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Interview: IDOLiSH7 Producer Sokichi Shimooka and Director Makoto Bessho

by Rai Kelly,


Ready for more idols? IDOLiSH7 is a mobile rhythm game about male idols that launched in back in 2015, with an anime series already well on the way – a 17-episode adaptation begins airing this January, but you can check out the first two episodes on Crunchyroll right now. It's the latest swing for idol glory from Bandai, previously responsible for the globe-consuming smash success Love Live! – so why not try it with boys this time?  At AnimeNYC, I was able to sit down with Producer Sokichi Shimooka and Director Makoto Bessho to ask them questions about their latest project and their reasons for pursuing this new direction.

How did you originally get involved with the IDOLiSH7 project?

Shimooka: Since I was with Bandai Namco Online from the beginning, this project is kind of my brain child. Being a game company, we were interested in smart phones, which is this new kind of platform. In Japan, around 2014, the smart phone was still a very new thing. So, we wanted to put a new intellectual property on the market and we thought it would be the perfect thing to put on the smart phone. Around that same time, the industry was about girl idols for mainly a male audience, so, upon seeing that, we thought this kind of thing was going to come over to the female side. That's where we started and ever since then I have been the producer for IDOLiSH7

Bessho: I was kind of surprised because I wasn't sure if I was the man they were looking for, but at the same time, I wanted to be part of the project.

What was your initial impression of the mobile game?

Bessho: When the idea of an anime version of the IDOLiSH7 game came up, the people said, “Play the game.” I am not really the gaming type, but when I played it, I was actually quite surprised at the dramatic aspects of it, the story part of it. I found the story to be a very interesting part of the game.

Shimooka: We made the games with the scenarios as a focus. Although it is a rhythm game, you don't really need to play too much in order to read all of the scenarios. There was kind of an uneasiness because a part of us felt that if it's a rhythm game, it should be a bit more game heavy. But others thought that it would be fine because we placed great depth in the story. It was a bit of an uneasy launch at the beginning, but after the launch, we were quite happy because people were generally very accepting of what we had come up with. I believe that sends a very positive message about what we made.

Is an anime like this intended to stand on its own, or is it designed to appeal chiefly to fans of the game? Would someone who's never played the game enjoy the series?

Shimooka: Since this anime is made very true to the original game, it should be very enjoyable for the fans of the game. Will it not be enjoyable to newcomers? I don't think so. It's gonna be enjoyable for both the people who already know the game and for newcomers. If you see the first two episodes of the anime, they were done very well, and I believe this is because of Bessho-san's work. But that is definitely a key challenge for us: being able to balance the enjoyment of the people who already know the IDOLiSH7 game and the people who are new to the series as an anime.

Bessho: We don't think it would always be effective to add original anime content. Sometimes it would, sometimes it won't. What I value right now, just as Shimooka-san had said, is making something that both people who are familiar with the game and newcomers can enjoy. That is something I value very highly at the moment.  

What would you say is the #1 most important element when you're adapting a mobile game? Is it the story, the characters, or something else?

Bessho: The answer is that is depends on what the content is, but as far as IDOLiSH7 goes, I believe that IDOLiSH7 already has a very good story. What we would like to add on is some depth into things that the game could have expressed. For example, like having people who already seen it saying, “Oh, this is what the scene is supposed to look like.” In regards to that, the anime could be choreographed with a lot more depth and the expression of the characters be shown in more depth. What we want to show is what users of the game want to see.

Shimooka: I believe something that is fun is something that can be watched and enjoyed multiple times. So, pushing that idea, I think that even people who have played the game and know how it ends will want to watch it multiple times. If you haven't played the game yet, I will assure you that you will enjoy both the anime and the game.

Creatively, what are the biggest challenges when it comes to adapting a mobile game into an anime?

Bessho:  If you have seen episode two, you probably know that there's a live scene. This is the first time we have done stage directions for an anime. Usually, a scene where there's a live performance, there are image cuts. We actually didn't use image cuts. We wanted to make the feeling of viewing an actual live concert. This is something I decided from the very beginning. I don't regret it, but there was probably an easier way to go about it. I believe it is a new and very innovative thing that we did with IDOLiSH7.    

Your list of credits has a lot of action and drama and sci-fi – not a lot of shows like IDOLiSH7! Did you wind up taking inspiration or influence for IDOLiSH7 from any of the previous shows you've worked on?

Bessho:  It was a totally different experience. I personally wasn't able to draw too much inspiration from something that I did. Recently, I worked on Space Battleship Yamato and Attack on Titan. Was I able to draw inspiration from that? Maybe not!  

Have you seen other examples of anime you thought were particularly good? Anything you drew inspiration from?

Bessho:  To be honest, I don't really watch anime too much anymore. So, I wouldn't really be able to say that I drew inspiration from anything. But I did watch lots of live DVDs! I looked at what kind of lighting they used and their costumes. I did take inspiration from that.  

Many of the shows you've worked on in the past were aimed at a male audience – IDOLiSH7 is doubtlessly aimed at women. Was that a major leap for you, creatively? Were there differences in the way you approached the material?

Bessho:  Since the audience is much different from what I did in the past, I would say that a different audience would need a different approach. I thought that this is something leaning more towards younger people. I thought maybe I should take ideas from younger people, but I am the one who got the job. “This might be a chance for me” is what I thought. Destiny might be overstating it. And it might not be God and it might not be a heavenly entity, but something has clicked and made me the director for this anime. I thought this would be the perfect chance for me to test myself.

I really appreciated the way you animated the dance sequence at the end of episode 2 – intercutting from wide shots of CG models to close-ups of traditional animation. How do you feel about using CG actors, and how did you balance those two elements?

Bessho:  I personally have nothing against using CG and I think we used motion capture pretty effectively. But there are pros and cons for both CG and traditional animation. We wanted to take the best of both worlds because there is something that CG excels at and something traditional animation excels at. But there are also limitations to what CG can do, and what traditional animation could do. So, we tried to balance them and use them to the best of our ability in order to make a better scene.

Is a project like this considered a risk, or is it considered a safe investment?

Shimooka: Yes, I thought it was a risk! Basically, when we started, the analysis of the market is that the app game market was risky. But at the same time, what we believe is that, without risk, without taking chances, you wouldn't be able to make anything new.  

Can you tell us a little about your duties as executive producer on a show like IDOLiSH7? What's your #1 responsibility?

Shimooka: To preserve the quality of the anime. To have the fans enjoy the anime. That I believe is my biggest responsibility. We want to have a new intellectual property on the market and a new experience for our fans to enjoy. That would be my mission statement for the series.

What do you make of the current business environment for anime? Do you think we're in a bubble right now, and do you think that bubble is potentially dangerous for the industry?

Shimooka: Whether it is a “bubble” or not, I cannot answer. But I believe it is coming to a new era. It's definitely a new age where something that is good will be regarded as better than something that's not so good. I believe that right now the anime industry is having difficulty with being an “anime only” industry, so I believe that it is truly survival of the best.  

How important are mobile game anime for the future of the business?

Shimooka: With regards for mobile games, I think it really depends on what it is because if it's a game that focuses on building up its world and setting, then it would be very suited for the current anime market. I say this because games are a very different medium compared to anime. For games, you need to be physically moving your hands or thinking of things in order to be successful at it. It is an active medium. Anime, as opposed to that, is a bit more passive because even if you don't move your hands it is going to come to you. So, we think the fans of each type of medium are going to be drastically different. For a game to be able to reach out to a new audience is definitely beneficial. But since the difference in the medium is very great, I believe that a mobile game that builds up its world and setting is going to fare better as an anime.

You can read about the screening, the first two episodes of the anime, and some additional questions from Bessho and Shimooka in the panel report from AnimeNYC.

Thanks to Bandai and Anime NYC for this opportunity.

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