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Excerpt: Mari Okada's 'From Truant to Anime Screenwriter'

Earlier this week, we published our exclusive interview with anime screenwriter Mari Okada, the voice behind anohana, Anthem of the Heart and a small mountain of instantly-recognizable works. 2018 is really shaping up to be Okada's year - in addition to her directorial debut (Maquia - When the Promised Flower Blooms opens internationally this year), we're also getting Okada's biography, From Truant to Anime Screenwriter: My Path to anohana and Anthem of the Heart, which released this week in English from JNovel Club. The following is an exclusive excerpt from the book.

Chapter 10: From DTV Films to Anime

The direct-to-video film company that was kickstarting my career essentially bought my scripts off me.

Regardless of what medium you're working in, screenwriting is the kind of job where you receive a brief: “I want a script for X with Y kinds of features.” You submit several ideas based on the specifications, and after the general thrust of the story is decided, you start writing the outline of the entire plot. When that gets approved, you write the script and revise it based on the feedback you get from the other people involved in the project. When the final script is nailed down, you get paid. The job can only move on to the next stage when everybody reaches a consensus, so unless there are extreme circumstances, the script will eventually be used after its problems have been smoothed out.

But when your script is bought off from you wholesale, it's a different story. Nobody brainstorms ideas with you or offers feedback on the plot outline. You write the entire script from scratch, by yourself, and if it's deemed interesting, then you'll get paid straight away, no questions asked. But if your script is lacking, it will just get scrapped. You're almost never given any leeway to revise the script. Unless the script is fine as is (sans a few minor changes), all of your work will go to waste.

You could write piles of scripts a week, and it would be a miracle if even one of them was accepted. The pay was low, too, so a lot of other screenwriters would be housewives or have jobs in other fields. This line of work was filled with people in stable careers elsewhere. But every time my script was accepted, I'd get money, even if it was only a few thousand yen at a time. Regardless of what it meant for my career, I loved this feeling of having my work accepted.

I was living in a one-room apartment with my boyfriend and sharing the rent with him, but even then I still found it difficult to make ends meet. A friend from work introduced me to a tape-transcribing job, which filled in some of the gaps. A magazine writer would record interviews, and I would write down what was said so that it could get turned into an article. It seemed that there weren't enough people to do transcription; the job had a high turnover rate. I was able to earn far more money doing this than I ever did with the DTV films.

At first, I was told not to change a single word or phrase; I just had to write the words down exactly as I heard them. If I extended that to the pauses and filler words, however, they'd get mad at me. As I got more used to the job, I'd add some of my own touches even in the transcription stage. I was also allowed to change around the order of some lines or locations to make the conversation flow better on paper. This was difficult but also very fun. I was just making changes to the material for an article, of course, but I felt as if I were writing a script about people who were living in the real world.

Eventually, I was given work writing CD dramas and manga, seeing as I was “the writer person” and all. At the time, there was a games and anime bubble, and a lot of unrelated industries were starting to break into the otaku industry. They'd launch plans to release CD dramas and books based on games and manga without really understanding their appeal. At this point, I, a newbie writer and a total country bumpkin with no life experience, would show up. “I don't care if I don't get paid much. I love anime, games, and manga. I can even write porn. Eheheheh,” I'd say with a stupid grin. At any rate, they must have figured they may as well throw me this job that they didn't quite comprehend.

What would actually happen was that I would get the job and then complain about how cheap and bad the conditions were, and then some other writer would go take it. So the scripts I wrote wouldn't get used, and I wouldn't get paid either. Just when I thought I'd lost contact with the company I'd taken the job from, I'd get a fax from my creditors. I also learned afterward that the middleman would take a 60% cut.

Having started as a freelancer when I was so much more ignorant about society than the average person my age, I was obviously going to get scammed. I had no company or authorities who could vouch for me. Looking back, I got into a lot of hairy situations that I'm surprised I managed to get through intact. Every time I think about that, I remember what I was told: “If you go to Tokyo, you'll get hoodwinked and die.”

I'd thought that someone as cynical about others as I was couldn't possibly get hoodwinked.

But I'd keep jumping headfirst into these situations that looked like I was getting exploited to everyone but myself. “I'm not getting hoodwinked,” I'd insist. “It might be a bit shady, but I'm doing it because I want to, so don't worry.” It was totally the same thing.

Honestly, I was having fun.

For a while after I moved to Tokyo, everything looked fresh to my eyes. Ah, I'd think. I'm finally able to live in “the outside world.” But half a year passed, and then a year—eventually I got used to the daily grind. I thought the outside world would be more extravagant than this, I found myself thinking. I'd felt that the outside world would be full of thrilling and emotionally striking events. And to think I used to squeal in glee just from buying sweets from the convenience store at midnight...

Being embroiled in a roller coaster life stemming from my poverty made me think, So this is what the outside world is like! Amazing!

I didn't—couldn't—choose my jobs. There were many people around me who even those in the industry urged me to stay away from. There'd be plenty of reasons: they wouldn't pay up, they were connected with seedy things, or maybe they simply had difficult personalities to deal with... The word “outlaw” has a romantic appeal, but these people went way off the rails of what is proper in society. They would cause problems from time to time, and those problems would even affect me.

The only thing we had in common was that they weren't choosy about their jobs, either. The relative qualities of a job were merely decided by those around us, while the person choosing the job was really the ultimate judge. There were the speculating types: “People say that this job over there is good, but this one right here will improve over time.” There were also the artist types: “I just want to stick with what I like doing.” And within that subset, there were people who completely stifled their ego: “As long as I'm guaranteed the minimum income, I'm fine with any kind of job.” They really lived up to the idea that “there are no ranks in business,” and their skills as individuals were incredibly polished.

They'd refuse jobs that were appealing, and then when they started drinking, they'd grumble, “I'll turn it all around.” They'd complain about their old friends who had turned famous; yet at the end, they'd talk about a bright future with sparkling eyes, so I'd find myself feeling moved by their words, too.

Even these days, I have a bad habit of working on projects of dubious origin that didn't look as if they would take off, simply because I thought they looked interesting. And the results would be painful. The people around me would often caution me, saying, “Why did you accept that job?” But I think it was because the men back then had such beautiful dreams.

There was just one thing that I found painful to talk about with those men: they often got to talking about their school days. Looking back, I think they must have been showing regard for me in their own way. They hadn't known what to talk about with a young girl, so they brought up a topic where we could all compare our different experiences of school in an effort to bridge the generation gap.

I never talked about how I didn't go to school.

If I couldn't even fully come out in front of my fellow truants at the game school, then how could I say it to the people at work?

“Ahh, she never went to school. That's why her work is like this.”

By “this” it could be, for instance, “The school parts are unrealistic,” or “Every character is in pain.” Besides commenting on my writing, they could say things like, “She's always so suspicious,” or “I can't trust her work.” Anyway, I thought that if they found out I was a truant, it would have a negative impact on my job.

Not only that, I worried that all the goodwill they'd built up toward me would turn into loathing.

Whenever the subject of our student lives came up, I'd always answer vaguely. At these times, I'd think about the school events I'd participated in long ago, solely because I thought it would make me sound like I'd attended school properly in years to come. These experiences came in very handy. I talked about the friends I hung out with outside of school, like Isoda and Yoko. Also, if I supplemented those stories with the things those girls had told me about their own school experiences, then I could more or less make out that I had gone to school.

Eventually, something unbelievable sprouted from my tape transcription job.

The person I was helping became the series composer of an anime, but he couldn't touch-type. By then, computers were already in wide use, and even in the anime industry, people preferred typed scripts over handwritten ones.

So I was asked to type this person's handwritten manuscript. He also wanted me to type everyone's opinions, right down to each minute detail, so he asked me to come to the script meetings, too. I might not have been writing my own screenplay, but I'd always admired the anime industry and was delighted to take on a job in that field.

The first anime script meeting I ever participated in had a profound impact on me.

There were over ten people at the meeting, including the director, series composition writer, the producers, the individual episode scriptwriters, the people designing the setting, the people doing the promotion, and other roles I didn't clearly grasp. All the DTV films, CD dramas, and games I'd worked on before then had usually involved a one-on-one meeting with just the producer or editor. At most, there would only be around four people. And now, there were so many people all of a sudden. I'd thought that screenwriting was a job that didn't involve much face-to-face interaction with other people, but it turned out that I was hugely mistaken.

As for the meeting itself, it had moments where everyone talked at once, and it also had times where people would engage in laid-back small talk for a while. The anime in question would be an original road trip story. The plot involved a lot of new characters and locations, so there was a chronic lack of material to work with. Everyone exchanged ideas for each episode, but I thought that I didn't have any right to speak, seeing as I was just here to assist the series composition writer. Even when I had ideas I thought might be good, I kept my mouth shut.

My thoughts must have shown on my face, because the director, Tetsuro Amino, took notice of me. “You want to be a screenwriter,” he said. “So write down your ideas.”

Delighted, I threw myself into writing those ideas. When Amino saw them, he said without any hesitation:

“These are all great. Do you want to try writing some screenplays?”

At that moment, I got goosebumps.

I devoted myself to writing a screenplay. At the meeting, most of the people would judge whether my ideas could be used right then and there. And the person who lay at the heart of the debate was the director, Amino.

Amino's feedback differed a lot from what the other people said. Even when everyone else approved of an idea, he would worry about whether it was “too anime-ish” to be received well, and would end up rejecting almost everything. On the other hand, when the other people said that certain emotional expressions wouldn't translate well to anime, he would say, “I quite like it,” and let it pass.

Meetings with Amino felt like a Zen dialogue. He would let everyone else express their way of thinking, and then at the very end, he'd mutter his own opinion: “Hmm? Shouldn't it be more like this?” Just like that, everyone in the room would get caught up in his tempo. Each and every time, I'd find myself thinking, “Mr. Amino is so deep!” I also watched his other projects. They may have been children's anime, but they touched me to the core. “This is really amazing,” I'd find myself saying, entranced. A lot of people had helped me with my writing, but I'd never met anyone I could call my “master” when it came to screenplay writing... no, storytelling. I suppose it was like imprinting. Whatever it was, I became a devout believer in the Church of Amino.

At the same time, I was stunned by how exorbitant the process of making anime was. These days, there's usually only one party to celebrate the final completion of the anime, which is factored into the budget, but in those days, the staff got together for three drinking parties: one each for the beginning, middle, and end of the project. The episode directors, animators, voice actors, sound engineers, and marketing people would be there, all talking passionately amongst each other. Listening to them, it really struck me how everyone was fighting their own battles in this place.

This should go without saying, but when it comes to anime, each and every cut is the fruit of everyone's labor. Nothing is the result of nature. In the world of anime, even the backgrounds won't exist unless somebody draws them. The characters, too, are made up of their written personalities, with the acting expressed through the animation as well as their voices. Every member of the staff gets together and brings those characters to life. It is hard for anything in an anime to simply sprout into being and turn out surprisingly well for it. When the entire staff pours their all into the anime, there is enough intensity to blow any idea of coincidence out of the water. Anime really is an amazing medium to work in, I thought.

A few people came to talk to me when they realized that I was a writer. They'd offer me their opinions from various different angles: “When I was working on the storyboards, I thought the lines you wrote were great. They got me pumped up,” someone would say, while another person said, “Your way of writing makes it hard to understand the director's intent. You should write more like this.”

Under the director's command, everyone applies themselves to what they do best. Then the director assembles the results of everyone's passions and turns it into a cohesive product. To me, who had always been aware of how bad I was at dealing with people even as I longed for human connection, even the backstage world of anime was utterly enchanting.

Finally, the air date of the episode I worked on came. I sat in the seiza position in front of the TV and clapped when my name appeared in the credits. I thought about how much I wanted to work with Amino again. I wanted to become an anime screenwriter. I wanted to be a member of that workplace.

But that was all I thought at the time.

If I wanted to become an anime screenwriter, I had to solicit the producers to give me a job next time.

But I couldn't do that. I lacked an essential skill among newbie freelance writers: the ability to market myself. My more experienced acquaintances in the industry would bitterly tell me that I could get jobs simply because I was young and female, so I'd resisted the idea of plugging myself.

The anime world is very egalitarian, all things said and done. Newbies and veterans receive the same amount of compensation for a script they write. Since it was so cheap, begging would get you nowhere. My screenplays were not good enough that people would ask me to write for them. And if plugging yourself was also not looked upon kindly, then there was no way that I could receive work.

Even when I was doing other jobs, I couldn't get anime out of my brain. I'd get a sinking feeling in my stomach when anime came on the TV, and I found myself changing the channel as a reflexive response.

It was around this time that I fell into a slump for the first time in my life.

When I was writing for DTV films, I thought I'd be approaching it the same way as before, but then I'd get told that my writing was “too anime-ish.” On the other hand, I'd get told that my work was “not anime-ish enough” when I wrote manga and CD dramas. I'd periodically receive games-writing work, but even then I was told that screenwriters chicken out straight away because they don't have any willpower. I'd take that as an affront and stick with the company, declaring, “I definitely won't chicken out!” I was working on all these jobs indiscriminately, but no matter which medium I was working in, I'd get told that I wasn't writing what they were looking for. I became a writer stuck in limbo, whose work didn't fit in anywhere.

In the midst of these stressful days, one of the guys who wasn't picky about his jobs approached me with some work. “Do you want to try this out?” he said.

It was the anime job I'd been hoping for.

This was the age of the anime bubble, when the moe genre was booming. The anime I worked on was about a boy who owned twelve pets that came back to life as human girls after they died in order to express their gratitude to him—quite a cutting-edge new-age project. The reason this job came to me was because there weren't any freelance writers attached to the project.

Due to various circumstances, I ended up writing the entire screenplay by myself. The opening episodes were adapted from the manga, but the later episodes were almost entirely original. Despite being a newbie, I was given the freedom to write these episodes how I liked. The director, Kazuhiro Ochi, was incredibly passionate; he appraised every script I wrote seriously, even though I was just a young girl, and whenever I wrote something he approved of, he praised me quite earnestly. All the production assistants were around my age, too, so this became a project that I could get personally invested in, in more ways than one. I felt as if I'd finally found what I was looking for.

The anime had the most ridiculous premise, but the characters grew on me over time. I couldn't stop myself from writing about them, to the extent that I felt frustrated about how the script meetings only happened once a week. The animation and direction were also wonderful. Some of the voice actors at the recording sessions were still in elementary school, and they'd call me “the story lady.” Out of all the names I'd been called in my life, I thought that one was the loveliest.

I was the story lady.

This was enough to make me forget all the depressing and gloomy experiences in my life, and it put me under the illusion that I was a forward-looking and emotionally healthy individual. The entire world looked so kind to me; I found myself willing to believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity.

The screenplay work ended, and the broadcast began. I teared up at the sheer finesse of the first episode, even though I'd seen the completed version many times before. Cheerfully, I searched up the internet reactions, thinking that everyone who saw it must have enjoyed it, too.

The next moment— My chest was pierced with shock. I couldn't breathe. My eyes were fixed on the words written there:

“Piece of shit writer. She should just die.”

Back then, I knew nothing of “the circumstances” around animation, particularly late night anime. This anime already had fans of the manga following it long before it actually aired. There were already quite a few haters, too.

This had been a hyped up title from the start. I'd had no inkling of that. The very first title I'd been involved in was an original anime, and—much as I hate to say this—it was a minor title. So the people who actually watched it were genuinely interested in it. I found almost nothing about it when I searched for it online, and the few blogs I did come across had very positive impressions.

This time, 99% of the impressions were critical.

Some of them were haters of the manga, which had nothing to do with me. But some of the longtime fans also expressed vitriolic opinions. Most of that was related to the changes the anime had made to the source material. The screenplay I wrote had betrayed the people who loved the manga.

I was so excited about this project that I'd poured so much love and affection into that I was completely defenseless against these negative reviews. It was the first time I'd ever been in this situation, and it happened without any warning. This wasn't like the persecution complex I had in my truant years, when my mind inflated the negative aspects of every little thing. These were words that were right there on my monitor.

I was normally such a crybaby, but this time, no tears came out of me. Those words had triggered an entirely different feeling in me than mere “sadness” or “frustration,” which I could more or less control.

Somebody wanted me to die.

Even after the broadcast started, the voice recording sessions still went on.

It was a ridiculously sunny day. The recording studio was a fifteen-minute walk away from the station. I'd barely slept since the first episode aired, so my mind was in a haze. I wondered how I should face the director and the rest of the staff from now on. The word “die” kept swirling in the back of my mind. The piercing sunlight made everything look white, and I squatted down, peering through my knees.

Somehow, I got to the studio, but I felt so sick in the stomach that I couldn't walk inside. I walked around the site a few times until I could scrounge up the courage, all the while picturing the gloomy expressions on each and every person's faces. However, I was taken aback by what I found.

Everyone was smiling at me and saying that I did great.

The criticism had to have bothered them—I wasn't the only one who got lambasted. More precisely, it had to have hurt to see their work ridiculed. Puzzled, I wondered if they weren't looking at the internet reactions. Still, I'd be lying if I said their smiles didn't cheer me up a little bit. I decided not to talk about the issue.

After that, I stopped looking for reactions on the internet. Still, I had the frightening thought that someone from somewhere was hoping for me to die, which caused me to rapidly lose weight. I called this “The Unhappiness Diet,” and it was the only good thing to come out of the entire painful experience.

Somehow, I managed to while away the time until a few more episodes of the series had aired. When I showed up at the recording studio for the sound mixing, a change had come upon my surroundings.

The staff members were smiling as usual, but their smiles were different from before. They were extremely natural and warm. “Did you check online?” they asked me. “When you get home, you should check straight away.”

This made me restless. As soon as the sound mixing ended, I jogged back home. Judging from their smiles and the context, something good must have happened. Yet some part of me could not believe it.

I searched the name of the anime.

The criticisms were still there, of course, but now there were comments saying, “This show has gotten good,” and “I liked it” alongside them. Somebody also wrote, “I don't get why, but this moved me to tears.”

At that moment, I couldn't breathe, just like when I saw those comments telling me to die. Then I lost my energy and slid off my chair. I squatted down and clung to my chair, and for the first time since the anime started, I began to cry.

I cried and cried out of happiness.

I almost always cry to exhaust my frustration and sadness. It was so rare for me to cry out of happiness—not to mention it was my first time actually wailing aloud. As I cried my eyes out, some part of me wondered if sad tears and happy tears tasted differently. I tried licking my tears, and they really did taste differently from usual.

“Wow, tears of happiness aren't salty!” I shouted in glee.

At the same time, I felt something keenly: everyone works together to make anime.

Everyone involved in the project can feel the same pain and agony. That was why everyone could feel the same intense happiness together, too. The same thing went for the people watching the anime; if they were to cry tears of happiness, I wouldn't be able to stop crying, either.

I wanted to become an anime writer. To make it happen, my overly self-conscious nature could bug off.

Firm in my resolve, I fished out my business card case, found Amino's email address on his business card, and sent him an original screenplay. As my stomach churned with a sense of nervousness that I hadn't experienced since sending my first porn script to the DTV film company, I wrote the body of my email:

“Hello, it's been a while. Do you remember me? This is Okada, the writer.”


Our thanks to J-Novel Club for arranging this excerpt.

Excerpt of: From Truant to Anime Screenwriter: My Path to “anohana” and “The Anthem of the Heart

by Mari Okada

Translated by Kim Morrissy

Edited by Kris Swanson

Copyright © 2017 Mari Okada

All rights reserved.

Original Japanese edition published in 2017 by Bungeishunju, Ltd.

This English edition is published by J-Novel Club LLC, under the license granted by Mari Okada, arranged in Japan through Bungeishunju, Ltd., Tokyo

English translation © 2018 J-Novel Club LLC

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