Interview: Tensai Okamura

by Jacob Chapman,

In an industry where it's become more and more difficult to get original projects greenlit, director Tensai Okamura has an astounding number of anime-original series under his belt, from Wolf's Rain to Darker than Black to Kuromukuro and many others. At Anime Expo 2017, we got the opportunity to ask him about his inspirations from the past and aspirations heading into the future.

ANN: You had a very unique opportunity where you came up in the industry working on shows that were going to be hit classics, like Yawara and Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop. What did you learn about directing by working on these prestigious projects?

Okamura: So in the case of Yawara, I watched how other people in different positions worked on the job, that's how we all learned. In the case of Cowboy Bebop, there was a totally different kind of agenda, so that was difficult. You had to go through a planning process for your storyboard, but this is something that I wanted to go through, I really made it clear that I wanted to work on this job, on this particular episode, that kind of thing. In the case of Mr. Anno's Evangelion… Mr. Anno has always been quite a talented person, he was a star even since he was much younger as an animator. So as a person who worked on the ground floor of the animation creation, I wasn't sure if I was able to get through the work at first. When we were working on the storyboard with Anno, we went through quite a few feedback cycles. We might have a lot of details incorporated into the storyboard, and we'd bring it to Mr. Anno and he'd just go “cut this and cut that,” bringing down to the bare minimum of what we made. We were just astounded that he did that at the time. But back when we worked on Cowboy Bebop, it was completely different. We added a lot of materials and details to the storyboard, and he always wanted us to add more. We were really having fun with it. Mr. Anno's approach on Evangelion was the total opposite.

So more minimal, more controlled?

Okamura: Exactly.

I see, that's really interesting. Asking about Kuromukuro, that first scene really makes me think of your style a lot. I see a lot of other directors aim for super powered fights where you're supposed to be impressed by how big everything is. But with a lot of your work, like with that first scene where he's naked and he's fighting with a samurai sword, there's a silliness and a vulnerability to it. What is your approach to action direction, and where do you find that vulnerability in action?

I think you're correct when you say it's kind of my style, the vulnerability. In an action scene, the characters may engage in a serious fight, but then again we don't want to make it too serious. So we didn't want to create something that the viewers would feel pressured or stressed over. It's kind of hard to make something like that, but I often want to make my action a little bit sillier.

So one of my favorite anime, I think it's one of the best anime I've ever seen in my entire life, is Wolf's Rain. It's very powerful. It's a very emotional series, so I wanted to know what you most wanted to convey through it emotionally, and if you had any favorite episodes or scenes?

Well, I was the director on Wolf's Rain, but the story writer was Keiko Nobumoto. However, I'm not sure if we had a very full communication about all that. When Nobumoto-san wrote the story, she was sort of intrigued by the two different aspects of wolves. Being noble, you know, the dignified existence of wolves in folklore and the very violent character of real wolves, and how it's a conflicting characterization. However, from a guy's point of view, I'm not sure that I would say I really understood her intention myself. So there were four wolves, the protagonists, and there were two male human pursuers, Hubb and Quent, and I had a greater understanding of their story. They had an episode, around 13 or 16, called Men's Lament, that was closest to me. So their episodes were probably my favorite.

So you've done a lot more original material than most directors, like Darker Than Black and World Conquest Zvezda Plot. It seems like it's hard to get original material made in anime, everything has to be an adaptation or a franchise of some kind. What was your experience in trying to get original material made?

So when you have an original work that's being adapted, everybody knows what the right direction and answer might be for the story. Even if there is a slight deviation in adaptation, everyone can kind of see what it should be. But when it comes to original work, nobody knows what the right answer might be. So during the course of production, there might be a question posed, and it's “wait, wait, wait, that might be the new direction.” When we finally settle in the area where everybody feels good about the direction, then the final work might end up being something that you have already seen before. So that's the biggest challenge we face.

There's a big shift between seasons of Darker Than Black. I find that people have reacted very strongly—either positive or negative—to the shift. I wanted to ask what the thinking was behind the big tone and story changes between Darker Than Black 1 and 2?

One thing that came up was "why make something the same?" Why make something similar in the continuation? Let's do something different. In the first season, there were quite a few things that could be difficult to understand. So kind of a change of tone would be good, maybe the protagonist in the first one was a bit too much of the rough, working guy. So why don't we put something like a little cute girl at the center of season 2, just something different. Another reason for this is that for audiences who got to know Darker Than Black from season 2 first, we wanted to make something that would make them interested in watching season 1. You know, they hadn't seen season 1 anyway, so why not learn about it by watching season 2 with this new protagonist?

Right, that's clever. Any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?

Right now there isn't a currently developing project that we can speak of, but we always have a lot going on in our heads.

Thanks to Anime Expo for this opportunity.

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