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Interview: Dai Sato

by Rose Bridges & Jacob Chapman,

Dai Sato is one of anime's most prolific and accomplished screenwriters. He was the series composer for Eureka Seven and Ergo Proxy, and also wrote individual episodes for numerous series including Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Wolf's Rain, Eden of the East, and Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex. Sato frequently collaborates with legendary directors such as Shinichiro Watanabe and Kenji Kamiyama, and more recently, with Yuri!!! on Ice director Sayo Yamamoto on her previous series, Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine.

Dai Sato was a guest of honor at AnimeFest from August 17-20 in Dallas, Texas, where he held panels discussing his major works. We were fortunate enough to sit down with him and discuss his thoughts on writing for anime.

Eureka Seven was your first project as series composer, so how did that opportunity come about for you, and what was the process like building such a large-scale world as the head of story?

My very first experience with any kind of animation work was Cowboy Bebop. After it finished, some people who worked on that project split from that studio and became independent, forming Studio BONES. When BONES went independent from Sunrise, they invited me to join them, and from there Eureka Seven was eventually born. I worked with Tomoki Kyoda and Kenichi Yoshida to create this production ourselves, as the director, character designer, and with me as series composer. The whole idea behind it was that we were assigned the task of bringing robots alive into our own world. Everything else was up for interpretation between the three of us, so we basically went with our feelings and the ideas we had in our minds, then we put those concepts into the show as emotions we wanted the viewers to feel themselves. There was a lot of pressure at that time, because at the age of 35 in Japan, if we messed up, I would most likely never be a part of the anime industry again. So what we wanted to do was put forth 100% of our effort. If it had failed, I would have accepted that with a loss, but we went ahead and put all of our blood, sweat, and tears into the work we wanted to produce, and it worked out.

Eureka Seven has a very unique aesthetic that still stands alone to this day. What did you most want to bring to the super-robot genre through this story that you hadn't seen done before?

First of all, making the robots' movements realistic was very, very difficult. We wanted to show people things they'd never seen, like you've never seen a robot skateboard or go surfing. But the aesthetic of a robot's movements for these actions was very hard to imitate and very difficult to produce at the same time. There were other aspects to consider too, such as the robot being on Earth vs. in outer space. They all had different movements to consider and incorporate for those situations. So we started to try and implement the flight pattern of the robots into these actions as well. Whenever they take flight, we don't technically need to animate any walking motions on the body or any movement whatsoever, depending on the situation. So okay, there is technically an outer space person that already rides on a surfboard like that, you know Silver Surfer, right? (laughs) But nobody had done a robot yet, so! I wanted to implement skateboarding and surfing along with a few other ideas to grab that subculture rising in a younger generation. I have also gone skateboarding myself, so I know the exhilaration and thrill of it, and I wanted to incorporate that fun aspect, along with that sense of fashion and boy-meets-girl adventure to grab the attention of that dynamic group of people the show was made for.

How protective do you feel over a story like Eureka Seven when it evolves beyond your control? Do you ever find yourself reading or watching the spinoff material and thinking "oh I would have done that differently", or are you happy to set it free into other hands?

In terms of people making their own personal spinoffs, I don't feel much because I've already created my work. They're letting their imaginations run free and creating their work for themselves, so I don't have any issue with that whatsoever. Even if I were to have a problem with the actual spinoff material, technically the show was never in my control. When I was requested to do the work, they already had an outline they wanted me to go along with, so as far as that goes, it isn't really my own original project that came from my personal creativity. Of course we always have those little quirks as writers that became part of the work, but overall it was a pre-existing idea, and the director asked me to follow his guideline when writing scripts.

On that note, what brought you back to Eureka Seven's world to write the Hi-Evolution films, and what can we expect to see from them that we've never seen in Eureka Seven before?

When I was first working on Eureka Seven twelve years ago, at the end of it I felt like, "I'm finally done, this is perfect, this is great, it's good to go!" When I was told there would be another rebuild of Eureka 7 and got the request to script for it, I wanted to sit and think about completely rebuilding this from the ground up. There are going to be other people on the writing team, but I think I have a personal responsibility to see this through, so I'll be sticking with it from zero to a hundred. If Kyoda and Yoshida are both involved, I always want to participate as well.

Since you've worked with both of them many times now, how would you characterize your working relationships with Shinichiro Watanabe and Kenji Kamiyama? Do you come up with your own standalone episode pitches on these projects, are they assigned to you by the head of series composition, or is it a mixture of both?

Watanabe was the person who worked with me as I debuted in this field, and then Kamiyama came later on, but my relationship with both is similar. They're basically the main reason I work in anime now, they are my main support. They taught me everything I know, and they also built me up to where I am right now. They also showed me how fun making anime could be, and how much I could enjoy writing for it. Their existence in my life is very important to me, because they helped me become who I am today. Watanabe and Kamiyama have some very big similarities, and yet they are very different as well. It makes things more unique and fun when working with each of them. Watanabe really just goes with his instinct and feels the story out with his own emotions as it goes, versus Kamiyama planning every single step and thoroughly thinking about every detail, brainstorming every single function of the portion he's working on. That's the main difference between the two of them.

I usually have people coming with requests to work on a daily basis, but the creative aspect isn't quite there, because we are following pre-determined guidelines. Those projects are pitched and then assigned to me, rather than me pitching my own ideas. But it's a little different whenever I'm working with Watanabe or Kamiyama. We tend to have long conversations, even when I'm not a part of the product being discussed, we like to sit there and have fun and talk about "oh this is good, this is good" and just share opinions on everything. We tend to come to life when pitching our ideas and collaborating, rather than being hired or requested to do work by other people.

Looking back, what are your favorite episodes you've written for a Watanabe or Kamiyama series and why? Or even a standalone episode you've written for another director's series?

This is very difficult. I'm just going to go through and talk about my experiences with each person. So with Watanabe, I think without a doubt that Samurai Champloo was my best work with him to date. My favorite episode was when Mugen did his graffiti tagging in Hiroshima. I worked with Sayo Yamamoto on that episode, who is also here at AnimeFest as the director of Yuri!!! on Ice. With Kamiyama, it's probably going to be the first season of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. The Laughing Man episode was probably one of my favorites. The title of the episode was Chat Chat Chat, and there's this scene where they're all on the net and conversing with one another that I'm happy with. I'm honestly such a big fan of what Sayo Yamamoto's done recently. I admire the work her whole Yuri!!! on Ice team has done, and I love all the work she's ever done. I hope that I can work with her again soon.

In Cowboy Bebop's Brain Scratch episode and several episodes of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, you seemed interested in the cult-like power that television and the early internet had over people's thoughts. With the modern-day advent of social media, do you think this power over people has increased, or do you feel differently about society's relationship to technology now?

Looking at the U.S., this country is completely run by social media. Any ideas about Arab nations or others comes to people completely through social networking and blogging, things like that. So a lot of that complex comes from that root problem. So I would try to incorporate a message that way now, rather than thinking about the complex as a "cult-like power." The connection with technology that we have now is the speed with which information gets out and affects a lot of what goes on around us in the moment. I think we could do another Stand Alone Complex, incorporating what the world is like right now and bringing that all together to be part of a more current picture.

What inspired the creation of Ergo Proxy, and what did you learn from the experience of working on such an ambitious story?

That one's a little bit interesting. It just had a different nuance to it as a project. It's definitely "complex" is the best way that I could put it. The director, Shukou Murase, was originally working with us on Samurai Champloo, and he asked me soon afterward if I would like to work together with him on his next project at that same studio. That was the starting point for Ergo Proxy. I thought that project was a little too fast-paced. We had a lot of ideas and things we wanted to incorporate that we couldn't fit. They were looking to create an image somewhat like a darker breed of American superhero, which influenced most of the final work that was produced. Just as a comparison, right now you can see shows like Daredevil and Iron Fist on Netflix. I look at things like that now and think "You know what? This is the kind of feel that we wanted to go for."

There is an interesting contrast between philosophical contemplation and goofy humor in your work. How do you feel about these two very different types of writing? Is one easier or more satisfying than the other, and have your preferences as a writer changed over time at all?

I don't really get involved in comparing those two things myself, but "contemplation and goofy humor" is a really good phrase for this, actually! I think just having both a sense of humor and contemplation is really important, not just in writing a story but also in daily life. There's two ends to that spectrum, first you have the very serious portion where you're too in your own head, and on the other end you might be messing around too much, but right in-between is where you find human nature. The way that I want to portray humans is exactly in that place. I want to find a happy medium with a good balance between seriousness and good humor as well.

Which one is easier to write? Writing out that humorous and laughing portion is actually very difficult. It's hard to brainstorm. You're sitting there and writing, but you don't know how your fans will react. You don't know if they're just watching the joke or if they'll actually laugh. Although, of course, I hope they will laugh. There are a lot of things that go into making a person laugh, many factors such as personality, age, and the culture that the person is wrapped around. We need to consider all those factors simultaneously when creating comedy. You always have to keep in mind how a person is feeling. When you start incorporating those feelings into the idea that you have, then it tends to flow a bit easier and makes it easier to write out into words. Also, writing something difficult out in a very fun way can be quite a hurdle. I believe that I created Ergo Proxy with that image in mind.

Since you're one of the most prolific and successful anime writers working today, what advice do you have for people who want to write for animation themselves?

It's actually quite difficult to give such advice. Unfortunately, there aren't people who offer such guidance or schools who will teach you how to do things like this. So it's a really messed-up situation. There are a lot of people who want to enter this field who don't have a lot of direction. There are actually a lot of different ways to become a screenwriter. Many people start in the magazine or editorial business with anime and manga. From there, they talk to producers or directors, and then they transition to become a screenwriter, so it's important to get that kind of experience first. I also believe meeting the right person is very important, whether that be a director or producer. Just meeting that person can give you the right kind of incentive or support to start following that path.

I think that it's very important to know about anime, but it's also very important to realize what's around you in life. You need as much knowledge as you possibly can to hone your weapons as a writer. I recommend just trying to learn as much as you can not only about anime but also about real life, and incorporating that knowledge into the work that you produce. For me, music was that pathway, learning about different kinds of music was that starting weapon that I acquired. Now that I know about music, I can incorporate that into my screenwriting. Everyone should find their own personal thing that's not the same as everybody else, whether that be sports, fashion, health, music, or writing itself, just anything. But I recommend having a wide diversity of knowledge in order to be successful.

Thanks to AnimeFest for the opportunity.

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