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Interview: Amica Kubo

by Kim Morrissy,

Amica Kubo is one of the best animation directors that anime fans have probably never heard of. She has dealt primarily with commercial animations for TV programs and short animation films, many of which have won prizes at international film festivals. Her short film Bloomed Words, which she directed while she was still a student at Tokyo Polytechnic University, won the Excellence Prize at the Japan Media Arts Festival. Kubo also served on the jury of the Ottawa International Animation Festival '08 and the Interfilm Berlin '14. URAHARA is her first role as a TV anime director.

I was lucky enough to sit down with Kubo at Crunchyroll Expo and talk to her about her fascinating career, her approach to art and animation, and how she came to be involved with Crunchyroll.

ANN: You were recently in Paris before coming to Crunchyroll Expo. What do you think of Paris? How does it compare to the United States?

AMICA KUBO: I lived in France for two years. One of those years was as an exchange student in high school. I took art classes and orchestral studies -- I played the violin. I didn't choose to go on exchange for myself, so as an adult I decided to go back for another year. So you could say that France is my other hometown. I can get around without a map, and there are so many places and people that I love. I go back to France whenever I have the opportunity.

As for how it compares to the US, I lived in Los Angeles for a year, but the landscape is really so different. This has nothing to do with anything, but I didn't have a car when I was living in Los Angeles, so I had to walk and use public transport. The distances were quite huge to me. But in Europe, you can walk anywhere. America is really nothing like Japan; it's like a whole new country. Europe has lots of old pre-war buildings, and it looks very different from America too. This has absolutely nothing to do with animation though.

How did you become interested in making anime?

When I was a student in university, I took a course in animation. I thought it looked interesting, so I gave it a try. From there, I discovered that it was really fun and fell in love with it. Back then, however, I was trying out all sorts of things that I could do with my animation skills. I interned at Nintendo and made games. I also participated in film projects. Doing all that stuff made me realize that I really wanted to create stuff all by myself, so I got into making original short films (tampen).

Ah, was that the genesis of tampen.jp?

The website? No, that came later. I made an original short animation movie. That was in my final year of university. I got some prizes and awards, so I could start working as a freelance animation director. It was just after I'd finished my graduation.

You mentioned before that you made games?

That's right. Between my first year and third year at university, I worked at Nintendo. I participated on lots of projects as a designer. I'm not allowed to talk about it much in detail, though. When I was a first-year student, they were making Gameboy Advance games.

What are your favorite animated projects you've worked on?

Just after I started making original animation, it became my job, so I've never been able to make animation just as I please. I experienced some conflict over that, but after about two or three years I was able to come to terms with it. It's been ten years since then. I don't think of my animation as work anymore, but that also means that I have to live for my work. I don't write the stories, so it's hard to say what I liked best.

But this project is different, isn't it? You have more creative freedom?

I'm finally doing a commercial anime, which means that there are more things that I can do than ever. After ten years of doing animation, it's about time for me to pitch my own characters and concepts. I love design work, so I thought I'd try this opportunity.

What were the circumstances behind launching the website tampen.jp?

I've mainly made a name for myself through short animation. They're very minor compared to anime. Even if my work gets shown at a film festival and wins a prize, it won't make the news. Even Japanese people don't know who's active in the Japanese short animation scene. I wanted to make that world more accessible to the public. Individual artists aren't that well known either, you know? By uploading their works, I wanted to help spread the word. That's why I started the site.

Do you prefer working on short animation or longer series?

They're completely different things, but I like them both. This time, I've been given the director's seat. In Japanese anime, it's a position with a lot of authority. In America, they're more like a producer, but in Japan, the director is the most important role.

With this project, I had to check basically everything: the characters’ appearances, their clothing choices, accessories, colors, background art, and so on. I came up with the basic form of this series. They're not characters I originally came up with, but it is fun to develop them. I get a different kind of enjoyment from doing this compared to commercials. I've learned a lot from the veterans working on this project. It's very fun to make anime with such a skilled group of people.

As for commercials, they tend to be finished within a week. I helped make the opening animations for things like variety shows. Those kinds of projects tend to be given to me at the last minute; for example, I'll be asked to make something within three days. The time goes by like a whirlwind, but I do think there's a kind of fun in starting a project and finishing it quickly.

Is it that hectic?

Sure it is, but with an anime series you have about two years to work with. That's quite a long time, which I think presents its own difficulties.

I've heard that TV anime schedules can also be very tight.

They are. URAHARA is based off an original comic, but I spent about a year-and-a-half hammering out the finer details of the story with Natsuko-san. In order to make an anime, the setting needs to be fully fleshed out. If it's based off a manga, you can look at it and work out how all the designs should be in the anime. But with URAHARA, we did almost everything from scratch, so it feels like we've had less time than other anime projects do. Everything's been very busy.

When did you first learn about Crunchyroll?

Hmm… I guess it was around three or four years ago. I was asked to handle the title design, animation, and character designs for a web radio show on Crunchyroll. I knew of them even before that, but I only got to know them intimately through URAHARA in the winter of 2016.

What made you decide to be the director of URAHARA?

A producer from Shirogumi -- Naomi Tanaka-san -- chose me for the project. We got to know each other in Denmark through the Concept Development Master Class. She was looking for a woman who was into the world of kawaii fashion and thought of me.

How would you describe the original comic? What kind of feeling did you get from reading it?

The story by Patrick-san, right? I haven't actually read the latest chapter; I've only looked at the pictures. But the text goes into a lot of depth when it comes to the girls’ feelings. It's hard to believe that a man wrote it. It's a really well-written story. The prose has a certain rhythm to it, too. When paired with Mugi-chan's exquisite art and backgrounds, it's a very feel-good story.

What kind of animation style do you plan to bring to URAHARA? How do you plan to express the world of URAHARA?

First and foremost, I really wanted to capture Mugi-chan's vision. Specifically, I wanted to capture her rough line art. In Japanese anime, rough lines are generally a no-no; the lines have to connect. It was really hard to capture Mugi-chan's style through animation, but I tried to express it as much as I could. The coloring is also based off Mugi-chan's work. The entire page is awash with bright colors, and you never see any black. We decided never to use the color black in the anime either, even though there are genuinely dark scenes.

Even in the anime?

That's right. The scenes set in the underground area are dark, but instead of using black, we'd use dark blue or other shades like that. The idea was never to use black at all. Also, Mugi-chan's backgrounds have a lot of objects in them -- objects that wouldn't normally exist. Not everybody can draw them. Everybody in the anime staff finds it difficult. When I ask people to draw cute things, they get confused and have trouble. I want to express all the cute details, but that's a lot of work for an anime, so we can't do it in every single cut. We endeavored to show the cute backgrounds as much as reasonably possible.

This should be last question for you. Where do you see the anime industry headed in five or ten years?

The entire world or just Japan?

Just Japan.

Well, first off, I think that everything will go digital. Well, that's what I hope. I was quite surprised by the production of URAHARA. The editing, compositing, and sound mixing sections have been digital for ages, but I think that other parts of production are becoming more digital too.

Inside the animation department itself, however, people are still drawing on paper. I'm talking about people in their fifties or so. They'd draw in their houses and the production assistants would bring me the sheets. Night or day, even in the peak of summer, that's how they do it, even as they were sweating buckets. I'd ask, “Wouldn't it be easier to do things digitally?” but, you know, there are a lot of veterans who are really good at their jobs but won't use digital tools. Digital tools require a different skillset, so I can understand why not everyone uses them.

But after ten years or so, I think that there will be more progress. Even now, there are companies that just do everything digitally. I suppose that there will be more companies like that in the future.

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