The truth about Urobuchi Gen’s involvement in Aldnoah.Zero

Disclaimer: This overview of how AZ came into being is based mostly on interviews I have collected and read over the last eight months, so any translation errors or misinterpretations―though I hope there are none―are entirely my own. Corrections and clarifications are always appreciated. You’re also welcome to link to this or quote parts of it, but please don’t copy and paste substantial amounts elsewhere. And without further ado, let me begin…

Last major edit on September 24, 2015

I am well aware that my love for Aldnoah.Zero makes me an outlier in the Western anime fandom. A lot of my posts and arguments probably make me seem like an apologist, or maybe just someone completely out-of-touch with everyone else. But believe me, although I take pains to justify why I appreciate this show despite its flaws, I’m not trying to convince anyone else that they should like it. Some of its flaws are, indeed, issues that would drive me up the wall if I did not consciously overlook them. But what frustrates me is that people will channel their hatred of the show into ‘talking crap’ about its creators, based on little more than speculation over the deal with Urobuchi Gen. Personally, as someone who enjoys finding out about the creative process, I just want to set the record straight.

2014-02-16
The project was revealed on February 16, 2014,
with Urobuchi credited for coming up with the “story.”

This post presents a summary of how Aldnoah.Zero was created, focusing in particular on the pre-production period. One of the triggers behind my decision to torture myself was that some of the things people kept saying about Aoki Ei and co. reminded me of the fandom of another series, where misinformation someone had deliberately spread led to some wild fan speculation and myths that were then used to criticise its creators. In this case, fans just took the ‘fact’ that “Urobuchi was replaced by Takayama Katsuhiko” and ran with it, resulting in a number of theories that are contradicted by what Aoki, Urobuchi and all of the other creators have said. But I’ll leave the verdict up to the reader. You can either believe what they said in all the interviews I reference here, or you can speculate about how they’ve all conspired to cover up what really happened—prizes are available for the most believable and the most outrageous theories!

TL;DR

  • Urobuchi wrote the plot and the history of Earth and Vers; Aoki created the characters and their storylines. This is what they agreed on right from the start (Spring, 2011).
  • Takayama was brought on board towards the end of 2012 because they knew that Urobuchi wouldn’t be able to write all of the screenplays himself.
  • Urobuchi left in early 2013 because of scheduling conflicts (with Kamen Rider Gaim).
  • Despite the switch, Urobuchi’s plot outline has largely been maintained.

As for the non-TL;DR, let me begin with an annotated timeline.

Aldnoah.Zero pre-production chronology

Spring, 2011:
Aniplex Producer Iwakami Atsuhiro approaches Urobuchi Gen and Aoki Ei, who are working together on Fate/Zero, to propose an original mecha series.1

According to Producer Kurosaki Shizuka, following on from the success of the show that turned ‘magical girl anime’ on its head, it was Iwakami who wanted to tackle the other major staple of the industry: mecha. He approached Aoki and Urobuchi, who were working together on Fate/Zero at the time, with the idea of making “a classic mecha anime centered around teenage protagonists.” Some of the other key words from this time were “Taiga drama” and “Monster Hunter.” Urobuchi went to work on the setting and story, whilst Aoki took responsibility for coming up with the characters. But right from the start, Aoki had a lot of requests for Urobuchi, who included them in his drafts.2

May, 2011:
Urobuchi’s first plot and Aoki’s first character ‘image board’ are completed.3

Sakai-Masato
Aoki’s original concept for Inaho was based on the actor, Sakai Masato (circa 2011, i.e. before Legal High and Hanzawa Naoki): someone with a mysterious, unreadable smile. Because the concept for the show was to have ‘strong Mars robots vs. weak Earth robots’, the protagonist couldn’t win because of his unit’s abilities, nor could they make a show about an unskilled/inexperienced pilot who improves with each battle. They had to create a character who could win even in a weak unit. As for the character that would become Slaine: Urobuchi’s original plot had him rising up in Martian society. But he didn’t write anything about either characters’ emotional states.4

(???):
Aoki asks Nagano Toshiyuki (who is still at AIC at this point) for advice on getting the project off the ground. He soon asks him whether he would like to work together again, this time on an original mecha project.5

Nagano is an animation or line producer, which means that he is responsible for making sure they have all the personnel and resources needed to produce the show (e.g. NabeP in SHIROBAKO). In his Guidebook 1 interview, Nagano mentioned that Aoki reached out to him because he’d enjoyed working together on Hourou Musuko/Wandering Son, which aired from January 13 to March 31 2011. The final Blu-ray/DVD for that series was released on September 2011, and Nagano was involved right to the end (along with Composite director Katō Tomonari—they participated in the commentary for the final episode), so Aoki would probably have approached Nagano sometime from end-2011 to mid-2012.

Feb 2012:
Draft of the overall plot completed.6

May 2012:
Urobuchi produces a draft of the screenplay for episode 1.7

2nd half of 2012:
The overall idea of what the show is about becomes clear: the broad direction of the story; strong Mars mechs against weak Earth mechs; twin protagonists, one for each side. In addition to the plot, a historical chronology of the relations between Earth and Mars has already been completed by Urobuchi by this point.8

End of 2012:
Takayama joins the team because Urobuchi’s schedule going forward would make it difficult for him to write all of the screenplays. At this point, Urobuchi’s first two screenplays are complete, and the third is almost done as well. Takayama redefines the show’s ‘the weak robots of Earth vs. the strong robots of Mars’ concept into that of ‘real robots vs. super robots’. Around this time, Kurosaki also becomes involved in the project as a producer, one of her first jobs at Aniplex.9

Urobuchi was the one who proposed that Inaho’s first battle be in episode 3, marking a departure from the classics like Gundam and Macross that had protagonists jumping into their various units in the first episodes. Focussing on world-building first, with the robots being introduced later, is unusual because there is a fear that viewers would lose interest, so Aoki and Takayama were really impressed that Urobuchi was so willing to break what had become something of an unwritten rule.10

It was on Aoki’s recommendation that Nagano reached out to Takayama — they’d previously worked together on Ga-Rei Zero. Nagano was also the one who reached out to all the creative staff, and had probably started doing that by the end of 2012/beginning of 2013, when discussions with AIC started to fall apart and they were trying to figure out how to keep the project going.11

January 2013:
Urobuchi is invited to work on Kamen Rider Gaim. He “passes the baton” to Takayama.12

Early-mid 2013 (??):
I-IV (mechanics designer) joins the team through Aoki’s invitation.13

When he joined is not specified exactly, but by that time, Urobuchi had completed drafts of his three screenplays, and the plot until episode 5/6 had been developed in greater detail; the ‘real robots vs. super robots’ concept had also been put forward by Takayama. However, the names “Aldnoah” and “Kataphraktos” had yet to be chosen; in fact, the thing that would become the “Aldnoah drive” had yet to crystallise.14

ArchiveZ_03_133
‘Aldnoah’ is represented by ‘$2’ in Urobuchi’s screenplay for the first episode. Inaho is also very different: a little bit of a brat. Most if not all of the scenes that Urobuchi wrote remain, but a lot of the dialogue and character interactions have been tweaked. Also interesting to note is that this was the fifth draft (top left).15

Following that, Teraoka Kenji (mechanics designer) is invited to join the team. I-IV has been given the task of designing the robots, so Teraoka is asked to design military weapons and equipment based on modern day weaponry in the real world. Teraoka’s guidebook 1 interview notes that IV had already designed two robots by the time he joined.

May 2013:
Aoki, Nagano and Katō create Studio TROYCA in order to produce Aldnoah.Zero (because discussions with AIC have fallen through).

Shimura Takako‘s initial designs for Inaho, Slaine and Asseylum are completed by May 10. [At this point, Aoki et al were still unsure how far they were going to take Inaho’s stoicism, so her initial designs had him being a little more expressive. After a bit more deliberation, however, Aoki would apologise and ask Shimura for new designs based on the more ‘out-of-it’ character he ended up being, and the result is reflected in Matsumoto Masako’s anime character designs, completed in November 2013.16]

NB: my suspicion is that what they presented at Otakon had already been tested, as I’ve seen tweets / news posts about TROYCA industry events in Japan.

Nov/Dec 2013:
Takayama has written draft screenplays for up to episode 6. However, the personalities of the main characters have yet to be finalised — Aoki actually finalises them as he draws the storyboards for episodes 1-3.17

December 2013:
Aoki completes the storyboard for the first episode (2013-12-25).18

The episode 1 screenplay by Urobuchi (draft 5) and storyboard by Aoki (final draft) were packaged into Book 3 of ArchiveZ. There are some very interesting differences–for example, most of Inaho’s dialogue, since Aoki only finalised his character as he was drawing the storyboard. Urobuchi says in one interview how impressed he was with the way that Aoki turned his screenplays into storyboards (which were sent to him even though he was no longer working on the project), and having compared the limousine targeting scene in particular, I have to agree… I really wish I could have a look at the rest of the episodes!

NB: Takayama “did not touch the first three screenplays.”19 However, there is an interesting discussion in the Aoki x Takayama ArchiveZ Book 1 interview where they talk about how discussions between them led to little additions to the first three episodes based on changes made after Urobuchi had departed. For example, because the story would progress along the lines of Asseylum being unable to contact Mars (i.e. her grandfather), Aoki followed Takayama’s suggestion in adding some shots that showed the destruction of Earth’s communications infrastructure in episode 2.

February 16, 2014:
Aldnoah.Zero is first announced publicly, with Aoki as director, animation by TROYCA, and Urobuchi credited for “story.” That said, the first time the project seems to have been publicly alluded to was at Anime Expo 2013, courtesy of A1-Pictures President Ueda Masuo.

March 2(?), 2014:
An interview with Urobuchi is distributed as part of AZ Report 002+003 at the Aldnoah.Zero stage event at Anime Japan 2014. Aoki and the main cast were involved in the event.

May 2014:
Aoki completes the storyboard for the first opening (2014-05-30; for broadcast 2014-07-12).20

July 2014:
Aldnoah.Zero‘s first episode premieres on Tokyo MX, BS11, niconico, Tochigi TV and Gunma TV on July 5.

Apparently, “around the time of the second episode,” there was an all-night meeting on exactly how the series should end – i.e. about the content of episode 24 (Tokushima Machiasobi in May, 2015). Not sure if they mean ‘the time the second episode aired’ or ‘the time we were animating/producing the second episode’, though a comment by Nagano in Animedia May 2015 suggests that it is the latter. Slaine dying was an option that was considered, but it’s unclear exactly when that was, or how far that discussion went.21

November 2014
Katō Makoto completes the storyboard for the second opening (2014-11-20; for broadcast 2015-01-17).22
Aoki completes the storyboard for the third ending (2014-11-22; for broadcast 2015-01-17).23

January 2015:
The first episode of the second cour premieres on Tokyo MX, BS11, niconico, Tochigi TV and Gunma TV on January 10.

So, what was that ‘original story’ that Urobuchi developed?

It was very rough—two/three sentences per episode—so Aoki and co. would have had a lot of work to do to fill it out.24 Urobuchi mentioned this at a Gargentia event on September 22 last year, where he also said that, for the finale of the first cour, he had written about Inaho and Asseylum ‘falling in love’ before Slaine takes the latter away. As you might have already heard, this was also the event where Urobuchi went “That ending is not my fault! Why is it always my fault if someone ‘dies’?!” It seems that people had been asking him on twitter not to kill Inaho off…

One week later, when guesting on the radio show (#14, September 28), Aoki confirmed that what happened in that finale was slightly different from the outline, though he did not specify exactly how. He also noted that the overall story has been protected. Takayama later notes in his Guidebook 2 interview that Urobuchi had Slaine killing Saazbuam in episode 12. But since they needed him for Slaine to advance in Vers society, he survived for a few more episodes.

Saaz2
So I’m guessing that the major difference was that Saazbaum wasn’t killed. I personally think that Asseylum had to be shot, otherwise Slaine would have had no reason to kill the former; as for Inaho, Aoki has said several times that they’d intended for him to ‘die and come back’. Alternatively, if Urobuchi had departed before Slaine became a tragic rather than a purely ambitious character, then the outline for this episode might have been two/three lines about Inaho and Assylum ‘falling in love’ before Slaine, having killed Saazbaum, takes her away. Kurosaki also mentioned in one of her interviews that one reason that S1 ended with “those shocking developments” is that it had been confirmed as a split cour series, so they tweaked it to make it as enjoyable for fans as possible

The only other thing I remember them confirming about S1 was that the original rough plot had the Vers knights attacking individually because they want to secure land for themselves.25

Moving on to the second half, as mentioned earlier, Slaine’s rise in Vers society was also a feature of the outline. That Asseylum would announce her political marriage in episode 23 and—of course—a final fight between Slaine and Inaho in the last episode were also set in stone. They did not want viewers to be able to guess about the marriage, so they purposely tried not to draw attention to the idea. However, what would become of Slaine and Inaho was not in the outline; Aoki’s initial idea for the character storylines was to have both Inaho and Slaine become increasingly isolated from the people around them because of their devotion to Asseylum, which probably connects to the ending where they “fall to Earth and live on quietly in some corner of the globe.” However, he was told that this would be way too dark for TV, so Inaho’s character arc evolved into what it is now. 26

All up, Aoki has always maintained that Urobuchi’s plot has broadly been protected, though events were moved around and added to over the rest of pre-production and production.

Whisperings from Otakon

The most recent Aldnoah.Zero event was Otakon in Baltimore, from July 24-26, and last week, I came across several reports about what went down at the screening, the panel and the official interview.

The comment that has gotten the most attention was an answer to a pretty standard question: what was the most challenging thing about making the show? According to Tom and Alain, either Nagano or Aoki gave the answer of “people not showing up to work, including a key person.” I’m certain that most people immediately thought of the Urobuchi-Takayama switch, right?

Well, I chased it up with Tom, who clarified that the comment seemed to be specifically about production rather than pre-production. Given that the first storyboard was only completed in Dec 2013, Takayama taking over from Urobuchi definitely falls in the pre-production stage. The latter seems to have been involved in (some?) screenplay discussion sessions for episode 4 onwards—he commented in one of his interviews that he was really impressed with Takayama. And, to be honest, if he’d been expected to comment and contribute, then he might indeed have just stopped showing up, as some of those meetings apparently went for five to six hours!27 But he doesn’t seem to have been required to attend, and the positive comments that Aoki and co. continue to make about Urobuchi even in the second season interviews simply do not match such a serious turn of events.

edit (2015-09-22): here’s another write-up of the panel

So, what might Aoki and Nagano have been referring to? The interviews in the guidebooks may provide a clue. During the first cour, Nasu Shinji worked as the CGI director; but the rush at the end of S1 left him no room to prepare for S2, so Machida Masaya took over for the second cour.28 It’s unclear whether Nasu stayed on in another capacity after that, or if they agreed he would just finish up after S1 (I’ll need to check all of the episode credits to be sure, and I don’t have time for it at present). In any case, Nasu was one of three staff members who gave a comment for the S1 guidebook but not the S2 one. The others without an S2 interview are Urobuchi and mechanics designer Teraoka Kenji; Urobuchi I’ve already addressed, and since Teraoka’s was more of a pre-production role, I doubt it was him.

To be honest, I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure. It could have been Nasu, but it could equally have been an animator, one of the production assistants, or even an episode director. Japanese people tend not to make these kinds of issues public, even if they do share those incidents with their peers in the industry. The only takeaway, really, is that it’s highly unlikely that the comment that “people stopped coming into work” (during production) was about what happened with Urobuchi.

Otakon_AZ
Nagano, Aoki and Kurosaki at Otakon (Source)

There were some other interesting questions asked at Otakon, though all of them are fleshed out in more detail in various Japanese interviews, including the one about Inaho’s left eye having an AI. The answers that Aoki, Nagano and Kurosaki gave for a question about ‘rating Slaine after episode 3’ were also unsurprising, though the way that the latter framed hers was pretty amusing. Personally, I really liked the more formal interview, especially the answer that Aoki gave for a question about the themes in Fate/Zero.

That’s a hard question. When I created it, I had a theme that I wanted to put into it, but I didn’t want to tell the viewers what it is, because we wouldn’t want the viewers NOT to try to figure it out themselves. I don’t like to talk about the general themes because I want people to discuss the characters, the storylines, and what they think the theme is on their own. I want every viewer to take away their own personal experiences from the show.

I’d bet my bottom dollar that this applies to all of his works, including Aldnoah.Zero.

And the point is…?

To conclude, speculation that Urobuchi left the production team because of creative differences, or that comments he subsequently made showed that he was distancing himself from the project (because “he didn’t like what they were doing with his characters” “they were screwing up his story” etc etc) is completely unsubstantiated. I’ve read almost every interview and chased up almost every event where comments were made about the show, and I’ve only found positive comments about the collaboration from all parties concerned, including Urobuchi himself. By all accounts, Aoki and Urobuchi split up the creative process at the start, with the former focusing on the characters and the latter on the setting and plot. Urobuchi effectively stopped working on the show around December 2012/early 2013, after he’d completed the screenplay for episode 3. He was kept abreast of developments, but it’s unlikely that he had any significant input beyond what he had already provided at that point. All up, he spent around 20-22 months in pre-production with Aoki and Iwakami, and later Nagano and Takayama, before “passing the baton to Takayama.” Nevertheless, Aoki maintains that the contents of Urobuchi’s plot outline have been protected.

Would Aldnoah.Zero have been a very different story if Urobuchi had remained more directly involved? Well…yes and no. People might have complained less about the direction of the plot—though whether that would have been because he’s a better writer or simply because of the “It’s Urobuchi!” effect is up for debate—and details such as lines of dialogue and plot devices would have been different. However, I strongly believe that the ending and the decision to obfuscate it would both have come to pass as well. Based on the discussions and blog posts I’ve skimmed, I think most people missed it, but Aldnoah.Zero is a show that’s built very much around the themes of the original mecha classics such as Gundam. But never mind that: the main point of this post is to help cut through some of the myths and rumours that people have been circulating ever since it was revealed that Urobuchi would not be working on the entire show. I can only hope it accomplishes that, at least.

Edited (2015-08-25): earlier versions of this post suggested that the scheduling conflict was Kamen Rider Gaim, but Urobuchi has apparently said that he was approached about Gaim in January 2013. So the initial scheduling conflict that resulted in Takayama being brought on board in late 2012 isn’t clear. However, the story thereafter might be as follows. After the latter proposed “real robots vs. super robots” as the main concept for the robot battles, it made sense for him to take on more responsibility for the rest of the show. This may have also allowed Urobuchi to go off and work on Gaim when the opportunity arose, because Takayama could take over.

Justice
Fiat justitia ruat caelum

Footnotes:

1. Guidebook 1 interviews (Aoki, Urobuchi: Tx/001 and Tx/002 on website).
2. A/Z Report interviews (Aoki, Urobuchi); Febri vol. 25 interviews (Aoki x Takayama, Kurosaki); Guidebook 1 (Aoki).
3. EXTRA DAY event pamphlet interview (Aoki x Iwakami x Kurosaki).
4. Ibid.
5. Guidebook 1 (Urobuchi).
6. A/Z Report (Aoki, Urobuchi).
7. Ibid.
8. Febri vol. 25 (Aoki x Takayama, Kurosaki).
9. Febri vol. 25 (Aoki x Takayama, Kurosaki); Guidebook 1 (Takayama); EXTRA DAY event pamphlet (Aoki x Iwakami x Kurosaki).
10. ArchiveZ (Book 1 Aoki x Takayama interview, and Book 3)
11. Febri vol. 25 interviews (Aoki x Takayama, Kurosaki); Guidebook 1 (I-IV).
12. Kamen Rider(?) radio show, Rajiranger, Jan 31, 2014 edition; Urobuchi panel at Anime Expo, July 2014.
13. Guidebook 1 (I-IV).
14. Ibid.
15. ArchiveZ (Book 1 Aoki x Takayama interview, and Book 3).
16. Otakon, Aug 2015.
17. CUT March 2015 interview (Aoki).
18. ArchiveZ (Book 3).
19. Guidebook 1 (Takayama).
20. Storyboard booklet from single for OP1 「heavenly blue」.
21. Guidebook 2 interview (Aoki x Takayama); Aoki x Nagano interview in Animedia May 2015, translation.
22. Storyboard booklet from single for OP2 「&Z」.
23. Storyboard booklet from single for ED3 「GENESIS」.
24. Urobuchi’s interview in Newtype December 2014 (there are about 2-3 paragraphs on AZ); Guidebook 2 (Aoki x Takayama)
25. ArchiveZ (Book 1 Aoki x Takayama)
26. Guidebook 2 (Aoki x Takayama); Animedia May 2015 (Aoki x Takayama); Aoki interview in Newtype May 2015, translation.
27. EXTRA DAY event pamphlet (Aoki x Iwakami x Kurosaki).
28. Guidebook 2 (Machida).

Other stuff I’ve read:
(a) Most of the Guidebook 1 interviews and about half of the Guidebook 2 ones
(b) Various Animedia and Newtype interviews that I’ve collected

Although I went out and purchased much of this material, there are are few exceptions: many thanks are due to Cloudedmind, who scanned and shared many of the Animedia and Newtype magazine articles on AS.

About karice
MAG fan, freelance translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

19 Responses to The truth about Urobuchi Gen’s involvement in Aldnoah.Zero

  1. Pingback: Anime pre-production: from story to script | Wave Motion Cannon

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