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Anime Expo 2012: Tatsuo Sato Interview

Tatsuo Sato is the famed director of Martian Successor Nadesico, a classic of the 1990s robot genre and one of the defining parodies of the era, as well as the recent shows Moretsu Space Pirates and Rin-ne no Lagrange. He agreed to talk to us in private just after the press conference—which, in some ways, is really the first part of this conversation. For instance, we had just learned that Rasmus Faber had won the right to do Lagrange’s OP by competition, and started this interview by asking him more about Faber.

Did you ever listen to Rasmus Faber’s “Platina Jazz” arrangements of anime songs? Which songs did you like?

It was played as the BGM at the gym I go to, so I don’t really have an idea which track was my favorite. Sorry about that!

What anime inspired you to enter the anime industry?

While I certainly watched anime as a child, I really just wanted to go into the film business, the visual arts in general: not only anime but live action as well. I didn’t have any connections at first, but my sempai just happened to be already working as an animator. He introduced me to that particular exam, and I got in the anime industry. In terms of my career choice, I wasn’t aggressively seeking to be in the anime business [in particular]. I just wanted to do something related to the visual arts.

So which visual arts in particular inspired you?

As far the decisive elements of visual art [that got me into it]: sure, I like it when stories, drama, and visuals are combined into a narrative film. But the most inspiring piece of work for me was “Powers Of Ten“, which is a science film that starts from the human body and goes down to the microscopic, even atomic level, and then goes up to the universal or galactic scale. I thought it was amazing that it could depict, using a scale of 10s, to go from large to small, and small to large. It was very impressive, and that kind of filmmaking does something even more fundamental than storytelling. From that starting point, I got interested in visual arts, including anime.

Back then, it was on film, so the picture was [perhaps] not as refined. But what it wanted to depict was very clear, and I found this was one way of expressing it.

Nakajima Megumi [as Ranka Lee] said “Kira!” [as her catchphrase] in Macross Frontier. Madoka says “Maru!” [in Lagrange] in a similar way. Was that an intentional response [to “Kira”]? What kind of process went into deciding that?

Well, for that, the producers wanted to have a catchphrase, but we said, “Isn’t that going to be too much like ‘kira’?” At that time, Nakajima Megumi hadn’t been selected yet to sing the OP. I said, “It’s not Nakajima Megumi, so let’s not do that!” But they replied, “This time, it’s a robot anime, so don’t worry.” At that time, Nakajima Megumi’s name wasn’t even on the list. But when we started to produce the music, we thought her songs were great, so she got selected, at which point we said, “It won’t overlap [with Macross], will it?” In hindsight, it was coincidentally similar. While we didn’t intend it, I think it’s alright if people think we did it intentionally!

Well, among otakus, it was alleged that it was an ambition or even a conspiracy for “Maru” to replace “Kira.”

Well, in the anime world, a lot of things that pile up coincidentally can get seen as being inevitable. For example, a lot of anime have overlapping seiyuu casting, and so people wonder, “Why are all the seiyuu the same?” But it’s just a coincidence. A very talented seiyuu, prior to becoming famous, might have a lot of openings in her schedule, so before she knows it, her schedule quickly gets filled up with offers and jobs. Her management doesn’t fill up her schedule with jobs because they think she is a famous seiyuu, but rather, if there is a good seiyuu with lots of opening, they want to make sure she gets more work. That pattern is more common. It wasn’t about deliberate imitation.

Where do you see the anime industry going in the next 5 to 10 years? Do you see any upcoming trends? What do you see for the future? 

In the press conference, I said I wanted to focus on TV. I think there will be more movies. The 13 episode cour is so weak as a series, so hard to sell and market [as a whole]. If so, then it’s better to make films to keep the TV series longer, and approach to sales or marketing is what a lot of people are thinking is the better way.

Last: where can I buy your T-shirt?

I bought this in Japan, it just recently came out. Probably you can get at Amazon.

Or UNIQLO?

LOL.

Thank you very much! 

Tatsuo Sato Press Conference Transcript

The small press conference with Moretsu Pirates, Rinne no Lagrange, and Martian Successor Nadesico director Tatsuo Sato—as well as the follow-up private interview—is one of the richest dialogues we’ve ever had with an anime creator. We hope you enjoy this inside look behind Sato-san’s thought process in making Moretsu Pirates, Lagrange, and other shows. Some tidbits that perhaps have never been shared, like the origin of Lagrange’s OP, are here.

Translation by Rome. Our questions, which compose the vast majority of them, are in bold.

How do you feel the anime industry has changed over the years?
Well, the biggest change was when I went from being a producer to a director. The job has become mostly about how to communicate with people, so I came to be able speak like I’m doing now.

In Moretsu Space Pirates, there seems to be a deliberate upending of expectations in the way the show is paced and the characters built. What was your process in deciding how to adapt the original novel into an anime? Was there an eye in particular to recapturing certain approaches that are less common today?
The original work was a novel. Each episode advances the story, but [since the anime has to come to an end before the novel’s story ends] it’s weird to have to say “stop” to the main character’s growth, right? The main character becomes a high school student, and from there the [anime and novel stories] run alongside each other like parallel lines. But the story goes on past that; if you read it in a long run, that would have been okay, but if you adapt an anime in parallel with the novel, you don’t have the freedom to deviate. This anime series has 26 episodes, so rather than just simply adapt the novel, it has to build up to a rising climax to end the story. That’s how I restructured the story, making sure that the character will end her growth after 26 episodes of the series.

So the anime series only focused one part of the story.
Well, this I directed is “moretsu” (gung-ho, bodacious), but it’s not moretsu in the beginning. The story is about how Marika becomes a “moretsu” pirate.

Nadesico was one of the first shows to use certain “meta” techniques in anime: Gekiganger-3, the parodies of contemporary anime, etc. Now these techniques have become widespread. What is your opinion of that trend?
Well, speaking of Nadesico, the meta is heavily involved is the first part of the story. But to tell the story all the way through meta techniques is difficult in terms of the structure. Although it is now used a lot, it is really difficult for the meta to be involved with the core of the story.

If you could collaborate with another great director in the anime scene, like you did with Masaaki Yuasa in Cat Soup, who would you like to work with?
Yuasa is a guy who entered the anime industry at the same time as me, so he is like a close duplicate of mine, so I know his greatness. Well it will be rude to say it like this to him, but I was interested in “what if I make anime based on him?” so I did it. This type of person is rare; although I have some people that I’d like to work with, it is rare for me to create works with that in mind.

Can you talk about Rin-ne no Lagrange and the degree of your involvement as the chief director?
Well, the production is still going on. When Morestu Pirates just started, I was asked to also join the Lagrange project. So it was impossible for me to fully participate. The main part I did was in directing the construction of the project. The basic form of the series, scenario writer, and director are under me, but the real filmmaking was done by them.

The original work has two cours with a total of 24 episodes. Of course as the story goes on, it will deviate from the original plan. When they lose track of what the goal and wander into dangerous territory, you advise and support them. Very much like—well, it’s weird to say “from above,” since I’m not involved on set, as it were, but that was how I was involved.

Do you have any specific examples?
[The basic concept is that] a girl rides on a robot and fights the enemy. First, there was already talk that we’ll make a robot anime with a girl as the main character, but it wasn’t concretely clear what form and what kind of a girl, and everyone was thinking about how to do it. They said “let’s do something that’s never been before,” but they can’t come up with any idea. Well, if we want to have a girl that’s never been seen before, let’s do a “disappointing beauty” (zannen-bijin or zannenkei-bijin; think Chihaya from Chihayafuru). She is cute, but can’t be too [cute in the usual way]. So, for example, let’s put a jersey/tracksuit on her. Let’s tie her hair with a rubber-band. She’s not like the typical “good girl” that is liked by everybody, the everyone might want her to be, but she’s more merry, out of the ordinary. So what happens if this kind of girl is the main character? That’s how it started.

Lagrange seems to have some similarity to Evangelion: you’ve got a blue uniform girl, an orange/red uniformed girl, but Madoka is very different from Shinji. Was this intentional? After all, Nadesico had parodies of Evangelion. 
It’s not so much a parody of Evangelion…actually Evangelion is very much a summation of the whole history of robot anime, where a boy that has never ridden on a robot [learns to] ride it and look for his purpose. It started from Mazinger Z, whose plot is the “royal road” of robot anime. Evangelion took the same road: what if you put a boy like Shinji in the robot? That’s how Evangelion was made. So, in terms of that, this is similar: what if we put a jersey girl [in a robot]?

Anime is still stigmatized in USA as being for kids. What about Japan? Shouldn’t anime appeal to all ages and all walks of life? 
There were many people from the prior generation before mine making anime for kids, but with messages for adults inserted along the way. And we watched them and grew up, so of course, we adopted those tastes and we don’t really care if it is targeting the kids. We learned much that as a format that anime might be for kids but with messages for grownups—but we have a sense that kids are also getting our message anyway, so I think continuing in this mode is okay.

How did you approach Shigofumi? It was deep and philosophical. 
Shigofumi wasn’t for kids so much, but rather for late teens, like high school students to college students. [It was] an anime that those kind of people will watch. But despite that, we didn’t make an excessive depiction visually. But, indirectly we had to depict the anger that can be understood.  So we intentionally did that.

What was the most difficult making the characters and environment? 
Well, the most difficult part was that the character should not be swayed, but at the same time had to grow up. So, how to depict his growth, it’s kind of contradictory. He can’t be swayed, but not being swayed doesn’t mean he can’t change in some way. So, the hardest part was how to balance that.

Do you find it more difficult adapting anime from a novel or manga than creating original anime?
Even for original works, it depends on taste. Speaking of light novels, there are already illustrations, so the novel and illustrations together already create a preset image of the story. Reconstructing that into anime is very tough. Readers are very narrow. so if you make it into anime, the leeway given to it can be very narrow. And we have to work with that and explore it, and we have to bring out the unique qualities of anime. We have to make visuals very precisely, so it’s very tough. We can’t do location shoots!

The anime industry has changed a great deal since Nadesico. Do you think today’s industry environment makes it difficult to tell the stories you like to tell? (Clarification requested by translator.) Well, since Eva, we’ve seen the rise of the otaku subculture, the moe culture. Moretsu seemed different from that trend. Is it hard to make an anime like Moretsu today?
On the contrary: since the time of Eva until now, the anime cycle is getting faster, so how do you not get sucked into that trend? And what is the best thing to do? And the conclusion I drew was to make it the orthodox way, and that was it. And I thought that instead [people] would see a new thing, to see characters growing tremendously through 24 episodes: to see how the characters make decisions, to show the process of growth. I had a keen sense that would become the tastiest part of the anime, so this time I’m glad I made anime in that manner, and it was great to know that people really digging that kind of stuff are increasing.

What is the most important element to make anime?
Well, anime in this case is TV anime or… all anime? Ok, the most important thing in anime is basically that it is a medium that is bound by a running time, so there’s a [limited] sense of time (temporary art). So, for example, if you structure 26 episodes at 30 minutes each, then you have to think about the flow, and even with the artsy anime has to fall within the structure of what should you depict in that set time.

Was it your idea to bring Rasmus Faber to write the OP of Lagrange (“Try Unite”)?
Well, in this case, we had a competition. There were several contestants, and among them there was a foreigner whose name wasn’t familiar, and I was like, “who is this dude?” And I was told he was Rasmus Faber. And Lagrange’s music production company was Flying DOG from Victor Records. Victor Records have released Rasmus Faber’s CD albums, and that’s how we had connections through that. And Faber personally dearly loves Megumi Nakajima’s voice, and he particularly wanted to compose a song with Megumi’s voice. That’s how he appealed to us with that story, and he entered the competition, and that was really hilarious. So, [I said], let’s give him a shot! That’s how it was decided.

What role has technology played in making anime? Is it easier to make anime now?
Oh yes, certainly, it makes you feel that you can do anything with it. However, along with those benefits, you have to really make sure you know what you want to do with it, otherwise you will be distracted with the flow. So, you always have to ask yourself what you really want to do each time  technology makes progress. And that is very important.

Tomorrow: our private interview with Sato!

Winter 2012 Roundup, Part 1: The Most Promising Shows

For some reason, probably having to do with prolonged illness and the boredom that goes with it, I’ve watched nearly everything this new season has to offer so far. I’ll start with the shows I regard as the ones with the most potential of actually being good—and there’s a surprising number of them, given that winter is typically an off season.

What's behind that eyepa—OH MY GEASS

Another

To this day, I still think the best horror/suspense anime was Boogiepop Phantom. What Boogiepop did better than anyone else was in evoking a genuinely creepy atmosphere, not only with its shadowy visuals but especially with its sound design: the hums, the ghostly pings, and judicious use of electronica. Not everything was well-explained in the anime, but it was something that really gave off the right feeling, especially when viewed in the dark.

Another is also a triumph of atmosphere. It is, at least so far, dependent on it—the plot has barely gotten started aside from the identity of Misaki (perhaps telegraphed a bit too early). But the shivery sound cues and the pacing in its best scenes rival some of Boogiepop’s better moments. Like another well-written but occasionally histrionic series, Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni, it tends toward more traditional anime character design, which can sometimes blunt the suspense to a certain extent; I sometimes have a hard time taking those designs seriously. But unlike Higurashi, it has so far refrained from the use of gore and shock and clearly and deliberately building up to something in a consistent way. Kudos must go, especially, to the final scene in episode 2 in the doll museum. While dolls have been used a lot in anime for creepy affect, and admittedly the show stumbled with the quick cuts to them in earlier moments, the pacing and sound were near-perfect.

The evident skill behind Another makes it worth watching. Now, if only someone could permanently retire Ali Project from ever making OPs and I’ll really be happy…Kajiura-san? Kalafina? You’re needed again for another gothic show!

 

Yes, this is just like EVERY OTHER ANIME scene, but trust me, it's more...

Ano Natsu de Matteru

I have a bias here: I have a real soft spot for the work of screenwriter Yousuke Kuroda and especially Onegai Teacher, which was one of the first animes I ever bought on DVD. (Hint: I got it long before this website ever got started in 2006.) Kuroda has a knack for giving characters emotionally resonant dialogue, and has elevated normally mundane premises like Onegai Teacher by giving characters genuine motivations and feelings. It’s no accident that he worked on Toradora! and Honey and Clover too, two of the most heartfelt slice-of-life/relationship anime of recent years.

So of course I was going to check out Ano Natsu de Matteru. Yes, it’s true: the show almost seems like a deliberate attempt to recreate Onegai Teacher, with character equivalents galore, but with some of the more outlandish plot contrivances of the original toned down. There doesn’t appear to be the “standstills” that make characters look much younger than their purported actual ages, for instance. We don’t have outright marriage right off, either. And I like the central/controlling metaphor of this one better: where they are going to make a 8mm movie. One is almost reminded of the recent JJ Abrams film, Super 8. As well as my own memories of making an 8mm film at the end of middle school…

Kuroda wisely decided to have all the main characters interact as an ensemble right off the bat, and sets up all the important tensions and conflicts between them efficiently. There are clever flourishes, like the transitions between Kai’s fantasies and reality, and the banter between the characters are not only often witty but revealing. (Sure, some of them had to get drunk to be honest, but that’s true in real life too….) This is a nearly perfectly paced show, and it makes some of the more cliche scenes and occasional fan service a lot more palatable. And while I don’t expect it to reach the emotional heights of Ano Hana, its character designer is on board and has done a good job making Ichika in particular reminiscent of, but perhaps a bit less outlandishly proportioned than, the Teacher. Sure, Kai is a bit too much like Jin-tan, but still…

From the I’VE opening to the great pacing and smart dialogue, this is both a nostalgia trip and an anticipation to see if Kuroda can work his magic again.

 

Marika had better trade that maid outfit for a pirate one soon.

Moretsu Space Pirates

To tell you the truth, I’m a little bit more cautious about this show than many others. The strengths of the show are undeniable: the writing is sharp, the pacing is purposeful, the main character Marika is winsome in both her normalcy and her ability to handle challenges. The animation quality is also excellent, though we’ve seen relatively little action so far. Moreover, it’s clear that a good deal of thought was given in building the sci-fi world: the history, the government, the role of pirates/privateers (that is what a “legal pirate” with a Letter of Marque and Reprisal is really called), etc. I also have to appreciate that despite the premise, despite the alternate title of “Mini-skirt Space Pirates,” the show goes out of its way to avoid fanservice. That is not the focus of what is building to be an old-school space adventure show, with a confident schoolgirl in command.

Forgive my impatience, but I just wish they’d get to that point just a little faster. It’s probably a disadvantage of watching this week after week, and with the knowledge that there are two cours. I also fully understand that they are taking the time to deepen the history of Marika and her mother, the Bentenmaru, and the role of Chiaki in particular. It’s working: there are some wonderful individual bonding scenes where Marika interacts with her mother, with Chiaki. I guess I just can’t wait for the action to begin, and it’s making it hard for me to see just where this is going. With the director of the 1990s classic Martian Successor Nadesico in charge, I’m fairly sure he won’t screw up, so my hopes are up—hence its inclusion on this list.

But I want my starships and piracy, dammit. I’m sure that once it does begin it’ll make that launch moment all the sweeter.

 

Truer words were never spoken.

Nisemonogatari

SHAFT and Shinbo strike again! All they had to do was to keep up the banter-dependent, sexy, artsy feel of this sequel to Bakemonogatari and it would be enough. I was latecomer to Bakemonogatari and Senjougahara fandom, but over time I got hooked on its post-modern theater-like atmosphere and its alluring, unconventional approach to the harem genre. For that is what Bake and Nisemonogatari are, at the end of the day, harem shows—but with fascinating dialogue filled with cultural references, screwball comedy exchanges (I loved the “the courage to” challenge), and a nice dollop of real sexual tension that’s captivating.

Nisemonogatari starts off with what are basically set-pieces. There are no problems or curses to solve, unlike the first series. Araragi basically drifts from conversation to conversation with his sisters and other girls; in a way, it’s the slice-of-life genre stripped down to its barest form, as written by Samuel Beckett. That, carried on too long, would be boring though if the characters weren’t so well-differentiated and, in the second episode, so convincingly seductive. I admit that I actually disliked Nadeko in season 1, because I felt the pandering was too thick. Making her bolder and more forward in this season worked, and not just because the fanservice was actually appropriate to the scene—it was directed really well. The subsequent scene with Kanbaru was even more delicious in the dialogue, and ended with a reversal that was both funny and clever.

For once the eroticism of anime seems to actually work. Or maybe I just think the girls are especially hot this season. See Charles’ article for an articulation of why that might be troubling. But the intelligence and artfulness of Bakemonogatari is fully intact.

Next time: why Nichibros, Thermae Romae, and other lauded aniblogosphere titles aren’t on this list!