Tensai Okamura is a freelance anime director most well-known as being the creator of the original anime Darker than Black. Since his hit anime Kuromukuro, he has taken part in the storyboards for many anime works, but has yet to announce any new projects. MANGA.TOKYO sat down with Okamura to talk about his career as a director, as well as what kind of anime he would ideally like to work on in the future.
What made you want to be an anime director?
I thought about working in the anime industry when I was in high school and before entering university. It was around the time that Mobile Suit Gundam was airing on TV. Before that, I had been drawing manga and fancied becoming a manga artist. Yoshiyuki Tomino was popular at the time and I felt myself becoming more and more interested in the anime industry. My interest in anime grew and when I was my 3rd or 4th year at university, I started to seriously consider entering the anime industry.
So, you were influenced by Tomino the most?
It wasn’t just him. I was influenced by Osamu Dezaki and Hayao Miyazaki as well. Various anime directors were creating unique anime works one after another in those days and most of them had an impact on me.
Who would you say you like the most?
I like all of them, but I have to say that Dezaki’s works touched my heart directly. It’s not just the drawing techniques he used, such as the brilliant movements of his anime, but the stories themselves. They remind me of one’s pure and adventurous childhood.
Are there any directors you are particularly interested in at this point in time?
I’m interested in a variety of directors for a variety of reasons. For example, I’ve been interested in anime that don’t take themselves seriously. I feel like, ‘this is silly but fun to watch’. In contrast, Miyazaki interests me for different reasons. I was very much engrossed by his anime techniques in the past. For instance, there are no unnecessary shots whatsoever in Future Boy Conan. Recently, I feel that his imagination has expanded to somewhere we never even dreamed of. I’ve always been curious about what he would do next. [NB: Okamura joined the production staff team of My Neighbor Totoro as a key animator.]
How about manga artists? Who influenced you?
Like many others, the late Shotaro Ishimori (aka Shotaro Ishinomori) made me a fan of manga. I even read his book Mangaka Nyumon (An Introduction to Manga Artists /Akita Shoten) [laugh]. When I watched 100 Pun de Meicho (Masterpieces in 100 minutes) on NHK, the program featured the book and I screamed to the TV, ‘that’s the masterpiece!’ When I began reading his manga, he was already a well-established manga artist, so I read up on his past works. There are so many fascinating manga among his earlier works. His later works were quite experimental and quite interesting as well. I find his drawings sexy. I think his technique of leaving some vagueness in his drawings is sensual. [NB: Okamoto directed Android Kikaider: The Animation based on Ishinomori’s manga.] While drawing manga at my university’s manga society, I was told that my drawings were quite similar to Kazuhiko Shimamoto, who had just made his debut as a manga artist and was also heavily influenced by Ishinomori. [NB: Okamura was a key animator of a video anime Blazing Transfer Student which was based on Shimamoto’s manga of the same name.]
After joining Madhouse, you took an active role as a key animator for a while. Were you thinking about becoming a director at that time?
I was thinking about directing from the start. To be honest, I thought I would be fine if I could draw decent pictures. I was constantly going on to everyone about how I would love to make a storyboard. That’s how I sowed the seed for becoming a director.
And you became an episode director for Yawara!
I actually made a storyboard before that, but I don’t know where they are now. We did a lot of small jobs around that time at Madhouse. I think I did episode directing for something like life of Kukai, but I even don’t know if the anime was completed or not as I only saw the dailies.
What do you pay most attention to when creating your work?
I want to create a work that sticks in the viewers’ minds. That’s why I intentionally leave some parts not fully explained. I want viewers to use their imagination for detailed parts and enjoy the process. Other than that, I try ensuring that my works are easy to understand.
I thought the works of Tensai Okamura prioritized action scenes.
I’ve said this many times in my interviews before, but I’m not really all that interested in action. It just so happens that I’ve been receiving a lot of offers for action anime these past few years. It’s been about 2 years since I last made storyboards that didn’t have a gunfight or fistfight in there at some point. I created enough fistfights and gunfights scenes in the Summer 2018 anime, Sirius the Jaeger. I finally feel at peace as I was finally able to do the storyboards for an anime without violence, IRODUKU: The World in Colors.
You are also in charge of art design for another fall anime, Release the Spyce, aren’t you?
I finished my work on the anime quite a while ago. It was good timing as I had just begun thinking about learning small item designs when I got the offer. I basically drew a bit of props, background art and storyboards. That’s all. Art design sounds like a big job, but it wasn’t all that much. [laugh]
You have designed firearms before.
I did for Spriggan. I drew numerous guns for the anime and I think I exhausted all my interest in guns at that time. My knowledge of guns hasn’t been updated in the last 20 years.
I feel you focus on physical fights rather than gunfights in your action scenes.
I create action scenes by watching other anime works and learning from them. The action scenes in Sirius the Jaeger directed by Masahiro Ando are awesome. I think he’s great as he put a lot of time and effort into his spectacular action scenes while changing the settings and subjects for each work. On the other hand, I often cheat by squishing in as many fast shots as possible to create an action scene. The way Ando creates his action scenes tells us that he really loves action anime.
So, you currently want to direct non-action anime?
Another thing I’ve expressed repeatedly in previous interviews was my desire to direct an anime filled with cute girls. The problem is that girl characters nowadays have complicated hairstyles which are difficult to draw.
How about gag anime?
I fancy directing them from time to time. My official debut work as an anime director was Stink Bomb. [Part of the anthology movie Memories with Katsuhiro Otomo as executive producer.] It was a kind of gag anime. The TV anime series Medabots wasn’t purely a gag anime, but I applied techniques of gag anime to it. Apart from occasional serious scenes with fighting spirit, it was basically a gag anime.
Could you answer questions from our readers overseas? Shinrakazuya asks ‘How do you deal with bad criticism?’
I take criticism to heart and get depressed in most cases. I try to find out if the person who gave severe criticism actually watched my work properly. If they did and I understand their point, I accept their opinion sincerely and will put it to practice. However, I sometimes want to tell them to ‘watch it again,’ as I think some of criticism is based on misunderstandings. I wonder how they can publicize such ill-considered opinions at times. However, I know I must try harder to ensure these misunderstandings won’t happen.
Thearturma wants to know, ‘why is it necessary to sometimes cut things that are in the original source material?’
I once intentionally omitted a big part in Seven Deadly Sins. Gowther’s first appearance in the original manga involves a sequence of events with a village boy. It’s quite similar to the beginning of the series and centers on the boy rather than Gowther. I thought that if I were to include the part in the anime series, I wouldn’t have time to depict Gowther’s personality by the end of the series. So, I instead decided to show the relationship between Gowther and Dale, with the expectation that viewers would take an interest in him from that. We already knew up to what chapter the anime would cover as well as the fact that the manga was continuing, so we thought we would have plenty of time to depict Gowther and his personality in the future.
On the contrary, I actually added in a scene in Blue Exorcist Episode 1. I knew the relationship between the brothers and their father is vital to the story, but the father dies so early on. I thought that I needed to show their relationship at the beginning, even if it was just a little bit. I added in the scene with the intention of making it clear to the viewers exactly when Rin starts to change. The original manga was still in its early stages at the time and we didn’t know how the Kyoto Impure King arc would develop. [NB: There were 6 volumes of the manga on sale when the anime began airing. There are currently 22 volumes of the manga] This meant that we had to come up with an anime ending ourselves.
Many overseas anime fans want to know what they should learn in order to enter the anime industry.
My experience tells me that going ahead and making an anime yourself is the best way to learn. I made a piece while I was still a student while forcibly involving everyone around me. The experience helped me a lot later. Once you start working in the anime industry, you’ll be concentrating on your own role and won’t get so many chances to learn about other roles in the production process. I built experience in many different roles to make anime myself and oversaw the big picture while managing others’ jobs. Because of these experiences, I now understand what job I’m expected to do and what I need to do in order to proceed to next stage. I learned first-hand how difficult it is to draw sharp lines clearly or to finish certain pictures. I also know what a laborious task it is to pull the filming rig. Anime can be made digitally with a computer in recent years so it’s getting relatively easier to start making your own anime. You can make anime in your way and style because you aren’t professional. Don’t worry about the results and just pursue what you like–I think that’s the best way.
If you don’t mind changing the subject, how difficult is it to come up with titles for anime?
It’s really difficult. Take Kuromukuro for example, I wanted the robot to have a Japanese-sounding name, but there are many robots with Japanese names already. After much consideration, I decided on the name Kuromukuro as it both means ‘black corpse’ in Japanese and also sounds a lot like the word ‘chrome’ when pronounce in Japanese. I thought it was an interesting name that encourages people say it aloud.
How about World Conquest Zvezda?
I was so proud of myself when I easily conjured up the word Zvezda while putting together the project proposal. I thought I’d nailed it. I experienced many twists and turns before getting the go-ahead, though. Another option in the shortlist was Zvezdaz. It’s a plural of Zvezda and ends with a ‘z’ rather than an ‘s’. It’s a Russian word but its plural form is similar to English. We thought it looked cool because it has three ‘z’s in one word. Names are often decided through discussions among staff members. Directors’ ideas aren’t always adopted. Take Darker than Black for example, I initially suggested 201BL for the working title, but my idea was declined as BL tends to be associated with the Boys Love genre, so I changed it to 201BK.
I heard that you studied architecture at college.
I was rather good at math and science in high school. I also liked drawing, so I thought studying architecture was a good choice for my future career. I ended up not becoming an architect but what I learned at university isn’t all in vain. I guess the skills of drawing perspective lines and sketching are useful for me. I didn’t have much interest in architecture at that time but have developed my interest recently. Better late than never. [laugh] I’ve come to understand the reasoning behind the shapes of buildings.
I have a feeling that your anime works are popular overseas.
Fans outside Japan prefer anime with breathtaking backgrounds, don’t they? There must be some fans who enjoy works that focus on everyday life in Japan, but I feel most of the fans highly evaluate anime with fantasy settings and intricate backgrounds.
Are you going to undertake drawing jobs in the future?
I’ve been making storyboards now and then, but I haven’t done much drawing for its own sake recently. It’d be difficult to keep up with the works for TV series time-wise. It’ll be impossible to finish a single drawing at this moment. To be honest, I almost ruined my health while creating Kuromukuro.
It sounds like you can have more leeway when you submit all the episodes in one go for streaming.
Less people watch and talk about anime which are released all at once on the internet. I think it needs to air on TV at least once and then start streaming on the same day or at a later date. I think anime fans overseas tend to watch anime which are popular in Japan. It doesn’t matter all that much in how many countries it streams.
Which works do you feel you did well?
I don’t know about the criteria on which to judge works, but I know that Darker than Black got an unexpected fan base. I was surprised by the popularity of the protagonist, Hei. I didn’t intend for him to be a so-called ‘ikemen’ character at all. Rather, there was concern about whether he was suitable as a protagonist for an action anime while it was in production. I tried to persuade others that his plain and unkempt appearance was his charm. To my surprise, he was regarded as an ikemen character before I realized it. I still don’t understand but the anime got female fans thanks to him.
What sort of anime works do you want to create from now on?
I’d like to make an anime movie, as I feel I don’t have enough strength to make a whole TV series. I’ve been thinking about doing an anime with witches and sorcerers. Regrettably I probably missed an opportunity to realize it because there are too many of them already. Akihiko Yamashita’s Invisible [NB: Part of the Modest Heroes series of short films] released this summer contains some elements which I’ve been thinking about. So, I must start thinking about another twist to my idea.
Aren’t action scenes a prerequisite for fantasy anime?
I don’t mind action scenes if they don’t have fistfights or the like. The essence of anime is movement, therefore anime characters must move around. The quality of anime works depends on how much they can express various things with movement. In that sense, anime requires action scenes.
On a final note
My next directorial work is still a rough idea but it will be released in 2020 or later. I’m preparing various things for it. I hope you’ll look forward to it.
Okamura was born as Yutaka Okamura in 1961 in Fukushima prefecture. He studied Architecture at Waseda University faculty of science and engineering. During his college years, he joined a society for a studying manga. Akira Sasou was also a member of the society at that time. After graduation, he joined acclaimed anime studio Madhouse. His drawing talent was highly praised, and he made his debut as an episode director with Yawara! in 1989. His first directorial work was Stink Bomb in 1995. Since then, he has directed various anime adaptations of popular manga including Blue Exorcist and The Seven Deadly Sins as well as many original anime series including Darker then Black, Wolf’s Rain, World Conquest Zvezda, and Kuromukuro.
Kuromukuro is an original anime TV series directed by Tensai Okamura.
During the construction of the Kurobe Dam in Japan’s Toyama prefecture, a mysterious ancient artifact was discovered. In order to research the artifact, the United Nations establishes the Kurobe Research Institute. Intellectuals were called from all over the world to research it, and the children of the researchers attend Mt. Tate International High School. Among the students is Yukina Shirahane, the daughter of the head of the institute. In the summer of 2016, an unknown flying object crashes into the Toyama area and robots emerge from it, raiding the institute. Yukina accidentally touches the artifact in her panic and a mysterious young man by the name of Kennosuke Tokisada Ouma appears. He claims that he has come from 450 years ago and operates Kuromukuro, a large humanoid combat robot, together with Yukina. Their battle against mysterious enemies, Efi Dorg, also known as ‘Oni’, begins.
Original work: Snow Grouse
Director: Tensai Okamura
Series Composition: Ryo Higaki
Visual Concept and Mechanical Design: Tomoaki Okada
Character Design, Chief Animation Director: Yuriko Ishii
Chief Animation Director: Ayumi Nishihata
Anime Studio: P.A.Works