Interview: Tomohiko Itoby Crystalyn Hodgkins, Mar 12th 2014
We had a chance to sit down with Tomohiko Ito, director of Occult Academy, Sword Art Online, and Silver Spoon. Ito discussed with us the differences between directing an original anime and an anime based on an existing work, what he enjoys about storyboarding a project, and why he became an anime director.
ANN: What do you think of American anime fans?
Ito: The fans are very energetic and boisterous, and it's fun to see. They're not afraid to show that energy either.
Sword Art Online has become a bit hit, not only in Japan, but around the world. What do you think it is about Sword Art Online that has attracted fans worldwide?
In one sense I could say we were lucky, but truth be told, I feel that this work had both thematic elements and character elements that had a global appeal, and that was already built in to the original work. So perhaps that has a lot to do with it. It's not a work that is culturally specific.
What first attracted you to this project?
Actually I'm a little ashamed to admit this, but I didn't know much about the original work at first. In fact, I was told the studio had gotten this product licensed for animation and was asked if I be interested, and so I was reading the work and thought "oh, so this is what's popular these days?" But in my honest opinion, it seemed to be aimed toward a young adult audience, and that was kind of appealing to me; to make something that would work more for that audience than for a more mature or more adult audience. To clarify, I'm in my 30s, but I was looking at the work and thinking how would those of us in our 30s look back in our youth and then produce something that would seem very fresh and new to a newer generation.
Do you play MMORPGs?
I did play some MMORPGs for research for the project, but ever since I completed Sword Art Online, I haven't had time to play any games. When I I would work while working on the project, I would say I have more work to do and leave the office, but by "work" I meant play games. But I see playing games as work too because it certainly became part of what I was working on.
What kind of video games do you like?
When I was younger I definitely liked more traditional RPGs like Dragon Quest.
Sword Art Online is based on Reki Kawahara's light novel series. What were the pros and cons to creating an anime based on an existing work?
With light novel series, since it is prose, 100 people will read it and have 100 different opinions of how they imagine how the characters will look or act. So the challenges in both a good and a bad way about making an adaptation from an original work is getting at least 80% of the people to think "oh, that could work" or "oh, that's how I imagined it would be." You don't want to upset too many people because it's not what they expected, but you also get some people who think "oh that was dead on!"
Conversely, your directorial debut work, Occult Academy, was an original anime not based on pre-existing material. How was it different, working on an original story?
In my mind it's sometimes easier to have an existing work already, because that way you can say “for that series, we're going to cover form this part to that part of the novels or manga." But with a completely original anime with nothing as a foundation, we have to start from zero. We have a blank sheet, we have no existing characters, no plot, and sometimes it takes us months to even come up with a storyline. So that's definitely a challenge, but it's also really fun because we have complete creative freedom in that case.
Which one do you prefer as a director?
I'd rather work next on a completely original anime.
Storyboards for an anime are essentially blueprints. They're the fundamental element from which the animation process gets started. It's very important for a storyboard artist to control not just themselves but also the flow of the process. Not just the flow of the story, but the chronological flow in terms of recording time, or the number of cells or images per minute. There's a term we use called "calorie count" that means that you have to pace it so that one episode isn't too focused on action and would take up so much time that the staff wouldn't have enough energy for the next episode. Of course, sometimes you also have to make adjustments halfway through the shoot, but as a storyboard artist I feel that one of the most gratifying aspects is how much control we can have over the rest of the production process.
Your upcoming work is an adaptation of Hiromu Arakawa's manga Silver Spoon. Silver Spoon isn't available in America, but anime fans are familiar with it because the manga is drawn by the same manga creator as Fullmetal Alchemist, which was a huge hit in America. What would you like to tell us about this upcoming project for those who are looking forward to it?
I don't know how cognizant Arakawa-sensei was when she drew Silver Spoon, I don't think she drew it thinking it would be an instant hit or anything. She kind of just casually started drawing it, and when it became a hit, she and the publisher were shocked. So in some sense I feel a lot of pressure for the series because there's a lot of expectation that's been building up. For those fans who became fans of the creator from Fullmetal Alchemist, Silver Spoon is completely different. So you might be really shocked, but I feel this series and this style represents her work much more than Fullmetal Alchemist.
Why did you want to become an anime director?
I always liked to make animation and anime, and I didn't want to work under other directors that weren't great directors. I wouldn't mind working as a unit director if the head director were a great director. But I didn't want to keep working under people I didn't want to work with, so I wanted to become a head director myself.
Was there any work that inspired you to become an anime director?
What message would you like to give to your American fans?
I want to say to my fans that I know that there is more and more Japanese anime coming out every year, and it might be really hard for you to catch all of it, but I want to keep working hard to produce good anime for you to watch and enjoy.
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