Interview: Seiji Kishi

by Bamboo Dong,

We sat down with director Seiji Kishi to talk about Yuki Yuna Is a Hero, which he was representing at Otakon 2015 as a special guest of Ponycan USA. Over his long career, Kishi has also directed other notable series, including Assassination Classroom, Danganronpa The Animation, Humanity Has Declined, Persona 4 The Animation, and others.

Firstly, congratulations on winning the Animation Kobe Award! That must have been very exciting. Do you feel as though you have a little more pressure now because you've won such a prestigious award?

In terms of pressure, not really, because that was a point where I realized that my decisions have been right, because it's thanks to our staff that's made it possible for everything. So we were on the right track, and that's what matters.

You've been directing anime for a very long time - 20 years or so. What are some of the things that have changed in your personal creative process, or how you approach communicating with your staff?

In terms of differences with staff, nothing's really changed, because our staff has been constantly very similar. But experience adds on a lot. Within the last 20 years, with one project after another, we've been able to gather good points and bad points, and our experience helps us get things done smoother.

But what has changed is the times, because the world is constantly changing. We are constantly trying to get with the flow of time so we can provide the customer with what they need. I think that's the biggest change that we've experienced. For myself, and the staff as a whole, what we fear the most is not being able to keep up with the times.

Can you give an example of a trend that you've seen change over the years, in terms of what the customer wants?

One thing that's changed a lot is the characters that the customers want. What's changed is basically the main character. Before, it used to be kind of customary for the main character to really think and get into conflicts with himself about what he was doing and what not. But that characteristic, where the main character faces conflicts and difficulties… that's become very unpopular. What seems to be a recent trend lately with characters, and I can't really pinpoint why, is relatively flat characters—characters that are unmoving, unwavering, relatively plain. As makers, we really see the times moving past us when we see those kinds of characters.

Speaking of conflicted characters, one of my favorite series of all time is Yugo the Negotiator, which you worked on. He had a lot of personal turmoil; it's one of the things that made the show so great.

Yugo was a character fitting for those times. If I were to reanimate him now, he'd be a bit different. He'd probably need more customizations added to his character. By customization, I mean the things that I would change without destroying his characteristics. I would find a way to make his character appealing in this day and age.

Regarding Yuki Yuna Is a Hero, it's been mentioned before that the girls of the Hero Club—their personalities were conceived long before even the details of the story itself were constructed. Do you think that focusing on the characters first influenced how you approached directing the series?

Yes, indeed. Many parts of the story were influenced by first fleshing out the characters first. With Yuki Yuna, we created the characters, then fleshed out the characters a lot before the series even really came to shape. We had a rough story line already, but when it came to certain certain points, we were able to say, "Well, this character probably wouldn't say that, right?" or "This one would probably do something different." When we did that, the story would end up going in a different direction.

Can you elaborate on how things changed throughout the process?

By fleshing out the characters, we were able to say, "they would do this" or "they would do that." The characters, in the sense of the story, would waver relatively. But in the world that we made, we were able to say—although indefinitely, because humans do waver and what not—that we could have a grasp on what would happen.

Regarding one of the characters, Mimori— it's very rare for an anime to have a character who is physically disabled and also one of the stars of the series. Although the anime does show details of her everyday life, like how she goes up stairs, or what she does with her wheelchair, it goes through great pains to never treat her as being disabled, which I think is very refreshing. I was hoping you could talk about her character, as well as any special considerations you or your staff had when animating her scenes.

One of the main themes in Yuki Yuna Is a Hero is the risk that comes from the heroes using their powers. The action and the counteraction that comes from it is kind of shown by this character. I firmly believed that by drawing a disabled person, I could not do it half-heartedly. People who have physical disabilities—how they live is very similar to how people who don't have physical disabilities do. They live life just like we do. We need to be true to that. It would be nothing but disrespectful if we said, "Well, why are we putting a disabled person in? Because we need it for the story?" No, that would be completely disrespectful. What we had to do, was we had to stay true to the fact that a disabled person would live just like us, and we needed to draw that. It was that simple.

This whole idea of taking risks… Aside from being a risk taker, to you, what does it mean to be a hero?

Firstly, I asked myself, "What really is a hero?" Is a hero just someone who has a superpower? That's probably one of the central elements of a hero, but the people who use these superpowers, or people in real life who have done great deeds—did they just simply use the powers? No. I believe everything has a reaction and a counter-reaction. If they had used that kind of extreme power, there was also a price that the person had to pay. What a hero is, ultimately, I think is getting over those prices that they paid. That's what makes them a hero.

I see that theme a lot in some of your other works, as well, even if it's not a theme that's explicitly stated. There are a lot of characters that you've directed that I think have this idea of balance, where everyone who does something good also suffers some kind of negative aspect, even if it's internal or emotional. What draws you to that theme?

To tell the truth, I'm not sure what draws me in. It may be some experience I had as a child. When I was a child, I was one of those minority groups. I think many people do experience some of the negative parts of their lives as a child. But my personality is kind of interesting, where even if it's a completely negative environment, I can find some positive things inside of it. Maybe the reason why I find such things inside my stories, or the reason why I put those things inside my stories or characters is that it may be something a bit more personal, but I can't really place my hand on why it is.

Do you think that everyone, including villains, has the potential to be a hero?

Yes, definitely. Because I believe that if I were to write something, it would be a very possible thing.

Given the changes throughout the years, do you think the heroes you directed 20 or 10 years ago would be the same, or similar, to the heroes you direct now?

In terms of heroes… yes, they would be very similar. But the character that shoulders the heroic aspect would be very different. But the idea of what a hero should be.. I think that would stay the same.

Yuki Yuna Is a Hero is very dark, very serious. Was working on such a dark show emotionally taxing either for you or your staff during production?

I do believe the scenario writers were taxed a lot emotionally, and also the actors. During the recording, Haruka Terui (Yuna) pretty much collapsed in tears during the recording. From that, we were able to see that we had pushed them, and really emotionally taxed them a lot.

Is there any one scene in particular that stands out to you as one that moved you the most?

Spoilers for the ending of Yuki Yuna Is a Hero follow. Please highlight to read the text.

There are just too many. There are so many, but I might have to say it's the last part where Yuna returns, because, as I said before, fighting the risks and what not, she was on the verge of death. Having returned from all that, and saying it was just from sheer willpower, that doesn't quite explain it. But there are some things we keep vague because we don't want to show it, but she must've traveled through lots of barriers in order to return. That also kind of ties into the hero element that I respect the most. That part is what made me feel the hardest about this show.

You've directed so many different protagonists over the years—men, women, older, younger. But if you could create a character that resonated with you personally the most, regardless of target audience, regardless of what the market was like, what would that character be?

That's a difficult questions because I'm the kind of person… I'm not really an artist type, but more like an entertainer, so I always need to think about who would see it, or what would be the best for my audience. In terms of taking that boundary away… if it was not for the audience, but just for me, I don't think I'm able to create that kind of selfish character for myself. But if I were to make a statement regarding that, I would say that the characters that I have produced up until now… well, if the character already exists, I try not to put too much bias in them, but if they have a kind of personality or something in common about them that seeps out from me, those aspects that seep out from me without me really noticing is ultimately what I would like for my characters.

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