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HERO MASK Producer Mikio Ono

by Kim Morrissy,

At first glance, HERO MASK is not the kind of anime you'd expect to see from Studio Pierrot, a studio that is well known for producing long-running TV anime like Naruto and Yū Yū Hakusho. Instead, HERO MASK is a Netflix original crime drama. ANN sat down with Mikio Ono, a producer of the HERO MASK production committee, at Studio Pierrot to discuss how this ambitious project came to be and what kind of impact Netflix has on the anime industry.

What were the circumstances behind the exclusive streaming deal with Netflix?

Talks around HERO MASK started around the time Netflix launched its service in Japan. The original story comes from Pierrot, Fields, and Sotsu, and together we made a pilot. The fortunate timing was a key reason why it ended up with Netflix, I think. We set out to create an original anime not quite like what is typical anime in Japan but more like a foreign show. It was around three years ago when we got the greenlight.

In that case, was the fact that the anime would be on Netflix a consideration when deciding on the genre and story?

We first came up with the idea before Netflix was a consideration. In Japan, almost every anime is based on a source material, and we wanted to create something original. Netflix may not have been there from the start, but it was there from the next step onward. That's why it was good timing.

How difficult is it to get an original anime concept greenlit these days?

Everyone wants to make an original anime. A lot of people submit the paperwork and pitches. It's another thing to actually get the approval to proceed. The hurdle is extremely high, particularly when it comes to getting funding at the end. You need a lot of luck, like we had when Netflix came along.

Why was it decided that a relatively young director would helm such an ambitious project?

A young director has room to grow and is willing to take on new challenges. There's also risk involved, but he can also bring a fresh perspective. The animation producer of HERO MASK was familiar with the director and could attest to his talents. On previous projects, I'd also worked with directors who had yet to make a name for themselves, and the talented ones tend to do things that surprise you and go the extra mile. It was always something to look forward to.

HERO MASK also has more cuts per episode than usual for a TV anime. If a veteran director were handling it, they'd be well aware of the TV anime standard and would strive for more labor-saving methods.

So is the schedule for this series much different compared to Studio Pierrot's other TV anime?

It's completely different. Aside from the fact that Pierrot does a lot of long series like Boruto and Black Clover, the schedule for delivering the episodes to the distributor is also different. For the other shows there's a weekly deadline, but for HERO MASK we would still work on it every week, but would deliver the episodes when they were done.

How did you decide the length of the series?

It was originally planned to be 24 episodes which consist of 12 episodes respectively for the part 1 and part 2, but when we signed the deal with Netflix, we didn't have to follow the format of a regular TV anime, so we could make the first part 15 episodes long to suit the story, while the second part would be 9 episodes.

From a schedule perspective, was it easier to release the first part separately?

From a producer's perspective, the schedule for delivering the product to Netflix is slightly different from television, but the schedule was still busy. There was a bit of confusion about the schedule during the first half because we were trying out different things. The second part was more straightforward but still busy.

Because the first season was released all at once instead of weekly, how do you collect feedback from the viewers?

Well, it's all up to chance. There are a lot of things that Netflix does not disclose, so we end up looking on Twitter and the Internet for feedback. We looked at the overseas reactions a bit, too. They're all in different languages, so we wouldn't understand without a translation, but we've been getting the translations as we look things up on Twitter.

Everyone has a certain high quality that they expect from Netflix and Studio Pierrot too of course. We saw lots of comments praising the high quality. As far as we could see, the comments in Japan and overseas are similar to each other. The overseas reactions made less comparisons to TV anime in general, but I'm happy about their honest feedback.

There was no intent to sell goods, was there?

Not at all. We created it as a traditional drama with gun action elements. It's hard to get this sort of anime made, especially these days.

Are you interested in releasing more anime exclusively on Netflix in the future?

It depends on the circumstances. As a member of Fields and as a member of the production committee, I'd like to work with Netflix again. Even as an individual producer, I would still like to work with Netflix again, but Pierrot has various things they're working on so it may not necessarily be with them. Personally speaking, I think that Netflix has a strong user base overseas, so it would be a good challenge to try working with them.

Would it have been possible to create a crime drama like HERO MASK without Netflix?

It might have been really hard, I suppose. We decided to create a crime drama since we wanted to create something like the OVA anime that used to be popular in Japan in the past. Some of them are really well regarded. But, we're in an age when the package media such as DVD are not selling well. The anime titles which used to be an OVA are now for the internet streaming. So, Netflix was the best platform for this title. Since Netflix does longer things too, we were able to put together a concept for a longer series rather than a short one.

I'm sounding like a PR representative for Netflix. (laughs) But as good as Netflix can be for this kind of thing, they don't give us that much information. As I was saying before, they should have data about how many people are watching around the world, but it never reaches us, so when it comes to what to make next, we can't use our experience. That's still how things work at the moment. I wish they were a little more open because that would help with our creative endeavors.

Besides Netflix, there are other overseas companies currently involved in anime, like Tencent and Crunchyroll. Do you ever think about working with a company like that?

Well, when it comes to China, there are various difficulties working with that side. We have created original anime before, but still, there are difficulties and the complications from a practical perspective, such as just transferring money between countries.

Working with Crunchyroll also presents difficulties. Crunchyroll is more oriented for anime fan, Their fan base and target are different from Netflix. The difference between the two in such an environment will accordingly will vary the strategy to take. But, not that I'm closed to any possibilities. I want you to know that I have to judge things on a case by case level.

Personally, my ideal partner would be something like Netflix and Amazon. Or, it would be good to get things on AppleTV.. I'd like to get our works distributed on a variety of different platforms, even something like Sony's PlayStation. It might open up a new genre of anime which is digital and interactive, although that would be difficult. It would be good to have the kind of environment where we can create what we like and the audience (users) can share the fun from it.

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