How Creative Original Anime Get Made with Takayuki Nagatani

by Callum May & Kim Morrissy,

“Please help me make (Flip Flappers director) Kiyotaka Oshiyama popular overseas!”

In just over an hour of talking to anime producer Takayuki Nagatani, it's easy to get the impression that he's not just the producer of some of the most creative anime of the decade, but also a fan of them and their staff as well. Flip Flappers, Hanasaku Iroha, Shirobako, The Devil Is A Part-Timer and Citrus are just a fraction of the shows that he's been involved in. To learn more, I headed down to his office to meet him. It was an easy place to spot; it's the one guarded by a life-sized plush of Roro from Shirobako.

Nagatani first got into the anime industry after meeting Neon Genesis Evangelion producer Toshimichi Otsuki from King Records. At the time, it wasn't clear to him what the role of an anime producer was, but he was interested in the idea of being involved with different stages of production. He also found that after Evangelion, late-night anime had become an interesting industry to work in with many exciting new series being released. So he began his career working as an assistant producer at King Records. He spent a few years there before going freelance and eventually making his way to becoming a producer for Bandai Visual. He joined the company due to the vast scope of different series he could be a part of and regards his time there as a learning experience.

But even at Bandai, he still felt that he still didn't have the freedom he was hoping for. As a young producer at the time, there was a generation gap that stopped him from developing the sort of stories that he wanted to see. When I asked Nagatani what sort of shows he wanted to create, he told me that he wanted to make anime about adolescence and growing up. He now regards Hanasaku Iroha and A Lull in the Sea to be series that he'd always dreamed of making. But whenever he'd brought up these ideas to other producers, they thought that those sort of stories weren't appropriate for anime and should be reserved for live action.

It was with these stories in mind that he left Bandai, set up his own company and took on the challenge of trying to get companies together to fund these series. At Infinite, it was now his job to work with animation studios and creative staff to create pitches for series that would encourage other production companies to fund them. He would then approach the contacts that he'd met back at King Records and Bandai to establish a production committee.

Although he had his own preferences, he made it his goal to help establish new studios by working with them to create their first series. It was his belief that launching a studio with an original anime helped them develop their own brand. He would even stay at each studio during production of their first series to help out with any issues and prevent production disasters. The three new studios that have received his help so far are P.A. Works, White Fox and Studio 3Hz. Although their debut works may have not all been original, these anime gave them the push to be able to get new series greenlit.

Each of these ideas was tailored towards the studios themselves. Nagatani and P.A. Works President Kenji Horikawa were on the same wavelength, wanting to create stories about adolescence. White Fox was developed from the staff of Utawarerumono at OLM, so their debut series became an adaptation of a different visual novel from the same company. And Studio 3Hz wanted to create action series, so he worked with them to find something they could all be enthusiastic about. Once his ideas are presented, they decide on a director and work together to come up with a concept that they all agree on and could convince companies to fund the production.

After each of these companies had produced their debut works, Nagatani continued to work closely with the creative staff at each studio. Before the release of Studio 3Hz's first anime, Celestial Method, Nagatani and the staff were planning a second original anime, this time directed by Kiyotaka Oshiyama. Instead of being intimately involved in the creative process, this time he just wanted to help Oshiyama realise his vision for Flip Flappers.

It was at this point in telling his story that he interjected, “Oh, can I just say one more thing? Oshiyama is brilliant. He's still so young, but he's so skilled at filling his work with so many fantastical elements. Even if I don't understand it all, it's always so impressive. Please help me make Kiyotaka Oshiyama popular overseas! (laughs)”

Nagatani retains a strong relationship with the studios and directors that he works with. Although there are a huge amount of people that he'd love to collaborate with, he aims to strengthen his relationships with the creators that he's already familiar with. He compares this with the relationship between Studio Ghibli president Toshio Suzuki and Hayao Miyazaki. “You don't get a relationship like that with throwaway works,” he says. “It's something that has to be built up over years and while I want to create lots of different works, I also want to create deeper relationships.”

“When most anime companies select the staff for a project, they'll base their decisions on the creator's track record and what successful series they were a part of. But here at Infinite, the bigger consideration is what the creators themselves want to do.” Anime projects will start based on directors approaching him with their ideas for an original anime. It also works vice versa with Nagatani approaching different directors with his own genre or a concept, asking, “Is this something you'd want to do?”

Takayuki Nagatani's upcoming series are Sirius the Jaeger with P.A. Works and Masahiro Ando, and Black Fox with Studio 3Hz and Kazuya Nomura. These are both original series with both Japanese and overseas audiences in mind. “When I'm creating a series with an overseas audience in mind, I start with a basic idea and a big director that will grab people's attention. For series made with a Japanese audience, we'll also take the scenario writer into account.”

In the cases of Sirius the Jaeger and Black Fox, the two core ideas are ones that appeal to both American and Japanese viewers: Ninjas and vampires. Both animation studios were brought onto these projects because they're well regarded overseas, even though Studio 3Hz is still a young company. “I wanted to see if I could create two series that could appeal to a global market.”

Nagatani was also instrumental in getting the recently announced Shirobako film greenlit. He is personally a huge fan of the series, and after it ended, he made it his goal to create more of it. But at the time, he struggled to get everyone else on board. “It's not that hard to clear everyone's schedule if we all really wanted to create more Shirobako. So the issue was getting everyone to agree that more Shirobako would be the best for that story.” There was confusion over where the story would go after the first season if they just continued it as a TV series. But Nagatani finally managed to convince the rest of the staff to continue the story by planning it as a movie with a different kind of story and a higher quality production.

Despite his clear preference for developing original anime, Nagatani is sometimes approached by publishers to create anime adaptations of their light novels and anime. But an Infinite show generally takes longer than most adaptations. “Normally in the anime industry, it takes 2 years to make an anime adaptation, but at Infinite it can take 3 years as we'll spend the extra year searching for the right staff. So if the schedules don't line up or they ask too early, we won't be able to prepare for it.”

That said, there is another consideration Nagatani takes into account when creating adaptations. “Well, I'm an otaku. So I only really like to make adaptations of things that I like.” In the case of Citrus, the publisher sent him volumes of the manga. Although it wasn't the cute and fluffy yuri series that he'd expected, he was interested in the complicated relationship and wanted to create an anime that would appeal to both the male and female fans of the manga. When creating an adaptation, Nagatani tries not to think of it too differently as creating an original series, as he aims to create something that's good in its own right, rather than just appealing to the established fanbase.

But Takayuki Nagatani's job doesn't stop once the anime is released. His role as producer also includes promotion and marketing. Since a lot of anime merchandise involves character goods, Nagatani aims to try and make each character popular while the series is airing. Since it's difficult to tell which characters will be popular by the end, expensive merchandise like figures aren't planned until after the series has ended. “I want every character to be popular, so when we're making clear files and tapestries while the show is still airing, we'll try and give every character a chance. Even if a character isn't that popular, we can push a lot of merch for them and maybe they'll have a future.”

An example Nagatani put forward was Shirobako, where he made sure there was merchandise available for each of the five girls. To achieve this, he made sure a lot of merchandise was made with all five girls together and avoided just making items for the most popular characters. With a series like Citrus, he wanted to sell the two protagonists as a unit and made sure that the merchandise featured them together. “Although it's not always about the business,” he added. “I'll often just like making merch from series that have lost their popularity.” Nagatani has even taken special requests before. “I won't name them, but sometimes animators will approach me saying that they love a particular character and I'll make merchandise just for them! (laughs)”

Speaking to a producer as creatively involved as Takayuki Nagatani offers the opportunity to get more information on the anime production process as a whole, from the first idea to the merchandise produced and events held years later. By elevating young studios and allowing promising creators like Kiyotaka Oshiyama to take control of their own series, Nagatani has become both directly and indirectly responsible for many of the most interesting anime of the decade.

Thanks to Takayuki Nagatani for accepting this interview and inviting us to the Infinite office.

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