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Interview: Fullmetal Alchemist and Concrete Revolutio screenwriter Shou Aikawa

by Jacob Chapman,

Screenwriter Shō Aikawa scarcely needs an introduction; he cut his teeth during the OVA boom of the 1980s, working on titles like Angel Cop, Dangaioh, Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma and more. As a television writer, he's responsible for a wide array of series that all bear his unmistakable creative thumbprint, shows like Un-Go, Oh! Edo Rocket, and The Twelve Kingdoms. His two most famous works are the classic Martian Successor Nadesico, a true phenomenon of its time, and of course, the groundbreaking 2003 adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist. We spoke with Mr. Aikawa at Anime Expo 2015, ahead of the October premiere of his newest series, Concrete Revolution, which you'll be able to watch on Daisuki.com this October.

Jacob Chapman: Nice to meet you. My first question is: this new project you have coming up with Mizushima-san, Concrete Revolutio, what can you tell us about this, that you're allowed to tell us about this, and what new challenges has this project presented you with?

Shō Aikawa : Today, the official site has been released, it's now open, and it has been localized in ten languages so far, so it's multi-language and worldwide. There's hardly any information that I can not talk about. <laughs>

Oh, well that's good!

This title is about--first I'm not only talking about Japanese anime, but also Tokusatsu, the superhero series in Japan, it's all about fiction. I count also novels in this. There are idols and people in the sports world. All these special people, I thought about how it would be if they were living in the real world and how would real society be, how would they get along together, and what incidents they were involved in, it's kind of like a simulation.

So these superheroes are having to face real-world issues that normal people face? Or are they facing conflicts that are much bigger than normal people face in a normal world?

Basically, these heroes will face troubles that only they can face, not normal humans. Of course they are shown also like normal humans and they will be presented like normal people, but they are heroes and the key point is that I want to cross them over with real historical events. For example, I will show an event on TV with the time and date from a historical incident we know and the hero also appears together with this…

So that means… will history be very different because of the involvement of these people?

It's a kind of difficult question, but I want to create--there is a kind of another Japan, another side, an alternate world. It's like: you put the history line of another Japan and the real world together. I do not want to change too much.

I wanted to ask about your now long-standing working partnership with Mizushima-san. You've created many works together at this point and I feel there must be a strong relationship. How did that come about, when did that first start, and do you feel you understand each other's aesthetics in a unique way that allows you to work with each other?

Around twenty years ago I worked together with him for the first time with the title Martian Successor Nadesico. Mizushima-san back then was an episode director for Evangelion, so I directed single episodes. Then I got to work with him - I heard there's an interesting person working right now, and I was around the same age, so we got together and said "let's do an original work," like an anime title. We worked on it, planned the project, but unfortunately we could not realize it. But since then, together, they say "someday let's do a project together." And that's what we're doing now.

About the uniqueness and the specialty of the tag team, how I feel about it is that I think Mizushima-san is very special because he's a director who really thinks that his script is very interesting. I tend to write very complicated scripts because I have been influenced by many works or movies and then I reflect on it personally and create the script. Some other directors who read my works say "oh, I tried to understand but then I got confused and I could not fully understand it." But in the case of director Mizushima, he says he tries to understand it, and then at the point of "I don't understand this" [he says] "it's okay." That's what's very special about him. This is why I can trust him completely, because at the point I give my script to him, he understands and that's the special thing about our relationship.

Do you feel that he gives you a lot of freedom compared to past collaborators you've worked with?

I feel that the director, Mizushima, is giving me the ability to work very freely.

That's always good news, it's good to see artists able to express themselves. So that leads me into one of my favorite anime ever, the original 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist. It's very unique because I see so many anime that have a "To Be Continued" thing for the manga, and Fullmetal Alchemist is strange it that it was written so thoroughly to be original. How did that come about? It's very unique in that it starts being original very early. How did that come about and what was your goal in changing the material in the way that you did?

In previous years it was common that an anime adaption of a popular manga was very close to the original manga work. In the early years it wasn't like this. For example, for foreign works or content it's also the same: you'll have American comics and the movies of them are not like the comics. I also grew up watching those and I thought even if it's a very popular manga it does not have to be one to one. First, the project started because all the staff really loved the original manga. That's for sure the route for the anime adaption, but in case of the anime Fullmetal Alchemist from 2003 the special thing was, the on-air time was fixed. It was not late night, it was in the evening, so not only older audiences but also younger people were going to watch it. So there was a mission for Studio Bones, director Mizushima and myself that they have to provide good entertainment for a major audience. Also, it has to be concluded in a span of one year, so this was fixed. We thought " how can we do this?" It was all about the development of characters. So this had to be in one year and this is what we thought, how can we create it in a good way? And that's why the original parts were created.

It's very interesting. The 2003 version of Fullmetal Alchemist is one of my all-time favorites. In my opinion, that version is much heavier, more violent and harsh. Did it occur to you "younger audiences are going to see this, I want to convey a message or heavier ideas to those audiences?" Because it is a harsh show, even though younger people watch it.

I think in the original work, many things had an impact on me. The most important thing I thought is that Ed has, as you know, only one leg and one arm, real, and the others are metal. In the case of, for example, on American TV it seems like there's a rule for regular dramas, like there has to be someone in a wheelchair or black people, and in Japan that's not the case. So it's feels like we're free of the requirement, but then there are real things they tend not to want to show. There's no rule, they don't say it, but they don't want to show it so much.

Because it could be unattractive in anime?

They want to not show it because even if they show this thing in a good way, they think that some audiences will complain and beforehand they say "we won't show it," so they won't get any complaints. But in the case of Fullmetal Alchemist, already in the original work the main character has the metal leg and arm, and I thought that's a good way to show something like that. The show has a lot of themes about racism too - it's tough to find a way to talk about those subjects when the unspoken rule is, we don't show that stuff.

So it was important to you that this harsher content be accepted as… this isn't too harsh for families, it's something that you should see and should embrace? Is that how you feel?

My goal was not to show harsh images, but to show the stuff I said earlier, that kind of representation, I have to use these harsh images. That's the natural way. If you do it lighter, for example, then it would not be real anymore.

Of your recent projects and your older ones--Un-Go, Oedo Rocket, all this original stuff that you've done--what in your recent--or Kamen Rider--what has made you most creatively fulfilled that you've gotten to create recently?

Un-Go, I enjoyed working on this very much because this is also a title with Mizushima-san. And also for the Kamen Rider series and other Toei works, Tokusatsu Toei works, I enjoy the tension because I has to fulfill some stuff, for example, and Toei expects something and I have to fulfill this. So this challenge, the tension, I enjoyed that.

So you like having some structure, you like rising to the challenge of demands?

In earlier times that was the case, but nowadays it's more like I think fulfilling these demands is… of course I do it because I'm a professional, but the important thing is to check if I also can do what I want to show. Because if you only fulfill the orders of production it's not good as a creative work for me. So I try fulfill the production's demands, but also with enough creativity of my own.

Many American fans are familiar with infamous or legendary works in the 80s, OVAs in the 80s you were heavily involved in: Urotsukidoji, Angel Cop, Violence Jack. For older anime fans those are classics. Looking at your work from back then, because it was so long ago, do you have specific feelings about that stuff? And was the industry very different then in how you could work on that stuff and make what you made?

You mentioned OVAs, Original Video Animations. Back then there were many OVAs but since the production companies were able to directly produce TV animations the necessity of OVAs was not anymore there. So they did not need to distribute them as video cassettes. That's why OVAs are not needed to be created anymore. But I think that there are also some stuff that can only be shown as OVAs.

I think that OVAs back then were for younger staff who looked up to the major TV anime. They thought all the old pros were creating TV anime for young people. OVAs were a format younger staff used to challenge themselves - they were full of passion. That's what OVAs were back then. Today, there are no OVAs anymore, but there's a clear divide between primetime anime and late night TV anime, which are the OVAs of today, so to speak. Many younger staff work on them, but the challenge itself is now harder because OVAs were only one cassette, but a late-night TV series is like 13 episodes. It hasn't really changed that much when you think about it.

So you feel, when you look back at your work from that time period, you feel like you did everything you could to show your passion then, and you're still doing that now, even though the format is different?

Yeah, of course I want to work like this, as you said. But I think that script writing is kind of like writing a diary. Because you can only write what you felt on that day, you cannot suddenly write something that has nothing to do with present society or your present self or what you feel now. When I read my old works now I notice that, for example, in my younger years, "oh in this work I remember I was very upset about something," or "this work, this was around when I got married, so happy stuff is in it." Everything I feel will influence my work and that will also be the case for my future works.

Lastly, I was curious if you agree with what's being said right now about the anime industry in Japan being in a bubble? And if so, do you have any predictions about what the anime industry will look like in three or four years?

If it's a bubble or not depends on the person, how that person sees it and thinks about it. It's true, and what I think is there are many, many titles in one season. Too much.

<all laugh>

It's also true that most of them are also--you say one "cour" in Japan, one season, twelve or thirteen episodes. They're shorter series. This is why I don't know whether or not it's a happy bubble. In three or four years, I say that now the studios are like… if there is a creator and I get famous, and I'm not happy with the work or my other colleagues, I instantly go independent and work as an independent writer or creator. Such a situation might dampen the motivation of younger staff who want to start now in the animation business and be inspired by these star creators working within a studio. If this continues the quality also shrinks and that's not a good thing, so the studios have to be built up again and get bigger, and be able to retain creators who become famous.

Would you say there is a divide between more-experienced older creators and newer staff that are trying to get in? Do you think there's a rift that's growing?

I was born in 1965 and since then many directors or writers were working in the anime business. People who were born around then, many of them became creators. The younger generations, people born in the 70s through the 90s, they aren't becoming creators as much. I feel this distance a little bit, it's true, but as time goes by there is a change of generations, so when the older generation retires, maybe things will change. Still, the younger ones move to the center, but that does not mean that they are alone and do everything. They're still supported by those older staff and by their peers. So I think this interaction and exchange between generations is very important. For example, for Concrete Revolution there are many writers participating and one of them is Masaki Tsuji, who is also the writer of the very first Astro Boy. He's 83. So he's been around a very, very long time in the industry. Also, I'm planning another project with Gen Urobuchi, the writer of Madoka Magica, and there's another project I'm working on with a very young writer in his 30s, Chaos Dragon. So I'm working across generations here; it's great, I think.

I think that's great too, it's exciting.

Thank you.

Thank you very much.

Thanks to Daisuki, Shō Aikawa and Anime Expo for the opportunity.

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