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Interview: Studio SHAFT president Mitsutoshi Kubota

by Evan Jones,

Mitsutoshi Kubota is the president of Studio Shaft, which is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary. His body of work includes popular and diverse titles ranging from the Hidamari Sketch, Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, and Bakemonogatari franchises, along with anime megahit Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Mr. Kubota was in Los Angeles as a guest of the 2016 Akiba Fest, joining a roundtable press interview on Sunday morning in Little Tokyo after the previous night's premiere of Kizumonogatari Part 2. (Each question and comment bolded below will be credited by the interviewer's first name: ANN's Evan Jones, William Hong of ConFreaks and Geeks, Hokan Lo of Nerd Reactor, and Sahvin Panichpong of The Fandom Post.)

Evan: How did you first come to be involved with Shaft and its productions?

Mitsutoshi Kubota: Well, I started with Shaft back in 1982. This would be perhaps 34 years ago, and my first job there was part-time, doing cel painting as well as coloring and effects, such as airbrushing. And then in 1995, I became a production manager and moved up to the post of studio president in 2004. I've been active as a producer since around 2000.

William: In what ways has the anime industry changed since you started?

Kubota: Back when I started, cel coloring was done on celluloid: physical cels with animation paint. It was around the year 2000 when that got phased into digital paint. Also, the actual drawing itself used to be on paper, and that's increasingly being done directly on computer now. I think the change is something that will continue on, and we're still in transition in the change of media.

Hokan: Adding to that, which style do you prefer?

Kubota: Well, since I started in the days of analog, I do have a retro fondness for it, but digital production allows a much wider range of expression for the creators, so I think the creators today are much more blessed with the tools they have.

Sahvin: So according to studio Shaft's history, you guys have actually worked with other production studios in the past, including Gainax – an example is the series Mahoromatic – so what was it like working on a coproduction with another studio? What do you feel are some of the benefits and maybe some of the negatives of doing a joint production?

Kubota: Compared to just using in-house talent, there is more stimulus for new creation. There's the chance for chemistry, which often tends to be positive. So each production studio has their own methods and different talents, and all of these can cross over. There tends to be something new that comes out when you collaborate.

Evan: Akiyuki Simbo's style has come to define a lot of SHAFT's output. Do you consider his style a "house style" for SHAFT in general? What is SIMBO's relationship to the studio like, from your perspective?

Kubota: Well if I start talking about it, this will be a very long story, but SIMBO's style was always established when he started directing, back on old projects like Le Portrait de Petit Cossette and The SoulTaker, and I always saw talent in him. So he always had his own style, with his sense of visual composition and pacing, and this would also include hardcore drama and action. We worked with him for the first time on a show called Tsukuyomi -Moon Phase-. On Moon Phase, SIMBO worked well with our in-house Shaft creators. He had a very good respect for the in-universe characters and established a working style where he would work well with the in-house creators. And so with Pani Poni Dash! and Tsukuyomi, we had a very good start working with SIMBO.

So the working style established with SIMBO and Shaft has been pretty consistent. He worked on different titles, and all of them were made with different approaches, which started with Moon Phase, and since that he worked on Hidamari Sketch, Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, Bakemonogatari, Madoka Magica. The common thread between all of these is that they had the same staff members, moving on to work on diverse genres and titles. What we established through this process was for the staff to come up with a common language that they can work with and carry on to production of the next title. So each time we can just continue to raise the threshold, instead of starting all over from scratch to establish a new staff. Instead of starting over from zero, we could go on and achieve the next level of success. And I think this is the collaboration between Shaft and SIMBO that has come out to be a very strong basis for the Shaft style.

Sahvin: You mentioned just a little bit ago about taking on diverse projects, diverse types of series. I actually have one in particular – this is actually a personal favorite of mine – based on the visual novels by minori, Ef: A Fairy Tale of the Two, becoming in this case ef: a tale of memories and A Tale of Melodies. Now this is a series that's obviously very different from what studio Shaft has done before, because it was more or less a romance drama, versus a lot of the other series that you guys had done that were heavily based on comedy. How did you guys approach doing this type of series, especially trying to make sure you do a faithful adaptation of the visual novels?

Kubota: Since Ef is based on a PC game, the plot really branches out depending on user's choices, so the staff held many production meetings deciding on which path to take as the story we would animate. You might be aware of the story composition if you've seen the show, and that we made it very sophisticated by interweaving the chronological orders, location, and characters. Between SIMBO, Ōnuma, and Takayama the writer, they came up with a composition that was very complicated, so we were slightly worried about if the original game players would accept it. The show was made so that it would be a group drama for all the characters, and each of the characters would see closure to their plot. We made the story to be a progressive one that would continue to entice the fans into following the series. For that purpose, I think we came up with a pretty successful show. This was our first attempt at animating a story based on a PC game, and we worked with the game's writer and music composer as part of the anime production team, so I think we were very successful in coming up with a show that was faithful and close to the PC game, since we were able to make it in close collaboration with the game makers.

The experience we learned from Ef was that working with the original creator was very beneficial to the production of the show, and that experience also went on into Hidamari Sketch and Pani Poni Dash!. I think we succeeded in creating a new style of production that really appeases the fans of the original work, and that is also a healthy challenge to us. I think we established a style where the animated show is not a reinvention, but something that is authentically the same in spirit to the original material. That was our learning experience, so I think we will continue to consider it very important to work with the original creators when animating pre-existing material.

William: Do you prefer adapting existing properties or creating new original stories?

Kubota: Working on existing material is very healthy for the creative talent in the studio, because there is such a diverse number of genres and titles available to work on, which is something that we encourage as a studio. Creating original animation is something that we very much love to do ourselves, but the preparation is much more complicated and time-consuming. When it comes to delivering one or the other, it is much quicker to deliver an animated show based on existing material, so you'll end up seeing more of those. It's not really a question of which we'd prefer, but which ones we can actually afford the time to make, because in order to make an original show, there is a lot of preproduction and more trial and error that needs to happen. So we can't really promise to come out with an original show every year or even on a regular basis. But we love to do that, and we will continue to do both.

Evan: What project that you have produced are you most proud of?

Kubota: Well that's a tough question of course, and as for myself, I would be equally proud of every single title that I am responsible for. Having said that, when it comes to fondness, I am – and the studio is certainly – fond of original titles, because of all the time commitment that we put into those originals. Also, for our existing material shows, fans do have a long-tail fondness and love for the material, which does reflect as a reward to the staff as well. So we certainly do hope that some shows, like the Monogatari series, would never end so that we could continue to work on something that is beloved that we also like to work on ourselves. But that doesn't mean that short runs are neglected either, because all the staff is always passionate about the shows that they make. So if you examine every single show that we make, they are equally passionately made.

Hokan: With the increase in anime being produced every year, how do you maintain that sort of steady output of shows being maintained under Shaft. Like how early in advance do you guys start to produce like, “for next season we're going to be planning ahead for this show”?

Kubota: It's very true that in recent years there's been a significant increase in the output of animated titles. You can expect perhaps 40 to 50 shows in one quarter or season. But at SHAFT, we have not really been doing anything differently. I think the strength of our studio is that we maintain the same staff and work within the same space. We do not necessarily increase production to keep up with demand, but we put our passion and work into each title and each episode. So for us, we have not embarked on any significant change in production style, we just put our effort into each project that's in front of us. That's what we have been doing, and that's what we hope to maintain.

William: Do you watch international animated films or series? And if so, which ones did you enjoy?

Kubota: My apologies that I have a hard time keeping up, not just with international animated titles but even with Japanese shows, so I haven't been very meticulous about that. But of the few that I get to see, some of those might be Disney features, and though it's already dated, the last one I might have seen might be Frozen. The production style between international animation and Japanese animation is certainly different. I think one of the biggest differences would be the difference in target audience. One thing that international animation productions have is a lot of advanced technology that Japanese studios have a hard time catching up with, such as the judicious use of computer graphics. Of course, what we have in the Japanese anime industry is works that are specifically targeted to an audience of anime fans. So that's our strength and what we continue to hone our skills with. As I came here to Akiba Fest and got to watch our work on screen, seeing it in the audience with attending fans, I got to see that overseas fan enjoy the very same things that Japanese anime fans enjoy. It's that very same storytelling that is their joy, so I see that there are a lot of opportunities for Japanese anime to be widespread among fans overseas.

Evan: For the upcoming Madoka Magica side story project, what relationship will it have to the main TV series and the Rebellion movies?*

Kubota: Magia Record? For Magia Record, this is being developed as a mobile game, and it's very likely that the principal characters from Madoka Magica will have some kind of role showing up, as bit characters perhaps. Please look forward to the release and enjoy it in the future. The app won't be a direct sequel to Madoka Magica. These will feature new characters as new magical girls, so I hope you keep that in mind and look forward to its release.

*The question was actually referring to the announced "concept movie" for Madoka Magica. No new info on that yet!

Hokan: So in the past year, Shaft has held an exhibit in Japan, Madogatari, which is kind of like a celebration of Shaft's forty years. Is there a possibility of bringing that outside of Japan? What would be the viability of doing that?

Kubota: Yes. In the past year, we had an exhibit of key frames and other production materials to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Shaft. We had a good turnout, and I think fans really enjoyed the exhibit. It may not be in the exact form of a Shaft exhibit or Madogatari, the actual prospect of that is unknown, but as long as there is demand or a request from overseas, it's something that I hope for and would love to do – to exhibit production materials such as key frames, production settings, or design material. It doesn't have to be a collaboration, but just an exhibit of what we do and what we produce in the studio for all to see and enjoy. It is very rewarding for us to have fans appreciate the raw production material that we have to show, and we would be very happy if overseas fans also got to see it.

Sahvin: So obviously, a hallmark of Studio Shaft's signature style in their productions is the head tilt that characters do. In your own personal picks, who do you think looks the best doing it?

Kubota: (laughs) It's such a signature of all Shaft characters, so it's very difficult to come up with a top five, but perhaps Kyubey might be one of the top.

Thanks to Akibafest for facilitating this interview.

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