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Interview: Soubi Yamamoto

by Ko Ransom,

21-year-old independent animation creator Soubi Yamamoto participated in this year's 2012 Tokyo International Anime Fair as a part of the event's "Creator's World" section, and ANN had the opportunity to sit down to talk to the young and upcoming director about her work, her influences, her experiences as a young woman working in anime, and more. Yamamoto's This Boy Can Fight Aliens! is being released by CoMix Wave, the same company that releases work by Makoto Shinkai, a director who has been a major influence on Yamamoto. The short film premiered at last year's New York Comic-Con, and Sentai Filmworks recently announced that they will be doing their own release of the title.

ANN: To begin with, congratulations on your new project. What can you tell us about it?

Soubi Yamamoto: Thank you very much! My new work is about a regular high school boy who one days discovers a merman. In it, I'm trying to create story with a mood that's much closer to a regular day-to-day feeling, as opposed to my other works with more unique settings.

It's often noted that watching Makoto Shinkai's Voices of a Distant Star (Hoshi no Koe) in middle school had a major impact on you, motivating you to begin working in video and animation. Can you talk a little more about that experience, and what made you decide to make the jump from being someone who only watches animation to someone who creates it as well?

Yamamoto: I had originally wanted to become a manga artist, so I wanted to be a creator from the time that I was very young. While I was a fan of watching television anime, I always felt that Makoto Shinkai's work was closer to manga than to TV anime. So, I've had never really thought of making TV anime, but I consider my independent animation to be like a mixture of manga and radio drama, and I first thought that I'd like to create animation after discovering what one person could do in anime on their own through Shinkai's works.

What was it like creating anime while still attending school, and was it difficult to balance the two?

Yamamoto: Not at all. Well, it was more like I didn't do any of my schoolwork, because I was focused on creating anime instead! But still, there was nothing particularly difficult. I went to a high school that focused on the arts, so my teachers were cooperative and supportive of what I was doing, too.

Please give us your personal overview as to what This Boy Can Fight the Aliens is about, and could you tell us how you came up with its setting?

Yamamoto: It's a story of a boy with amnesia who is the one person on Earth who can fight aliens. At the same time, it's also about the support and kindness he receives while doing this, and also about him trying to overcome his own personal struggles as he searches for the meaning behind why he fights and protects the Earth. I came up with the story because of a dream I had, where a high school girl with amnesia fought aliens by herself while the adults around her watched over her. After having the dream, I thought that I should turn it into an anime.

While Makoto Shinkai, a director best known for his drama, is often cited as one of your major influences, This Boy Can Fight the Aliens also features a healthy amount of comedy. Do you often find yourself drawn toward comic elements when writing and directing?

Yamamoto: I grew up watching and reading a lot more than just serious stories. I think that manga generally has a comedic element to it, and so I think that my decision to not make straightforward dramas, intentionally adding in comedy as well, comes from being influenced by manga.

Many of your works seem to draw influence from the genre of sekai-kei, and one of your earlier works is actually titled Sekai-kei Sekai-ron. At the same time, the endings to many of these works also shift away from typical sekai-kei narratives, ending in more positive, upbeat, and social ways, acting in a way as a response to the genre.

Yamamoto: I think that sekai-kei, the idea of a story of a closed world where only "a 'you' and an 'I'" exist, is very beautiful. At the same time, people can't live with that alone, and there are a lot of kind people outside of a "you and I" relationship, like family and friends. Sekai-kei exists by ignoring these kinds of other relationships, but I wanted to come to a different conclusion. I do enjoy sekai-kei works where only a "you" and an "I" exist and the world comes to an end around those two, and really think that they're beautiful. However, I wanted to go in a different direction, with more of a happy end, adding in the kindness of others and of the world, creating a story where life outside of a closed-off world isn't so bad after all.

What are your thoughts on the genre, and how would you say that it has influenced you as well as your generation of anime and manga fans?

Yamamoto: When I first read sekai-kei works, I thought that "it's okay to be closed off from the world," and that having a relationship between yourself and one other person as the world came to an end around you as a result was beautiful and perfect as a whole. Before that, all I had known was shonen manga with upbeat, positive protagonists, who saved the world and had lots of friends who they'd save as well. There being a world that wasn't like that was really appealing, and I was drawn to it. It was like I had been shown a brand new universe.

Your work primarily features younger male protagonists in close relationships with one another. You've also done some work in the past creating opening movies for doujin boys-love games. Would you say that boys-love titles have had an effect on the way you tell stories?

Yamamoto: What surprised me when I first read boys-love stories was how few characters appear in the average title. The "just you and I" situation in them is similar to sekai-kei stories, and I was amazed when I discovered that you could create a full story in such a narrow world. Shonen and shojo manga I had read before then featured a lot of characters, with a protagonist, their friends, their rivals, and so on. Instead, boys-love stories featured just two people, a protagonist and someone he loves, and the story proceeds from there. You don't see many friends and such, but the story is still interesting and works, and that surprised me. My stories also have a small number of characters, and I think that it's due to the influence that boys-love has had on me.

Can you tell us about your production environment? What kind of software do you primarily use when creating anime?

Yamamoto: I use an iMac as my computer, and for software, I use Adobe Photoshop and After Effects, as well as the Japanese animation software program RETAS. There's also a program for creating manga called ComicStudio, which I use alongside the 3D graphics program Cinema 4D.

What would you say the benefits and drawbacks of creating anime titles such as This Boy Can Fight the Aliens nearly completely on your own are?

Yamamoto: The main benefit is that you are able to control and create everything in the work. In a situation where you have a large staff, you might not be able to redo a section that doesn't come out the way you want it to, since someone else has already done the work to create it. If you do it all on your own, though, you can freely fix or change a section you may not like. The main drawback is that because you're not dealing with other people, there's no one to help you when you're in trouble. You have to be responsible for everything in the work, or else it'll never be finished.

What has it been like starting as a fan of Makoto Shinkai to working as a creator with CoMix Wave, a company perhaps best known for their close relationship with him? Have you had much of a chance to interact with him?

Yamamoto: It's like a dream! I've met Mr. Shinkai before while visiting the company, and I took a photo with him as a souvenir.

Are you planning on continuing this scale of production, or would you like to try working with a larger staff at some point in the future?

Yamamoto: At least in the near future, there are still a lot of things that I wasn't able to do in This Boy Can Fight Aliens! that I'd like to try doing at the scale of production I'm working with right now. But, as the stories I want to make become larger, I think that I'll need larger-scale productions to create them, too.

While the situation is changing somewhat, there are not many visible female anime directors. Have you ever run into any unique situations or problems due to working in such a male-dominated field?

Yamamoto: I've never run into any problems. People do tend to remember me more easily, though!

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