Interview: Kazuya Sasahara on Dai-Shogun VR

by Zac Bertschy,

Kazuya Sasahara is known among Western fans chiefly for his directorial work on Cat Shit One (also known as Apocalypse Meow in the US), a little CG OVA featuring realistic fuzzy animals locked in the horrors of war. Sasahara is back with a Kickstarter for an ambitious Virtual Reality version of Dai Shogun Great Revolution, based on the 2014 series of the same name, a project which we naturally had a whole lot of questions about.

Zac Bertschy, ANN: I'd like to first ask about Cat Shit One – it made a big splash among US fans. What was it that drew you to that material?

Kazuya Sasahara: People are used to seeing other humans, so by using computer graphics to portray them, you can't help but notice the small incongruities, which really brings up production costs. It all started with the idea that if we used animals, we could bring that cost down.

But at the same time, we knew that just because we were going to make all the characters animals, we did not want to make some cute story for children. While mulling all of this over, I thought of Mr. Motofumi Kobayashi's Cat Shit One.

At the time, there was a lot of talk going around about making an animated version of Cat Shit One, but it was proving difficult to get anthropomorphic animals in a major production. At the time, I was an officer at Anima, Inc. I thought that an independent company like ours could make it happen.

What was it like working on Cat Shit One? I was under the impression that was a very small team. What would you say were the biggest things you learned working on that series?

The actual production of Cat Shit One was very enjoyable and problem free, but we did go over budget, so production was suspended. Getting it back up and running was rather arduous. That was our first experience making a product where we had to sell it ourselves.

What we learned was that it's not so much the film production that's the hard part, but everything that comes before production.

I felt it was necessary to get everyone on board, to make sure everyone involved with the production knew why we were doing it, and that everyone had the enthusiasm to follow through before we start. Even if we were going to take a hit on the film, we were going to stick together. It was important to me that we all felt that way.

On the production side, I have a couple of memories that stand out.

The first was when I met our military consultant, Mr. Tomo Hasegawa. He showed me an actual training video with real guns, and to this day the impact of that has not left me.

The second was when we applied the real tactical maneuvers from Mr. Hasegawa's motion capture session to the cute animals, then later when we added the fluffy hair to those characters. (Mid-production models usually do not have hair.) I thought that was just amazing, and it really ramped up my interest.

Who would you say your biggest influences are, artistically? What comics and TV shows excited you the most as a kid, and what have you seen lately that you loved?

When I was a teenager, I was strongly influenced by Atsushi Kamijo and Katsuhiro Otomo. On the anime side, Mobile Suit Gundam, The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, and other robot anime were my biggest influences. The ones that most show themselves in the world of Dai Shogun Great Revolution are Combat MechaXabungle and Heavy Metal L-Gaim.

As of late, I have been into Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn and Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans.

Can you tell us how you came up with the story of Dai Shogun Great Revolution?

For twenty years now, I had been wanting to make a CG robot anime—a story like CombatMechaXabungle's, where a robot crosses the Earth, travelling to different places. Xabungle had a Western flair, and Dai Shogun Great Revolution is set in Japan's middle ages, but the creative sensibility is the same. The real charm of robot anime is that you have a seemingly normal young person suddenly obtain super power. Along with that, you have those feelings of ambition and uncertainty. It's no fun to see some older guy gain great power that he was entitled to. The audience gets enjoyment by projecting themselves into the situation. Dai Shogun Great Revolution is similar in that respect. But here, in order to pilot Susano (the Monokami that the main character drives), there is one condition—that the couple both be virgins. The main character is surrounded by these sexy girls, but he can't lay a hand on them, and the heroines themselves also need to protect their maidenhood out of that necessity. So the story really came about when I wanted to incorporate this romantic-comedy aspect.

What was your biggest creative goal in creating the original TV series? What did you most want the audience to take away from that show?

I did the original concept for the TV series, but I was not in on the anime production, so the things that I wanted to do did not make it in, and the focus shifted a lot. I decided to do a CG reboot so I could make it how I had envisioned.

The original Dai Shogun Great Revolution anime was criticized heavily for having poor animation – are you looking to make that right, so to speak? To correct that?

The staff on the 2014 anime had a very limited budget to work with, but they were able to pull off a story and performances with complicated character designs, so I would give it high marks for that. The computer animated version will cost far more than that, so I think that naturally the animation quality will improve. If the 2014 Dai Shogun Great Revolution anime had more to work with, it would have been much better. It is important to have the money necessary for the project, but beyond the money aspect, it is also important to have the directorial vision necessary for that high quality look.

What special opportunities do you think Dai Shogun Great Revolution presents you with, when it comes to visual storytelling? Is there something about it specifically that inspires you aesthetically?

The visuals of Dai Shogun Great Revolution draw heavily from the Final Fantasy series, owing to the fact that I wanted to make a full-length film in the vein of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. The backgrounds, mech designs, character proportions, and costuming were made to look realistic, but the facial expressions took on a more manga-like quality. Then we threw in sex appeal, comedy, and robot action to give us Dai Shogun Great Revolution.

I was aiming for the realism and impact of live-action, with the action and excitement of a video game, delivered through characters who would leave an impression, to make a robot anime unlike anything that had come before it.

This project is very unique in that you're aiming to create exactly one minute of VR animation. What led to the decision to do this in VR?

I like the point-of-view visuals that Cloverfield and REC were done with, and I thought that virtual reality would offer a visual style similar to that. A POV-style CG format would also make VR rendering that much easier.

I wanted to do a scene from the first episode of the TV series. So this one-minute movie would be a shot from those first 23 minutes that had the most immersive quality to it.

Are you a proponent of VR? Do you think there's a future for animation in VR?

There are still a couple of problems with directing in VR. There is the motion sickness that accompanies it, as well as the physical toll it takes on the viewer to watch for extended periods. I think there is a good possibility that VR will find an affinity with video games, but VR in animation still has some bugs to work out. However, it is new as a form of artistic expression, and I think that challenging a still unprecedented genre (long or even mid-length VR movies are not in existence yet) is very important to do as a creator.

What challenges arise from crowdfunding a project like this? VR technology is very much in its infancy for home use - are you concerned that the audience for something like this will be quite small?

I do not see any big problems in producing a 360° video for smartphones and YouTube. I think there is more potential there than a normal movie would have through crowdfunding.

A one-minute VR film reminds me of theme park motion simulator films, like Evangelion 4D at Universal Studios Japan - would you say your aim is to create something similar to that short film, a VR thrill ride?

Like I had mentioned earlier, this movie will be the most immersive one-minute scene re-enacted from the 23-minute first episode of the TV series. Should the demand be high enough, we would look into doing the whole thing in VR.

How do you feel about the state of the anime industry in 2016? Do you think we're in a bubble?

It does not feel like we are in a bubble. CGI animation made to look like hand-drawn has certainly increased, and those productions have also seen a wider viewership. Realistic-style animation like Dai Shogun Great Revolution has been in a slump as of late, but the signs of a resurgence are there.

Do you have any predictions about what might happen in the anime industry over the next few years?

I can say with confidence that we will be seeing a lot more CGI animation made to look hand-drawn in the coming years.

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