ANNcast Under the Dog interview transcript

I invite those who don’t know about the currently running Under the Dog Kickstarter to watch the introduction video and see what it’s about. It might be the most exciting anime KS to date and it’d be a shame to see it fail and discourage future anime creators from turning to crowdfunding. It helped fund the international release of Time of Eve, the creation of Mizue Mirai’s Wonder, Trigger’s Little Witch Academia 2 and Yuasa’s Kick-Heart. It’s a great new way for creators to express themselves and I’m more and more hopeful that it’ll become a trend. It also seems the site Anipipo has made a convincing start.

ANN interviewed Hiroaki Yura (producer), Masahiro Ando (director) and Jirou Ishii (writer) about Under The Dog. You can listen to it and download it from their website, or you can read the transcript I wrote in this post. I based my transcript on Hiroaki Yura’s translation of Ando and Ishii’s answers and edited them to make the interview flow better and cut the fluff, so it might be a little off from their original answers. Unfortunately, Yura speaks with a Japanese accent and I couldn’t understand a few of the words; if you would like to fill some holes please go ahead! They are marked with question marks with sometimes the time when they occur (using the ENG+JP version of the interview).

Zac: For people who don’t know UTD, what is it about?

Jirou Ishii: UTD is a piece of work I wrote in 1997 for TV animation. However, the original 1997 version of the TV series did not kick off. It’s been left in the dust until last year when I met Hiroaki Yura, and we decided to use Kickstarter. In 1997 there was a lot of influential anime such as Evangelion, and back then I was very new to the whole creation industry, therefore there was a lot of 90s animation influence in the original writing. When I showed the writing to Hiroaki Yura, he thought there was a lot of Ghost in the Shell and Akira influence with my writing. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to Kickstart with the world.

During the 90s, in the US and possibly Japan, the “guns and girls” theme was just about to become popular. It feels a little negative, but this piece of writing was one of the first stories to explore guns and girls. In 2014, what we’d like to do is to “deny” the guns and girls topic and then remake it. As something realistic like that wouldn’t be very popular in Japan, we think it’s important to do the remake as a new happening in the anime industry. This is the word of (? [10:12]), teenagers and guns, but we want to make it much more realistic, and explore the tragedy behind actual teenagers and guns. And we also want to delve into the philosophical and sci-fi aspect that GITS did so well.

Zac: Initially, did you intend to do a full 26-episode TV series for this? In its original incarnation, what was your vision for what this show would be? Was it to be 26-episode, or 13-episode, etc.?

Jirou Ishii: I was originally thinking of two seasons (about 26 episodes).

Zac: So standard length for the late 90s. Things have changed since then. Obviously a lot has been changed, and your goal is not as long as a 26-episode TV series, so how much of the script has changed from 97 to now?

Hiroaki Yura: We haven’t decided exactly how it’s going to change from the original script, but we do have a good general direction. The characters have to change because we want to make more international and more in line with present-day crises; there are more topics in common with present-day people. Also, in terms of the length, we (? [12:52]) think there are variable lengths, and I myself don’t believe in what Tezuka-san implemented with 30-minute episodes per week, because I feel that’s rushed and doesn’t tell the story very well. I am very deeply influenced by the way Yamato 2199 and things like GITS Arise and Gundam Unicorn present themselves: high quality OVAs presented not every week but over the course of several months and even several years, and being able to tell the story in the format that the director wanted, in this case Ando-san. We don’t want to be forced into a situation where we have to compromise because of how TV stations work.

Zac: Would doing a theatrical sort of thing also involve too much compromise? You release the OVA basically when you’re finished with it instead of a crazy schedule. Would a theatrical project also get in the way of that ideal?

Hiroaki Yura: Our aim is to do a trilogy of feature-length movies. However, we also feel because this world is so big and character development is the main focus for UTD, we want to basically introduce those chars along seven or eight OVAs and then get into the trilogy of films. But of course in terms of making feature films, stuff like that involves investors and whatnot; it’s going to be my battle to make sure to make sure we keep our creative freedom in order to do what we want.

Zac: Right, and that’s obviously where the crowdfunding comes in.

Hiroaki Yura: Exactly. If we can fund the whole trilogy of films, that’d be great. But in case we can’t, I’m prepared to talk to investors and make sure we keep our creative freedom yet be funded at the same time.

Zac: Alright. About the story, and what you’re sort of aiming for with this: you mentioned that you’re aiming for a more international audience — looking at your promotional material for this just on the Kickstarter page, this definetely seem like the kind of thing that’d be much more popular in the West than in Japan. Do you agree with that characterisation?

Hiroaki Yura: Absolutely, well the fact is I was born in Japan but brought up in Australia from age 6 to 28. I’m 33 now and I’ve played video games and seen anime and was brought up with the influence of Western films (? [16:15]). And I do agree with many things about what’s going wrong with the animation industry in Japan and I don’t want to do an anime that really basically (? [16:27]) to Japan. The production committes in Japan only focus in making films that are (? [16:35]) to the otaku or the hardcore otaku core. And I just think that’s just the wrong way of doing this.

Zac: For the three of you: is this a dream project? Is this the medium that you want to be working in, on the schedule you want, on the project you want, and the style of story and character that you in your heart, as a creator, want?

Masahiro Ando: I feel that this is a very new way of making anime and it’s very refreshing. I obviously haven’t been able to start because we haven’t been funded yet. But I feel hopeful that this will become one of the new ways to create anime.

Hiroaki Yura: Obviously I have the vision to make this happen. We want to make sure that this will become an ultimate dreams for anime creators in Japan to do this. I think it’s not about Japan; it’s about the whole world. I think animation is beginning to support the whole world as an industry. And being able cater to countries other than Japan will allow animators to really explore topics and stuff they want to express in a much different way from how it is now. I hope this gets funded purely by backers because this will really allow us to play with all the toys that we can to make a wonderful anime and it’s a great way for the animators and the designers and all the people involved in the animation process to actually really feel like they’re contributing to a piece of work rather than working just for a production committee.

Zac: You mentioned that you sort of agree with a lot of criticism of the anime industry right now, and one of those obviously is that they’re creatively risk-averse, to the point where even a project like this has difficulty finding funding because it’s not guaranteed to sell statues or whatever they need to sell to make it profitable. So the crowdfunding thing is creatively interesting from the perspective “we can actually do these risky things and not worry about the studio (? [20:43]) down our neck making more commercial more commercial”.

Hiroaki Yura: Exactly. To be very precise, each company that’s part of the production committee has a thing called a “madoguchi” which basically means the “window entrance” (direct translation). The window entrance means, for example if you’re a record label and you give $100 to a production committee they’ll give you the rights to sell the CDs. And that’s how people make money: if you’re a record label and you’re doing the idolm@ster anime, you get to sell the CDs for it and make money from it. Therefore from a record label’s point of view, you want to really push just about the music; you don’t really care about anything else, you just want to sell the music. And this kind of conflicts of interest within the production committee kind of negate the whole point of doing a film. I guess that’s why I really want to do it without those kinds of production committees, only with people who care about making the film better.

Jirou Ishii: I want to create one thing that to certain extent the production committees you can with other good people to a certain extent (? [24:20]). That’s not all bad but in terms of being independent and working with other professionals without the intervention of other companeis there are certain benefits in terms of being able to do exactly what you want. The way this Kickstarter if successful will feel, like the whole days where the creators will be able to talk among themselves to actually make things happen. (Apologies for the rough transcription)

Zac: In the current environment, the creative staff doesn’t really communicate directly with each other?

Hiroaki Yura: They can, but they can’t make the final decision on things.

Zac: Oh, nobody’s given that that kind of editorial control…?

Hiroaki Yura: Yeah, exactly.

Zac: That sounds a little stifling.

Hiroaki Yura: Well unless you’re like this top creator like Otomo-san, but even to an extent, Otomo-san will have discussions with Bandai Visual or whoever he’s working with. To a certain extent, things like with Steamboy where he was forced to bring it out prematurely although he did (? [25:35]) do it, it’s not totally within in control.

Zac: Right, that’s a good point. I guess you can probably count that kind of directors with that kind of editorial control on one hand, maybe. Question for Mr Ishii: I know these were video games but you have produced lots of projects with really complex stories that sort of operate like a puzzle box. Very complicated, a lot of character motivations that run really deep, the characters are all connected, and it’s complicated to pay close attention to the story really to get the full experience of it to really understand what’s going on, it requires full attention, you’ve got to be focused. I’m curious if we can expect that kind of storytelling from this project.

Jirou Ishii: Obviously it’s my trademark to make complex stories with small puzzles like (? [28:20]) although it’s not really my intention to make it difficult. But I really want to give my signature storywriting with complex puzzles with the satisfaction of the resolution at the end, and I want to really as a professional try to keep doing this because it’s basically my framework.

Zac: We know why you were drawn by this project, but we don’t know what specifically about it drew in Mr Ando.

Masahiro Ando: My main decision to join the project was really about being able to work with Ishii-san. I worked on Canaan about 5 years ago and turned out very well, I always thought that I wanted to do something like it again and UTD was the perfect opportunity to repeat the experience.

Zac: In terms of Mr Ando’s credits as a director, there’s nothing quite like this; in terms of this sort of dystopian sci-fi, I’m curious: is he looking forward to working with that kind of setting?

Masahiro Ando: My second reason for joining this project is being able to work with Jirou. But as a genre it’s the first time I’m going to explore this sci-fi dystopian setting. This is actually another reason why I joined this project.

Zac: I’m curious, the KS has about half of its time left (12 days), how many months of planning went into the project already, when was the starting point for the project? How many months until you actually got it off the ground and launched the KS?

Hiroaki Yura: I think it was Winter/December last year. Ishii-san and I were working on another project together and he brought me two bags full of stuff. He told me this was something he worked and and didn’t quite happen around 1997. There were actually two stories: one was Under the Dog, the other one I should probably not talk about yet (laughs). But me and my wife were very much intrigued by both stories, especially by UTD which had the general appeal to me as a person brought up in the West. By that time I just finished another KS which was a J-RPG which was very successful in raising money. We were trying to do a J-RPG reboot with very prestigious and old Final Fantasy developers combined with new devs from the West. I think Jirou was intrigued by how I I was able to make it happen because I had a lot of friends in the industry and we were talking about how we could possibly make UTD happen as an anime.

We had several obstacles along the way because although I have a lot of top creator friends whom I drink around or have fun with, obviously I never actually made an anime myself. But just meeting friends and talking to friends was very easy and they all jumped in the bandwagon because it was so exciting. The story was very good; I don’t think the Kickstarter page actually reflects how deep the story is but we’re sort of scared of actually giving away what we’re trying to do. The second person to jump in the bandwagon was Ando-san himself. He was very attracted to working with Jiro again. The next step was trying to get a studio to house the people Ando-san was going to bring in and be the main workhouse of the actual production of the anime. Before that we had to decide who the illustrator was, and I always really liked the illustrations by Yusuke Kozaki-san and he made a very famous drawing of a sniper with about fifty (? [36:48]). She’s in her school uniform and shooting, and she looks like she’s being shot as well and there’s sort of blood coming out, sort of flowers coming out of her. There’s another picture of another schoolgirl probably being shot by the (?) and she’s kind of snapped in half but she’s too far in her (?) pistols. It had a huge impact on me and I was suggesting to Ishii-san I really wanted Kozaki-san to do this. Kozaki-san was a friend of a friend, so I could have contacted him, but Jiro and I worked on a different project that involved Kozaki-san so I just wanted Jiro to just ask him. In the end I sat with Kozaki-san in a restaurant to kind of convince him and tell him how awesome it could be. The funny thing is most people don’t get it in Japan, most creators are like clueless as to how this could happen because they’re so used to having production committees, or having huge companies backing their project and making things happen and in the end having to listen to these people, they just have no idea how this could possibly happen and how something wonderful like this could happen. It took me a lot of convincing but once he got it he was really convinced that this could actually work.

Then we started looking for a studio. We had two options, the other option I don’t want to name but they were very prestigious. We decided to go with Kinema Citrus because Ogasawara-san is an old friend of Jirou. Ogasawara-san, the CEO of Kinema Citrus, has a very prestigious background of making anime. He was on Eureka(?),he was on a bit of Evangelion, he’s ex-I.G so he’s obviously done Ghost in the Shell. He has a huge ideal for how animation should be made but he’s one of those people who’s been battered by the industry and how everything works; the budget getting lower and lower, the need to make anime that doesn’t have a broad appeal to the rest of the fans around the world. He was one of those disillusioned people until he met us. Now he’s extremely excited and passionate about making this happen; he really wants to make a change. He’s very desperate to make a change because he feels the only way to save Japanese animation is through the help of countries other than Japan to make this anime.

Zac: That leads me to a question: do you think that the anime industry needs to be saved, and if so from what?

Hiroaki Yura: I’m going to brave being hated on, but I’m going to say this because I truly do believe in it. I think it doesn’t mean to be saved per se, but I do believe that it needs to be saved from a stereotypical kind of moe-only industry. I’m not against moe, but I am concerned about the amount of moe works there are. To be honest, I feel that this only appeals to the minority of people who consume anime. I feel that there is a lot more than just moe in the anime industry and the talent of people like Ando-san would be wasted if he just did moe for the rest of his life. There are brilliant companies that I’ve worked with; for example I worked on The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya which is not totally moe but borderline but Haruhi kind of started the moe trend and the tsundere factor. But I think anime isn’t just about that old light novels. Anime is much more than that. In order for Japan to save themselves from our own stigma like “moeism” or “things that just sell”, I really feel that we need external factors to actually counter the balance.

Zac: Right and in a sense prove that this can be done this way.

Hiroaki Yura: Exactly, bringing balance back to the Force.

Zac: Right (laughs), that’s a good way to put that. From that perspective–we get into this argument a lot on the American fandom, “there’s too much of this, it’s saturating the market, like 17~20 out of 30 shows are appealing to just this one audience and we want more of the good stuff” and something like this hasn’t been produced or anything but generally based on the promotional material, old-timers like me–we look for that kind of stuff! Right now, everyone’s big on Space Dandy, Aldnoah Zero, shows like that where they aim at a little older audience and they’re not full of little(?) girls or whatever. Do you pay attention to the seasons and see what percentage you personally find appealing?

Hiroaki Yura: Of course I do. I’m a big fan of Sidonia, and Attack on Titan. Actually the producer at Wit Studio showed me a very early stage of the animation before it was released and I was already excited about it. Those titles are few and far in between because I think the Japanese industry has taken a turn on light novels instead of getting stuff from manga. I would blame Kadokawa for a lot of the influence on that. Although I don’t deny some of them are pretty fun to do, I mean I was involved in Haruhi and Steins;Gate but I think oversaturating the market like this is not the way to go. Japanese companies have a tendency to cling onto things that work. Another example is Japanese mobile games where they buy 300-yen gacha cards where you don’t even know what you’re buying but randomly you get a card and you’re paying like 3 bucks for it. You’re buying data just for a drawing or a moe character and it does nothing for you. It’s just data. If you get a sticker or whatever I can kind of understand that but these days it’s just getting morally pretty screwed up. Whatever I can do with the friends I have, I want to change that.

Zac: What would you say are the chief influences on this project from art and writing perspectives?

Jirou Ishii: In the 1997 setting of the story, I was influenced by Evangelion and Nikita. In the 2014 version there’s a novel which also became a film by Mr Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go.

Zac: Directing the film, when Mr Ando read the script, did he vision for how the show should look, what the cinematography should like, how the action should be filmed, did that immediately come to his head and did that influence his decision to work on UTD?

Masahiro Ando: I actually read the synopsis of the story and didn’t have a clear vision as to how I should show the story through pictures. But Ishii-san started talking about his inspiration from Nikita and Ishigur, and these works like Nikita and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go had a profound impact on me; after we talked about that I had a very clear vision as to how to show the story.

Questions from fans on Twitter.

Zac: Our first question is from Shin Scalf(?) and they ask: beyond the planned trilogy, would you turn this into a series if this proved to be a success? Was the idea to eventually expand the story beyond those theatrical-length OVAs (sic)?

Hiroaki Yura: I said this informally but I will officially say it now: we already have offers for 26 episodes of Under the Dog, which we’ve turned down because we really want to protect our creative freedom and make sure the story is told the way we want it to be told. We have absolutely no plans to do a traditional TV series. That being said, let’s say we do the OVA and then it becomes a trilogy of films, and it turns out to be a successful and sought after story, we really do want to continue this, because I hate it when good shows just end and I would definitely convince Jirou to write more which I’m pretty sure he would be happy to do.

Zac: Ree Nelson(?) wants to know if Mr Ando, listed as key animator on Lupin the Third: The Hemingway Papers, specifically if Mr Ando animated the hilltop fight in that film.

Masahiro Ando: The Lupin the Third TV special was made about 20 years ago and I think I know what the hilltop fight is, but I don’t think it’s me.

Zac: Does Ando-san remember any of the sequences he did key animation for in End of Evangelion?

Masahiro Ando: I didn’t do a lot of scenes from Evangelion but one of the highlights of what I did was when the Eva 2 (the red one) and when the mass-produced Evangelions fight, (?) alligators(?) (54:08) and you know those scenes where the Spear of Longinus kind of owns the Eva number 2, that’s the scene I did. Especially after the spear has penetrated the Evangelions, the arms kind of go limp, that’s what I did.

Zac: (?) asks another animation question for Mr Ando, in his early days he did opening animations, and [the twitter user] just wants to know if there’s any he feels particularly proud about.

Masahiro Ando: Because the openings are really around 90 seconds, it’s all very short films, it’s kind of an awful feeling because we can’t(can/can’t?) really make a lot if 90 seconds. When I worked on Hanasaku Iroha, we had to do two openings and I had a lot of hardship making those openings because usually you get asked to do only one opening and you can do what you want but when you’re doing the second one it’s really hard to get great ideas to do an opening for the same title. I feel the hardships were really fulfilling in terms of working on that opening.

Zac: From Custom Zaku, asking “Orange is known for quality 3D works which seems to be in high demand, do you have any comment on how they were brought into this project?”

Hiroaki Yura: Orange works a lot with Kinema Citrus and Kinema Citrus only trusts Orange to do the 3DCG. Ogasawara-san literally begged me to take Orange on board and I was fine with this because I trust his decision.

Zac: In general what are your thoughts on the state of Japanese CG animation? Is Orange the only studio you trust? How do you feel right now about its current state?

Hiroaki Yura: With my background on computer graphics, I obviously worked in the video game industry, and I also worked for Blizzard, and I have a lot of friends in the Blizzard cinematic department whom basically a lot of the industry people say they’re the best. Having a look at the Japanese 3DCG companies like Khara, the guys who are making Evangelion right now, and also Kamikaze Douga which did stuff like the opening to Fire Emblem and lots of other cool stuff. If you look at Kamikaze Douga they’re very good at what they do. But trying to not be computer-graphicy but more like anime in terms of expression. I think Kamikaze Douga and Khara-san are the premiere Japanese 3DCG anime companies which is very different from just cinematic department like Blizzard Entertainment. I think people like Kamikaze-san and Khara-san and Orange will make a difference because they try to make sure it’s “anime” in terms of the approach of 3DCG. I’m sure they’re going to continue great work in that regard.

Jirou Ishii: With animated TV series with everything in CG, I would like to mention companies like Sanzigen and also companies like Polygon Pictures which did Sidonia actually, they’re some of the companies to look out for.

Masahiro Ando: Although the anime industry started as 2D-based, I really believe there are very interesting companies that do 3D-based anime, and I wish that there will be more ways to connect 3D and 2D together to make new works. [Yura’s comment:] To give some background, Ando-san excels in cell drawings, so I guess considering his background, you’ll probably understand why he answers that way. [Ando:] I’d also like to add that UTD is an ideal way of putting 2D and 3D together as a hybrid. This is the first time I’ve worked with Orange and I feel that Orange is a very good company to be working with.

Zac: Last question, Red …(?) asks: what factors influence the design of the trike? Many older anime have had futuristic motorcycles but this one seems a little unique.

Hiroaki Yura: The trike is my input to the creation. Ishii-san wanted to do an homage to Akira. There’s a bike, which is awesome, which Kaneda rides. We wanted a vehicle which had a military application of hit-and-run whilst being stable enough to shoot from. That what the idea came from. How we made the trike was we actually asked Kozaki-san to do the original base design for the trike. Then I took it to a professional product designer who actually does designs for bikes. But he remains nameless because he needs to protect his day job (laughs). I took it to him and he actually did a professional product design for the trike. With applications he’s intended for the during film and obviously spicing it up with aesthetic flourishes by Kozaki-san himself.

Zac: One of the screenshots on the KS page is like “oh, Akira”. You got the trailing light there which is iconic at this point.

Hiroaki Yura: Yes it is, yeah! We love Akira, and we want to make an homage to Akira, yet what we want to tell as a story is a little different from Akira, so it’s our way of paying respect (laughs).

Zac: Stop me if I’m wrong, but I detect a little bit of influence from the vehicles in the Christopher Nolan Batman film, just a little bit?

Hiroaki Yura: Oh, I think that is also my input. it’s not specifically Batman, but I think we feel that way because as with everything I do with video games, Project Phoenix or Under The Dog, I believe in Western functionality with Eastern/Japanese aesthetics. The Japanese are very good at making awesome designs, but a lot of them are not functional. It’s like, Evangelion or Gundam or Macross, they look cool, but a lot of things just look cool without background as to why they’re designed that way. Evangelion just gave a little leeway to that by putting a power cord to the back of the unit, but it’s still so far-fetched from reality; it’s cool but not cool enough because there’s no reasoning behind it. Because I was brought up with a lot of Blizzard games and I did work with Blizzard, they gave me a lot of influence from how they work: they basically make a world, a lore in which character thrive in and not the other way around. I don’t believe they make a character and then the world around the character. I feel that approach to making things is interesting if you combine it with Japanese aesthetics. So you get something that looks cool, with functionality, and that’s even cooler.

Zac: That actually wraps us up, so thank you so much for coming on the show.

UTD staff: Thank you.

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