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Interview: Aniplex Inc. President Koichiro Natsume

by Christopher Macdonald & Justin Sevakis,

Kōichirō Natsume, president of Aniplex Inc. and Chief Operation Officer of the Visual Business Group at Sony Music Entertainment, sat down with Anime News Network at Anime Expo 2012 to discuss every aspect of the anime powerhouse that he helms. The only thing we didn't discuss - his penchant for Hawaiian shirts.

A lot of North American fans are wondering about the Anime no Chikara branding. Can you tell us about those series of shows, whether they achieved what they were supposed to, and if more of those shows can be expected in the future?

Anime No Chikara refers to a one-year-long project that went on in collaboration with the broadcast station TV Tokyo in 2010. It would translate to "Power of Anime" in English and the intent was to come up with anime that would be original, and not based on pre-existing content such as manga or a novel. So we did four shows, one quarter each, but unfortunately I cannot say that this was a success.

But we examined what went well and what were the lessons learned, and used that and we were able to come up with several hit shows in 2011. One such example is Madoka Magica; another such example is anohana, and Guilty Crown, not released in North America yet, is another such example. These were successful examples of original shows and now we have the know-how of what it takes to make an original story a successful animated show.

So those three titles were a result of the lessons learned during the one-year trial?

Exactly so.

Can you tell me what the lessons learned you actually learned were, or is that a trade secret?

(Laughs) No, this would be classified as a trade secret. Each of these three titles that I mentioned have different producers, and they are all different from the producers responsible for Anime no Chikara; which means that each of the producers of these three successful shows analyzed and learned differently from the unsuccessful attempt.

The elements of what they learned are different, but there is one thing in common to all three, and it's that none of the shows are self-infatuated masturbation, but something that starts out, receives support from the actual fans.

Can you tell us a little about the process Aniplex uses to determine what shows to greenlight?

The project has to go through three meetings, and these plan meetings are attended by personnel from various different departments. These various departments include, of course, the producer, as well as promotions, licensing, profit center, that is, marketing such as for DVD, Blu-ray, or overseas marketing, packaging and that would include personnel from Aniplex of America, as well as domestic merchandising. The first meeting is a presentation pitch meeting from the producer, this is the actual pitching of a project. This is the meeting where we examine if the idea for the project is something that would actually be popular, if it would receive support from viewers.

The second meeting, in addition to reflecting what was said and discussed in the first meeting, the producer would discuss potential staff, cast-members, which studio would be animating the title, what kind of budget to set, as well as what kind of members to incorporate into the production committee. These are the schemes that would be discussed.

Through the process of these two meetings, the title's profile would be made obvious.

At the third meeting, based on what's discussed in the previous two meetings, each marketing department would present forecasts for what kind of marketability this title would have. After these three meetings, we decide ultimately whether we will go forward with the production, or if we will cancel the project. And so these are the steps involved in deciding which project to greenlight.

Is it after the third meeting that you pitch the project to potential committee partners?

No, at the earliest, the production committee members would be set before the first meeting takes place, and at the latest, they would be set after the first meeting.

So they are involved rather early in the entire process?

Not all the production committee members are. There are others who may join later, but the main members are set early on.

How do you determine what animation studio should be used; what do you look at in a project and in a studio to decide if you have the right fit?

Each producer has his own studio that he has a good relationship with. Also, the studio needs to be available for production for the time period when we want to have the broadcast. It's not just the studio, but the director and other main staff are also important elements in the criteria. So it's the overall combination of this that determines which studio and director we go to.

A few years ago, you made the decision to invest in your own studio; A-1 Studio. What kind of benefits has that given Aniplex?

It's been five years since the founding of the studio. The first four years the studio was in the red and last year the studio made a profit for the first time. But the question was what kind of merits? (laughs) One thing is that we have a much better grasp of what it takes to run a studio, as well as what kind of hardship is involved in the production of a title. We learned what would improve relationships with production studios; and so we learned a lot, and also A-1 Studio improved in their production process as well.

And so now the studio itself has quite a few titles under its belt, for example Black Butler, anohana is another example… and so to the degree that we can always count on, including A-1 Studio, as one of the candidate studios when a producer lists potential studios for animating the project. They've grown to receive commissions from other companies and not just from us, now. So in this calendar year, they will be working on twelve titles. It's come to be such that it's actually difficult for Aniplex to have priority access to their production line.

Aniplex is an offshoot of Sony Music Japan. How do the music department and the animation department work together, if at all?

Once a project is greenlighted, we go to the eight labels under Sony Music and tell them, we have this kind of project in the pipes. So they would come to us to make their presentation about whether they want to be involved in the opening or the closing song, or what kind of artist they want to have used. The numerous artists and soundtracks that we're presented with are given to the sound director and the producer. Since we have eight labels to choose from, it's possible to come up with appropriate songs and music for a title early on.

And once a piece of music or a song is used in a TV show, since the demographics of the young people watching anime and the people who listen to music tend to overlap a lot, by having a piece of song being used in the opening or closing, it turns out to be a big promotion for them and they can afford to be placed high in the hit charts. As you can see from the artist LiSA who was invited to Anime Expo as a guest, Aniplex itself is starting to have a repertoire of their own artists.

Read more on page 2 about simultaneous Blu-ray releases, the Aniplex music label, the importance of the North American market, and more.

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