American comic heroes, and All Might was created putting together bits and pieces of those American comic heroes. However, the story in My Hero Academia is not necessarily just a traditional hero story, which is to save the world. With including all these different characters, it's more of a journey for each character to become their own hero, so in that sense it's very Japanese shonen. The mashing together creates something special for this anime and manga. In a sense, it does have American comic book heroes, but with the Japanese flavor. But as you can see, All Might is obviously American comic-influenced.

Because this was Horikoshi's first anime adaptation, what was it like working with him to bring his manga to life? Was it different working with someone who had never had their work adapted before?

Okamura: He was very, very excited about the anime version.

Nagasaki: Very excited!

Okamura: Everybody that works on this show is a big fan of the manga, especially the character designer, Umakoshi-san, is a huge fan of the original. He even asked for an autograph from the original author when he met him! The original author is a big fan of the anime version too. He usually watches before it airs, and he'll draw an original illustration just to promote the anime and tweet about it and things like that. So it's great working with him.

Alright, this one is for the whole table. So if you had a quirk, what would it be?

Okamura: I really like Hagakure, the transparent girl. (laughs) It would be great if I could have the power to become transparent, so I could sneak into Bones studio to make sure that everything is on schedule and that everybody is working.

Chris Sabat: You took my answer. Well, not to sneak into Bones studio, but...

Nagasaki: Then I would like to have a quirk to cancel out all other quirks, in case Okamura approaches me with that type of power.

Justin Briner: I think I'd like to be able to grow my hair out in such a way that whenever you look at it, you're just mesmerized, hypnotized by it. I'd grow a very huge afro that you could see from miles and miles away. As soon as you lock eyes on it, you're under my control.

Chris: Your hair would be sort of like the glamour power that vampires have.

Justin: Exactly. Yes. And you can't look away.

Chris: You can license that idea, if you want to.

Okamura: We might pop a character like that into the next-door classroom.

But then his afro would fill the whole room!


Chris: I was gonna use invisibility, so I'll go to another thought I had, which was the ability to stop time so that I could catch up and be on time for things all the time. I could also go to places where I'm not supposed to go. I don't know. I would probably get into a lot of trouble, but no one would know it was me, so it'd be cool. And my superhero name would be Frank. It'd just be a really boring superhero name because I wouldn't want anyone to know I had that power.

Everybody's like “are your powers hot dog-themed?” and you're like “no,” and you just never explain it.

Chris: My Hero Academia: Frank's Journey. I did want to mention something in regards to one of your earlier questions about superheroes, this version of a superhero story versus others, and one thing that I found interesting that I just thought of yesterday: unlike superheroes in traditional Western culture, where the path is typically that you get a little bit of that power that's sort of hidden, and it becomes stronger over time—this is more of a case where somebody gets every bit of that power at first, and they have to learn how to use it in tiny doses, so they don't kill themselves.

I hadn't thought about that, but it is kind of interesting. They are entering a school to learn responsibility for this thing they've been given. Whereas, in a lot of American comics, it's a little more Dragon Ball Z-like, where it's mounting levels of “I'm becoming stronger” and you just sort of do whatever you want with it. Here, it's like society has given you this and now you have a responsibility to...

Chris: To use it properly and not tell anyone how you got it. I guess there are examples of western comics where you fall into the vat of radioactive liquid and you become the superhero or you get bitten by a spider or something, but in those cases they never had a mentor or somebody to go “oh yeah, here's how you got all of your power and this is how exactly it works, just don't use it all right now.”

So I wanted to ask Justin, as Bakugo is no doubt quick to remind him at every opportunity, Izuku is a nerd. Do you consider yourself a nerd and do you relate to that in Izuku? What do you think makes that type of hero different from other characters you've played?

Justin: I definitely find a lot to relate to with Izuku's character. His nerdiness is equated to his sheer passion for heroes and heroism and the whole era of superheroes that he lives in. I don't think that I'm as fanatic as he is about what he loves, but it's easy to tap into the feelings of how he admires All Might and the other heroes so much. So I think I can definitely relate to the feelings of admiration, the feelings of passion about my work and what I like to do just as hobbies. I think what separates Izuku from other similar shonen heroes is, right off the bat, they show you that what sets him apart, even from his classmates, is his studiousness and his knowledge, how quick he is to adapt to any given situation and have a plan ready. Whereas several other heroes sort of go with “Follow my heart! I'll let my instincts guide me!” But Izuku, he always has an instinct, but it's backed up by years and years of intense studying and knowledge of the craft of superheroes. I think that's great.

Yeah, he's a planner. So Chris, All Might has two voices and two modes. Do you consider one of those to be more genuine than the other? Do you think the other one is fake? How much of All Might's true self is put into each one of those?

Chris: A lot of thought was put into this, honestly. Colleen Clinkenbeard and I spent so much time debating as to how this voice should sound. First of all, we believe that the All Might voice is put on entirely. That's his production voice. That's the voice he puts on to make everyone happy, to make everyone feel like he's larger than life. His Izuku voice is probably closer to what his real voice would be. The hard part for me is, after playing characters like Zoro and Vegeta and Kurogane, all these other characters who are part of the group but have this sort of apathetic view of the world—“oh whatever, I guess I'm sort of with you,” the reluctant hero type—we have to work very hard to make sure that No Might's voice doesn't sound like he's bored or doesn't care. He needs to sound enthusiastic, just tired. That mix of enthusiasm—he is a hero still in every form, it's just that he's so tired in No Might form that he can't really play it out. I'd love to know more about his backstory, because at this point we really don't know any of it. Who gave him his power? I don't know these things.

They're definitely setting up something in a future season just with his injury—he's like “Well, this wasn't caused by the toxic chainsaw guy, it was some other thing.” It's like, that's on purpose, they're going to bring that back. That'll be interesting.

Chris: Oh, okay. Good, thank you.

So you've been involved in the broadcast dub stuff for well over a year at this point. I wanted to ask how that process is going. Is it smoothing out, and what's the plan for shows moving forward?

Justin: It's a pretty interesting perspective for me at least, because when I was getting started, when I started to get my foot in the door with Funimation, they already had broadcast dubs underway. That was their plan moving forward, to really invest the time and energy to make that a reality. Looking back from the season where I started to where we are now, the process is definitely more cohesive. I wouldn't say it's leaps and bounds better, because it's still the same town, the same directors, and they're doing good work all the time, but every season, every new show you're able to put on, you're able to pick up little tips and tricks about what'll make the process easier and a little more fluid for everyone. Now that I'm so used to the broadcast dubs, having to go and do a regular home video release feels kind of strange.

Chris: The broadcast dub comes with mixed emotions among all the directors at Funimation and all the actors, but less the actors, because the actors get more work regularly, which is great. The directors, and being one of them I can understand and relate to this, are frustrated because you don't know the full story, and you don't know if you cast one person in one episode for one role, if that's going to be an important role. You don't know if you need to use Michael Tatum's voice now, or should you use it later when you have a better use for it. That's the tricky thing. But to me, I actually really love it. I love the challenge of it, I love the unknown, and it feels to me like we're working on a series for HBO or something. It feels like we're working on a show where even the actors and the directors don't know the full storyline, because they haven't been told what it is yet. So I'm really excited, and I hope this trend continues. You were mentioning earlier about My Hero Academia, and can it survive a nine-month off period, and I kind of feel like if series like Game of Thrones or Lost can do it, I think now we're entering into a time where, as long as they have the subtitled version to watch in the absence of new material, they're going to stick around, they'll be waiting for it, they'll be excited for it. There might be a time when anime has seasons just like everything else.

Things are moving that direction. Certainly Wit Studio was counting on that for Titan, because it's now been three years, and it's ultimately going to be four years in between Titans.

Chris: Oh my gosh. It better be big.

I think that's all the questions I have, so thank you!

Chris: Thank you, man.

Justin: Thank you so much.

Would the producer and director like to leave us with a message for the American fans of My Hero Academia?

Nagasaki: For the second season, we're ramping up to introduce way more characters, new heroes, new villains, so please look forward to it and enjoy.

Okamura: After the first season was basically setup for these characters to begin their journey, the second season will dig deeper into each character's development and their journey, and also introduce supervillains. Please, while watching the first season and starting the second season, I would like the fans to enjoy their growth and take the journey together.

Thank you very much.

Special thanks to Funimation for facilitating this interview.

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