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Interview: BONES Studio President Masahiko Minami

by Heidi Kemps & Lynzee Lamb,

BONES animation studio president Masahiko Minami sat down with Anime News Network to discuss the studio's history, approach to the animation industry, and the anime series Space Dandy premiering in January. Minami has 30 years in the anime industry, having worked for the animation studio Sunrise before leaving with seasoned staff members to create BONES.

ANN: What inspired you to start your own animation studio?

MINAMI: Well, I was with Sunrise for 15 years and I have been with BONES for 15 years... (laughs) that doesn't answer your question, does it? Let me start again. At Sunrise I performed different roles like producing and co-producing, but I decided I wanted to create something new instead of the types of titles Sunrise was producing. That's why myself and some of the staff decided to branch out on our own.

Sunrise focuses a lot on mecha -based series with their most recent being Valvrave the Liberator . What were the types of series you wanted to make when you founded BONES?

Unfortunately, you can never recreate something no matter how much you want to. With a new environment, a new staff, and a new team, it sets the stage for a more creative product. BONES does have some original mecha series, though, such as Eureka Seven . But I think if I had stayed with Sunrise, that series wouldn't have been made.

Are there any series you've worked on that have stuck with you on a personal level?

All of them! With each title there were always hardships and joys during the process of making it. Of course there are memories tied to the time it was created, so each has a personal meaning. In Japan, we have a saying where something is "so cute, it is stupid." A sort of over-the-top love. That's how each series is for me.

What kinds of themes does the studio look for when choosing to adapt a pre-existing work, like a manga or novel?

The first thing we look at is what the original has that makes it enticing to readers. Of course, with manga, novels, and animation, each have a different way of presenting that special something to the audience. They're all special but they show it in different ways. For animation, you have to think about to present it in the best light.

For example, BONES created animated series Un-Go , which is based on the mysteries written by Ango Sakaguchi with a twist on it. What is it like to adapt a famous literary work and make it your own?

Our adaptation was very close to the original. We wanted to make a futuristic and happy adaptation with a buddy-cop feeling to it. Ango-san's original series was definitely used as a motif but to make it really relatable, we tried to bring all the possibilities of the novel into the adaptation.

When you are brainstorming for an original series, like RahXephon or Wolf's Rain , how do those sessions go?

First what we do is have a small group of two to three people sit down and talk about a lot of ideas. After that we find the common theme we want to pursue and depending on what we choose, we then branch out. We'll bring in more people who we think can utilize the theme of the story based on their expertise in each field. That is how the staff grows. We then will go out together on a work retreat for a few days, sometimes we even go to the hot springs.

Have there been any projects that came forward and after looking at them you thought, "No, this isn't going to work" ?

In the beginning, the studio was very chaotic (laughs). Majority of the ideas that come from that kind of 'organized chaos' are unusable. What happens is we continue to narrow each idea down gradually until, eventually, we have only a few to choose from.

I wanted to talk a bit about Space Dandy, since it debuted at Otakon to a lot of positive press and anticipation. I think people are excited since many of the staff were involved with Cowboy Bebop . How did Space Dandy come to be, and why do you think it's a good time to create a show like this.

Well, first, we should probably emphasize that there isn't a connection between Space Dandy and Cowboy Bebop – we just have a lot of the same staff working on the new show. We've actually been wanting to collaborate again with (director) Watanabe for quite some time, since the last time we worked with him was for the Cowboy Bebop movie . We were talking about attempting something new, and since the way animation itself is produced has changed since Bebop hit the scene, we wanted to try to see if we could create something new and fresh again. That's why this is the right time.

It seems like the sort of productions getting made have shifted since the late 90s, as well. There seems to be more of an emphasis on moe characters and shows designed to sell merchandise specifically to a captive otaku audience. Space Dandy doesn't look or feel like any of these shows, its “hook” is very different. Do you worry that you might not capture enough interest from hardcore fans?

Yes, there is most certainly a lot of moe, audience-fulfillment-based shows out there. I think of those as sort of “reaction” kinds of anime… but BONES has never really been a moe-driven production company. Our staff has worked on stuff like Cowboy Bebop and Escaflowne – shows that are very popular worldwide to this day - so I think that our work stands out, blazing new creative trails. We want Space Dandy to reach as wide an international audience as possible.

Space Dandy's mechanical designer, Thomas Romain , is from France. How did your collaboration with him come about?

Romain has actually been in Japan for a while, working for the anime studio Satelight . I've known him for about seven, maybe eight years? But he's been getting a lot of attention for hismecha and scenery designs. He's also a huge fan of Cowboy Bebop, and since I learned that, General Director Shinichiro Watanabe wanted to collaborate. It was difficult for a while, since he was working for another studio, but that's how we eventually brought him onto the team.

You mentioned that you feel BONES just can't do moe-related work, and you want to make material that is beloved worldwide. What I find interesting about that statement is that the image the Japanese government is trying to promote through “Cool Japan” and its push to export anime and manga is very much in the vein of moe– which foreign audiences tend not to be as receptive to.

Well, since moe is the current trend in anime, that's what the government is chiefly promoting, in my estimation. I think they might be trying to push it since it shares some common ideas with Harajuku “kawaii” fashion culture – something that actually is popular internationally. But I think productions like Cowboy Bebop and Space Dandy, things with broader appeal, should be more of the sort of thing that I'd like the government to push overseas.

Recently, we've seen a lot of major talent leave established animation studios and form their own production houses, even as the anime industry faces some serious struggles. As BONES was formed by ex-Sunrise staff quite some time ago, I'm curious to hear your personal take on this. Do you think these new studios will survive and thrive in such a crowded, strapped market?

There are always reasons why someone wants to separate from a company – usually it's because they want to create something new, and unfortunately can't do so in that environment. So they go off in order to make the new content they want to. It's not always fun, but it's kind of like fate – it happens when it happens, there's no stopping it.

Money is an issue, though – it's very tough, especially when you're just getting off the ground, to set budgets and get talented people. But there are always young minds and new creators coming forwards who want to create something with their hearts. In general, these productions don't make a lot of money! *laughs* So when you separate from a company, you're not doing it for financial gain, but to sate your creative desires.

Isn't that rather indicative of some of the current issues with the anime business, though? People don't get paid enough, shows live and die by sponsors, merchandising, and DVD sales…

Yes, it's true the industry has issues. It's been written about in newspapers, it gets published online, it gets publicized a lot – it's a big deal. But it doesn't apply to all of anime, animators, and studios. It's true that there are people who don't get paid much. The people who truly love creating – they still get their means of living, but it's far from a celebrity life. They are artists at heart. If they have the heart and believe in the work, they'll be paid.

Another shift we've seen recently are more shows with elements obviously tailored towards female viewers. Do you feel that the “fujoshi ” are becoming a market force within Japan?

Fujoshi… fujoshi… so fans who are mainly female. Unfortunately, I feel like… I can't really handle or relate to that market sector! *laughs* But like we said in regards to moe stuff, our company doesn't produce shows in that genre.

I don't know about that. Fullmetal Alchemist was quite the hit amongst the female audience…

Wait, that's for female fans?

Yeah. I remember going to Comiket around 2004 and seeing entire blocks consisting of multiple aisles there devoted to selling FMA doujinshi .

It wasn't made specifically for female fans, of course, but I am glad they like it in their own way. The ideal shows are ones with a broad reach that will be loved for years to come, but these can also include appealing elements that these groups will enjoy, rather than simply creating something targeting female fans to begin with. I will always aim for reaching the greatest audience possible.

A lot of modern anime seems relegated to late-night TV slots – the era of prime time anime, it seems, is long past. Do you find that these late timeslots make it harder for shows to find an audience?

There are a lot of reasons why it's hard to to get onto prime time – sponsorships and show content among them. But I believe TV viewership, in general, is seeing a dropoff, and that is also one of the reasons that anime struggles to find a wider audience.

So people watching more online on PCs and smartphones.

Yes. Unfortunately, that plays into it too. The thing about prime time is that you really have to make it for a more general audience, since that's when people of all ages will be able to watch it. Late night has rather established itself as being geared more towards the “anime” audience. Think of it as the difference between classic after-school Toonami and Adult Swim in the US: they are both on Cartoon Network , but after a certain time at night the content changes dramatically. I'd say BONES shows are more suitable to Adult Swim.

Finally, outside of BONES's work, what do you think will be the most fondly remembered anime series of the last ten years?

Oh my. That's actually a tougher question than you think! I can barely remember what actually happened these past ten years… I'm a lot older than I look, you know! *laughs* I think Haruhi will continue to be looked back upon as something important. I also think that ufotable 's Fate/Zero is exemplary. I felt a lot of the creative power behind that show. Have you seen Kaze Tachinu yet? You should!

No, it's not out here yet. How about Attack on Titan ? It seems to have a lot of popularity worldwide right now.

Yes, that's true. But since that has a manga as its basis, it'll always have something to fall back on. As long as the manga continues on and has a good story, the show will follow in suit. For this year, it's definitely an interesting and fun show to watch.

Are there any messages you have for fans of BONES and its works?

So Space Dandy will be airing in Japan in January 2014. We're still in talks with a lot of companies regarding localization for North America so we can get it out to fans as soon as possible. We're working very hard at that. I hope you look forward to Space Dandy, the universe's stupidest [baka] anime! We've taken one great hardships to ensure this is the universe's stupidest anime. It will definitely be something to look forward, enjoy, and laugh at.

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