Video: nbkz Sakai panel @ Anime Expo 2016

Mangagamer, a localization company bringing top selling Japanese visual novels to the English-speaking market, held a panel at Anime Expo 2016 with their guest nbkz Sakai (伸和酒井).

The CEO of the Japanese visual novel company minori,  nbkz Sakai has produced many famous pretty and shiny games, such as ef ~a fairy tale of the two~ and eden*, some of which have received anime adaptations. Ever since 2010, minori has worked with Mangagamer to bring the original visual novels to the Western market.

Anime Diet was able to capture almost all of the panel in the video, and a transcript (which has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity) is available below the video for those who prefer to read it instead.


Mangagamer Staff: Hello everyone, thank you for coming to the nbkz Q&A panel today. I’m Kai, great to see everybody, we have with us nbkz Sakai. So if you didn’t know, nbkz is the president and artistic developer for Minori, a Japanese visual novel developer, who did ef ~a fairy tale of the two~, eden*, Supipara, and hopefully many more to come! I have a few questions for nbkz. In just a moment, we’re going to show you a cute little video!

MG: So that was ef ~a fairy tale of the two~. nbkz, could you give us some insight into your experience working on ef?

nbkz Sakai: ef was made in 2006, so about ten years ago, but that was the release date. We started working on ef about three years before, in 2003. So watching it again right now… it feels kind of old. So reflecting back on that brings back memories, of working together with the director, Mikage, though he isn’t with Minori anymore. I remember all the fun days we had arguing with each other.

How many of you here have already played the game ef? A lot!

ef has five characters: Miyako, Kei, Chihiro, Mizuki, and Yuuko.
It was originally planned to start off with the first three characters, and then have Yuuko towards the end, but it actually starts with Yuuko at the beginning and Mizuki at the end.
In the end, what you played has Mizuki incorporated with Yuuko. We decided that this was the best way to showcase the story to the reader. Minori is a game company that involves a lot of staff in the decision making process, and everyone gets together to agree upon how best to showcase the story.

ef was sold into two chapters: the first tale and the latter tale. I believe ef is still the #1 Japanese game in volume of text and images used. And if anyone tells us to make a game like that again, we’ll probably say, “Nah!” We’re not that young anymore!

MG: What does “ef” actually mean?

nbkz: We really didn’t give it much thought. We just decided it might be an abbreviation for anything! We just pulled out the dictionary and the letter “E” could stand for anything, like “everything” or “eternal” or whatever. The original title for this game was actually “Angel’s Sunday”; we decided to use that as the fandisc title. We already decided upon what phrase to use towards the end of Angel’s Sunday. In the latter tale, the ending theme is called “Ever Forever”. This was actually the first thing we decided upon when we created the game. So, since we’ve decided on the song name, let’s make it “ef” for the rest of the game. For the animation, the opening theme was called “Euphoric Field,” so that also stands for “ef”. We made it seem like everything was tied to the abbreviation “ef”. There’s a lot of wordplay going on in the anime version of ef. For example, if you line up all the titles of the anime episodes, they become lyrics. There’s a lot of hidden easter eggs.

MG: Do you have any memorable or noteworthy experiences from when you worked on ef?

nbkz: It was really tough and very busy while we were creating this game. We worked on this game for a very long time, and we couldn’t see the goal or the end of this game. I still have nightmares about making this game. A hellish nightmare I’ll never finish this game on time.

MG: We’re going to our next title, eden*.

nbkz: It’s been a while since I’ve seen that too.

MG: What made your team make a kinetic, all-ages visual novel about an inevitable apocalypse? What sparked this idea?

nbkz: Jump back to when we were creating ef. Once we finished, we all got together, and concluded that ef was a really long game; let’s make our next game a bit shorter. We decided to do a more experimental type of game, which isn’t set in the stereotypical high-school setting. We wanted to do something very different. While ef was the best-selling Minori game in Japan, eden* was the best-selling Minori game in the foreign market. Eden* has become Minori’s most famous title for foreign fans, and through this title, we were able to learn a lot of things about the foreign market.

We’d like to create a new title similar to this! How many people here have played the game eden*? Thank you very much. It’s being sold on Steam for a very generous price. Please try it out!

MG: Similar to ef, did you have any memorable experiences with eden* as well?

nbkz: We worked on eden* very hard as well, and we put a very heavy emphasis on the visuals. For example, a typical visual novel has static backgrounds. If we are the characters and the audience is the player, from your perspective, the background would be this wall behind me. But if it was eden*, we have backgrounds created for all four sides as well. We call this the Pokemon depth of field… like Spielberg. So it’s a camera angle thing, where you can have two characters on screen with two different cameras, so you can see a characters from different camera angles.

This is a really good technique to use to switch around the perspective of the player. And a camera has bokeh, ie. to blur out backgrounds when you are very close. It’s a technique used in a lot of movies where two characters on screen can be individually focused on for emphasis, leaving the other blurred out, so you know who to pay attention to. If you switch around the camera angle, you might be able to see sunshine shining through from the other side.

Because we decided to go to such extreme lengths, the amount of work wasn’t much less than ef. The story itself is only about 1/4 the size of ef, but since we focused so much on visual quality experiments, it took about the same amount of work as ef. The staff was very angry at me.

When we saw the eden* opening, the girl, Sion, ran across the water. When you are drawing an anime, it’s very difficult to draw characters with their feet on the ground. If you watch anime, you will notice that they try to cut scenes where characters’ feet touch the ground. I was reminded by watching this opening animation that we took on this challenge! And yeah, I understand why all the animators say that it’s very difficult to do.

MG: Would nbkz want to share any further insight into eden* before moving on?

nbkz: So we’ll next move onto showing Supipara. Mangagamer will be selling this game on July 29th. Can you pull up the panel?

nbkzSupipara is still an unfinished work in Japan. We only released chapters 1 and 2. The entire game is five chapters long. We decided to release the first chapter for the US and European market. I believe, based on sales of eden*, we’ll definitely release Supipara chapter 2. As for chapter 3, 4, 5… we’ll probably not sell in Japan, due to low sales. However, with the foreign market, depending on sales, we may release chapters 3-5, specifically for your market. Please purchase chapters 1 and 2 and we may be able to release the remaining chapters. I believe this game will be sold on Steam, so please purchase this. It’s got the most recent techniques and our specialties in creating our games, what you would call the Minori technique, all squished into Supipara!

Just reviewing the Supipara opening, I was very impressed with the way we able to animate the sequence with Alice, the little witch, flying across the sky. We did the animation where Alice flies from her house to her destination in just one cut. We created a 3D model of that and an environment so we could animate her flying in different directions. Supipara is set in Kamakura, a city in Japan,
and we simulated how the city would look like from multiple perspectives in the 3D scale model.

Unfortunately, the Japanese PC game market has been stagnant, so it didn’t sell very well and we’re deeply in the red on Supipara. It was very very bad, the company was almost about to go bankrupt back then. After reflecting on the video, I’m very satisfied how it turned out. It was really great that we were able to do this game. We’re probably not going to release chapters 3-5 in Japan, but story, and everything has already been completed. It’s just a matter of how much revenue we can get from the foreign market, and if it’s good enough, we can do the rest of the chapters.

I guess this is it for my take on Supipara… do you have any questions?

MG: How difficult would it be to assemble the original Supipara team for future chapter development?

nbkz: Actually, it won’t be that difficult. Very few people left minori after Supipara. All the tech guys and people who did key animation sequences are still here. It won’t be that difficult. Most of the storyline and the artwork is already done for chapters 3-5, we just need a little tweaking, adding more illustrations, and polishing up. It will still take a little more time to complete Supipara. We still have to eat and we need revenue to make Supipara. If eden* didn’t sell that well, we probably wouldn’t have been able to release Supipara.

Japan demands games that have a long storyline, but Minori games have compact storylines. This has more to do with minori’s style, because we want to focus on the scenes and visuals instead of the story and the text. In a very typical visual novel, you usually have two characters standing there with very few movements of their hands or faces. It kind of looks like a puppet show, like something you show to little kids. Minori tries to stay away from that as much as possible.

If you really think about it, you feel odd playing a typical visual novel because you really do not see any situation in real life where two characters just stand in front of you with very few facial expressions or hand gestures. It feels kind of weird. Minori tries to stay away from these “unnatural” techniques commonly used in visual novels. With Supipara, we tried to use techniques like characters with lip synced mouths and blinking eyes. Because of that, the staff had to draw a lot of animation sequences and drawings. The staff got angry at me again.

Even though the staff gets angry: “why do I have to do all this?”, I tell them that, “No one else is doing it, it’s fun and interesting, let’s do it!” The staff accepts that. In the end, they do what I ask, and they are happy, and I am very satisfied at how much effort the staff has put in. It’s kind of like Minori is a “black company” like Wal-Mart where people are paid very low but expectations are high. In Japanese, we call these “black corporations” because they are very dark… and black…

All jokes aside, all of our staff, including myself, want to showcase the best game we can ever produce, to all the fans and consumers who purchase our products. We have a secret where we want to surprise everyone every time we bring out a new game. We’d like to continue that tradition as we go along.

Supipara will be going on sale July 29th, so please purchase it.
And that’s about it for Supipara.

MG: We’d like to open up the floor for a very short Q&A session!

Interpreter: One rule: if you want to ask nbkz a question, tell him your name, and your favorite game.

Questioner: Minori game?

nbkz: Any game!

Questioner: Kevin, favorite game is Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors.
In every minori game, the sound track is done by Tenmon. What is it like to work with him, and what do you think of his work in general?

nbkz: Since I know his personality (we’re close friends), it’s very easy to work with him. Compared to Makoto Shinkai, it’s much easier… Even though I might ask him to do several retakes if I’m not satisfied, he probably deep down hates me, but he pretty much gets along with me and does his job really well. My belief is, despite how that might sound, he gives it his 100% best, and that’s the biggest motivation for him to keep on making better and better music.

The strongest advice I’d probably give him is, don’t ever take shortcuts or cutbacks to anything, I want him to give us the best that he could, otherwise, everyone else will start to slack off and cut corners. We don’t really want to do that.

Questioner: Raymond, favorite game is The Fruit of Grisaia.
You seem to have a lot of tech in the backgrounds and the scenes, like in eden*. Do you see anything in VR?

nbkz: We have a lot of ideas in mind, but virtual reality isn’t one that we think is possible at this point. We are mainly focused on adapting and portraying techniques similar to those used in anime and Hollywood movies in our games.

Questioner: Winston, favorite game is ef.
Prior to ef, you worked on Wind ~a breath of heart~ and Haru no Ashioto. Was there anything from those two games that led to the creation of ef?

nbkz: Before that, there was also a game called Bittersweet Fools. Our first game was Bittersweet Fools, our second game was Wind ~a breath of heart~, and our third game was Haru no Ashioto. Every time we finish one game, we celebrate that we’ve made the best game ever. Like everyone else, we take a day off, sleep, etc. And then we reflect back on the game that we’d just produced, and we start regretting. Why do we do this? Every time we finish a game and take a short breather, we come back regretting saying, “Man, I really want to scrap everything and start from scratch!” That’s not possible, because once it’s being sold, it can’t really be recalled.
Since we can’t recall those games back, we can only use that motivation to be more successful with future titles.

I guess you could say that if we are satisfied with our own product, that probably means it’s game over for minori. Please continue supporting us until… we reach our “game over”!

Question Guy: Constantine, favorite game is Tsukihime.
In ef, there was a pretty big change in style from Wind ~a breath of heart~ and Haru no Ashioto, where there was just this huge increase in highly-detailed, very gorgeous CG artwork. What was the process in deciding on taking such a huge undertaking in making ef?

nbkz: Our focus on CG artwork predates Haru no Ashioto and actually begins with Wind ~a breath of heart~Haru no Ashioto was actually produced with very limited staff members. Haru no Ashioto was actually a testing ground for future graphic artists and sheet designers who worked on ef.

The game Haru no Ashioto is 100% complete, from my perspective. For all of the storyline, storyboard, plot, effects, and cinematography of Haru no Ashioto, I made all the decisions by myself. But at that time, the new graphic artists and chief designers didn’t quite understand what I wanted to do at that time. It’s kind of difficult to explain that on a piece of paper, or even through the words from my mouth, so they actually had to create a game to understand what I wanted to do. So the game Haru no Ashioto was made.

To put it in another way, Haru no Ashioto became a stepping stone to ef, which is what I really wanted to do. And that’s how the beautiful CG of ef came along.

MG: We wanted to move onto something very special to nbkz Sakai, if he’d like to introduce it…
This is his new game, Trinoline!

nbkz: One more thing, this is our new game Trinoline. For all the special people who are here, this is first time anyone has seen artwork for Trinoline; not even Japan has seen it. The reason why I wanted to show this at Anime Expo is because we want to sell this worldwide as well. I’d like to consider Trinoline to be a compilation of everything we’ve done so far…

Eden* sold very well worldwide, and we think we might want to do something very similar to eden* [with Trinoline]. I completely understand that the Japanese market has different tastes. Therefore we decided that we should make a title that incorporates both aspects of what sells in Japan and sells worldwide. That’s why we decided to give the Trinoline project a green light. We anticipate our release date for Trinoline will be early 2017 for the Japanese market.

Usually the translation of visual novels happens after the Japanese release, but that leads to differences in release dates because translation takes time. In contrast to that, we want to close this gap, so we are working closely with translators to translate as we make the game. So we can release the worldwide and Japanese versions with a very short gap between the two. That responsibility falls on Mangagamer, so I really hope they do a good job translating Trinoline. So if it doesn’t come out soon enough, complain to their staff and give them more pressure… and Mangagamer will become more like a “black company” like minori!

I’d like to release this game in Japan as quickly as possible, and hopefully you will get it quickly as well. This illustration will be shown in Japan sometime around July 20th, so you are the first to see this. I guess everyone will be wondering what nbkz was talking about at Anime Expo, as some people here are already sharing this picture on social media, so [Japanese fans will] know what I did!

It’s been about ten years since Minori started looking towards the foreign market. We started off by creating a blockade wall. It took a huge leap of faith to walk over that wall to see the outside. I believe when we first put the IP block on our website for foreign fans, I mentioned that we would like to tear down this wall in the future. Although it took about ten years, we finally started to tear down that wall, thanks to Mangagamer, and we’d like to work together and provide more of our games to the foreign market.

I truly believe in spite of the Japanese gaming market shrinking, the US and European market seem to be growing. It’s still smaller than Japan right now, but it’s growing at a nice pace, so we look forward to that. Market growth is based on fans who want to share what they love to other potential fans, and that’s how the market keeps growing, so: thank you, fans. Hopefully you’ll keep on supporting us to see more and better titles for the foreign market.

Interpreter: That just about concludes our panel, thank you very much for coming and visiting!

Author: Shizuka

Photographer, cosplayer, and secret Japanese culture fanatic. Shizuka does too many things. Follow her on Twitter at @Sh1zuka

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