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Interview: Kyoto Animation's Taichi Ishidate

by Mike Toole,

I just love Kyoto. It's more of a walking city than Tokyo or Osaka, with its charmingly narrow avenues dotted by literally thousands of temples. With picturesque parks right in the throes of hanami sitting alongside busy shopping districts, Kyoto really feels like a classical city with just a touch of the modern. The place is neatly bisected by the Kamo River, where folks go to hang out at sunset when the weather is good, and surrounded by picturesque mountains. Go to Kyoto, is what I'm saying.

We weren't in Kyoto just to see the sights. During the planning of this trip, I was very bullish about visiting Kyoto Animation, the famed studio behind hits like K-ON!, and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. My editor was a touch skeptical – Kyoto was well outside of Tokyo, and it might be complicated to schedule an appointment. But he made it happen for me, and so it was that we hopped a local train out to Uji, the suburb where Kyoto Animation weaves their magic.

We joined up with our interpreter, ANN's own Mr. Mitsuru Uehira, at Kohata Station, and then made the hike to Kyoto Animation's headquarters. It was about twenty feet; seriously, the place is right across the street from the station, and it's not a very wide street to boot. Outside, a young gent with a camera lurked about, snapping photos of the exterior, which sported a big banner for the new Sound! Euphonium compilation movie. Were we on a visit to anime Graceland, or what?

Inside Kyoto Animation HQ, we were greeted by Mr. Katsuhiko Muramoto, who's involved in Kyoto Animation's international business division, along with his associate, PR representative Ms. Reina Suzuki. Forcing my mammoth feet into regular-sized slippers once again, I was struck by the relative formality of it all—we'd met with a whirlwind of producers and creators the prior week, and it was mostly off-the-cuff affairs. Here, we sat drinking tea, and having a chat with our hosts about which KyoAni shows we enjoy (as a band geek, it's Sound! Euphonium for me). Presently, Mr. Muramoto told me that Mr. Hatta, the studio's founder and chief, had wanted to meet us, but he was away on business. Then, it was time for us to go. Wait a minute, go where?!

Kyoto Animation's operation in Uji is actually spread across three buildings. The headquarters is mainly a business office. Their main studio building is a single train stop away.  That particular train stop was festooned with Sound! Euphonium promotional posters and standees during our visit, the better to the then-forthcoming movie. Of particular interest, the station had just updated the Kyoto Animation store billboards with some new artwork of the show's heroines.

As we approached the first studio building, my wife and I were expressly cautioned not to take photos of the interior, not just to avoid bothering the artists at work, but because there was just too much production material from their upcoming A Silent Voice film laying around – they were still a couple of weeks away from releasing key visuals, and didn't want to risk any leaks. They weren't joking, either—it felt like the place was wallpapered in Silent Voice art! It wasn't just obvious stuff like art boards and settei character sheets, either. Along every hallway and in every office, the studio was covered with stock photos of schoolyards, train stations; bridges, squares. All of these were meant to put the artists into the mindset of the film, and help them convey not just the story, but a sense of place, a real setting. It all felt like a very studied, rigorous approach to creating animation.

As we walked and talked, we got a look at the studio's background artists, some of them with huge drawing tablets, others surrounded by pots of paint. Both approaches were embraced. Nearby, a CG artist tweaked a detailed model of a French horn; one of our hosts gestured at it, saying it was to be used in Sound! Euphonium season 2. A few weeks later, that news went public, too! Needless to say, it was very exciting to be in the thick of things. Mr Muramoto confirmed that KyoAni were eminently capable of completing every aspect of animation – from storyboards and layouts to CG, backgrounds, and finished animation – right there in one place. Only editing, dubbing, music, and other tweaks would have to be done elsewhere. In an age of breakneck scheduling, chaotic pools of freelancers, and an endless flood of new work, Kyoto Animation's facilities exuded confidence and concentration. It was all extremely impressive.

Then, it was time to go to the secondary studio building—and hey, there's the Kyoto Animation store! And hey, it's gonna close in half an hour, so we had to duck in and do some shopping. If you've got visions of a huge, splendid gift shop, dial them back a bit—the KyoAni store is a very modest little shop with a small selection and just a few really hard-to-find items. I searched for stuff featuring Sound! Euphonium tuba ingénue Hazuki, my favorite character, while jauntily humming along to the show band's striking rendition of Yellow Magic Orchestra's “Rydeen” being piped in over the sound system. This is the one part of Kyoto Animation's operation that welcomes drop-in visitors (please don't go into their HQ or studio unless you have an appointment!) and it's easy to reach from Kyoto Station, so make sure you visit the next time you're in the neighborhood. Afterwards, you can grab lunch while seeing some of the real-life sights used in their shows (they particularly recreate Uji in painstaking detail in Sound! Euphonium) before doubling back to the famous Fushimi Inari shrine.

Our final visit was to the second studio building, a smaller space which was similarly crowded with artists at work. But upstairs, we beheld something new: a bona fide classroom. Mr. Muramoto explained that the space was used both for the students of their own managed school who want to be professional artists but don't yet work in the industry, and for the studio's roster of artists for lectures and workshops. It was yet another testament to their dedication to the craft. Then, our interview subject, Mr. Taichi Ishidate, flanked by a couple of junior production associates, bounded into the room. He was a lanky, handsome man with a ready grin, excited to talk about his next project. He'd made his debut as a series director on Beyond the Boundary for the studio, and spent the months leading up to our meeting working on several episodes of their latest hit, Myriad Colors Phantom World. Soon enough, it was time for us to start talking.

Mike: What was your favorite anime as a kid? Why did you like it so much?

Ishidate: I was influenced by Ghibli as a kid. I repeatedly watched them, especially “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” to the extent that the videotape was almost worn out.

Why did you particularly love Laputa so much?

Theatrical animation has long been compared favorably with television animation, but I wasn't aware of the heightened animation quality as a kid. I was amused simply by the moving images – I could sense the quality of the animation by Miyazaki-san, Takahata-san, and Studio Ghibli. I had fun simply watching them. I was attracted to it.

What was it that attracted you to animation as a career? How did your career get going?

It might be a long story. (laughing) I originally liked animation. But as I grew into adolescence, I was trapped inside this atmosphere, which was rooted in this commonly-held belief that animation was mostly for children, so I gradually stopped watching animation. Even so, I still liked movies overall. I hoped that I would get a job at a company which produced live-action TV and film. I applied for many companies, but failed those interviews, which made me think that the live action field did not suit me. Then, it occurred to me that an animation production company could be an option, where I could take advantage of my skill at drawing, which I had developed since childhood. Not only that, but I'd still be making films, which I was hoping to do. The decision has led me here.     

What was it that attracted you to Kyoto Animation specifically? Was it really just because it was near your house?

There were various reasons, but indeed, I am from Kansai area. Kyoto Animation was near my house. That was the biggest reason.  (laughing)

If you lived closer to Tokyo, would you just have gone to someone else?

As a matter of fact, I applied at only one animation studio in Tokyo at the time. As I told you, when the course of my job hunting changed its direction along the way, I found out that there were few companies left which still recruited, except only two companies. One was Kyoto Animation, and the other was a production in Tokyo. I applied for the production in Tokyo first, but, abruptly changing my course in job hunting left me awfully ignorant. My knowledge couldn't bear the scrutiny I was under during the interview. I didn't have even a slight chance. I thought “This ain't right” and then, came here.

I've read that your first project with Kyoto Animation was Munto. What was working on Munto like - do any memories of it stand out to you?

It was “Munto” in which I participated as a key animator for the first time. The series and episode director for the title was a super veteran, Mr. Yoshiji Kigami at Kyoto Animation, who has 30 years in this field.  As a rookie key animator, I put the key frame materials into the envelope called “cut bag” and handed it to Kigami-san. But, he stapled all the key frames that I drew. He corrected all the drawings in my key frames, which means that the final film features almost nothing I worked on. However, it taught me a kind of professional spirit where your work absolutely must be up to a very particular standard or you can't call it “animation”. I learned Kigami-san's attitude toward maintaining a high standard for the work. I was really glad that I could work with Kigami-san as a rookie.       

What do you mean by “stapling the key frames”?

It's a quality check performed by an episode director or a (series) director. When I handed my key frames to Kigami-san, he said, “Good work!” with a smile. Some while later, when he started to check the cut bags, I happened to be sitting right next to him and heard a stapler. Looking at him, he was stapling my key frames!  

KyoAni PR person:
The key frames to be used for the animation are left unstapled, while the ones not to be used will be stapled.

Those stapled key frames are recorded as unused ones.

When was the first time you advanced from key animator to episode director? Can you talk about that experience a little bit? Was it stressful, or did it feel natural to you?

It was in 2005, my third year since entering Kyoto Animation in 2002. I had been a key animator for the first two years since I started with Munto. It was the third year (when I got advanced to episode director). I didn't volunteer for the job – my sempai offered me a role directing an episode and I thought it was a great opportunity, so I took it.

When you started out as a young animator, did you think that someday you want to be a director?

No, I didn't think that way at first. I found it pleasant to simply draw the key frames on Munto, I kept thinking about getting better at drawing key frames. Then, I got an opportunity to direct an episode. It was only after I started to work as an episode director that I came to think that I would want to work as a series director, in the role of taking the lead in the project.    

Break down your typical day at the office. Do you come in early? Are there a lot of different little projects to do, or can you focus on the animation most of the time?  What needs to happen for you to think "Wow, that was a good day's work!"?

Though it is anime production, Kyoto Animation is not too different from some other general companies in the sense that our work hours are set. All staff, including me, come and leave the company as the work hours are scheduled.

I usually come to the office about 30 minutes before the beginning time and start with doing clean-up, such as vacuuming, cleaning and wiping the desks, etc. At 12:30PM, I will eat lunch. At 1:30PM, the lunch break ends and the work resumes. At 6PM, we go home. Basically, no extra hours. It's just kind of a pattern. Sorry, that isn't very interesting for your article! (laughing)

Then, back to the other question. A good work day for me always involves animation production itself, creating the things I think are good. I guess that some other people involved with the same kind of work could feel the same way. When I end the day's work having only done a bunch of clerical stuff, when I didn't have time to actually work on production, draw some key frames, I get frustrated, like “I want to create! I want to draw!” As long as I can draw, I usually have some fun.     

When you direct, how close are you to day-to-day production? Do you still do a lot of your own drawings, or as a director do you need to stick to checking the work of your animators?

Because of my origins as an animator, even if I am working as a series director, I want to draw what I can draw by myself. So, I guess that I draw a lot more than the average series director. But, there is a location problem. While I can work on "cutting", a rough editing of the frames, here in Kyoto, I have to go to Tokyo for post-production, such as after-recording, dubbing, and what is called, "v [video] editing", the final editing to finish up the episode.  When I am working as a series director, I have more trips to take, which doesn't allow me to take much time to sit working at the studio here in Kyoto. While I am away, it makes me irritated that I can't draw.

What's your favorite thing to draw? Like, recently.

I like to draw, but it seems like my favorite thing to draw would be different from what some others might say. I feel myself a minority in that sense. Most people love drawing faces – I'm terrible at faces. Rather, I prefer to draw bodies and the landscapes. If I'm animating movement, I prefer to draw natural phenomena like smoke and the water.

All of your work seems to be contemporary stories, rooted in the present day. Could you see yourself directing historical fantasy, something like that?

Yes, I like the history genre very much. That would be good. If you ask me whether or not I can see myself making a show like that, that's another matter. But I have strong feelings about trying it. As a Japanese man, I'm interested in Japan's history as a setting, but honestly I'm interested in world history too. Researching the historical background for a show regardless of its location can be difficult.

A lot of your projects at KyoAni are based on light novels or manga - for example, Beyond the Boundary is based on light novels. Is there any collaboration between you and the creator?

With "Beyond the Boundary", I met with the creator, Torii-san (Nagomu Torii), only once in the beginning. We had discussions about how film was very different from a light novel, in terms of the way it tells a story, and we agreed that everything would be left to me with this adaptation. It doesn't always happen that way.

In contrast, on another show, I was working as an assistant director before I had become a series director. On that show, the manga creator participated in every screenplay meeting. We exchanged materials and ideas, and created the script together through discussion. It was a show that favored this way of doing things. However, Torii-san's stance is “I leave it all to you, and basically, will not express an opinion on the anime”. So, the extent of the creator's commitment depends on how the both sides (the creator and the production side) want to proceed. It doesn't always work out the same way – every show is different and we find the best production solution for every one.  

©Nagomu ToriiKyoto Animation/ProjectBB

When you direct, what's your relationship with the scriptwriter - is that someone you work with every day, or only from time to time?

Since my experience as a series director is only “Beyond the Boundary” so far, I have not known many cases, so, let me talk just from my own experience. Beyond the Boundary had the script writer Mr. Jukki Hanada. I think his basic stance is that he develops the scripts through face-to-face discussions with other directors and staff at the screenplay meeting, and then, takes them back, expanding on those ideas and materials to further upgrade his draft script. Hanada-san is the type of script writer who proactively tries to make opportunities to talk with the director face to face. Though it is not the only way of doing it, I admire his way of doing it, and want to use that style.     

However, most of the time, the script writer lives in Tokyo area. We have no chance to talk but once a week at the screenplay meeting. So, we tried to take advantage of my trips to Tokyo and to make sure we see each other as much as possible.

Do you read a lot of manga and light novels yourself? Any favorites?

I do not read so many light novels, but I think that I've read no small amount of manga. I simply like the medium of manga. 

Your debut as a series director was Beyond the Boundary. What did you have to do to prepare for that role?

I came to realize what I have to do as a series director only after I started doing it on. Though I did try to prep, it wasn't that I had to prepare for the role – I had to start doing it to really learn. 

Most recently, you've directed episodes of Myriad Colors Phantom World. What's your favorite aspect of that series?

If you got a chance to see “Myriad Colors Phantom World”, you will find that each episode stands alone, with its own unique qualities.  When I was reading the scripts for several episodes before directing, I had some thoughts. To put it one way, it felt like while all these individual episodes shared common DNA when it came to the stories they were telling, tonally they all felt like they had come from different series. The “flavor” of each episode felt a little too different. However, after seeing the completed series, I felt they came together well in the end. This may be different from many recent titles where the stories are so continuously plotted across the episodes that if you miss one episode, you will be lost in the story. As for Myriad Colors Phantom World, you can start with any episode of the series without having any trouble understanding the story. There's something in there for every type of fan out there.

©Hatano Souichirou/Kyoto Animation/The Myriad Colors Production Committee

Do the subjects and characters of the shows you work on interest you? For example, Beyond the Boundary and Phantom World have elements of the weird, the supernatural. Do you like these kinds of stories?

I'm omnivorous – I'm interested in most any genre, save horror. Honestly, genre might not matter to me. Characters can be really weird – talking dogs and unicorns – and so long as people connect with their personalities it doesn't matter. People are interested in human personalities. What they expect to see from a film is self-projection; human qualities they recognize in themselves. I think it may actually be easier to empathize with non-human characters, but that doesn't work unless we properly develop those characters. So yes, I find those kinds of stories interesting.

I was really taken with one of the Phantom World episodes you directed, episode 4, "Mozou Kazoku." How much of the episode's images - for example, the notion of Reina's "perfect family" being rabbits - came from you?

"Myriad Colors Phantom World" presents a subtopic in each episode's subtitle, be it Jung or quantum mechanics. It may be easier to understand something like "Schrödinger's cat" in episode 7, but with episode 4, those rabbit parents were already there in the script. I wondered why they were rabbits, but just rolled with it. Tsuruoka-san and the Sound Director said to me, "her family are rabbits, and there are rabbits in relation to quantum mechanics, isn't that deep?"

But I'd rather ask “why are this human girl's parents rabbits?” Well, you may not be satisfied with my answer. So, I would (dare to) say that the rabbits are Reina's ideal family. She chose the rabbits which symbolized the world she thought was ideal.

Do you know the Sylvanian Family? The adorable images that Reina found of the Sylvanian Family doll world, they created such a world for her. When I talked with the series director (Ishihara-san), he advised me to direct the episode with a “Sylvanian Family-like” world view. I said that I understood.

Do you draw inspiration from non-anime sources, like books or films?

Yes, I do. I suppose that I may not be the only person who draws inspiration from non-anime sources. Looking at other staff at Kyoto Animation, I feel more than ever that they have more inspiration from non-anime sources, anything that we can draw inspiration from. I try to keep in mind that it's important to experience all kinds of human expression, be it film, music, art, or plays.

Do you have any example like favorite film directors?

I have many favorite directors. I watch a lot of Japanese films, but as the number of films produced is larger in the United States, naturally, I have more chances to see Western films and have more favorite directors from Western films. David Fincher and Christopher Nolan always amaze me.

Are there any musical composers you like? When you're planning and handling direction, do you think about music?

I only ever think about music when I'm asked this question. I do not think about music when I am planning, and drawing the storyboards. I have a personal belief that basically, the story is literature, which is composed of and propelled by the lines. When I see images and words together, that's when I can start thinking about how the score might come together. That is the way I think about music.

Though I am not that familiar with composers, in connection with Christopher Nolan, my favorite composer is Hans (Florian) Zimmer.  

As you progressed as an animator and grew into the role of director, did you have an idol or a mentor, without whom your style would definitely be different?

Among Kyoto Animation staff, Kigami-san, as I mentioned before, is a master-like figure to me.

Based on the manga “A SILENT VOICE" by Yoshitoki Oima originally serialized in the weekly SHONEN MAGAZINE published by KODANSHA Ltd.
©Yoshitoki Oima, KODANSHA/A SILENT VOICE The Movie Production Committee. All Rights Reserved.

Would you say you're still learning about the craft, even as you've become an accomplished director?

I have been working as an animator for 13 or 14 years, but, while my ability as an animator has not been decreasing, I feel it's getting harder to see my growth clearly at the same speed as I did before. So if I give up learning about the craft, we can't create entertaining animation. Animation is a part of the entertainment industry, which means I need to not only keep up with advancements in the craft of animation, I also need to keep thinking about what sort of animation we should create to satisfy the audience's ever-changing preferences, rather than just chasing the fashions.

I mentioned before my master was Kigami-san. The reason I think that way is because regardless of his thirty-year career in animation, he's still wondering if he's holding the pencil the best way. The way he holds the pencil! Looking at his attitude makes me feel that I have a long way to go. In that sense, I have to work harder.

What do you think you'll be doing ten years from now? Will you be a savvy producer, an accomplished and sophisticated director... or still sneaking away to draw keyframes whenever you can?

Ten years from now, I will turn 46 years old. “Producer” is the job which I can imagine myself becoming the least. Because my origin is as an animator and my original motivation is to create films and to draw pictures, even if it's a situation where I might wind up directing and not animating or animating and not directing,  I hope I'm still an episode director and an animator who can create more entertaining works even ten years from now. I will try to be the one!

You explain about directing, making a distinction between “Kantoku”(“series director”) and “Enshutsu” (“episode director”).  Are they that different?

Kantoku”(“series director”) and “Enshutsu” (“episode director”) are different. While “Enshutsu” (an episode director) means directing an episode, “Kantoku” (series director) is rather a role of supervising and commanding the staff's operations, which does not allow him to draw or create by himself. If I want to keep one cut, one scene, or one episode completely under my control, “Enshutsu” (an episode director) makes more sense. I enjoy the roles of both “series director” and “episode director”, but I hope that I can continue to work at least as an episode director. 

Is it too soon to ask about what your current and upcoming projects are? Tell us a little bit about what you're working on right now!

It has not been determined yet whether we will make it a TV series or theatrical anime, but there is one project that we hope to develop. It's a project by our studio that I'm spearheading. It is based on the novel “Violet Evergarden” already published under KA Esuma Bunko, the label that Kyoto Animation owns. The title was the prize winner of the 5th Kyoto Animation Awards. We are creating a commercial video based on the bunko (pocket book), which we hope will lead to some future development. When we have released the video, I hope you will watch and like it.

And there you have it. Kyoto Animation strikes me as a singularly impressive studio – a business that both works tirelessly to improve their craft as animators, and works equally hard with an eye towards sustainability, joining the production committee on many of their newer shows and developing new projects from their own media libraries. It should be noted that, unlike most studios, KyoAni employs a large roster of permanent employees—the constant scramble for freelance work is absent in their halls, leaving the artists free to concentrate on quality. Mr. Ishidate is a great example of what kind of talent that this approach can develop, an impeccable artist who has thrived both as an animator and director. I'm really looking forward to seeing what he's got in store for Violet Evergarden!

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