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HERO MASK Director Hiroyasu Aoki

by Kim Morrissy,

The Netflix-original HERO MASK series is Hiroyasu Aoki's first time directing an original anime series. Aoki has been a unit director on various anime, including Hunter x Hunter and The Boy and The Beast, but HERO MASK represents a step in a new direction. We sat down with him at Studio Pierrot to discuss his latest work.

At first glance, the story seems to have taken a live-action sense of approach. What kind of appeal does HERO MASK have as an animated work?

People often tell me it's like a live-action work, but I actually think that the theme is very anime-ish. Anime is composed of drawings, right? It gives the illusion of movement. Being able to blur the boundaries between reality and fiction is one of the strengths of animation. So even though the anime takes cues from live-action, for the viewers it's fresh because it's in the form of animation. If I were to direct a live-action work, I probably wouldn't make it like this. It's because it's animation that it can achieve all kinds of things.

The action scenes in the anime have a lot of quick cuts. What was the inspiration behind that?

Well, that part may be from live-action. Live-action things with a heavy focus on action can be really amazing, and there are a lot of them. Having lots of quick cuts isn't so common in anime by comparison.

Are those quick cuts decided at the editing stage?

A lot of things happen at the editing stage, but the pacing of those action cuts was decided beforehand at the storyboarding stage. I wanted to depict action that you don't normally see in anime. It's quite different from filming with a real camera. When you're doing live-action, you go around filming a lot of things and edit the footage later, but with animation you have to draw everything from scratch. You don't really take excess footage that you have no intention of using. At the editing stage, we take all the animations and make them connect.

What kind of thought went into the setting?

On an aesthetic level, the realistic atmosphere of the location fits the theme of masks. It's very neat and orderly on the outside, but there's also room to imagine that dark things could be happening behind closed doors. Japan's the same in that way, but if we had set it in Japan with Japanese characters, it would have felt too “real.” I'm very familiar with Japan, after all. The series has an international feel, so that it doesn't point to any particular country. It's set in the real world, but you don't know where exactly it's taking place. There are some things which we got inspired from a real city, though, like the subway.

What was the inspiration for the mask motif?

In a lot of stories, heroes wear masks. It's a symbol in things like tokusatsu, and so on. We came up with the idea of a mask-wearer that isn't a hero on the basis of that. In the first cour, a lot of the mask-wearers come across as enemies.

Theo was a sympathetic character, though, right?

Yes, although there's nobody that you can simply look up to as a hero. Even though Theo had sympathetic motivations, he still interfered with the police and so on. If you changed the perspective on things, James would look like a villain through certain characters' eyes. That's why HERO MASK is about how wearing a mask changes your identity.

The anime isn't just about the action; there are also a lot of scenes showing the characters thinking and investigating. How do you make the investigation parts just as interesting as the action parts?

I have to make sure not to over-explain things. A person watching something for the first time won't be able to grasp absolutely everything. Anime these days tend to have a lot of exposition. I want to explain enough so that people can follow the story, but not the entire picture. When I was thinking about how to do convey that effectively, I figured, “Well, action is flashy so that can serve as a hook, but there should also be parts about the characters' emotions and where that takes them.” But if all of that was simply explained to the audience instead of shown, it wouldn't be interesting. So I try to make things more interesting in the storyboards, by using symbolism to express ideas instead of explicitly through dialogue.

The trailer makes a strong impression. Why are there so many cuts of people drinking coffee?

With the trailer, we were in the mood to try out all kinds of things. When we looked at all the shots we had managed to depict an animated world through a camera, a surprising amount of them showed people drinking something. Some characters drink water, others drink tea or coffee - all of them have different nuances and express different aspects of the characters' personalities. That's a point I want to emphasize.

What are your favorite crime dramas?

I don't have time to watch long-running serials, so I'm going off impressions of the first episode, but I enjoyed the Japanese drama Kizu Darake no Tenshi. It's quite an old show, though. I also like Kōya no Dutch Wife and Koroshi no Rakuin.

Previously, you worked on a lot of Madhouse productions. How did you get involved with Studio Pierrot?

It's not that interesting of a story. I was an employee at Madhouse, and after I went independent, a producer of Hero Mask offered me the opportunity to direct my own series.

For this series, you weren't just a director, you also wrote the script. What kind of experience was that?

It was really difficult. I had a writer with me to discuss things with, but the way you go about things as a writer is really different from how you do things as a director. As a writer, you focus on the drama rather than the particulars of each scene. Normally, my job as a director is to turn the script into storyboards and from there into footage, and so handling the script writing itself was very different for me. A lot of writers think like novelists, but because I'm a director, I don't think like that. Neither approach is better or worse than the other, of course.

Because the story is completely original, the most difficult thing was to craft the entire anime from ground up. I had to think about everything, from the visuals to the script to the story composition.

With most anime, you have to fit everything into one or two cours, but with Netflix there's more flexibility, right?

Yeah. We had discussions about how to divide the episodes into cours. Normally, you get told how many episodes you'll have beforehand to plan around, but for HERO MASK we could negotiate to have the first cour be 15 episodes long.

What did you learn from working as director on this anime?

So many things. (laughs) There are a lot of things I learned as a creator through working on an original anime, but I also learned a lot about how to manage a big project effectively. It's a lot of work to convey an original story that never existed before through anime. I learned a lot about how to express my ideas.

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