The TV anime series, “AOKANA: Four Rhythm Across the Blue” aired in winter 2016.
It is an adaptation of a romance visual novel, but the TV anime adaptation boldly decided to ignore the romance aspect and put more emphasis on the unique fictional sport, “Flying Circus”, as well as the drama of the characters’ development through it.
I visited Gonzo, the animation studio of AOKANA, and interviewed the director, Fumitoshi Oizaki!
“AOKANA: Four Rhythm Across the Blue” official website: http://aokana-anime.com/
Mr. Oizaki began his career as an animator. He told us about his career, highlights of “AOKANA”, and some inside stories behind the scenes.
He gave a message to those who are aiming to be animators and to all the anime fans abroad too! Please enjoy this to the end, along with our reports on the production studio!
Before Oizaki became an anime director
As an animator, I wanted to learn everything about anime production
Thank you for sparing some of your time today. First of all, could you please tell us what made you go into the field of anime production? Were you aiming to be a director from the start?
No, I wasn’t aiming for directing at first. I just liked drawing, and I wanted to make it my job.
Right from the moment I learned about the job called ‘animator’, I knew I wanted to be one. I studied at a high school with an art course, went to an art college, and then joined the industry.
After working as an animator for a while, I started thinking about my own future outlook as an almost mid-career animator. Just then, I got involved with a work by Akitaro Daichi, who directed Ojarumaru and Fruits Basket, and all the members of the main staff involved were animators.
It surprised me that a character designer and a key animator were also working as episode directors, storyboard writers, and assistant directors
An episode director follows up the entire production process from the beginning to the end. What I had done as a key animator up until then was only a part of the whole process. I thought seeing all aspects of the whole must have been interesting.
Being curious by nature , I set out to learn about other areas.
Was there anything special or certain efforts that you practiced to be a director?
Back when I worked on many shows as a chief animator, I went everywhere whenever I could spare some time, such as to voice recording, audio mixing, and even to a video editing studio for final production. I enjoyed a wonderful experience of sharing the joy of achievement at the completion.
Also, I visited the studio even when others were working on the episodes that I wasn’t involved in and learned a lot.
Since then, I have gradually come to receive offers for direction work
Checking out other work while doing your own… Isn’t it hard unless you are seriously motivated?
Basically, I just wanted to know what was happening after the part I worked on, and then I got more and more curious about the whole process. I may just be the kind of person that wants to know everything”. [laugh]
How old were you then? How many years had you worked in the industry?
I was in my mid-20’s, and it had been about 4 to 5 years since I had joined the industry.
About an anime director’s work
A “director is responsible for judging the results of all the section works.
What is an anime director’s job like specifically? Is it different from how we picture a director of live action shows?
I believe they are basically the same. However, while the staff and cast work together on the same site to work on live action shows, anime staff do not work all in one place since the production processes are divided into different sections (different studios, different companies, etc).
A director is like a general manager who controls and checks each production process (such as the key animation, in-between animation, background art, sound effects and audio-related works, photography and VFX, editing, etc.). They also assure the final content of each section, and judge multiple ideas or suggestions given while reflecting his own image as well.
For instance, one basic job a director does is the storyboards However, all the other processes are divided and entrusted to each section in charge, and the director does not directly work on them.
After all, he controls the work as a whole, inducing every potential to make it appealing enough as an animation. It’s just that each director has his own way of doing it. Some directors have their own complete blueprints and instruct every single detail to their staff, and some are unnoticeable like air and yet come up with great works.
As for me… I’m the kind of person who doesn’t really bother about the process as long as I like the result.
Overseeing the whole process both assures me and exhausts me.
So, what attracted you to the tough job of “anime director”?
The responsibility of supervising the whole process can be tough and it makes me stressed sometimes, but it also gives me a sense of assurance.
Like I said earlier, I myself want to know everything, and it’s uncomfortable for me to make things proceed without knowing what’s going on.
A director can grasp every process, so that just suits my nature.
Facing a tough decision. That really stresses me out [laugh]
You just said it could be tough sometimes. Could you be more specific?
The hardest time as a director is when the TV series is airing.
The deadline of each episode’s delivery nears, and some tasks that need to be done are not done…and I end up being forced to make a decision in such a dire situation… Moments like that are really tough.
Many tasks do not always proceed as scheduled, and to make matters worse, I can not be the one doing those tasks. How far should I be imposing work on the staff? Say, I want to improve the quality, but what if I judge that forcing them to work harder now will most likely cause a problem later? I have to decide and say “Let’s proceed with this as it is.” That is the hardest moment for me as a director.
Sometimes I tell them to hold out until the last minute. Sometimes I have to decide to let them get on to the next tasks after judging the whole production process, and that really stresses me out. [laugh]
So, it’s not only a war against schedules but also qualities… There must be a lot of conflicts.
Additionally, in anime production, the staff work under the director’s instructions and decisions. That means I have to keep them motivated, too. Some stay motivated till the end, but some may not. And I have to make sure to create a decent product with them all. It’s hard.
What appeals most about anime production: “the eve of the school festival”-like feeling
I see that you and your staff go through difficulties beyond our imagination. What is the driving force that still urges you to produce anime?
After all, the ultimate way to explain that is with “I love it”.
It is hard both physically and mentally, but it is once you experience the achievement that you feel “I made it”, and then you just want that again. And you repeat it endlessly.
Also, it’s the times like when you get recognized, when fans enjoy it, and when you are satisfied with the perfection level of the work. I’m sure everyone is different when it comes to having a sense of achievement. In my case, I feel it when I get “a sense of unity as a team”.
On rare occasions, you have a moment where you feeling an exceptionally great sense of teamwork from all the staff. I’d compare that to “the eve of the school festival”-like sensation. That feeling where you know you fully enjoyed the preparation no matter how the result would turn out. [laugh]
That sort of sensation seldom happens, and it’s a turn of fate. But once you taste that joy, you just can’t forget it. You get addicted. [laugh]
About “AOKANA: Four Rhythm Across the Blue”
I wanted to animate the passion of the original “AOKANA” creators!
Now let me ask you about AOKANA”. May I first ask you what made you accept the offer?
When I was first offered to direct the anime adaptation, I didn’t know about the original game. So, I first talked with the original team to learn about the original visual novel. As we communicated, I was drawn to their enthusiasm, and made me want to respond to their passion. [laugh] I accepted it, saying “Let me do it!”
To adapt the original work fittingly, we carefully compared and adjusted our ideas.
I can imagine the passion from the very start. What did you particularly pay attention to when adapting the game?
The original work is a so-called “dating simulation game”. The game has branching plot lines with multiple endings, so I couldn’t just animate it as it was.
Finding an appropriate way to rearrange the original work into anime was the key to the adaptation.
The creators gave us some ideas with their requests, and the anime staff suggested methods and direction plans to animate them. We tried to harmonize each others ideas carefully. It was a real struggle, but the most important process.
The passion of the original game creators enabled close interactions
Regarding bouncing ideas off each other, would you tell us how you actually worked with them?
In order to animate this fictional sport as enticingly as possible, we exchanged a lot of ideas with considerable care, including the basic rules, explanations of each technique, and the development of matches. Especially Mr. Suzumori (An original character designer) worked with us so detailedly, as if he were a member of the anime production staff. [laugh]
Once the show started airing and the schedule got tighter, Mr. Suzumori and I sometimes ended up messaging each other via SNS late at night…
It’s not very common to interact with the original creators about the adaptation in detail, and I’m so grateful that I gained the opportunity to create such a fruitful piece of work.
Is it uncommon to interact with the original creators?
It varies. Some creators want to work together with us, and some just leave it in our hands.
Sometimes, a publisher acts as an intermediary and I don’t get to talk to the original creator directly. It all depends on each work and situation. As an anime creator, I feel that we should respect the original creators and their fans when adapting from an existing work, and we can’t neglect the original work’s intentions. So, it helps a lot when I can interact with them often.
We chose an “aggressive approach” to the Flying Circus scenes that original game fans awaited with high expectations.
The anime version became an exciting sport anime with the fictional sky sport called “Flying Circus”. I’m sure the original visual novel fans were also highly anticipating how it would be animated. How did you imagine that sport when producing the anime?
The original game creators requested that we show techniques and tactics and let the characters move lively.
Some of the rules in the original work were made so that it could follow the game plots. For the anime adaptation, they added some new rules as the story development of the anime is a little different from the original.
The game creators brought us character magnets and miniature models that they made themselves to discuss and simulate the game action and positioning of the characters to fit the anime scenario, and sometimes named new techniques.
It was very powerful. How did the fans react?
Most of the “Flying Circus” scenes used 3DCG animation, and I think we managed to show the rapidity of the games and movements.
Even though it’s a sport, it functions like an action scene, and it wouldn’t be enjoyable if it appeared too slow. I made sure to keep up the speed and pacing in particular.
There seemed to be some feedback in that those who saw it for the first time found some rules to be too difficult, though.
On the other hand, some fans who didn’t understand the “Flying Circus” scenes in the original visual novel could finally understand how the characters moved by watching the animated scenes, and that was a relief for me. [laugh]
We were determined to keep the atmosphere of the original illustrations for the character designs.
Now, please tell us how the characters were designed for the anime adaptation..
Mr. Keiya Nakano, the character designer, tried his best to keep the recreate the atmosphere of the original work by including the same amount of detail as the original illustrations. Many of these lines of detail are usually removed for animation.
As a matter of fact, when we premiered, we received a lot of praise for the character designs, with fans of the original visual novel telling us that they were just like the originals. I was so relieved. [laugh]
＊Explanatory note: Drawing for illustration and animation are fundamentally different.
In visual novels, you draw the characters with many lines of detail for one particular view. Animation, however, is a visual sequence of animated key-frames for many different views, and it generally has to have fewer line in order to ensure natural movement. It requires a very high level of skill and talent to reproduce and animate the characters while at the same time keeping the same atmosphere and tone of the original illustrations.
A TV series generally needs 4,000 to 5,000 in-between frames per episode, and we have to make sure to finish them within a limited time frame, preferably with a workload as light as possible. We also have to make sure not to change the impression of the characters by removing too many lines. I, as a director, am responsible for the final judgment there.
About foreign staff and overseas fans
Japanese production studios need to prepare some sort of system to accept more foreign staff.
Now, let us switch to a different subject. There are many people overseas who want to work in the anime industry. Have you ever worked with foreign staff?
There are currently no foreign staff around me including the “AOKANA” staff and I don’t think there are many yet. Recently some big production companies have established studios overseas and there are new production studios in Asia. We may see them increased in the near future.
However, most anime production companies in Japan are not actually prepared enough to accept foreign staff yet. It is not only about the language barrier or technical term issues, but also Japanese people tend to be relatively poor at communicating with foreigners.
It would be no good if those foreign staff couldn’t adapt to the circumstances here to continue working in a team. I believe Japanese staff have to think about it so as not to let that happen.
Empathizing with the ‘passion’ of overseas fans
Have you paid attention to the reaction overseas when producing anime?
Not really so much during production, but I sometimes receive some Twitter comments from overseas when we reveal new information or when a new TV series starts airing.
With the growth of the internet, now anime fans from overseas can easily access it compared to the past, but I still feel their passion
My hometown is in Oita, Kyushu, and “Tokyo” was a very far-off place, or should I say, a place I aspired to go to when I was a kid. The further away you are, the stronger your passion grows, you know?
I imagine the overseas fans also have those kind of feelings. They are really enthusiastic about learning Japanese through anime and are familiar with Japanese culture as well.
I’ve heard that there are some fans of Japanese voice actors who would rather listen to Japanese with subtitles instead of the dubbed version.
＊ “AOKANA” can be watched almost anywhere in the world thanks to Crunchyroll, bilibili, and Animax Korea. Blu-ray and DVDs will also be available soon.
I would like you all to enjoy the hot drama and Flying Circus with Japanese landscapes. Please watch it to the end!
The landscapes of the Japanese countryside that appear in “AOKANA” are very beautiful.
The story is set in a small seaside town in Japan, and foreigners may find some cuisine such as “Ago Dashi (Japanese soup broth made from flying fish)” to be mysterious. Well, actually, more foreigners have a thorough knowledge of Japanese culture lately and sometimes I’m not sure who knows it better. [laugh]
I would like for them to enjoy the distinct atmosphere of Japan, too.
Foreign fans may be able to enjoy it as if they were visiting Japan. Any other highlights you would like to share?
What I want them to check the most are the hot drama and Flying Circus scenes. I’m sure everyone can enjoy them regardless of culture. So, please buy DVDs or Blu-rays and watch them all. [laugh]
Message to “AOKANA” fans and Oizaki fans all over the world
Before wrapping this up, please give them a message.
The original game creators and we, the anime production staff, worked really hard and struggled together to produce “AOKANA”. If you haven’t seen it yet, please watch it to the end. I hope you enjoy the exciting games in it.
Thank you very much for your time today.
Mr. Oizaki answered our questions very politely and kindly during his tight schedule. He is very sociable and I understand why his works attract both fans and production staff members. Mr. Oizaki is also well-known for his “exciting” storylines. Please check his other works!
We are grateful to him for taking the time to answer our questions!
Production Studio Report
Now let’s have a look inside Gonzo’s production studio with some photos.
“Layout sheets” – A layout design is rough instructions of each character’s actions, movements and camera work, based on the storyboards.
The pink and yellow sheets are called “correction forms, and they are” are used for instructions or corrections when the chief animators and episode directors are checking each production process.
The “Time sheet” is an instruction sheet for each movement in one cut with a timeline.
How each character moves, and when is the best timing are indicated in the sheet.
This is a small booklet that you can enjoy comparing key animations and screenshots. Other various AOKANA items are available in Japan and they sold well at events.
Some items including character figures will also be available at EC sites and events overseas.
Special thanks to the producer and the staff from international division at Gonzo for the help and support.
GONZO Official website http://www.gonzo.co.jp/