Interview: Garden of Sinners' Atsuhiro Iwakami and Hikaru Kondo

by Gia Manry,

Anime News Network: Let's start with your backgrounds. How did you get started in anime?

Hikaru Kondo (ufotable): I started out at Tokyo Movie Shinsha (currently known as TMS). After working on joint projects, I worked on Spiderman:The Animated Series, Animaniacs, among other things, and An American Tail. That was a tough one. The second [film] almost killed me.

Later, I moved to another place, and then established ufotable in 2000. I did a short film and anime which was shown in a TV program called Utaban, and I produced the opening for other variety shows. Then, I became involved with TV animation, and we produced shows like Dokkoida?! and Ninin ga Shinobuden. Since then, anime production has become our main product.

To name a few of our works that U.S. fans may know, there's the storyboard for the Blue Dragon videogame for the Xbox 360, storyboards for Super Smash Bros. for the Wii, storyboards for Grandia III, and then the Garden of Sinners series, our first time doing theatrical films.

Atsuhiro Iwakami (Aniplex): I started working on anime in 1997. The first anime that I produced was Kikaider. Since then. I've worked on a number of anime productions. In 2007, I produced Garden of Sinners with ufotable's Kondo-san.

ANN: What were your specific roles in the film series?

AI: Well, Kondo-san plays the role of investor and producer on the production committee, and he's also the producer at the studio, so he gets the credit for both roles. ufotable is responsible for the direction and development of the films, and my role is to put together the production committee by bringing the original works to somebody like ufotable, and to animation directors.

ANN: Garden of Sinners was originally a self-published novel project. Did that change how all the rights came together, in contrast to adapting a more traditionally-published work?

AI: I believe that this title symbolizes this era. The original work was a doujinshi, and then Kodansha gave it a major debut and published it, then it became animated. So I think that this title matches this time.

ANN: How did the project wind up as a film series rather than an OAV or a TV series?

AI: I brainstormed a lot with Kondo-san about which format would work the best. In the beginning, we discussed the possibility of making it a TV series, and many other possibilities. It was Kondo-san's idea to make Garden of Sinners into seven movie chapters.

ANN: There were some changes made between the original novels and the anime versions, particularly in chapter five (Oblivion Recorder). Why is that?

AI: Basically, it's hard to recreate the feeling that fans had when they read the original story word by word. We wanted to reflect what was "Garden of Sinners-like" in the film. The fifth chapter is a kind of side-story between two two-hour movies, the fourth and sixth chapters. We planned to make it more compact, so the chapter had to be altered somewhat.

ANN: Mr. Kondo, was it difficult to work with a series in which the chapters take place out of chronological order?

HK: Working out of chronological order wasn't that tough, but because we chose to make a film series, we wanted to create the films in such a way that viewers who haven't read the books could understand. By contrast, the Tales of Symphonia anime is based on a game, and we didn't worry too much about making people who hadn't played the games understand it because it was an OAV. But [with Garden of Sinners] we chose the movie format, so we did our best to make first-time fans understand and enjoy the films.

AI: U.S. fans may be confused while watching chapter one, but watching all the way through chapter seven they'll find out about the riddles and will understand the series in the end.

ANN: There's also an eighth chapter, Mirai Fukuin. Is there any chance of that being animated?

AI: We have no plans right now, but we hope to see it as an anime someday. That's how I feel.

ANN: The box set is pretty expensive, both in the U.S. and in Japan. What makes this series worth that much money?

AI: We wanted to give U.S. fans the same thing that we gave Japanese fans-- that was our original feeling. We know that in the U.S., DVDs are very cheap. But calculating the costs, we couldn't make the same package [at a more normal U.S. price] that we made in Japan. But we recognize the expense.

Translator (Aniplex's Yusuke Kodaka): How do Japanese fans react to the price?

AI: Of course it isn't cheap for Japanese fans, either. But we believe that Japanese fans feel that the product is worth the price. Kodansha published a two-volume Garden of Sinners [novel set] with a price of over 10,000 yen [about US$120]. The fans rated the packaging very highly... there's a feeling that it commemorates the completion of the series.

ANN: Could there be a cheaper release later, to reach people who are interested but aren't ready to spend that much money?

AI: Right now, we're not in any talks for it. As I said, currently US anime DVDs cost around the same price as Hollywood movie DVDs, right? Revenues cannot catch up with the popularity of Japanese anime in North America. We have built a relationship with Japanese fans and would like to [build the same relationship] with U.S. fans.

But we know that the anime programs that we produce aren't blockbuster hits like Hollywood movies and Pokémon. So we can make something interesting, but we can't price it like a popular Hollywood movie. At the same time, we understand that U.S. fans want a cheaper price. The situation is complicated.

HK: We want fans in the U.S. to enjoy the feeling they get when they receive the physical package. There should be a happy feeling that the package arrived at home.

ANN: There were reports that theaters used PlayStation 3s to screen the films. Do you know anything about that?

AI: There are theaters which stored and played the data - not Blu-ray - via PlayStation 3s. It's a high quality theatrical device because it's digital, so it could be even more beautiful than film.

ANN: There have also been some complaints from fans who felt the Blu-ray release looked more like an upscale than true high-definition.

AI: There isn't a big difference between the version shown at theaters and the version in the [physical] release, although some parts were cut.

ANN: Moving away from Garden of Sinners for the moment, a Japanese professor recently released a report that watching anime illegally via YouTube actually increases its DVD sales. What are your reactions to this?

AI: First of all, copyright is very important... it wouldn't be okay if anybody in Japan could watch a Hollywood movie right after its theatrical premiere. The people we call "fans" aren't motivated by making a profit. We feel their passion, that they really enjoy the anime. We would like to consider a solution that everyone could enjoy in a legal way.

HK: We released the Tales of Symphonia limited-edition DVD box set with bonus features for a price of about 8,000 yen (about US$97.85). It was different from the standard edition. We included a five-minute bonus feature for the fans who bought it. The feature was uploaded onto [Japanese video streaming site] Nico Nico Douga. We deleted it. But during the short period of time before we stopped it, it was accessed 100,000 times. I was shocked. You can say that uploading increases sales, but unless someone is spreading it or people expect it to be uploaded, you couldn't acquire such a high number of views.

ANN: So what are you working on these days now that Garden of Sinners is complete?

HK: We are working on [the TV anime adaptation of Type-Moon novel] Fate/Zero with [Gen] Urobuchi.

ANN: Where do you think anime is heading these days? Any trends on the horizon?

AI: I personally try not to worry about what trends will come and just do what I find interesting. For example, K-ON! and Hidamari Sketch - they're "slice of life"-type anime, which you may not know well here. I like them, but if the market is flooded with those shows, story-driven series like Madoka Magica may look more fresh. So I do what I think is interesting at that time.

ANN: Speaking of Hidamari Sketch and Madoka Magica, Hidamari creator Ume Aoki designed the characters for Magica. How did that happen?

AI: I asked her. Gen Urobuchi, who wrote the script for Madoka Magica, also wrote the Fate/Zero novel. He is an excellent storyteller. I expected that he'd write a serious story, so I thought I would like to feature Aoki-san's soft-looking characters to contrast it.

ANN: Mr. Kondo, how do you feel about upcoming anime trends?

HK: Well, what I like may not sell well! We have a staff of over 100 and we constantly talk. Whether they're young or not, whether they're main staff or not, everyone talks about what they want to do. We have employees who can exercise their talents.

We're currently working on Fate/Zero with the staff who did Garden of Sinners. That's what the producer wanted. The main director is Ei Aoki, who is a good fit for Fate/Zero. Other directors will also help each episode. I look forward to it. I expect that this will be a highly motivated TV anime.

We have [Tomonori] Sudo-san, who also worked on Garden of Sinners as a character designer, and [Atsushi] Ikariya-san, whose name was changed from Itagaki, as a key animator. He did a great job in Garden of Sinners, like the scene on the roof in chapter one and the battle scene in chapter seven. He has a lot of talent for drawing action scenes, but this time he's also doing character design. I'm sure it will make [Fate/Zero] stronger. We'll be happy if the title starts a trend after people see it.

ANN: ufotable operates its own café, right?

HK: Yes, we have two cafés. When we started the studio, our company's manifest included "food and drink." We also wanted to have people see our works and communicate with fans. So I made them both happen.

ANN: There were some problems with theft, though, weren't there?

HK: Ah, you know about that? Well, I want you to know that we upgraded the shelves and strengthened our security. We still want people to come see our drawings. We don't just show our works, but others' as well. It really gives us courage that can be reflected in our work. We see the people see our work and it motivates the staff.

ANN: You see people seeing the work? Can the staff see into the café while working?

HK: No, no one is drawing in the café. But it's also used as the staff cafeteria. Staff members get a discount on food.

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