Interview: Tow Ubukata

by Hope Chapman and Sarah Nelkin,

Tow Ubukata is one of Japan's premier science fiction novelists and screenwriters, known for his work on Mardock Scramble, Le Chevalier D'Eon, Fafner, the new Ghost in the Shell: Arise prequel and he collaborated on the sequel series to one of the biggest sci-fi hits in recent years, Psycho-Pass. He's also handling script duties on Production I.G's new Ghost in the Shell film, which releases in theaters in Japan this summer and will premiere in France June 20th with a bluray to follow from French distributor @Anime. We had the opportunity to interview him about his vaunted body of work and learn a little bit more about his inspirations.

What inspired you to pursue writing fiction, and how did the transition from novel writing to anime scripting come about?

The trigger that got me interested in novels happened when I was 14. I was living in South-East Asia at the time, and while Japan's animation was spreading across the world, it wasn't being translated. A friend at my school had obtained something, but he came to me, saying, “I don't know what it says. Translate it for me!” I think that was my trigger. I translated stuff like Akira, Nausicaa, and Gundam at school. I once got asked by a friend if Nausicaa was Christian, and of course, I didn't know. (laughs) So, I made up some kind of answer on the spot that seemed coherent to me. I think that was my first inspiration to write fiction.

After that, I returned to Japan and started work as a writer at 19. In my early 20's, I met an anime producer at a party. At this time in Japan, there was a word called “Katsuji-banare” (aliteracy,) meaning that young Japanese people were reading less and less. It was thought to be inexcusable, and many blamed it on things like anime and games. I thought that if that “katsuji-banare” were to continue, maybe it wasn't the time to try and become a novelist. I thought I wouldn't be able to feed myself in the future. I entered the game and anime industry in order to try and discern what the consumers were looking for. This is how I got my start in anime series composition. In the process, I found that consumers was looking for both literature and video. This made me think that I wanted to be able to offer my abilities in both of these fields.




In adapting Le Chevalier d'Eon or Mardock Scramble into anime form, was there a learning curve in writing for the screen, or was the transition relatively easy for you? Do you prefer writing one format over the other?


Novels are usually something that can be done alone, so it's both easy and hard. In the case of anime scripts, I have to write them so anyone that reads it will understand. If it's written in a way so that each staff member can interpret the text their own way, work can't be done. I make the text simple, and I try to write it in a way so the artists can draw their images as freely as possible.

With novels, I try and write them so that lots of different people can have a variety of things come into their imagination. It is fun, but both types of writing are a lot of work. With animation, I'm preparing a blueprint, so the hardest thing becomes having to change that blueprint when circumstances on the production side change. Like, if I'm told, “This work started selling really well in its run, let's expand the story!” Well, there's nothing to expand! I don't have an idea for that! That kind of situation is the most difficult. I think both formats have their good and bad points.

What I struggled with during Chevalier was...well, in animation you can express just about anything, whether it be  characters from overseas or foreign cultures, but in this case, money and manpower became an issue. During Chevalier, everyone was struggling to keep up. We focused way too much on detail in the structure of French clothing, and I think maybe there was no reason to obsess over that so much. (laughs) The problem became: “Well, we can't have this character change instantly, how are we supposed to animate this?” I think it would have been fine just to cut to the next scene and be like, “There, they changed clothes.” (laughs) There were lots of things we were obsessing over.

What was adapting your own work into a different format like? Did you feel like you had to change very much or not?


When my various works become anime, a lot of peoples' ideas and sensibilities come into the picture. It's a lot of fun to be able to experience that. I get to hear things about my own work from a different viewpoint. For example, in action scenes, if a character's hair is long, their face will be hidden by it, and by hiding the face, a sense of mystique is brought out because the viewer doesn't know what emotions the character is feeling. Animation relies on facial emotions. The situation becomes “if the heroine has her face hidden, it would be harder to understand her, so let's give her short hair. “ On the other hand, “if the villain's emotions are completely visible, they lose their mystique, so can we give them long hair?” These are the kinds of ideas I hear. There are lots of times when the hair length on characters from my original works gets changed. (laughs) I often get messages from readers, complaining that the image of the character is different. But, well, it's a necessary change. At least it's better than changing the sex of the character. (laughs)




Since Le Chevalier d'Eon is partially based on a real person's life, how much did you rely on your research and history to sculpt the story, versus letting go and allowing the fictional elements to guide the story?


With a historical work, we use existing famous literary materials when adapting that story into entertainment. The more documents we have, the more ideas will come. However, there's no way we can use them all, so we end up focusing on only a portion of the materials. For example, on the subject of make-up, there's a mountain of different materials to use, but only a small extract of that reaches the customers. Really, the hardest part of the process comes when I've picked up so much stuff that I think is interesting, but in the end, it doesn't get in. We have to cut a lot of stuff in the end. We also have to choose the scenes that would be best in anime. That is very difficult.

What are your thoughts on Gonzo's canceled version of Mardock Scramble in 2006, if you feel comfortable discussing it?


(laughs) It's about my own work, so I think I can talk about as much as I want, but that was a problem with Gonzo's situation. They reached their limit financially, and the money they were supposed to have put away for Mardock Scramble had disappeared. (laughed) So we couldn't make it anymore. Anyway, I took away the materials and scripts I had gotten together, and thought about if I were to try and get it made one more time from square one, what studio would be good, and what producer would accept it. The difference between what Gonzo was planning and what was eventually made is the CG. Gonzo was all for making the work in full 3D CG at the time. But, well, the money for that disappeared somewhere. (laughs) So, in the end, it was made into a film that exemplifies the attraction of 2D cel animation by a studio called GoHands. Their studio names kind of sound the same. (laughs) Anyway, the film was made at GoHands instead.

Gonzo was doing something very innovative, and I was really looking forward to seeing the results, actually. I still think about what the film would have been like...well, the quality of CG back then isn't like what it is now, so I get the feeling that maybe it's better that it disappeared. (laughs) That was the era when CG was in its developing period. I do get excited when I think about what it would look like with today's technology. It's a genre I'd like to try again someday.




How much freedom did you feel you were given with the Psycho-Pass universe by I.G. or Gen Urobuchi for Psycho-Pass 2?


Well, the work itself is a world without freedom, anyway. (laughs) I was offered the idea of just barely expanding the world, therefore being able to just barely create a sequel. I had both the scenario for the TV series and the film, so it was all about filling in the blanks. "Why is that character a certain way?" For example, why does Shimotsuki always seem so grumpy? What position or viewpoint does the protagonist reach that will inform their actions in the movie? There are two characters who appear in the movie named Hinakawa and Sugo, so it's like, “Who are they?” (laughs) I had to write who they were. I filled in a lot of holes, and I had some limits put on me by the production team as to how I could fill those holes. I also thought that if I didn't put other new characters in, things wouldn't make sense. There's a character called Kamui who appears to reveal a flaw in the Sibyl System that shows that the system might disappear in the future. Because this was pointed out in Psycho-Pass 2's story, the story of the film is upgraded.

Was it a fun creative challenge, or more stressful or frustrating to create a standalone sequel series like that?


The time on the production was really short, so it was difficult. However, as much difficulty I felt, I was able to have meetings with the director, [Gen] Urobuchi, Nitroplus, the producer, and others with a sense of tension. I think there was quite a bit of worth in focusing so hard in such a short amount of time. But there really wasn't much time at all, so I was even rewriting scripts during voice recording sessions. It was kind of a crazy way of making scripts. If I say that the experience I had was fun, I think the staff would say something along the lines of, “Don't mess with us! Why were you having fun!?” (laughs) I think the feeling of strain in the process was conveyed in the work. I didn't have any leeway. There were lots of scenes where the characters played around in the first season, but we couldn't put that kind of thing in the second season. That was a little bit disappointing.

Do you feel like you were able to accomplish what you wanted with the series? How much did you know about what was going on with the movie?


Yes, I knew the contents of the film. I had to work in a way that wouldn't contradict its contents. I'm happy that Shimotsuki fit well into the movie. If she had gotten along  well with Akane in Psycho-Pass 2, it wouldn't connect to the film. That was my biggest relief. I was also able to write about how the Sibyl System's control extends overseas, as well as how Akane is making the system evolve, and I was satisfied with that. I had also put in a story element where Kamui has split personalities, but it was very difficult to put into animation. Director Shiotani did his best with that until the very end. It's an ending that I am satisfied with.

How were you approached about working on new Ghost in the Shell material, and how did you feel about being involved with such a huge, renowned franchise?


I got brought to dinner by the president of Production I.G., Ishikawa. It was a really nice restaurant in Roppongi Hills. It's not the kind of place you can go into alone. (laughs) I was wondering, “What does he want to talk about?” and it turned out to be Ghost in the Shell. To me, Ghost in the Shell is like a textbook. I thought that as a creator who has reached a place where I am able to be involved in that kind of work, I'm in a position where I have to convey its contents to a younger audience. Well, I knew it would be a lot of work, but I figured it would be my way of giving back to Ghost in the Shell. I thought that I needed to accept the baton and offer Ghost in the Shell to a young audience, to the same degree that Ghost in the Shell raised me to be who I am.




Ghost in the Shell is a very large franchise that means many things to wide audiences. What stands out to you most about the work that you want to bring across in your iteration?


I think what I want to focus on is the phrase of “Motoko's  ghost whisper.” I think this phrase has a much deeper meaning in a world where the internet has developed so much, and has also become easier to understand for an audience. I wanted to properly convey the meaning that makes up that phrase to the viewer. The internet's special trait is the abundant amount of information that it can spread. Somewhere along the way, it's hard to know if a person's thought is their own or information that they obtained. Someone might be acting on someone else's idea or information that someone else made. I feel this is the frightening aspect of the internet. Within this, Motoko is acting on the ghost whisper, on her own identity. I'd be happy if this idea gets through to viewers. As a result, the contents of the property are very complex, but I think I've written the story as simply as I could.

In the past, the internet and cyborgs were mysterious things, so things were written in such a way to put an emphasis on that mystique. This can be seen in the cyberpunk genre, where the internet was an unknown world with endless possibilities. However, now the internet has become a part of our daily lives. That's why I thought I should do a close-up on the trouble and dangers that arise as a part of having this technology in our everyday lives. I didn't make the theme about the development of technology, but instead shifted it to focus on the coexistence of humans and technology.

You're the preeminent writer of sci-fi anime right now; how do you feel sci-fi as a genre in anime has matured over the years? What do you think the biggest differences are between sci-fi anime made, say, 10 or 20 years ago, and what's being made today?


I think that sci-fi is now reaching a resting point in this era. Fiction in the past used to be about warnings, possibilities, and giving inspiration and ideas to the reader. Society being computerized through the internet was written plenty of times in the past, but now it's become part of reality. The question of what would occur if Japan became international has already become reality as well. That's why I think the goal for sci-fi authors now is to learn about events and developing technology that remain, and think up new and novel ideas from there. The abundance of ideas for sci-fi back in the day has been used up, so we need to create a new source of ideas. I think the age we're living in now will be a vital one for determining the survival of the genre.

Do you feel like the stories you want to tell speak to anime fans as a culture, or do you ever feel at odds when conveying your ideas to otaku audiences?


No matter what kind of work I do, the theme I want to convey is in there somewhere. No matter what kind of work is being made, the theme that creator wants to convey will naturally come out. Actually, the brakes and gas pedals need to be adjusted while working on these projects, because it becomes more difficult when you focus completely on just the theme. I try to create something that can be enjoyed as entertainment.

In terms of story, have you seen any anime, recently or otherwise, that you were impressed or inspired by?


When you watch quite a bit, you tend to pick up the good parts of those works. In terms of CG, I think Knights of Sidonia has an amazing method of expression. I guess I'm getting the most inspiration right now from Knights of Sidonia. I like the original creator of the manga, Tsutomu Nihei. I'm studying his work pretty diligently. Like, "Oh, so it's easy to turn that into CG! After all, the ships are oblong!" (laughs) I guess that's easier to put into CG.

Do you like it in terms of story, too?


Hm...well, it's a story of the protagonist's growth, a romantic comedy, and it has battles. It has lots of aspects that draw in fans. It will be a good reference for me. I think it's kind of made like a textbook.

 Are there any sorts of stories that you have not gotten to create yet, either in novel or anime form, that you would like to make?


There are a lot... if I had the time and money. (laughs)

In specific, what kind of genre?


I'd really like to do a lot of different genres, and Japan's animation will continue developing. I do think I should make more adult romance stories, and I think I can try a variety of genres. Sci-fi has become easy to understand as it has developed. So now I think I can create a large amount of different things. Something combining sci-fi and sports, for example. I should be able to do that.

The other day, I appeared at an event, and there was a person who is developing artificial legs for the Paralympics. It's not because of a good prosthetic leg that a person runs faster. It's a matter of how the human uses it. An athlete and their prosthetic maker meet for sessions every day to try and break the Olympic record. I think it'd be cool to turn that kind of story into animation. When a prosthetic leg is your concept, you have to write about a character without a leg, or any legs. As a story element, it hasn't been done that often. However, if the animation world can hold cultural responsibility in doing this, I think I'd be able to write about it. I think that's where we in animation are losing to live-action movies. We have tons of moe characters appearing everywhere, but wouldn't it be okay for some of those characters to be a bit more unique? I think it'd be fine even if the characters weren't Japanese. I think a work that can top moe characters would be a good thing.

Any other upcoming projects you can tell us about?


Um... I don't think I'm supposed to talk about that. (laughs) Well, we're already promoting the new Ghost in the Shell film, but I'm also doing series composition for Fafner EXODUS, which just ended its first cour, and we'll be entering the second cour in winter. Please look forward to that. Other than that...was there anything else? It's undecided. (laughs)

Thank you so much for your time.


Thank you.



Our thanks to @Anime, Production I.G and Kodansha for providing the opportunity for this interview.

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