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Interview: Akudama Drive Assistant Director Yoshifumi Sasahara

by Steve Jones,

The Akudama Drive anime may have finished, but its high-impact story and presentation are sure to linger in fans' memories. Last year, we interviewed art director Yoshio Tanioka, who shared his role in crafting the anime's unique aesthetic, and today we have an interview with assistant director Yoshifumi Sasahara.

In this interview, Sasahara looks back on his role as an episode director, screenwriter, and storyboard artist on episode 6. This memorable episode was a major turning point for the story, as well as a technically impressive episode in its own right. Sasahara breaks down what made it so special.

Warning: This interview contains spoilers for the series up to episode 6.

You've worked with director Tomohisa Taguchi before on the Persona 3 movies and Kino's Journey - The Beautiful World. Were there any experiences from those series that helped you when it came time to put together Akudama Drive?

I've actually been involved with director Taguchi since before Persona. I've been with him for around ten years. I heard from my mentor that there was an active unit director in the same generation as me, so I met him. I think that was the first time. After that, there were many cases where I worked as a unit director on things that Taguchi had storyboarded, some of them by sheer coincidence. Maybe we grew accustomed to each other, but the visuals Taguchi envisioned wouldn't differ too much from the final look when we worked together. I think that's one of the reasons why I ended up working on his storyboards.

With Persona 3, I spent a comparatively long time being involved in films 1, 2, and 4. All the parts that I was the unit director for came from what Taguchi storyboarded. The first Persona film was my first time doing a film. I was able to learn how to create layouts, apply the character acting, and add detail to the screen in a way that suits a film.

For Kino's Journey I was in charge of consolidating the unit directors. It was a job that was even closer to Taguchi. Kino's Journey is like a road movie, so there were interesting ideas that you don't often see with a TV series like changing the background art company depending on the episode. I checked the layouts of other episodes with a holistic view of the series as a whole. It was an experience that I wouldn't have been able to get just by focusing on directing on my part. I was able to get an even closer look at things like bringing out the ideas of the entire work and brushing them up.

When doing Akudama, I feel like I tapped into all of these aforementioned experiences. Not only did I pay attention to the acting and to the level of detail on screen, I also focused on creating the colors, the setting, and each individual section. It was a very stimulating work environment for me.

Episode 6 stands out as the most action-oriented episode yet. However, it also contains some of the quietest and most sentimental moments—the death of two main characters, and the passing of the torch onto their disciples/friends. How did you strive to maintain that emotional balance when planning the episode?

Regarding the decisive battle between the Master and Brawler, there's the power of action. I wondered if the viewers would be able to get on board with their feelings to some extent. So the parts that I fussed over were the spiritual relationships between Brawler and Hoodlum, and Master and Pupil. The battle at the start deals with their situation, so how should I do things so that the viewers don't get fatigued?

Regarding the battle in the opening, I also received ideas from the director. I took care not to depict it as just a simple battle by including parts depicting Doctor and Cutthroat, as well as an event that reveals that the children (specifically the older brother here) are immortal. That is also the reason behind the fast scene changes, and how the apprentices are portrayed in the gaps.

As you say in your question, the underlying theme is succession. I hope that I could depict the part of the relationships that aren't bound by blood. I handled episode 2, which is the first time the Execution Division appears. It was an episode that dug a little further into the relationships between the characters (the Buddy dynamic between Brawler and Hoodlum), so I deliberately used the poses and situations from episode 2.

In the opening part of episode 6, I called back to things that the Master taught the Pupil, like the stance to prepare the Beam Jitte. I also wonder if viewers would be able to link the scene that Brawler crawled out of the rubbles after falling down from the building to that of the serenity at the hotel in episode 2. I thought that the strength of their bonds would be connected to the succession. Saeko Ozawa was the animation director of episodes 2 and 6; she created layouts for the scenes that capture the parts where Hoodlum comes to admire Brawler as a man twice over. She was able to apply some wonderful character acting.

I don't know whether I was able to do justice to everything, but as someone involved in the production, I would be happy if the viewers felt even a little bit of impact from what they saw.

Akudama Drive is already very delightfully over-the-top, but were there any ideas you wanted to include but turned out to be too ambitious to realize? Or were there any notable compromises you had to make between storyboarding the episode and executing it?

There are a number of things about the setting that I could not incorporate into episode 6 due to the issue of length. For example, when I was writing the script, I thought about showing the former site of an actual onsen theme park that exists called the Solaniwa Onsen. I thought it might have been fun to play around with holograms of things like traditional lanterns as they run around a Japanese-style building.

But on the other hand, when it comes to the production of Akudama Drive, there are very few limitations imposed on us. When I consult with others about what I want to do, everyone will almost always discuss and work on every section with a constructive attitude. It's not a matter of “We can't/won't do it” but “How can we do it? How can we make it even better?” Everyone went about things in a very go-getter sort of way, and I think that's a big factor that pushed the work in a positive direction.

I really love how each character fights with a distinct style that fits their personality. What kind of directions did you give the animators to help guide them?

The characters in Akudama Drive are undoubtedly a form of superhuman, but they can't shoot beams and fly in the sky, so as far as the battles go, there's often this feeling of their feet being grounded to the earth. Right from the start, I had the feeling that the characters' personalities were easy to grasp.

When the Execution Division first appeared in episode 2, I actually gave an instruction to base their fighting styles on something with a distinct form like karate or kenpō. It was so that you could feel their strength as members of an organization that apprehends dangerous criminals.

Brawler and Cutthroat, on the other hand, are the kind of characters who enjoy fighting for its own sake, so I would make them deliberately dodge attacks at the last second or slip into unconventional spaces. They don't appear to follow a strict form; they would boldly respond to their opponent's move with a headbutt. By bringing out their hedonistic kind of vibe, where they're enjoying fighting for its own sake, we could emphasize the contrast between them and the Execution Division. That was the way I directed.

The animator Sho Yamamoto handled the fight scene in episode 2 and the bridge scene in episode 6. Not only did he take on my intentions, he also added his own ideas on top of that, so whenever I did the checks I looked forward to seeing my works get improved.

Akudama Drive hasn't been shy about referencing movies. Were there any particular films or fight scenes that inspired you while creating episode 6?

As I elucidated above, I felt that there were a lot of fighting styles that are grounded to the earth, so I used the 007 series as a reference. The flashy battles have an element of entertainment to them, and there are a lot of hand-to-hand combat scenes and small arms being fired. I thought that I could use them as reference for similar situations in Akudama. In Skyfall, when I saw them fight on the buildings with a hologram and neon feel, I immediately thought, “I want to try doing this in Akudama!”

As for the fighting style of the Execution Division, the animator Sho Yamamoto recommended that I use Ip Man as a reference. I used the feeling of form that exists in kenpō and the rapid speed of kumite as reference.

The setting factors heavily into the action of episode 6. There's a real three-dimensional feel to the battle's progression, and the background almost like a character itself, constantly reacting to the fight around it and establishing the mood of the scene. What made you consider using the setting in such a dynamic fashion?

I think that the sublimeness of the atmosphere owes a lot to the strengths of the background art team, starting with art director Yoshio Tanioka and the person who handled the setting, Kaoru Aoki. The scenes in episode 6 have lots of fast and furious cuts, each and every place was able to stand out while maintaining a consistent feel, then I think that comes down to the power of the background art.

From the script-writing stage, we knew that episode 6 would be about the death of two characters, so I felt that as an episode in its own right, it should lose color as a way of leading into the second half of the anime. So I thought, “I want to give Brawler and Master a great sendoff.” That was how I went about constructing that scene.

In the script stage, the bridge that appears at the end was supposed to show up a little sooner, but in that final scene where the lights of the Ferris wheel disappear and the colors fade away to anticipate the end of a dream, the sight of an abandoned bridge represents a cold gravestone. I consulted with the director, and he allowed me to create that as the final scene.

In the language of visual direction, bridges are often used to represent meetings or partings. In the case of Akudama, I felt that it would be a fitting place to represent the intersection of two people with different ways of living. A place to signal the end. I have to credit the power of the art team in capturing not just the details of that scene, but in convincingly portraying the story significance and the feelings of the characters to give it ambiance.

What kind of input has Kazutaka Kodaka had on the series beyond the creation of the original scenario?

Kodaka-san participated in the script meetings and in the voice recording sessions, and at those times he would suggest ideas. In particular, he had so many ideas on things like constructing the characters and story that I would get blown away. We took each and every one of those elements and blended them together to create the feeling of Akudama Drive.

Kodaka-san's characters tend to be memorable and distinctive, but underneath that, there's always an incredible amount of care for their inner feelings and so on. Whenever the characters take action, you have to care about it. For example, “Wouldn't it be in-character for them to do this?” or the way around, “Because they tend to think a certain way, let's make them say this or do that!” When you're dealing with oddball personalities, then they have to stay really true to the oddball logic that drives their actions. Their actions are what spur the plot. Kodaka-san would come up with outrageous ideas while considering all of this in a thorough and conscientious way. Seeing it all from up close was a great learning experience for me, and at the same time, the meetings themselves were enjoyable to attend.

I can't pick a single favorite moment, but it's probably a tie between Brawler throwing Hoodlum headfirst into Master's flank, and Brawler punching the ground so hard the abandoned arcade lights up. Did you have a particular favorite moment when you were storyboarding the episode? And did you find a new favorite when you watched the completed episode?

I also liked the scene involving the arcade, so I'm delighted that you mentioned it. I've always been calling Hoodlum's head “chocolate cornet.” Maybe because I've always been looking at that shape, it was the only skill I could think up for him.

As I was pondering the best Akudama-like way to give Master and Brawler their sendoff, I figured that focusing on holograms and the flashiness of the fighting was the way to go. That's why I myself proposed the idea of the arcade and roller coaster scene. When I draw storyboards, there are times when I create visuals that go with the flow of the script and there are other times when I create a flow that builds up to a key visual moment. The scene described above was the latter.

For the arcade, a scene that first popped into my head was the holograms, which appear in an error state one after the other. For the roller coaster, it was the characters sliding while sprays of water dance up around their feet. Color design/color coordinator Saori Goda gave the arcade scene a blacklight kind of flavor, so I think it became a striking sight from a visual perspective as well.

When it comes to the actual finished look, I'm fond of the part at the end of the roller coaster scene. The sprays of water from the two characters clashing flew out and reflected the light of the Ferris wheel. I remember feeling surprised at how the reflection could come out looking so beautiful. The depiction of the rain was also handled through the digital compositing, but the ripples caused by the droplets falling on the ground and the way that entire scene feels in the haze of the rain was beautifully done. I could say this about his work on the anime as a whole, but the compositing director Kazuhiro Yamada, his assistant Satomi Okuhara, and the rest of the compositing staff poured their strengths into creating such a memorable scene.

What message would you like the audience to take away from Akudama Drive?

First of all, thank you to all the fans who watched Akudama Drive. Everyone on staff is delighted about your support.

The main characters in Akudama Drive are baddies (laughs). There are many times when they do things that can't be helped because of the situation, but generally speaking they cause no end of trouble for other people...

That said, when it comes to things they've decided and things that they want to see through, seeing them refuse to compromise or relent no matter what the situation is or who they're dealing with makes their way of living seem cool and charismatic in a way that's separate from the concept of good or evil.

This interview may come out after the broadcast of the final episode, but what lies beyond that way of living for them…? They may not have expressed an intent, and it may not be anything big, but I hope that you can see it for your own eyes. Through that, I hope that you can become attached to the lives of these wonderful characters as an observer. I hope you'll continue to support Akudama Drive in the future.

The questions end here. Thank you for your cooperation and for lending us your valuable time.

I should be thanking you for this important experience. There are few opportunities for episode directors to discuss the approach they took to a work, so I'm extremely grateful that you gave me this rare chance. Thank you for picking up Akudama Drive and for giving a spotlight to an episode that I handled. If an opportunity ever arises again, then I'll give my deepest regards.

Assistant director Yoshifumi Sasahara

Image credits: ©Pierrot,TooKyoGames/Akudama Drive Production Committee

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