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Interview: Masahiro Ando

by Jacob Chapman,

ANN: Sword of the Stranger was very well received by anime fans in America, and it was compared to many other chanbara films in terms of appeal. These kinds of samurai movies have their own fanbase too, they're fairly well-known. When making Stranger, how did you approach telling a familiar type of story while still making it unique among those kinds of films?

MASAHIRO ANDO: It was always going to be based on other period pieces, jidaigeki films as they are known in Japanese, so of course there are many references to past classics of the genre. But for Stranger, I tried not to make it feel like a tribute to one genre alone. I wanted to bring in elements from American cinema classics like Clint Eastwood films or incorporate something like James Cameron's action rhythm into fights. I hoped to mix all those with the jidaigeki genre elements and create a new style.

One of the things that stuck out to me most about Stranger was the extremely active role of the dog, Tobimaru. I imagine it would be impossible to give an animal a role that action-heavy in a live-action film. What inspired you to give the dog such a heavy part? He's very impressive in the film.

Truthfully, I gave the dog a bigger role because it was anime, and the possibilities for an animal to "act" are much greater than in live-action. Still, when I think of jidaigeki films, I always remember the "ninja dog" companions in them. They're very well-trained, smart, and aggressive, even in the live-action films. When I was very young, I would see them in those movies, and read about them in manga, where they were even more active, and they stuck with me. So when I was making my film, I would have to dig up all my old memories, and so many of them were of those heroic dogs. I thought "This should be common sense. It's normal for this genre to have a dog companion as a major character. He must be loyal to the hero, and he must be strong, he has to be there." However, after the movie's release, I would hear from the viewers that Tobimaru was much stronger and smarter than anyone would expect at first. I'm often told that he is impressive for a hero dog.

You've worked with Mari Okada often, and she's a very well-liked writer among anime fans here. Fans seem to be most drawn to her writing's strong sentimentalism and lingering moods. It doesn't apply to her entire body of work, of course, but Hana-Saku Iroha is a story with many strong moments of character emotion and weight. How do you approach directing those heavy scripts into a story without letting it become melodramatic?

I myself was a fan of Mari Okada even before working with her. I love the scripts that she writes. I believe she has something that I do not have at all. If I was told to write material like what she specializes in, it would be impossible for me. So it is different working with another person's writing. With Sword of the Stranger, I could just build everything from scratch, like "oh, everything is my idea here!" But when working on a teenage drama, or a family series you could call it, there are elements of experience I do not have, and she brings those to the project. I would only want to create a project like that with someone who has those talents that I don't possess, to keep it balanced. And sometimes, there's a push one way or the other. If she feels like there is an element of drama or sentiment missing from what I've done, she tells me, and I try to be sort of dry and cool about that. There are also things she will write or request that I just can't give in to, but we always communicate. I am faithful, truthful, and loyal to the scripts that she writes, but I think just by me being involved and being myself, the thing that we create together comes out well-balanced between our styles. Maybe you'd call it a zero-sum game? In any case, I think she feels our partnership is different from other directors she works with. I feel like I have to do a lot of adjusting to her style, and I'm concerned that sometimes that's not enough. I can only be myself and do the best I can do. But I make a lot of choices to keep it from becoming what I feel could be too melodramatic. For me, Hana-Saku Iroha is the only title I've worked on to have that great a degree of emotion.

Blast of Tempest
is heavily Shakespeare-influenced, and has many symbols from lots of different plays he's written. How did you unify those elements to bring across the central ideas of the story, or give it a "Shakespearean" feel?

Well, Blast of Tempest is based on a manga. So the anime mostly just follows what the manga story is doing. However, if there is a unique element that anime can bring to the story, it's the addition of music and how the dialogue is read by the voice actors. So they were told to read the lines in a certain way to make the experience more stage-play-like, and I made an effort to mix the music with the dialogue in a way that was theatrical. I do think that sound element is important. What you pick up through your ears is just as important as the words themselves when it comes to communicating that feeling of Shakespeare. That's the biggest difference between anime and manga versions, of course, so I told the composer and actors to be extra careful with that feeling.

Are there any future projects on the horizon that you can tell us about?

Currently I'm an episode director for the TV series Nagi no Asukura, and there are some other series airing in January that I'm helping to storyboard. One of them is Sekai Seifuku, from Tensai Okamura, and I got that opportunity because Okamura and some other people working on the show helped me out with Hana-Saku Iroha and CANAAN, storyboarding and episode directing, that kind of thing. So when I'm not directing, I want to help them as much as possible so in the future, they will help me again, and it goes on like that. As for future projects, I still can't announce anything specific yet, but I'm working on two action titles. They're both at the planning stage though, so nothing solid is fixed yet. By the time you hear more about them it could be years from now, but we'll see.

Thank you very much!

It's odd. There are always several projects going on with people like me who are working in anime all the time. But a lot of them just don't get animated, or only do after a lot of time has passed. Years from now, if you hear about a project I am directing, think to yourself, "Oh, this would be something he mentioned years ago, and it finally happened!" It's really a miracle that anything gets made, because out of a hundred ideas that are proposed at any time, only one or two will end up being animated. So the next time you see an anime, coming from me or anywhere, take a moment to say "Oh! This got to be created!" It's a miracle.

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