Okada Mari and Anime ‘Writing’

Aka: a response to The Canipa Effect’s recent video on Okada Mari.

Less than a week ago, Canipa messaged me to ask if I’d be able to check a script he’d written “on Mari Okada/Anime Writing.” However, he recorded the script before he even sent it to me. As such, the largest changes that I recommended weren’t reflected in the finished video, and his line of argument is something that I do not agree with. I’d go so far as to say that it undermines the work I’ve been doing in the fandom. This post is my attempt to explain what my feedback was focused on, and thus, why I disagree with Canipa’s argument, and the related suggestion that “maybe we can introduce the idea of the showrunner, a screenwriter in charge of their own vision, into the anime industry.” It focuses on two issues—his definition of “showrunner” and how that is related to the “director,” and the question of how “authorship” is related to “writing.”

Let me start by noting that almost everything I’ve learned about screenwriting in relation to popular culture (TV shows, movies etc), comes from several English language podcasts, namely (1) Scriptnotes, (2) The Writers Panel, and (3) Storywonk’s series on Harry Potter, Star Wars, Buffy and the MCU. I started listening to them when I first launched my “On Anime Writing” project back in 2016, because I realised that I did not actually know how to talk about “screenwriting” in English. So my comments on Canipa’s video come from what I’ve learned over the last two years from several hundred podcast episodes, coupled with all the Japanese language interviews and commentaries I’ve consumed since 2011 or thereabouts.

The “showrunner”

Moving on, my first point of contention has to do with the “showrunner,” a role that is largely associated with the US TV industry. In particular, I strongly disagree with Canipa’s definition of a “showrunner” as a “screenwriter in charge of their own vision,” who has “the final call” on the story. The thing that defines a showrunner isn’t that they are the lead writer or the original creator, even if that is usually the case in the US. The thing that defines a showrunner is that they literally run the show. They are beholden to those who are funding the property, but within the directives from and resources provided by the producers that represent those interests, they get to decide how things are done on a day-to-day basis. Whether they are the original creator or not—and they aren’t more often than Canipa implies in his video—they have to decide which creative ideas they can execute and which they can’t, given the time and money they have. They are, in effect, managers. (Further reading: “What does a showrunner do?”).

Back in 2016, I was actually involved in a short discussion with two creators about whether there is a similar managerial role in the Japanese anime industry. Thomas Romain (art director at Satellite) said no, but LeSean Thomas said that there was. Here are the main points that he made:

Now, I don’t really know what to make to this. Whilst Romain is arguably more familiar with the Japanese anime industry, Thomas should have a better grasp of what the role of a showrunner actually entails.

What I can say, however, based on all the podcasts I’ve listened to on top of all the other research I’ve done on the role, is that a showrunner can pretty much only work on one show at a time. That’s how demanding their role is. As noted by one of the showrunners quoted in the article I linked, “A lot of the showrunner’s job is figuring out how to balance the amount of money that you have, the time that you have with which to do it, and try to get the best product that you can out of what you’ve got available.” Another likens the role to a curator in charge of a group of creatives, someone that has to be open to everyone’s ideas, but who ultimately has the final word. This is the main reason I contend that the director (kantoku) is the most similar role to that of the showrunner.

Also, what do we mean by “director”?

Speaking of “showrunners” and “directors,” another problem that I have with Canipa’s video is that it seems to imply that an anime series or film director (kantoku) and an anime episode or unit director (enshutsu) do the same thing. For example, when he talks about Doctor Who at the start of the video, he notes that it’s only after the process of developing the story “has begun that they start talking about who the director will be for each episode.” But what we mean by the latter is “enshutsu.” And although series directors (kantoku) often do direction (enshutsu) for specific episodes or sequences for the shows they are leading, these two roles do not entail the same kind of work: here’s how Thomas Romain broke them down. I’m not sure exactly what Canipa means when he says that “This is why (Okada) is the director of Maquia, because she was already pretty much doing the job,” but I highly doubt she was doing most of what is under the purview of the “kantoku” in that breakdown, not even for AnoHana.

Hence, Canipa’s suggestion that “maybe we can introduce the idea of the showrunner…into the anime industry” makes no sense to me, because there is already someone playing that role. Okada decided a lot of things for AnoHana—it was, after all, a story that she pitched entirely on her own, with the intent of developing it with Nagai Tatsuyuki and Tanaka Masayoshi.1 But whilst Okada was arguably the main author, Nagai, as director (kantoku), was the person who managed most of the day-to-day business of the show.

Or to put it another way, perhaps the point Canipa wants to make is closer to “we’d like to see more screenwriters taking up the position of director (kantoku) for the stories that they come up with, so that they can truly show us what their vision is.” Which is effectively what has happened with Okada and her directorial debut, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms.

But Canipa also implies Okada is unusual as a screenwriter because lots of her ideas come to light. This suggests to me that the point that Canipa wanted to make is that it’d be great to see more screenwriters come up with original concepts for a show. But if so, I’m honestly wondering why there’s no mention of Kawamori Shoji (creator of Macross, The Vision of Escaflowne and Aquarion), or Aikawa Sho, who’s had a hand in developing several original anime series for Bones. Going even further back, we also have Shudo Takeshi, creator and screenwriter of Magical Princess Minky Momo, GoShogun and Pokémon. Okada even cites Shudo as a screenwriter that she really looked up to. Okada is unusual today, but I can’t agree with the implication that she’s the first screenwriter to do many of the things that Canipa highlights in that video.

Alternatively, if the point he wanted to make was that “Okada is an incredibly talented creator,” then I’d wholeheartedly agree. But to use that to argue that “maybe we can introduce the idea of the showrunner, a screenwriter in charge of their own vision, into the anime industry” indicates, at best, a misunderstanding of what a showrunner actually does.2

On “authorship” and “writing”

The second issue I have concerns the notion of “authorship” and how it is related to “writing.” On the podcasts I listen to, “writing” typically refers to scripted scenes, with dialogue and actions. That’s because when it comes to the person responsible for writing a script, their role is to write out the story so that it can be conveyed on a screen.3 Here’s what John August, one of the screenwriters behind the Scriptnotes podcast, has to say about the relationship between writers, story and script:

“Story” is more or less what it sounds like: the plot, the characters, the settings and tone. It differs from a script or screenplay only in that the dialog often isn’t written out, and the overall action may be somewhat compressed. A writer might be credited with the “story” for a movie, but not the “screenplay,” if he wrote a treatment but not the final script. Usually, if one writer handles both “story” and “screenplay,” he/she receives a more general “written by” credit.4

Based on this, we might say that when a writer is credited for the “story,” then they have authorship. In anime credits, you’ll usually find this reflected in the credit for “original story” (原作/gensaku) or something similar, which typically appears in the opening credits. In contrast, the individual(s) responsible for a specific script typically appears in the ending credits under “script” (脚本/kyakuhon). The writers credited for the story may or may not be involved in actually writing out that story into scripts or screenplays. But when they are, that’s when they’re doing what screenwriters call “writing.”

When most fans talk about “writers” and “writing,” however, they’re actually referring to their work on “story.” For example, this is something that Canipa says in his video:

“For those that want to judge (Okada) as a writer, it’s safer just to stick to Anohana, Anthem of the Heart and Maquia, because you’ll need to individually inquire into every single show to determine any sort of authorship.” (my italics)

To me, this is confusing. Is he trying to talk about Okada’s skills in creating and developing concepts into stories? Or is he trying to talk about her skills at scripting those stories, that is, writing dialogue and actions that will help bring the characters and their stories to life? It seems like Canipa doing the former, in which case, perhaps he should have said “judge her as an author” instead of “as a writer.”

Canipa told me that he thinks this kind of thing is “pedantic” and that he knows how his viewers will understand what he’s saying. Well, that’s precisely the problem I’m trying to deal with, because most people I’ve tried to engage on this subject can’t actually explain what, exactly, they’re trying to say about a screenwriter’s skills. That’s why I’d like to see fans use the term “writing” more precisely, so that we know whether we’re actually discussing “story” (which directors, producers and lead screenwriters usually develop together) or “writing” (how a screenwriter turns that story into the dialogue and actions on the page of a script).

The latter is what I often see or hear screenwriters praised for. Director Yamamoto Sayo sought to work with Ujita Takashi (Michiko and Hatchin), Okada (Fujiko Mine), and Kubo Mitsurou (Yuri!!! on ICE) largely because she thought that they could give life to the characters and stories she wanted to tell. Hanada Jukki felt that “he had lost” when episode director Kigami Yoshiki changed a single line of dialogue in a key character scene in Sound! Euphonium. And at AnimeFest in August last year, Sato Dai lit up when a fan asked him about his inspiration in scripting a rather famous death scene; he was so happy that he chose to give her the biggest of the three (or five) prizes that they’d decided to give away at that panel on the second day of the con.

Of course, Canipa is right in that we should value screenwriters like Okada for their work on “story.” When screenwriters are engaged from early on in a show’s development, usually resulting in them being accorded the credit for “series composition” (シリーズ構成), they are engaged in the development of the “story,” and often bring a lot to that role. This is what Oguro was saying in this column, which Canipa also referred to. In this role, they are one of the core storytellers of the show in question. I don’t deny that — despite my insistence that the director is more often than not ‘the lead writer’, it’s something I acknowledge time and time again. If they contribute enough to the story, then they are given credit under “original work” (原作), even if the initial idea came from someone else.

The crux of the issue

What I really want to emphasise is that story creation/development and scripting are different processes. A screenwriter may be involved in one but not the other, and even if they are involved in both, their contribution to each differs with each project. Take, for example, George Lucas and Star Wars. I think many people can and do appreciate the brilliance of the ideas and concepts that Lucas first brought to our screens more than 40 years ago. However, most of them would also argue that his ‘writing’ leaves a lot to be desired—screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan is often lauded for his work in the franchise, even if some of Han’s best lines weren’t his. And in recent years, journalists have highlighted the important contributions that Lucas’s then-wife, Marcia, made to the original trilogy’s storytelling. Lucas was the creator, but it was the people around him who helped him turn Star Wars into a classic.

That’s why we need to be able to distinguish between “story” and “writing.” If we want to have more fruitful discussions about why Okada is so highly valued, then we have to know what she brings to the story creation/development process, versus what she brings to the detailed characterisation in her scripts. We have to know what “breaking the story” is, who it involves, and how those creators work together. We have to know that when writers talk about “writing,” they’re usually talking about the words on a page that bring life to the characters and the story. And we have to know that processes beyond that, such as storyboarding and editing, also change that “writing.”

In closing

I have a heck of a lot more to say about showrunners, creators and authorship in anime. But I don’t really have time for this right now. I also know that this post isn’t likely to have much of an effect, since Canipa has far more followers than I do. But I’m leaving this here anyway, because I cannot just sit back and do nothing when something threatens to undermine all the work I have done.

I know that I sound upset; that’s because I am. But rather than angry, I’m disappointed, and frustrated. I’m disappointed because no matter how much work I do to translate interviews and write articles about “anime writing,” it just doesn’t have the impact I want it to have. I’m disappointed because I have not been able persuade people I respect and look up to that they are perpetuating misunderstandings about anime writing and creators, and that this is a problem. And I’m frustrated because I do not know what I can do to change this. AnimeFeminist has done something similar to Canipa several times over the past year as well, and besides the first time it happened, I can’t even tell you if the feedback I’ve given them has actually gone anywhere.

The only reason I’m still here is because I know that some people have taken my work on board. In particular, I’m grateful to Isaac for asking me about screenwriter Yoshino Hiroyuki, to Kim for asking me about something a fictional figure skater said, and to Dee for running a translation snippet past me once and for continuing to consult me on Japanese words and phrases today. Most of all, I’m thankful to megax for our collaboration on, for example, those unfinished series of posts on anime pre-production and anime scripts. It doesn’t always happen, and even when it does, I don’t always agree with what they decide to go with—I’d never have written some of the things Isaac said about Yoshino, for example—but I’m happy that they sought my feedback on those occasions, and actually listened to it. In doing that, they conveyed to me that the many, many hours I’ve dedicated to this fandom have not been wasted.

But I’m getting very, very tired, and disheartened. Each time something like this happens, I wonder what I could have done better. Should I, for example, have said that the director is “the main storyteller” rather than going with the vague notion that they are “responsible for maintaining the vision and overall integrity of the show”? Or would it not have made a difference, because most English-speaking fans still strongly believe that the screenwriter is—or should be—the main storyteller, because that’s allegedly the norm in the US TV industry? And then I start to wonder if my involvement in this fandom is even worth all the effort anymore.

Well…for the moment, I’m going back on hiatus. Once my dissertation is done, I’ll decide what I want to do going forward.

  1. Roundtable interview from Animestyle Monthly 06. 
  2. And let me not even try to break down what Canipa means by “we.” 
  3. NB: Although English distinguishes between screenwriters and playwrights, Japanese doesn’t. Both can be referred to as kyakuhon-ka (脚本家) or shinario-raitā (シナリオライター). 
  4. On episode #303 of Scriptnotes, “75% of Nothing,” John and Craig actually point out that the Writers Guild’s formula specifies that, “75% of (the money paid for a film script) goes to the people that wrote the screenplay, and 25% of it goes to the people that wrote the story, divided amongst each other equally.” It would be very interesting to know how the breakdown works in the anime industry, but I wouldn’t be surprised if creators were not actually allowed to talk about this. 

About karice
MAG fan, translator, and localization project manager. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

10 Responses to Okada Mari and Anime ‘Writing’

  1. iblessall says:

    Your work in this fandom is absolutely appreciated by myself! I’m sorry I couldn’t have done you more proud in the Yoshino piece (to be honest, I was a bit constrained by the platform I was on, although that should be no excuse), but I am still extremely grateful for your work there, your ongoing attempts to draw out the truth of Okada’s works in particular, and the overall lessons and ideas you’ve imparted to me regarding how we ought to talk about anime writing.

    If it is encouraging at all, I’d just like to let you know that, in my own small way, I’m spreading what I’ve learned from you as I’m able. Just the other day I was able to point someone to your “IBO is not Mari Okada’s Gundam” article as they were directing their anger about parts of the show toward her. And I’ve frequently stepped in to try and correct people’s ways of talking about anime writing when relevant; it’s even something I do my best to edit for when I’m editing features for Crunchyroll.

    So, at least for my part, and as I said before, I really, truly value your work on anime writing on both a collegial and personal level. I’m sorry you’re feeling so discouraged, and I wish you best of luck on your dissertation!

    Liked by 1 person

    • karice says:

      My apologies for this incredibly late reply. Long story short, I haven’t really been able to reboot myself after what happened with that video, though that’s no excuse. So I finally decided to sit down and reply properly — maybe this will help me jumpstart my brain to get back into the RL writing I should be doing.

      First of all, thank you for your constant support. I didn’t mean to imply that you disappointed me with your piece. On the whole, I really liked it!! And not just because you did ask for my feedback and took it on board. I also appreciate how you tried to redirect the conversation around Izetta at that time. I’m just very cautious about what I say about people like Yoshino and Okada, because of the way I’ve seen/heard fans write and talk about them. TL;DR it’s just me being REALLY nit picky about specific ways of phrasing things, so please don’t worry about it!

      And I really am grateful at your efforts to help spread what I’ve been trying to say about how we talk about anime writing. I realised about a year or two ago that the most effective thing for me to do would be to try to persuade people who have far more influence in this fandom than I do, so I’m really glad that you’re one of the CR features editors. I’m sorry that I can’t really read your work atm (blocked over here, as usual lol), but it is heartening to know that I don’t have to worry as much about CR features as much as I do about some other widely read and influential sites and discussion leaders. I’m just completely stumped about how to get the reach I need to truly be able to deal with this challenge.

      For the moment though, I really do need to step back, refresh myself, and do what I really need to do. So thank you for the encouragement. I really do hope I’ll be able to come back to this sooner rather than later.


  2. Darya says:

    Thank you for your hard work! The anime industry is truly a tricky one and the lack of information in English didn’t help to understand all the nuances of the behind the scene work.
    I look forward to more informations from you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • karice says:

      Thank you. I’m sorry that I’m pretty much on hiatus at the moment, but I will try to get back to translating and stuff once I’ve done with my dissertation.


  3. AstraliusK says:

    Thank you for this article! You pointed out flaws in Canipa’s video that I didn’t pick up on myself, such as the role of the showrunner. Consequently, I appreciate your detailed response here, as well as some of your previous work. In fact, I used your Wave Motion Cannon article on Iron-Blooded Orphans today in order to argue against some generalizations made by Geoff Thew in today’s video on Maquia.

    I wish you the best of luck in your dissertation and your other future endeavors!


    • karice says:

      Thanks for reading and trying to spread the research I’ve done on all of this. Partly since I watch so few shows nowadays, and have my plate full just trying to keep up with how they’re received in Japan as well as what creators say about them, I really do not keep track of what prolific bloggers/reviewers or youtubers say. It actually astounds me that some of them seem to be more popular than actual creators — like, how does that even work?

      But thank you for reading and for the well-wishes. I’ll try to come back to this at some point!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Masterpost: On Anime ‘Writing’ Project | HOT CHOCOLATE IN A BOWL

  5. griigoo says:

    Hey there. Sorry for the intrusion and lack of context but I really wanted know if you still read Chihayafuru.

    You see, It happened some nasty crazy things in the last chapters and I’m having a really really hard time trying to figure what the hell it’s going on in the manga at this point. I really wanted some reviews and other opinions to help me understand and I’d always thought your reviews and impressions quite enlightening and helpful so I can’t think a better place to ask this, I really would be happy if could provide a bit of your time to this series again.

    Ps. Sorry ask something so selfish.


    • karice says:

      Hi there, and thank you for reading my posts on Chihayafuru! I’m really sorry I dropped the ball on this series, and unfortunately, I haven’t been following it that closely these last couple of years. I’m still doing my PhD, so those deep reviews are something I just don’t have time for right now, though I will think about it when I am finally finished with my studies, which SHOULD be before the end of this year.

      I have kept abreast of where the manga is at broadly, largely through Japanese review blogs. So in regards to the last (few?) chapters, if you want to ask something in particular, I’m happy to talk about it briefly via Twitter DM if you have twitter?


      • griigoo says:

        Oh, sorry ask this in such bothersome and crucial time, I wish all the lucky for you in your PhD. Even so I’m happy to know your reviews will be back still this year, can’t wait.

        I used twitter once time but only once so I don’t know how to use it properly ‘^^. That’s why I prefer wait to tell the truth, but I guess I’ll try ask one or two things there if it’s not trouble (and if I remember my login).


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