Along with an understanding of the broader context of the subject, the most vital ingredient to good anime coverage is a reliable source. So when US journalists actually interview people on the production side in Japan, it’s generally worth noting unless the interview consists entirely of fluff. This is the first of what will (hopefully) be several posts over the next couple of weeks archiving articles from Newtype USA’s [inside] series of articles written by Amos Wong. It contains statements from President Michiaki Sato and Director Kazuki Akane on how the studio went from subcontractor to full-time anime studio and how they handled the increased demand for female casts in the millennial anime boom.
Note: Pictures are scans of the article made on my crappy scanner, which cover the article text but not the entire page. Apologies for that. I have also transcribed the article after the jump to make for easier reading (though I probably won’t be doing so for other articles due to the time involved). Also note that each part of the article is a two-page spread, so page 19 comes before 18, 21 before 20, 23 before 22, and 25 before 24.
Intro: Michiaki Sato charts the company’s rise from a digital effects contractor to a full-fledged animation studio, while director Kazuki Akane discusses his recent projects Geneshaft and Heat Guy J.
“Japanese animation is primarily produced in Tokyo, or at any rate I think 95 percent or so is concentrated in Tokyo,” states Satelight’s president Michiaki Sato. The majority of studios, he adds, tend to be situated along two train lines – the Chuo and Seibu Shinjuku – and indeed, the have been the ones taken by NTUSA to visit BONES, Production I.G., Studio 4C and GAINAX previously for the [inside] series. “It’s like you can’t produce anime unless you’re here – people say that all the time.” With titles including Chikyu Shoujo Arjuna (“Arjuna”), Heat Guy J, and Macross Zero among its works, Satelight breaks the geographical tradition somewhat, based 700 miles (1130km) north of the anime captal, in Sapporo Hokkaido. Headquarters exclusively handles the CG and digital production for which the company is renowned. Although an art production department was established there last year, most of the analog elements including animation and direction are done at the company’s Tokyo office. Along with a Thailand branch handling digital painting, in total the company employs about 80 people.
Hailing from Sapporo himself, Sato kindly traveled to Satelight’s Tokyo studio to meet with us. As we ascend in the elevator during the studio tour, he jokes that each floor gets progressively messier and mentions a co-production in the works that involves a certain well-known French director. Further details are strictly hush-hush for now. Among the de rigueur anime paraphernalia displayed in the work area stands a cardboard model of Heat Guy J’s robotic protagonist. It sports a bleeding nose, and its jaw is made from what looks like part of a Fran box (think Pocky chocolate-covered biscuit sticks, only creamier). On display in Geneshaft and Heat Guy J director Kazuki Akane’s workspace are grenades and handmade replicas of the gun used by Daisuke, the latter show’s lead. Elsewhere, an anime studio pet sighting first: two large turtles lazing inside a tank.
Sato tells us that Hokkaido’s economy is currently in the doldrums; he hopes Satelight could contribute toward aiding the region’s economic climate and bolstering its international recognition. “For companies doing business – even if their technological level is high and they make good productions – unless they have the know-how to go out in the world, they’re going to end up stuck in the region. But here we are in this little place called Sapporo, and we’re out to prove that we can make the whole world stand up and take notice.”
Asked about the company’s establishment in 1995, he brings up a TV series called Bit the Cupid, one of the earliest anime to adopt digital paint and compositing techniques. At the time, Sato was an accountant at Satelight’s parent company, a system house in Sapporo that develops computer hardware and software. In charge of building the system to produce the 50-episode series providing technical support, he was assigned a temporary role in the production.
“Because I was in the accounting section, I came to be involved specifically with the planning,” he explains, “Of course our original company’s business was pretty far removed from animation production, but we started moving more in the direction of carving out a niche for ourselves.” Thus, Satelight evolved into a separate company headed by Sato and specializing in digital and CG elements. “In the course of making animation, if there are ten stages then maybe I end up focusing on seven or eight. It’s an area where I come in bringing technology and the accompanying know-how, and after having done the actual planning, I’m able to understand how to use the process to incorporate CG effectively.”
“I’d wanted to use computers in anime production ever since entering the industry,” says Akane. The impression left by the films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas as well as Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Kido Senshi Gundam (“Mobile Suit Gundam”) and Hayao Miyazaki’s Cagliostro no Shiro (“Castle of Cagliostro”) from his high school days was so strong, he joined SUNRISE after graduating from university. After three and a half years in the production department, he began working as an animation director, starting with Samurai Troopers. Akane was eager to put his computer skills acquired during his university days (where he majored in architectural engineering) to use. “One of the titles I worked on was the Gundam movie Gyakushu no Char (“Char’s Counterattack”), and for that we used CG to render the space colonies.” Watching the result, he realized the possibilities offered by the technology.
“If CG was to be regularly used on TV animation, we’d be able to create a new type of look,” Akane recalls thinking at the time. His chance came when he directed Tenku no Escaflowne (“Vision of Escaflowne”) at SUNRISE. “Of course, TV shows have a smaller budget, and at that time computers were still expensive.” The only ones they could afford were Macintoshes. Six months were spent experimenting with the machines, which he points out didn’t even have Adobe After Effects, only Photoshop. “The speed of the machines was unbelievably slow; there were all sorts of difficulties in coming up with viable ideas.”
“It was a process of trial-and-error for the entire staff,” he says and remembers the dissent from other animators at the time, who viewed the emerging technology as a perversion of the art form and steadfastly believed animation should only be drawn by hand. “Convincing those people of what we were doing was really quite difficult at first.”
Header: The Kawamori Connection
In all honestly, Sato admits that he wasn’t initially very interested in producing anime. “Especially the production side, which tends to drag on with troublesome details. But the thing that dropped me off at the doorstep of this industry, and what’s behind my feelings of wanting to stay in it and keep going – that would be meeting Shoji Kawamori.”
The famed Macross director was helming Kenji no Haru (“Spring and Chaos”), a TV special commemorating the 100th anniversary of esteemed author Kenji Miyazawa’s birth; Satelight was in charge of the digital elements. “There was high demand for CG at the time, and Mr. Kawamori was extremely finicky about matching the 2-D and 3-D parts, so we had to work our asses off!” he exclaims.
Sato had actually considered walking away from the industry at that point. However, upon viewing the finished work, he had a complete change of heart; the experience was unlike anything he’s felt during his years in accounting. “It was so satisfying, and as someone on the administration side of things, it was the first time I was able to feel like I’d been a part of making something. It was only indirectly because it’s not like I can draw or anything, but I still felt it.”
Retaining business momentum after Spring and Chaos proved to be a challenge. Despite being one of the pioneers in digital animation, the company was literally an outsider. “There were more than 30 years of history in the Japanese animation industry, and most of it comes from companies that have branched off from today’s Toei Animation and Mushi Production, making it an industry with many strong lateral ties,” he explains. “In the midst of all that you have a company from Hokkaido, and what’s more an animation company that was created from a computer company.” Work was sparse, but things began to improve two years after founding the company, during which Satelight worked on such titles as Perfect Blue and the Cyber Marionette OVA series. “Toei Animation was just starting to lean towards digitization when suddenly the whole industry started going digital; it was in the first few years of the trend that we were able to finally bring some work – meager though it was – back to Sapporo.”
Post digital boom, production companies sprung up in Tokyo, and Satelight was faced with a further obstacle amongst the new climate of bidding wars: the cost of sending material between Tokyo and Sapporo and the financial losses the company would have to take to stay competitive. The solution was to “stand up river” as he puts it. Essentially, to become directly involved in anime production, as opposed to being a subcontractor, though at the time he says they didn’t have enough know-how to do so. “We didn’t have any real works to our credit as a production company, In the case of Japanese animation, it’s incredibly common to make animation of existing manga. The most common scenario is one in which you have some kind of link between the publisher and the production company, or between the ad agency and the TV network, and the project comes about through those kinds of family ties. On top of that, it’s an industry with some history, so no matter how eager we were to do business, without some past successes under our belt, we weren’t going to be able to get work. At that point it becomes a matter of making a production plan, and if that plan seems attractive, then maybe someone will invest in it.”
As Spring and Chaos wrapped, Satelight started planning toward that goal and naturally turned to Kawamori. “We started off with the thought that we wanted to do something with him, and as it turns out, at the time he was talking about making animation based on some sort of classical motif,” explains Sato. The initial concept of Arjuna, Satelight’s first original work, was to use Bhagavad Gita, a well-known scripture from ancient India, as the springboard for an action-laden folk tale. “As we were doing research for it, the focus started shifting more toward the environment, which is why it took about three years just to complete the planning.” Agricultural methods were investigated to lend an authentic air to crop cultivating scenes. (“We didn’t want to put out a bunch of lies, you know”); research trips were taken to India, Borneo, Korea, China and even the Amazon. “Because we were drawing nature, we wanted to know exactly what a jungle was like and details abotu how to protect the environment.”
“We also talk about problems at school and childbirth and take up other themes like that, about what’s most important in life, but it’s not just sitting there preaching at you. It’s more like we hope viewers can effect some changes through their awareness, and in their own way.” Considering an environmental summit was held around then, Sato felt the story was relevant for the time.
Header: New Processes
With the headquarters in Sapporo and considering the schedule required for TV projects, reducing production time otherwise incurred by shipping material to Tokyo (for post production) had been paramount. “Up until Arjuna, we were taking all the footage done in Sapporo, recording it onto videotape, and then sending it to Tokyo via airmail,” Sato explains. “That’s what we would then edit.” Unpredictable events such as heavy snow grounding planes were a big problem. “There were actually times when the Beta Cam [tape] didn’t make it to Tokyo, and we couldn’t start editing, so we had to face the problem of how to make the on-air deadline.”
To solve the problem, a network was created that enabled the footage to be sent online in movie format between the offices. “By constructing a system whereby video materials can be edited as-is, either online or offline, we don’t have to be at the mercy of the weather, and we don’t lose time. I think we’re probably the only company in Japan right now that has this kind of production system.”
He comments that advances in hardware and software since the studio’s inception have greatly streamlined production techniques in time and cost. Digitally painting a 15-minute work for television previously took about 70 PowerMac 7100s operating in tandem. “On top of that, we were painting one canvas at a time in Photoshop. Putting in in today’s terms, our company creates its own original tools, very similar to a piece of software from RETAS called Paint Man. In terms of production efficiency, we’ve gone from needing 70 machines to something like only 5 now.” Sato explains that something costing 200 million yen [1.7 million USD] in the past to paint could be done for around five million [42,000 USD] yen today. “Even adjusting for inflation, that’s a tremendous difference.”
With MADHOUSE a stone’s throw down the road from the Tokyo studio, it’s apt that Satelight has contributed to the productions of Perfect Blue, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust and METROPOLIS. “A person here at the company worked as a CG director, and about six others from our company joined the CG staff,” recalls Sato on Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s gothic actioner. “The computer graphics for Vampire Hunter D were all produced in-house. There was this scene at the beginning where the camera keeps moving through graves and pans out at the same time. I think in that scene we really showed what 3-D can do; it was some really cool camerawork, if I do say so myself.” He describes the production of the CG-intense METROPOLIS as “an explosion of data.” [ctd. on 22-23]
“Handling all the pieces was a management nightmare. We were using so many software applications, like Softimage, Maya, 3D Studio MAX and Lightwave. On that project it was like we were using every 3-D application out there, and it was hell trying to integrate them while still maintaining compatibility.”
Currently in production on Kawamori’s Macross Zero, Sato is especially proud of the title’s 2-D and 3-D matching technology. “We’ve taken a risk in not using cel shaders, which means that everything’s done with textures. We use a texture base to generate them, which we then wrap around the [3-D] models and apply motion effects. It’s a very painstaking and time-consuming process but I think it provides a certain look of freshness.”
Involving almost all of the main members of the original Macross production, he opines that by employing the latest CG techniques, the battle scenes and dogfights in particular have been expressed with a kind of intensity and realism that hasn’t been found in Macross before. “That’s why I think it’s an anime that can be enjoyed not only by robot fans, but also by people who are just simply interested in airplanes and aviation.”
Header: It’s in the genes
In the world of Geneshaft, the preservation of humanity required the male/female ratio to be artificially altered to 1:9 in the late 21st century. The nearly two centuries of ensuing peace is broken when a gigantic ring of alien origin spanning 500 kilometers appears within Earth’s orbit. To thwart an invasion, a female team is selected to pilot a giant robot, itself constructed from alien technology discovered on one of Jupiter’s moons.
“As part of the anime boom going on at that time, we’d get commissions from sponsors saying that they wanted us to put out female characters – lots of them!” Akane explains with a laugh, about the project’s origins. Admitting that he did have some misgivings about an unnaturally large female cast, he nevertheless incorporated the concept of a genetically manipulated and regulated society to back the setting. He put a twist on the common device in which genetic manipulation is used to create the perfect soldier for war; the science is used to achieve peace instead.
“People say that men were the driving force of the 20th century, but the 20th century is typified by destruction,” he remarks. “The antithesis of this is the 21st century. I don’t have the kind of mindset that I can ‘protect’ women – in fact, they’re stronger than guys, aren’t they? Psychologically and biologically speaking. That’s why, if the human race were realyl on the brink of extinction, wouldn’t it be women who want to step up to take the reins of leadership? That was the idea I had that I decided to try and turn into Geneshaft.”
If the 20th century is an era of destruction, Akane wanted to portray the next century of recognizing chaos for what it is – chaos. “Instead of forcing something to conform, of pigeonholing it into categories like ‘good’ or ‘bad’, can’t there be a new and different direction in chaos?” Nothing, he says, should be thought of in terms of black and white; despite scientific attempts to curb potentially destructive human traits, betrayal and terrorism persist at the start of the series. “Humans have a potential inside them that can’t be expressed simply in numbers. Right now, you have people saying that genome research has analyzed all the DNA of the human body, but a human being isn’t something that can be expressed merely by numeric values,” he remarks. “I think that kind of theme is also present.”
Header: Mecha modeling
“We couldn’t use any 3-D on Escaflowne due to budgetary constraints,” Akane remarks. “Personally, I wanted to hurry up and start getting into 3-D animation, which became possible when I teamed up with Satelight on the production of Geneshaft. Satelight was originally grounded in CG rather than 2-D animation; because the skill level possessed by their staff was so high, I decided to try merging CG with traditional 2-D animation.”
To design the impressive, otherworldly Shaft mecha, he turned to modeler Takayuki Takeya. A fan of his for the last five years, Akane originally saw the modeler’s work published in SMH, an artistic figures magazine popular amongst hardcore types and designers. “Takeya’s models were not only good from a modeling standpoint, they would also incorporate the ‘feel’ of a story setting. He can even make georamas, you know. He is the kind of person that can visualize the story as well as draw designs.” Takeya went on to design the mecha for the director’s next project, Heat Guy J.
For Geneshaft, Akane deliberately eschewed the heroic mecha style largely inherent in robot animation and envisaged Shaft as something that incorporated a lot of pipes all over. “The outline is not human – the primary basis for it would have been alien rather than human, as the aliens would have patterned it after themselves. So I was after a design that was a little contrary to what you’d expect from a hero.”
He adds that it was actually a prerequisite that the mecha be created using computer graphics because it would have been impossible to express something with so much linework with traditional animation. “If we’re going to use CG anyway, I’d like them to go ahead and just make it very dense with lines – just put in as many lines as possible. Because that’s the kind of thing you can do with CG.”
Once Takeya’s illustrations were approved, the CG staff took over in bringing them to life, but some balked at their complexity. “One guy flat out refused to make it!” Akane laughs. “The second person, the one who did the modeling [Eiji Inomoto], did a really fantastic job.”
The director opines that the art of computer animation is currently in its second phase. “All of the techniques have been developed, and the capabilities of computers have increased, but I think that the fusion of CG and hand-drawn animation – in other words, the blending of these two visual styles to create a new kind of imagery – hasn’t yet reached its ultimate form. There are still ideas out there waiting to be utilized; or rather, there’s a shortage of current ideas.”
Header: Turning up the heat
After Genshaft, Akane wanted to personally develop a story for his next project, as opposed to taking on one commissioned externally. “Heat Guy J was originally something I’d come up with 15 or 16 years ago; a story where a young person experiences personal growth in the context of an old-fashioned private investigator story, or a detective drama,” he explains. “Something that had a big cast of characters, with all these different people appearing in the story and fleshing out the worldview.” He sought to make the work with as much of a positive message as possible in response to the coverage in Japan about hikikomori; people locking themselves in their houses and shutting themselves off from the rest of the world.
“I didn’t want this story to be about hikikomori – instead, I wanted it to be about people communicating with one another. When people have contact with one another, they can get hurt, or they can go their separate ways. I wanted this story to express that it’s no good to build a fence, separating yourself from others. There are many young people in Japan who do just that, so with Heat Guy J, I wanted to counter that trend. Lots of animation out there actually paints that way of thinking in a positive light. I wanted to do something different.”
Unlike the continuous narratives of Escaflowne and Geneshaft, he deliberately structured the series as individual stories so that viewers could enjoy the work even if they tuned in after the first few episodes. Comparing the creative process of the two styles, he comments that with the taiga drama type that starts from the first episode and continues all the way through to the end, there’s bound to be some episodes that aren’t as interesting as others. To have the narrative follow a single, continuous flow is the most important factor.
“If each episode is self-contained, it becomes easier, to a certain extent, to make stories that have a high level of excitement throughout – though it does become quite difficult to create the same sort of ‘grand-scale’ level of excitement. But one of the merits of the self-contained story is that you can create episodes that explore a variety of approaches. I had a lot of fun this time around.”
When planning new works, Sato joins various research trips, where discussions abound on the project’s direction and shaping the content. “As a partner, I’m respecting their [the director’s] vision.” On the topic of Heat Guy J, he brings up some remarks he’s heard about the fluctuating quality of the episodes. “I’d just like to comment that the DVDs being released in North America have completely fixed those problems. So you can rest assured and look forward to it.” He points out that the animation quality is now much higher than the series’ original Japanese TV broadcast. “You can’t even compare the two. Each episode has been modified about 40 percent.”
Akane mentions that he’s working on an extra Heat Guy J episode that falls somewhere in the middle of the series and is exclusively for its DVD release. He has fond memories of his US visit in 2001and particularly enjoyed discussing his work with overenthusiastic overseas fans. “They’d straight up say which parts were interesting and which parts weren’t.” He confesses that they were actually in low spirits at the time. “Working on the theatrical version of Escaflowne, some things were very frustrating during the production, things that I really had problems with. But then I was there, I spoke with some of the young American fans, and that really helped me out. I really felt that at that time, I was able to draw some strength from them.” He comments that his two most recent works released in the US were created with two different purposes in mind. “But I hope viewers can enjoy the human drama in both. I don’t like portraying people in a negative light in my stories, so I’m looking forward to seeing how the more positive image of humanity I’ve portrayed in my work is received.”
On other current projects, Sato remarks that Kawamori is in the early stages of a new robot animation project. “I guess you could say it follows in the footsteps of Macross. We’re already at the point where we’ll be releasing information about it soon within the country. The rough mechanical designs are in progress as we speak.” As for the future of Satelight, he envisions a well-balanced studio capable of developing proprietary tools and CG tools according to the projects undertaken. Sato aspires for the company to have an industry standing akin to DreamWorks; technologically speaking, he mentions Pixar. He also expresses an interest in live-action filmmaking.
“One more thing is the fact that Hokkaido as a region is still very natural, so what they call enough space for one person in Tokyo would be unthinkably cramped in Hokkaido. When it comes down to it, we’re making animation, and animators and directors are all creators, right? So it’s a good environment for creators to work in. I get the feeling that if we’re able to produce visuals while surrounded by the beauty of nature, then maybe we’ll get more creative things coming out. So that’s why I feel very strongly that someday I’d like to completely move our operation up to Hokkaido. I want to take it back there.”
-Eiji Inomoto, mentioned as a second-string modeler in this piece, works with Akane to this day, as the CG animation director on Code Geass: Akito the Exiled.
-Given the timing of this article, the new Kawamori robot project being discussed is almost certainly Genesis of Aquarion.
-What is called “Cyber Marionette R” in the article is most likely the Saber Marionette R OVA.
-The most personally intriguing part of the article to me is the mention of the change in costs from 200 million yen (the cost of multiple episodes of cel anime by itself back then) to 5 million yen sometime over the period from 1995 to 2003. A similar article by Wong citing Toei’s Daisuke Nishio mentions that that studio’s transition to digital, while not super-smooth, made it possible to reduce the per-episode costs that were typically 12 to 14 million yen by 1 million yen; a 5-10% savings for every episode is a pretty big deal in the long run.
-I hope to paste that Toei article, as well as a number of others, in this space eventually, though I’m not sure if I’ll be doing any more transcription; accurately retyping ~4000 words is a bitch and US amazon tracking is kind of already eating into my free time. I may just post the scans from now on; they’re not elegant, but certainly readable.