Interview: Veteran Anime Director Seiji Kishi

by Zac Bertschy,

If you've been an anime fan for more than a few years, the odds that you haven't seen something Seiji Kishi has worked on are pretty low; the famously prolific director has had his hands in everything from Yuki Yuna Is a Hero to Assassination Classroom to Angel Beats!, Humanity Has Declined, Persona 3 and 4 – the list continues on into infinity. He's got more than a few projects right over the horizon, but we were here to talk to the man about his 3DCG action show for Netflix, Kengan Ashura. It's an adaptation of the classic martial arts manga set in the brutal, hidden world of underground gladiatorial combat by Yabako Sandrovich and artist Daromeon, and it's known for its bravura fighting sequences - something martial arts veteran Kishi was perfect for. The show is set to debut on Netflix next year - we caught up with Kishi during a promotional appearance for the show at Anime Expo.

ANN: What drew you to this story? It's kind of an old manga, and it's not like anything else in your filmography, really.

SEIJI KISHI: Someone else actually pitched it to me. It's relatively old, but I've been a fan of this manga for a long time.

Why do you think they chose this title? It's so unlike your other work, at least in my opinion.

Actually, I've been telling everybody around me, that I want to do this manga, I want to do this, I want to do this. Coincidentally, it came to me.

Finally! Well that's really great. Have you always wanted to do this manga in particular, or have you always wanted to do a big, fiery, burning, seinen bloody violent thing?

Actually, I've been a martial artist, so I've always liked martial arts stuff. Because I love martial arts, I always wanted to do something in anime or manga—martial arts anime or manga. And when you talk about martial arts, you can't really escape from pain, blood, violence. So it's fiery, and it's hot.

It does feel really different from the stuff that you're most known for, things like the Persona anime. It feels like a departure. Are there elements of your affinity for martial arts in your other work? Did it kind of seep in there? Or do you see this as your first true “action show”?

Yeah. I wasn't really conscious about it, but there are some action scenes in other stuff that I've already done. Maybe there could be some elements of martial arts in there, maybe.

So this is a 3D CG show. You did one of those before, Arpeggio of Blue Steel. Do you like working with 3D?

Of course I love it.

Which do you prefer working with – 2D or 3D?

That's a difficult question. Relatively, I probably like 3D CG better. Because whatever's in my head can actually be depicted, whereas with 2D anime, it was more dependent on the person that would draw the visuals. It could be different from what I was envisioning. This kind of 3D CG, whatever I direct, can be depicted directly. Of course, the art depends on whoever is actually programming and drawing and stuff like that, but I feel like 3D CG does allow me to direct my entire staff toward one idea. So that's why I like it better.

So you feel like as a director, 3DCG gives you more control. Do you feel like this show is more representative of you as an artist than some of your previous work?

Yeah I think so, relatively.

One of the standout things about this show is that it successfully uses squash and stretch in the CG. The characters deform convincingly, which is something that 3D has struggled with a little bit. I was wondering how long that took you to develop. Was that something that was a challenge?

You know the company Larx Entertainment, who did all the CG? They are amazing and very talented. Some things that I thought would be impossible, they made possible. It was not that much of an issue, to ask them to do things that could be really difficult.

Going into this project, did you have some misgivings about the ability of the 3D format to handle this story in the way that you wanted it to?

Yes, of course. The point that I thought would be very difficult was facial expressions. Because Japanese manga and anime, we have very particular ways of doing facial expressions. But I think they accomplished 80%, or maybe more. At least 80% of what I really wanted.

Wow.

Some of the obstacles I was worried about could be cleared by combining—we call it hybrid—hand drawing and the 3D.

Do you think that's where the future is?

Yes.

In terms of martial arts anime and manga and films and television shows, anything aside from the manga it's based on, what would you say were your major influences on this?

Honestly, there's nothing else.

Nothing. Just this story.

Because I don't think there's anybody that could actually do it so well.

Really? Wow.

Yeah. What I'm saying is that the martial arts sequences, I don't think there's anybody who could do it—from drawing, to 3D, to actually depict the realness of the martial arts. Do you know Fist of the Blue Sky?

Sure.

If I really have to tell you, Pony Canyon's Fist of the Blue Sky. That one I feel has had the best martial arts scenes with 3D technology. It's likely that everyone starting to think alike, using 3D and the hybrid technique and stuff like that.

Thinking back to when you worked on Arpeggio of Blue Steel, how much has this technology changed? And in that period, are the challenges just different now, or has it actually gotten a lot easier?

3D animation that looks just like 2D animation, it's not really developed yet. So everybody's seeking the answer. So it's still trial and error. At this point, everybody's trying to figure out what kind of content we can depict, using this technology. We've been challenging ourselves, and for this project too, we were challenging ourselves to figure out how we can use this technology to create something the audience finds entertaining and incredible. In terms of Arpeggio of Blue Steel, it was the first step, to try to see if we can make a character cute with this technology.

So with Arpeggio of Blue Steel, you were challenging yourself to create a truly “cute” character using 3DCG anime – so Kengan Ashura is kind of the aesthetic opposite of that, given you're now trying to convincingly create wildly violent martial arts sequences using more advanced techniques.

Yes, definitely.

What was it like working with Netflix? I've been speaking with a lot of directors and creators, and they've been talking a lot about the freedom that Netflix gives them. Did you experience that on this show?

Yeah, you know, no comment for this one. They don't tell me anything.

Oh so they don't, you're just given…

So extremely free. Lots of freedom.

Do you have enough time? What kind of time constraints are you under? Because that seems like it might be the only limitation is how much time you're given, in terms of your resources. Do you feel like even that is a dramatic improvement over what you're used to, in the production committee system?

It's just about the timing that Netflix—other than that, they never tell us “could you express it this way, not that way.” They don't say anything.

So time is the only limitation, basically?

Yes, they do tell us “let's make that happen by this day.”

Last couple of questions here. I wanted to know what some of your other favorite martial arts manga are - this one's really good. And if that's your favorite, what are some of the others?

There's a manga called Kenji, I love it.

Any interest in adapting that one?

Yeah, I really want to make it.

Next one, after this.

I honestly want to make it. I'm not sure who would like it, or how we can make it enjoyable for someone. Because Kenji, it's really subtle, and it's very realistic. That's why it's difficult. I think it would be difficult to make it entertaining.

Maybe you could pull it off!

Our thanks to Anime Expo, Pony Canyon and Seiji Kishi for this opportunity.


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