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Interview: Atsuhiro Iwakami

by Gia Manry,

Please note that questions and answers which contain spoilers for the Puella Magi Madoka Magica anime series are clearly marked with "[SPOILER]".

AnimeNewsNetwork: Who is the audience for Puella Magi Madoka Magica? Visually it has a sort of "little girl" aesthetic, but of course it's darker and more sophisticated than magical girl shows aimed at children. Is it for hardcore otaku? For adults who grew up with magical girl shows?

Atsuhiro Iwakami: The main target we had in mind was the general anime fan. That's what the director [Akiyuki Shinbo] and I discussed; it's why we used the romaji font and brought in [character designer] Ume Aoki. But after the show was broadcast, it felt like the viewership turned out to be broader than we had initially anticipated.

ANN: Was the popularity of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha at all a factor in your decision to take the magical girl genre and twist it in this fashion?

AI: Certainly we had it in mind; I'd seen Nanoha and of course [Madoka] director Shinbo was in fact the director for season one of Nanoha. We had also seen shows like Pretty Cure and Minky Momo. But we didn't do Madoka as an antithesis to these shows; it was purely based on the idea of what would it be like to do a dark story on a magical girl stage.

ANN: When coming up with the show, did you ever draw upon your own childhood memories of shows you watched?

AI: Not directly, although I had been watching Minky Momo and I do have a fondness for having a main character whose hair is pink...but that's just a coincidence.

ANN: During the Madoka Q&A session at Otakon you mentioned that Madoka writer Gen Urobuchi had specific policies about what Madoka's family background should be like— did he have other policies along those lines?

[SPOILER]AI: Well, Urobuchi wanted to lay down the rules for the magical girl setting, and there is a story there...during production Shinbo became quite fond of Sayaka, so he asked Urobuchi if it would be possible to bring her back to life. Urobuchi said no, that's it wasn't possible according to the rules set for the magical girls. Also as I mentioned in the Q&A, [production designer Gekidan] Inu Curry was very detailed about the settings for the witches and determined what kind of magical girls they were before they became witches.

[SPOILER]ANN: Madoka is kind of a risky show, featuring such young characters in a dark and deadly setting; was it difficult to get any of the sponsors or staff on board for it?

[SPOILER] AI: No; the story of Madoka is serious but it's not entirely inappropriate for children. For example, there's nothing sexually explicit in it. There's some death, but it's not gratuitous; it can be explained within the context of the story.

ANN: There are currently several manga adaptations and spinoffs of Madoka, as well as a novel series. Do you foresee other spinoffs coming out based in the same world? Would you want to animate them?

AI: There aren't currently any plans for the spinoffs, no.

[SPOILER] ANN: Kyubey turns out to be a sort of sinister character, but he has an adorable appearance. Whose idea was that contrast?

[SPOILER] AI: Kyubey is Urobuchi's creation. The mash-up of cuteness and darkness is the central theme to Madoka, and Kyubey is an epitome of that theme.

ANN: At the Q&A you also mentioned that you had asked Urobuchi specifically to write something "heavy." How much guidance do you offer on the creation process?

AI: I was the one who said "let's do a show using these creative talents." But after that I don't matter much; it's up to those talents to do their work. If something comes to a stand-still I might intervene, but they did an excellent job and I was very happy seeing the results in episode one. When I saw the character designs that Aoki did, it was exactly what I was hoping for, so everything was in the hands of the creative team.

ANN: Do "stand-stills" happen often during production?

AI: There was almost none of that for Madoka. The opening song "CONNECT" was something that I did intervene in, to have it made into what it is now versus what it was originally.

ANN: Do you ever wish you had stepped in at a time when you didn't?

AI: Well, the script was actually done three years ago, and it was only because of scheduling issues at Shaft that delayed the production, and that was unplanned. Otherwise I think that the show came out on time and in a way I can be happy about.

ANN: The last two episodes were delayed due to the March 11 earthquake. Can you talk about that experience? What was it like in the studio at that time?

AI: The studio had been making each episode on an ongoing basis, exactly on schedule for broadcast, so there was never any room for disruptions. After the earthquake some staff members were very shaken. Even if the TV station had said that they would go ahead with the regular broadcast schedule we probably wouldn't have been ready.

But a week went by, and two weeks went by, and the staff started saying that they couldn't stay in shock forever, that they had to keep on going, and then production continued.

[SPOILER] ANN: The series ends by demonstrating that through selflessness, people can get through difficult situations. Does that idea hold a stronger meaning now, seeing everyone working together after the earthquake?

AI: That synchronicity with reality wasn't something that was planned, but I did feel that as a member of the viewership.

ANN: You mentioned earlier that you were pulling together a strong team to create a show, and that it's part of your job. You've worked with some people multiple times, such as Urobuchi and [music composer Yuki] Kajiura. Would you say that you're building your own 'dream team'?

AI: Madoka is an original story, so coming up with a high-quality piece of entertainment the major goal. I left it up to director Shinbo to employ the creative talents to do the actual production work. That would be different if a show were based on a preexisting story; then the task would be to enhance the existing story. As a producer the job is different depending on the title.

ANN: Is there anyone in the anime industry that you'd really like to work with but haven't had the opportunity yet?

AI: That's a vexing question because my favorite creator wouldn't necessarily be the kind of creator I want to work with. So that's a difficult question!

ANN: Over the last chunk of years you've worked on serious dramas like Kara no Kyoukai, Madoka, and Fate/Zero, as well as comedies like A-Channel and Oreimo. Are you intentionally trying to balance these out?

AI: The end result does look like I've been doing shows with opposite tendencies, but the goal is always just to come up with good entertainment. I think it's a special privilege of the producer to be able to diversify, because creative talents don't always go in opposite directions like that.

ANN: But Shinbo directed Madoka despite being famous for his comedies like Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei. Is he an exception?

AI: Yes, Shinbo is very talented. Madoka goes back to older shows that Shinbo directed, such as The SoulTaker, that were much darker.

ANN: Would you say that which kind of show you're working on— drama or comedy —affects your mood at all?

AI: That doesn't happen very frequently.

ANN: Do you have a preference on which you like to work on or do you favor maintaining that balance?

AI: It's really looking at the results that it seems like I wind up choosing diversity. After I work on a comedy it might be that I rebound by working on something darker.

ANN: How do you feel about the response Madoka has gotten in the U.S. so far?

AI: I'm very glad to see the reaction it's getting. As an original title, not even anime fans knew about Madoka as recently as last November, but now it's become a commonly-known title. I'm very happy about the reception.

ANN: Would you say that the names involved, like Aoki, Urobuchi, and Shinbo, were instrumental to getting people in the door to watch the first episode?

AI: Exactly.

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