Flashback 2011: Yamamoto Kōji (noitaminA) on the future of anime
May 1, 2016 14 Comments
This week, I bring to you a 2011 interview with producer Yamamoto Kōji. The main decision maker behind Fuji TV’s noitaminA block until he left in April 2015,1 he’s produced almost every single one of its shows—in other words, if you want to know why noitaminA’s doing what it’s doing, this is the guy to ask. The interview dates from this edition of CUT, a film magazine that you could say is Japan’s version of Empire. Those that have followed me for a while will probably surmise that I bought it for the Macross Frontier special (you’d be right), but this is the first interview I’ve ever translated from it.
Why? Well, there were two main things that caught my attention. The first—and the reason why I translated it for this On Anime ‘Writing’ project—is that it gives one producer’s answer for the popularity of Okada Mari and Yoshino Hiroyuki in the anime industry. And the other, which is likely to be particular controversial amongst a certain subset of Western anime fans, is the reasoning behind noitaminA’s shift back to anime aimed at otaku about five years ago. If either of those piqued your interest, read on.
Still seeking innovation—noitaminA’s 2011 White Paper on Anime
An interview with noitaminA producer Yamamoto Kōji
CUT June 2011 edition, “An Anime Special Feature,” p.46-47, interview/text by Koyanagi Daisuke.
We can’t stop yet!
The continuing reform and innovation of the noitaminA block.
As the cover page of this special proclaimed boldly, these few years—this year in particular—noitaminA’s works have made many people sit up and take note. Including the works that are scheduled to open in July, this year’s line-up has included four original works out of a total of just six. Furthermore, they’ve seen the promotion of a number of the next generation of young directors. Finally—and most importantly—it has fired out these challenging yet high quality works, works that have successfully brought to light the creativity in these young stars. These works are not like the typical anime, the ‘narrow and deep’ stories aimed at anime fans; they are born of the ‘open’ planning that has come to be associated with the noitaminA block.
Since it was first created in 2005, noitaminA has revolutionised the industry, opening the door to a wider range of stories through a successful string of popular manga adaptations. Is it now seeking the challenge of a new direction of reform? Here, we speak with noitaminA producer Yamamoto Kōji—who’s been in charge of the block’s creative content right from the start—about the current state of Japanese animation, and what role noitaminA should be playing within it.
The current noitaminA is steering towards hard-core anime fans
The dissemination of the noitaminA brand name has been quite successful in many ways. There are many people who’ve never heard of Macross Frontier, or Madoka☆Magika but who say that they watch noitaminA.
That…is a topic that has a lot of uncertain aspects. noitaminA is something that seems very distant to hard-core anime fans. We’ve done shows like Honey and Clover and Nodame Cantabile, and those are something that such fans would think of as mainstream culture, something quite far away from them. But the people who like reading ‘light’ manga, or who often watch (Japanese) TV dramas tend to know of these shows. In that sense, we’re right in the middle.
But right now, rather than what’s in the middle, what’s at the sides is deeper, more serious—there is little value attached to being in the mainstream. That’s why we’re currently steering towards more hard-core anime fans. Hence, it’s highly possible that the average person has come to think “I’ve watched noitaminA until now, but I don’t really get those shows anymore, so let’s just forget it.” And on the other hand, hard-core anime fans are thinking “Huh? Wasn’t noitaminA for people on the other side?” It’s a pretty precarious position for us (chuckles). AnoHana (The Flower We Saw That Day) is one of those shows. I think there are a lot of anime fans who are thinking “Why is noitaminA doing a show aimed at me?!”
Actually, that’s precisely what I wanted to ask you about today. For example, Honey and Clover, Nodame are shows directed at the masses; to go from that to the currently airing originals, AnoHana and C, suggests to me a clear change in direction. Could you tell me how that happened?
The way the TV industry worked in the past was pretty straightforward: viewer ratings are king. It didn’t matter whether you were talking about a variety show or an anime, everyone swore by that same logic. But then anime started going off on its own, separate path, so that we couldn’t use just that standard anymore. I’m different from the other Fuji TV producers in that I’ve only done anime until now, and so I may think of it from the point of view of the home video industry, or from a production standpoint, rather than through the logic of viewer ratings.
But even then, as long as we’re on Fuji TV, we also have to fulfil this requirement, else we wouldn’t be able to continue, so…it’s something like 7:3, perhaps—the standard I operate by is about 7 parts anime logic to 3 parts Fuji TV logic. Though I think that the TV station share of it has been slowly diminishing over the years. We’ve always been dealing with the problem that, even though our ratings are high, DVD/BD sales have been pretty low.
For example, Honey and Clover was pretty popular worldwide but its sales were probably around a quarter that of Macross Frontier.2 On the one hand, there are late-night anime with around the same number of sales as the former that aren’t at all known amongst the general populace. But if we use that as a point of comparison to say “we’re winning” or “we’re losing,” then the value of the noitaminA property is quite precarious in the short term. But there was one plus point that we could draw upon, which is that our content could be blurred in an ‘upwards’ direction. In other words, it was possible for us to build on core (anime) viewers and broaden it further to the mainstream. That’s why we’ve always been basing the noitaminA block on that; it’s also why there’s meaning in airing on Fuji TV.
So that’s how it is.
So with that point of focus, we’ve gotten this far with well known adaptations of works like Honey and Clover and Nodame. We’ve been targeting the ‘light’ anime fans who would watch a series if they recognised its name. But such viewers are becoming increasingly subdivided, and there aren’t that many well-known titles that everyone would watch. noitaminA is already into its seventh year, and we’ve really brainstormed what we can do. Even if we keep going with those well-known titles, even broadening out, we didn’t think there would be anything that would surpass shows like Honey and Clover and Nodame. There are many good existing titles, or titles that we’d like to do, but there aren’t really any left that both mainstream viewers and otaku would watch.
So the conclusion was that we have to create them ourselves. That’s basically how it was: we had no choice but to make such titles, and that’s why we’ve turned to originals. But going down this path has made it even riskier for us, so we have to be prepared that some of our works will not appeal to either audience. And there, what’s important is the planning process that we’ve built through experience. And that’s where creators like Okada Mari are key.
At present, what is desired are creators who understand the home video market
Certainly, Okada Mari is a talented screenwriter. But in terms of the inner-workings of the industry, what is it that she brings to the table?
Okada is…you could say she’s a ‘script producer’. The most important thing that one gains with experience is the ability to look at a story that is being planned and see what it is missing. Okada is one such screenwriter: when she reads an original work (that is being adapted), or if she looks at the overall plot, she can pick out which parts are weak. And she’ll definitely do something to improve on them when writing the scripts. Of course, she’ll also bring even more out of the strong parts of those original works, but first, she instinctively reinforces those weak parts. It’s pretty amazing.
I see. Are screenwriters like her born from the way the anime industry works?
At present, whether we’re talking about screenwriters or directors, the kind of people that are in demand in the industry are those that understand the home video market. How the otaku feel. Yoshino (Hiroyuki) does it too: he’ll say up front that “this character is one from three years ago.” I’m an otaku myself, so I also understand—it’s about being able to differentiate between the characters that are have already been consumed and those that haven’t. Basically, the latter is increasingly comprised of characters that inhabit a narrow space far off from the standard characters that are easy to understand. I sometimes wonder if that really is the case, but you do get hits that are born when you thread the eye of a tiny needle.
In that sense, what we look for in a scriptwriter is whether they are able to read the video market or not, but Okada is in a slightly different position yet. She’s a person who can make such calculations, but she’s also someone who can break them. Even if something is completely original, she can find how to market it; whilst she can bring out the strengths of a work she’s adapting, she can also write something completely from scratch. She’s pretty much the ideal screenwriter, and they are really few and far-between. Hence, I think that Okada really is an incredible boon to the anime industry today.
In that case, what about the directors? These days, noitaminA is one of the most conspicuous ways in which they are promoted, but young, talented directors are also on the increase, from what I can see. Is this also a phenomenon of the anime industry?
Our somewhat theoretical discussion about Okada Mari and what is said about directors are pretty different, at least from my perspective. There aren’t that many directors who understand the home video market—Shinbo (Akiyuki) might be the only one. After all, the task facing the director is to focus the animation: shrewd handling of the market is not in the job description. The people responsible for matching the work to the market are those who decide the general framework for planning, the broad design, staffing and so on. In fact, truth-be-told, I’d say that there are many directors who don’t agree with the mainstream way of doing things, which is to plan an anime production according to what the market wants. I think that the reason many directors want to work with noitaminA is that this block isn’t about just hitting the home video market—they all want to make something in such an environment.
But the reality is that they don’t have that much freedom either—there are many requests that they have to stick with. But whilst the video market is also important, this is a space where we can make something for its own sake, or something that can’t be done in other blocks because they’ve been told it won’t sell. I think that’s what it all comes down to. But that balance matches with my aim of leading this block according to that framework of “7 parts market logic to 3 parts TV station logic.” I think that this is something that we might be able to maintain for a good, long time.
On that note, how would you say animation is going to evolve going forward? And within that, what stance do you think noitaminA should have in producing its works?
To be honest, I don’t really know. We’ve just had the March 11 triple disaster—in that sense, there are times where I’ve thought that we wouldn’t be able to make anime any more. On the other hand, we get hits like Madoka☆Magika. But if you ask for the easy explanation behind why it was a hit, I’d say that there were a lot of calculations involved. Well, we now have movies like Inception coming out of Hollywood, rather than those easy-to-understand blockbusters like Die Hard, so you could say that there are more people who can understand what shows like Madoka☆Magika are about.
There a sense that this special evolution is a classic development in Japan’s anime industry, but personally, what I really don’t understand is how we’ve come to the state where we have a few works that do well, and then everything else in the industry is basically a failure. 0/100 is something that would never have happened in the past. Even with ratings, even though there are differences, it was never to such an extreme, right? But the home video market is gradually approaching that: the industry is increasingly comprised of works that all otaku buy and works that no one buys. The different isn’t even on a scale of 10 anymore. There are shows that sell just 500 disks, whilst others sell 50,000—that’s 100 times more. But the cost of production is the same, broadly speaking, and there isn’t really that much of a difference in viewer ratings or viewing numbers. As a business, however, this situation of a 100 times difference has come into being, and everyone is fighting for that Madoka-like hit without knowing how we will all end up. But I don’t think it will stop.
Well, since viewers are increasing as a result, I don’t think it’s a phenomenon that should be taken negatively. However, I don’t just want anime to be seen as something that is seen in a special context; I want to spread it wider to those people who you wouldn’t think would watch anime, to become something that they want to watch. And I want the industry to create a foundation for business outside of disc sales; though that is something that is pretty difficult. But we creators are still motivated, and there are still many works that should be made. That is the basis of hope (for our industry).
In that sense, todays anime directors have a great sense of balance. It’s something you can see in works by Nagai (Tatsuyuki), for example—their sense of balance allows them to immerse their own egos into their work. I think that this could fit with certain areas of intergenerational theory.
But if we think about it in such terms, it also becomes complicated. Following the older generation of people like Tomino Yoshiyuki, Miyazaki Hayao, Oshii Mamoru and Dezaki Osamu,3 there is something of a large blank. After all of these greats, we finally saw people like Hosoda Mamoru, Kamiyama Kenji and Nakamura Kenji. Nagai’s generation is the next one along. The anime industry is like a valley at the moment, but I feel that we need the generations of creators to become like a mountain in order for us to thrive. I think we’re trying, but it’s a matter of whether we can get out of that valley with the creative power we have. People like me are the ones who support that.
Disclaimer: Please do not post this translation anywhere else, though feel free to link to it if you wish. As always, the translation is entirely mine, as are any mistakes and misinterpretations. In fact, I readily admit that I’m not entirely sure what Yamamoto was saying about ‘calculations (計算)’ in screenwriting, so if anyone knows a better way to put what he’s referring to, I’m all ears. —karice
- Yamamoto left in order to set up his own company, but he’s still heavily involved in the block, producing not only the noitaminA films but also shows that probably began planning under his watch, such as Kabaneri. His role of chief producer (also known as chief editor) was taken over by Akitoshi Mori. ↩
- The first season of Honey and Clover probably sold around 12,000 discs per volume, whilst Frontier has probably sold at least 40,000 discs for each volume. And that’s not counting the sales of the box set. ↩
- In the West, Tomino is pretty much synonymous with Gundam, Miyazaki with Ghibli, and Oshii with Ghost in the Shell. Dezaki is probably known to fewer of us, though you are likely to have seen at least one thing he’s directed. ↩