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Interview: Wit Studio

by Kyle Cardine,

When Wit Studio announced that President and CEO George Wada, manga artist Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, director Hiro Kaburagi, and scriptwriter Ryota Kosawa would be appearing at Anime Expo 2019, questions were raised as to what was bringing all these creatives together. What exactly would the character designer for Neon Genesis Evangelion, the director of Hozuki's Coolheadedness, a live-action scriptwriter, and the studio behind Attack on Titan possibly be working on? The answer was Great Pretender, a globetrotting heist series that is set to release in 2020 on Fuji TV's +Ultra block. At their Anime Expo panel, Wit Studio screened the first episode of the series for a special world premiere.

Great Pretender follows Makoto Edamura, a con man who is said to be “Japan's greatest swindler.” One day, after trying to pickpocket a foreigner, Edamura finds that all of his money was stolen instead. Chasing the man down all the way to Los Angeles (which includes a shot of an “IN-Z-OUT BURGER” sign while the plane lands), he learns the foreigner is Laurent Thierry, a French con man who has ties to international criminal organizations. After Edamura follows Thierry and thwarts his big drug deal, Edamura gets tied up and left to die on the famous Hollywood sign, playing into the first promotional image for the series.

Great Pretender sets itself up to be an international adventure, with “Shanghai” and “Singapore” teased in the end credits sequence. Most interestingly, almost a third of the episode is spoken in English between Edamura and Thierry. While there were still some lines that were not quite understood, it was impressive to hear a lot of the dialogue spoken in a second language. One can imagine the voice cast will have to learn and speak some other languages for wherever the story takes them.

After the premiere, members of the creative staff gave some comments about the upcoming series. Sadamoto, announcing that the show would have 23 episodes, talked about how he tried to develop a diverse cast. “This is a story that's closer to reality that I've worked in before,” Sadamoto said. “I had to design the characters considering each ethnicity because it's an international story. I really thought since this will be a long run, I wanted the audience to love each character.”

Kosawa commented that he was intrigued in creating a story about criminals, particularly how they alter the realities of the world around them. “I wanted to create a story about con men because in today's world we have so much information running around us and it's hard to tell what is true and false,” Kosawa said. “These characters are making the false info more true. It will be interesting for everyone in that world.” Kosawa also added that In-n-Out was his favorite restaurant.

Kaburagi does a good job at having a good sense of place with the setting, despite saying he never had any experience with Los Angeles at the panel. “I actually have never been to LA, so I relied on Google,” Kaburagi said. “Now I'm trying to see if I'm right. You might find something that's not right, but it's anime so just enjoy it.” Even with just using search engine references, Kaburagi nailed the LA traffic situation with the characters being stuck on what looked like the 405 in one scene.

Music composer Yutaka Yamada, known for his work on the Tokyo Ghoul series, joined the panel and emphasized the extra work he was putting into making a unique jazz fusion soundtrack for the series. He added that he just moved to LA and that he was recording the soundtrack in both in Los Angeles and New York.

Maiko Okada, an animation producer for Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, also joined the panel to talk about her role. Okada said she was aware that Wit Studio was known for more zombie-like stories recently, but hoped that making something more modern and original would be a good challenge for the studio.

Anime News Network had a chance to sit down with Kaburagi, Sadamoto, Kosawa and Wit Studio President George Wada after the screening.

ANN: Could you first introduce yourself and describe your role on Great Pretender?

Sadamoto: I'm the main character designer, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. Once the project outline was done, I was asked to join on and that's how I became involved.

Kaburagi: I'm the director, Kaburagi. I was invited onto this project by my good friend George Wada. I put a lot of motivation into this and looking back it was very fun.

Wada: I'm the President of Wit Studio, George Wada. Great Pretender is an original anime that started production in July 2016. We're looking forward to what this becomes.

Kosawa: I'm the screenwriter Ryota Kosawa. Usually, I am the screenwriter for TV and film, but this is the first time on an original anime series. I was the screenwriter for all 23 episodes.

Where did the idea for Great Pretender begin?

Wada: Wit Studio worked on a lot of zombie-themed anime between Attack on Titan and Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress. We wanted to start this new project by looking at something more fun, more scalable, and that's one of the reasons behind this idea.

Kosawa: I was contacted by Mr. Wada about this. My first thought was I wanted to create the kind of exciting, fun anime I remember watching as a kid. Something I can be nostalgic about. I felt like this should be an adventure story that takes place on the world stage. All over the world, you have phishing scams and all types of scammers that are doing terrible stuff. We thought it would be an interesting element to incorporate that in this adventure story.

For Sadamoto-san: In the panel, you emphasized the importance of creating many characters with different backgrounds since Great Pretender is an international story. What kind of things did you consider when diversifying the cast? What references did you use?

Sadamoto: First, I have to do a really deep reading of the screenplay. I read it very deeply and over and over until I get some concrete, real visuals that come up. Then I start imagining what this is going to turn into. Of course, I reference some existing works out there. Then in our discussions with staff, their real-life experiences, we come up with these different ideas. We're also doing some research and what we want it to look like, from all these different sources. Finally, we come with a concrete image.

What specifically did you reference in regards to character background?

Sadamoto: That's a great question. For example, if we're creating this mafia meeting scene, we're looking at mafia pictures and film, and things like that so we get an impression. Then based on our impressions we take what we feel like is going to serve our series and recreate that in our own style.

For Kaburagi-san: You said at the panel you have never been to Los Angeles before making Great Pretender. Now that you are here, how accurate do you think you were?

Kaburagi: There are so many people. It's very cold inside the buildings. The food is also very good.

Sadamoto: The image is that LA is very hot and that hasn't been our experience.

Kaburagi: This is after the fact, but being here in LA, I've seen some aspects I think I would have picked up on if I knew before and maybe put more of it into [the show] and make it a bit more realistic.

For example?

Kaburagi: I wanted to go into Dodgers Stadium and buy a hot dog. But I didn't have time. I did eat a double-hamburger, but wish I had more experience with what the food is like.

Much of the episode is actually spoken in English. How did you direct that?

Kaburagi: Our staff isn't that good in English, so during the dubbing process we had to hack through our instructions. From a native speaker's perspective it might be like “really, that's what you want me to say?” But I think we got it done and it turned out well. We had to put a lot of practice into it. We would practice for a really long time, and say “now we're going to get the takes!” Then we would start. It was long and tedious, but it worked out ok.

Are you making the voice actors practice other languages for when the characters go to different countries? For example, Singapore and Shanghai?

Kaburagi: Yeah, we did have three or four other cities we included, so we wanted to include the local languages as well. But with Singapore we thought English is good enough. In Shanghai, we did try to incorporate the local Chinese.

For Kosawa-san: You said in the panel that you were a “rookie” at anime. How are you transferring your skills in writing live action into Great Pretender?

Kosawa: I think I headed into this project approaching it as if it were a live-action screenplay. In terms of creating real-life conversation, I think I borrowed a lot from my live-action screenwriting experience. Then just creating dynamic and interesting characters. Another area where my live-action screenwriting experience is relevant is when you're writing a screenplay for live-action, you want to reach a wide audience. You want to reach women, men, old, young; a very diverse audience. Traditionally in anime, you're going for the otaku; the core anime fans. I feel like there's also room to expand to those fans who haven't really seen the light and haven't felt the pleasure of watching anime. I wanted to expand this to those people as well. I think that also allowed me to leverage my experience.

You also said in the panel that In-N-Out was your favorite restaurant. What's your order?

Kosawa: I wasn't able to go this time, but when I went last time years ago I didn't even know how to order anything. Whatever came, I ate it, and it was good.

For Wada-san: You've emphasized the importance of the international audience of anime before. Is that why you are trying to make an international adventure show like Great Pretender?

Wada: I want to reach audiences outside of just Japan with [Great Pretender]. I want to reach a worldwide audience. Because of that, we didn't want to just incorporate Japan as scenery. We want to incorporate a worldwide stage. We also wanted to show people a lot of Japan because we want people to see it and be excited to come to Japan as well. We tried to make it all inclusive including Japan and several other worldwide cities.

How do you maintain a work-life balance at Wit Studio for its employees?

Wada: It's tough. It's really tough, but what's key is that it's a fun job. We're creating this really enjoyable work that we're going to put out in the world. On the emotional side, you have to keep a positive outlook. It helps for it to be fun work. The other thing in terms of keeping a work-life balance or surviving that intensive work is that you have to have a team. Those are the two keys. It gives us so much motivation and inspiration to hear the opinions and feedback from fans. We try to participate in events where we get that live feedback. If there are articles that are written, we try to make sure we communicate that information to our staff because that gives them some courage and also gives them motivation.

For everyone: Do you have anything you would like to add in regards to Great Pretender?

Sadamoto: I can't wait for our fans to watch this. I give you this advice: wait for it. In reading the screenplay, it dawned on me that it got more and more interesting. Even if it's slow at the beginning, it will pick up towards the end. We hope we can get everyone's support because we'd like to work on more. And the more support we have, the more chances we have to do that.

Kaburagi: I agree with Sadamoto-san, but there are parts of this series that weren't in the screenplay that we picked up on, like queues from the location. We tried to incorporate those little hints and tidbits just out of reference. Even if the audience watches it one time, they may enjoy it in one way. But if they watch it a second time, they may pick up on the new things that are beyond the story. I hope people can enjoy it in that way. We hope to make something that people can enjoy many times and still be interesting.

Kosawa: It's funny because it's a story about scammers, but it's not a dark story. It's not depressing. I think young viewers can watch it, reflect on their own life and still be very excited. It's not going to depress them. We made this into a story that's still about a dark topic, but still very fun.

Wada: At Wit Studio, we're taking out all the stops to create a reliable staff. For example, we're working with Hirotaka Katō, who's the general producer. We're also working with Takeda-san from Bamboo studio. We've gone out of our way to create a reliable staff and put out excellent content. We hope to have fan support in future projects as well.

Our thanks to Wit Studio, George Wada, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, Hiro Kaburagi, Ryota Kosawa and Anime Expo for the opportunity.

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