With the popularity of Sword Art Online (SAO) TV. It was no surprise Sword Art Online TV would return as SAO II, with a bang. Last year at Sakura-Con 2013, the creator of SAO, Kawahara Reki attended Sakura-Con. We were given the opportunity to meet and interview Mr. Reki. The questions posed to him was interesting and at times thought provoking. For this year, Sakura-Con 2014, we were given the opportunity to interview Tomohiko Ito, Shingo Adachi and Shinichiro Kawashida. I hope this interview will give you more insight to the production of Sword Art Online and their line of work.
Author note: I hope this interview article allow you to feel as if you were in the interview room with me. – Narmi
General question, what would you work in if you had a career in a different field?
Tomohiko: Before I became an animator, I was in seafaring school, so I would have been a sailor.
Shingo: I went to film school, but it’s not that easy to become a film director even after going there. I was looking into going into a small TV production company, perhaps to become an assistant Director, but I come from a generation of the baby boom and competition was pretty fierce to get a job. That’s when my Senpai from the anime industry recruited me into anime. At the time, I was seeking jobs in TV production as a TV assistant Director and also in various video game companies such as Konami and Capcom. I did not make it into any of them, so I ended up in Anime. Shinichiro: I always wanted to become a police officer and that is what I could have become, but I never liked to study, so I would have never passed my civil servant exams. I actually studied engineering in school, so I studied something that has no bearing on what I do today.
Sword Art Online explains the gaming terminology pretty well. Did you go to experts in the terminology? Were there a lot of gamers on staff? How did you flush out the information?
Shingo: Before SAO, I was very much addicted to a game called Final Fantasy 11 and it was to the extent that it was affecting my job performance. You can actually say I did my research for SAO long before the show started. It was my wife who scolded me, and so I had to make the bitter return to Real Space. Around the time when the author of SAO, Kawahara Reki was addicted to Lineage, I was pretty much playing the other Korean MMO Ragnarok Online, so both of us were pretty familiar with the current online gaming lingo.
This is for Tomohiko Ito. You stated Neon Genesis Evangelion inspired you to be an Anime Director. With the “You (Can) Not” movie releases, what are your thoughts on the execution of the movie series?
Tomohiko: You know me well (laugh). Once you become professional in the anime industry, it’s hard to watch other anime from a fan perspective. Despite that, Evangelion is one of the animated titles I would very much like to watch as a pure fan. I really don’t look at how it has changed between the old Evangelion and the new movies.
What challengers were there in adapting original stories that were self-published online versus adapting an established story that was from a manga, game or light novel?
Shinichiro: The challenges of animating, that was not so different, granted before SAO was published as a novel. It was self -published online, but I’m pretty sure ASCII media Works pretty much knew that and it was pretty much popular back then. That is why they picked it up to publish it. Unlike say videogames, SAO always was something that had appeal not just to the Japanese audience, but to the world. That was the hook, we had to grab it and animate it.
Shingo: This wasn’t just SAO but my previous show Working!! also has it’s self-published Doujin roots and I think it has come to be that a lot publishers are looking at pre-existing works. Written by authors not for a livelihood but more as a work of passion. That tends to help create diversity in the genre, you can say that with Hatsune Miku as well on the music side. I think this trend will just probably continue.
This is a general question. While working on SAO, what sort of challenges did you face, do you remember?
Tomohiko: Back then this would have been 2012, we wanted to pose the question, “what would be the new fantasy world?”
Shingo: Back when I was in high school, very much the Euro-Western fantasy was the rage. It was very popular, with shows such as Record of Lodoss Wars and I was certainly one of the fans of the genre but eventually the audience started to get bored and the popularity of the genre started to die down. We thought if we followed the same formula, we would end up the same way. So, what the producer told us was not to go with that, but go strictly with the created world of the video game fantasy world, not the now online fantasy world, and to take it from there.
Shinichiro: This is more of personal view. In SAO, one of the characteristic premises is that “Game Over” means personal death, but you compare death in a live action to animation. I always thought it was hard to beat the realism of death in animation but, if you look at other recent shows such as Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyoujin), the desperation of the character is no less unrealistic, so I thought it was something that is fairly “depictable” using the anime media.
The first season of SAO is very popular internationally, do you feel any pressure for season two (Sword Art Online II).
Tomohiko: Yes. (chuckle)
Shingo: In SAO, when you move into a new series. The characters looks have to completely change. We can’t use the character designs from the previous production and carry it on to that. That is very different from my previous show Working!!, where you can just continue on with the previous character designs. In SAO, you have to come up with new character designs from scratch for the next season, and that is a tough thing to do as an animator. But if you look at the previous characters, Kirito and Asuna, you can see how time has changed them. They have grown up a little and that is something we can look forward to seeing.
Shinichirou: Well, for me, I do not have the pressure, but it was so in season one and it still is so in season two that we’re blessed with a good director, character designers and there are good staff people in Japan. I know that we can do it and I know that I can trust them. In season one, this was a world where all the combat was sword vs. sword. In season two, it is sword vs. guns and so this is a new world. It won’t be the same as season one and this is something to look forward to.
I have a couple of numbers I want to feed to you all. 7.1 and 5.8. These are your ratings on Toonami here in America which are very good. The highest rating is 8. Did you ever expect that popularity?
All three: “Ehhh”
Shinichirou: First to hear it.
Tomohiko: The producer doesn’t tell us numbers that much. That is a surprise to hear.
Shingo: Glad to hear that.
This question is for Shingo Adachi and Tomohiko Ito. Since your debut works, (Tomohiko: Death Note & Shingo: Rockman) what changes do you see in the production process?
Shingo: As a character designer for Rockman, it was my first, but I have been an animator for a decade before that. The biggest change in work was going from cell to digital work on PCs today.
Tomohiko: Another change is the executive animation direction system. Each episode would have its own animation director but the episodes would be overseen by the executive animation director, so that became a bottleneck, but it does allow the character designer and executive animation director to make all the cells consistent, and give a consistent feel to the entire series. It does depend on the talent of one single artist but it has been a change for the good.
Shingo: For me, though, I wish the system was not in place. Japanese fans tend to be demanding and they really want consistency in style through the entire series. I think the business model, where they want consistent sales in all the volumes of DVD and Blu-Rays, tend to encourage the system. It does make work in the studio a tougher environment.
Tomohiko: My debut should probably be Monster instead of Death Note. Going from Episodic Director to Series Director, you do have better influence for the entire production. Since I am not an artist, I have to figure out where to apply the controls to make it a better show. That might be working with the screenplay, or perhaps the sound director. Those are areas I can apply myself to. In addition to what Mr.Adachi said, when you’re allowed to do a lot of things with digital production, you end up being forced and compelled to do everything just because you can. Digital production allow you to be more efficient and doing things with a shorter amount of time. You end up doing a lot of things.
This question is for Mr. Ito. Previously you worked with Gen Urobuchi, for the story board of Puella Magi Madoka Magica episode 11. If given the opportunity, would you like to collaborate an original anime with Urobuchi-san?
Tomohiko: That is very specific of you. I only worked on one episode with him and it was not full walking of the horns. There are so many people who want to collaborate with Gen Urobuchi, I think he has plenty of suitors. (chuckle in the room)
When you are discussing the adaption of a work with the original creators. How much input do they have and at what point do you take the reigns from the author?
Shinichirou: There is the reading and in the case of SAO, all 25 episodes. The beginning and ending of the show was read to the author and it was determined with his presence. One of the format constraints of anime is that we have a fixed timeframe. There would be elements of the original story that need to be cut out. Those are usually done with the consent of the original author. This is in the production style that all studios labeled do. By doing this we can avoid situations later where the author would later say, the production staff did not understand the intent of the story and, problems can be avoided.
Adachi: As an animator, when I am given pre-existing works to do my work on, you may have popular books and titles that are already in the book stores, stacked up for everyone to grab, but there is also the part of the population who has not grabbed any of those books and don’t know of the existing work. I think it is my task to take the art style of the original books and to stylize into something that is more accessible to everyone else. No matter how great a show might be, if you don’t grab them on episode one, actually, if you don’t get them to watch episode one, it doesn’t start. I think as a character designer, it is most important to come up with the key visuals that would entice the potential audience to actually try episode one so that they would be sitting down in front of the television when episode one is broadcasting. That would be all pertinent to my key visuals.
A general question, most memorable moment while working on Sword Art Online?
Tomohiko: Perhaps the fact that I was dumped during the production of SAO, but it was actually after the show was done. It was not during the production.
Shingo: When I was working on episode 25, the final episode, I was at work for two weeks consecutively and wasn’t home to see my wife. She told me after work, she was considering divorce after that point.
Shinichirou: This is something to say about SAO production that I learn from real life from Mr. Adachi and Mr. Ito. There are certain ways we anticipate the audience’s reactions, such as the point where Kirito proposes to Asuna. You can anticipate there would be a lot of viewer frustration in that episode and that was pretty much anticipated. That is what we intended and I am sure those frustrations were projected to production staffs such as Mr. Ito and Mr. Adachi, when they were working on it.
Shingo: While I was working on SAO, viewer/fan popularity wasn’t something that I consciously removed from mind while working on it. I was later happy to learn that Blu-Ray sales were going well and there was a second pleasant surprise to hear that there was an American audience who enjoyed Sword Art Online. That also leads to being invited to places, like here in Sakura-Con. You can say I had more memorable moments with SAO after production.
I have a question for (Shingo) Adachi. As a character designer what personal touches and details do you add to your work in order to make it special and stand out?
Shingo: It’s difficult to see my own work in an objective fashion. I always try to respect the style of the original work but there seems to be something that is my own character that I can never remove from the art. Whether that is considered my own character or whether that is something undesirable, I can’t really tell or perhaps because of that, that is why I kept on getting work. I am still not sure if I should completely remove that or retain that.
Today is day two of Sakura Con 2014. What are your thoughts of the convention? Also, what are your thoughts about anime being big in the US and people paying so much attention to your work?
Tomohiko: It is my pleasure.
Shingo: I am happy to see fans here and to actually be here. At the same time, I still have a hard time believing that it is all here too. When I work on a show, I really have the Japanese viewers and audience in mind, and those are the sensibilities I draw on. There are certain styles of art that is popular in Japan. To see that get accepted overseas is something I find very incredible because I always thought that perhaps, the style of American comics, the style of Marvel would be the only thing that is popular here and to see other styles be accepted is a discovery for me.
Tomohiko: My observation isn’t specific to Sakura Con but looking at cosplayers I see a lot of longevity of the popular shows. I am really hoping 10 years from now that there will still be Kirito cosplayers. You can still see plenty of Sailor Moon cosplayers and Cardcaptor Sakura, which was very cute.
This question is for Adachi-san. Do the expressions of the characters come naturally for you? Does it just come to your mind?
Adachi: The character’s expressions seem to come pretty naturally to me when you look at the storyboard and visualize the scene. You go through it so many times in your head that the expressions come pretty naturally. However, all artists can identify that when you drawing a character with a certain expression, you tend to be mirroring that a lot and so when doing a sad expression, you look sad as an artist. As a smiling character, when you are doing a smiling character, you are also grinning and look pretty. I often look at myself that way as well.
Shifting to recent/current projects. Tomohiko-san, you are working on Silver Spoon, which is an agricultural-based series. Adachi is working on Galilei Donna. Can you please tell us a little bit more of those projects?
Tomohiko: Silver Spoon is based on a manga by Full Metal Alchemist, Hiromu Arakawa. Unlike Sword Art Online, it takes place in a special school, an agricultural school and so the story is very subdued. As a show to work on after SAO, it was a very refreshing change and saved me mentally and physically.
Shingo: Galilei Donna was a first for me because this was my first very first original title. We started from no artwork to base any character designs on. They are original shows where the concept area may have been done by a famous illustrator but for Galilei Donna, we really started, fully, from scratch.
Adachi: I will be repeating myself but versus when I started from scratch, titles such as SAO and Working!! are based on already popular titles, so you can already see what kind of audience you will be hitting and what kind of audience you want to grab. But when I have to start from scratch, I have to come up with key visuals that will be grabbing people to try out episode one. That is, pretty much, where all of my effort went into. I really put a lot of effort into the jacket art for the Blu-Rays of Galilei Donna, so if you can even just Google the jacket and look at them, there are six of them, from volumes one to six. I might be very happy if you can look at that and think of what I did.