With anime more popular than ever all over the world, we sat down with some of the people who actually produce it to hear some of their thoughts about the production process and a few behind the scenes stories too. This interview series is a collaborative project between Japanese language news site Anime! Anime!, Tokyo Otaku Mode, and Chinese language sites Bahamut and Manrenzhi.

You can check out all the other interviews here.
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Studio Pierrot’s representative works: The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, Urusei Yatsura, Creamy Mami, the Magic Angel, Yu Yu Hakusho, Naruto, Bleach, Tokyo Ghoul, Osomatsu-san, Black Clover

Studio Pierrot began with the director group “Pierrot” founded by Yuji Nunokawa in 1977. After handling TV anime such as Maya the Honey Bee, the group set up as a studio to produce The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.

Studio Pierrot first began to gain notice in 1981 after working on Urusei Yatsura (produced by Kitty Films), and then in 1983 produced the first in the “Pierrot Magical Girl” series, Creamy Mami, financing the original project as a production company.

The studio then went on to create a series of hits inspired by popular manga of the day including Kimagure Orange Road, Yu Yu Hakusho, Hikaru no Go, and Naruto, advancing into merchandising and overseas markets.

Yuji Nunokawa was the driving force behind Studio Pierrot in planning and production throughout the “golden age” of anime in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In the present day, he’s still very much part of the company as a non-representative consultant and board member, and has founded the NUNOANI Juku school to nurture new talent in directing and producing anime.

What has Nunokawa learned over the last 40 years overseeing anime production at Studio Pierrot and where does he think the anime industry should be heading in the future? He kindly sat down with us to talk frankly about his personal views.

[Interview/composition: Minako Nakamura; photographer: Shota Ohara]

The Naruto and Boruto series are overwhelmingly popular internationally.
©2002 MASASHI KISHIMOTO / 2017 BORUTO All Rights Reserved.
We conducted the interview at Studio Pierrot’s HQ in a quiet residential area of Mitaka.
We were greeted by the Studio Pierrot clown motif on the front of the building.
Posters featuring some of Studio Pierrot’s representative works lined up at the entrance.
Clowns illustrated by Final Fantasy’s Yoshitaka Amano and Creamy Mami’s Takeda Akemi.
In the reception room where we conducted the interview, packaging and merchandise from the studio’s representative works are on display.

The selling points of Japanese anime are the settings, stories, and characters

Yuji Nunokawa

– You became an animator in the 1960s, what was the industry like back then?

Nunokawa: It was all dramatized in a morning drama, Natsuzora, but Toei Animation was founded in 1956, Mushi Production in 1961, and Tatsunoko Production in 1962 so when I entered the animation industry it was right at the beginning.

I wanted to be a graphic designer, so I moved from Yamagata to Tokyo and joined a company, but I quit and joined Hoei after applying to a recruitment ad looking for people who liked drawing.

Back then the word “animator” didn’t really exist. I didn’t really know what the job was, but I liked movies and wanted to work with video so I was excited about joining the company.

I liked the work – coloring and inbetweens, key animations, etc. I was blessed with the people too; I have such good memories of having fun at work. Back then, the production house did everything except the sound, and I remember watching the whole of the animation production process.

– These days, any kind of animation produced in Japan is called “anime” internationally, but you were already sending anime overseas in the 1970s?

Nunokawa: Yes, that’s right. Japanese TV was still in its infancy, just like anime in the 1960s. It took such a long time to make a program that we brought in a lot of shows from overseas and broadcast those and in return we sold a lot of Japanese anime to foreign TV stations.

Japanese anime was cheap, you see. “How much for this many?” It was like we were running a fire sale. And now there are people overseas who’ve grown up watching anime. In fact, we must be into the third generation already!

– Nothing’s really changed that much in Japan or overseas. Which of the projects that you worked on have been popular internationally?

Nunokawa: When I was a director I worked on Maya the Honey Bee (1975). I didn’t know until the first time I went abroad, everyone seemed to know it, it was almost as famous as Sazae-san.

It’s based on a book by a German author, and I was invited to an animation festival in Northern Europe where everyone was tremendously moved when I drew Maya. They treated me like some kind of god.

Including short films, there are around 2,000–3,000 Japanese animations broadcast internationally. The truth is that’s more than in Japan. Maya the Honey Bee has been translated into 44 languages. Many people have grown up watching Takahata and Miyazaki’s Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974, Zuiyo) and Candy Candy (1976, Toei Animation).

Apparently, French ex-soccer player Zinedine Zidane decided to play the game because he loved the Captain Tsubasa anime (1983, Tsuchida Production). The influence of Japanese animation has been huge. Especially these days with the internet, there are Japanese anime fans in places you’d never expect.

– Why do you think Japanese anime is so popular overseas?

Nunokawa: Leaving Studio Ghibli movies to one side, when we say “anime” is well regarded around the world we’re mostly talking about 30 minute TV anime. Well, really 20-something minute anime series with a continuous story line. To be frank, the motion quality isn’t amazing, you can’t really call them full animation.

But what they have going for them are the settings, stories, and characters. Because the production team have used their skills wisely, you can really see the appeal in the drama and even adults can enjoy them.

Every country makes cartoons for its children, and internationally people think that anime and manga are only for little kids, they don’t have cartoons for teenagers so the dramatic quality of Japanese anime is a really good fit.

Middle schoolers pick up influences really easily, so anime and manga often take off from there.

Naruto is popular overseas, do you think series with very Japanese concepts like ninja are more likely to become hits?

Nunokawa: No. The most important thing is the story has to be interesting.

Personally, I think it’s more of a coincidence that Japanese anime has become so popular internationally.

We make the programs to be well-received in Japan, but every so often we get a big international hit. It’s not something the industry is particularly aiming for.

For example, Pierrot produced The Mysterious Cities of Gold (1982) and domestically it was a total failure, but in France it’s so popular that almost everyone has heard of it.

In Spain they love Tensai Bakabon (1972, A Production). In India KochiKame (1996, Studio Gallop) is really popular. I don’t know why though (laughs).

In Spanish, the voice of Bakabon’s dad is so funny. The localization needs to be well done too, that’s another important element.

It’s essential that anime is set up as a business

– In 1984, Pierrot took out copyright control and set up the Pierrot Project, so it was involved in the anime business very early. What do you feel is important in setting up anime as a business?

Nunokawa: Our business is guaranteed commercial art; it’s different from academic enterprise. Before I said when we talk about popular “anime” we mean 30 minute shows and those usually broadcast late at night. Often, each series is just one cour.

The animation costs come down when you break down the number of episodes. That’s because it costs a lot to produce things like the settings and music at the very beginning. However, in the case that the show is only one cour, just when you think the settings are piling up they’re already finished and you have to start again with a new project. Then you have to bring a new director and staff together and it really costs a lot. If you also have a labor shortage, then your production capacity will be limited. That’s the biggest problem right now.

– So it costs money just to keep the studio going?

Nunokawa: That’s another problem, yes. You can’t keep the studio going just on production costs, but that’s the way the industry works. Fortunately, Pierrot has previous copyrights so if you make animation it also becomes an asset.

Right now, you hear of projects which get into trouble because the production committee couldn’t raise 100% of the budget. Especially one cour anime, you have to make the merchandise before it airs but it’s extremely difficult to know whether it will sell or not. It’s also painful to have to go back to the sponsors. Up to now, the production committee system has survived everything, but I feel as if its limit is approaching.

On the other hand, if it’s just one cour, you have more possibility to make something original. The good thing is they attract lots of young and talented directors.

I won’t deny that, but when the supply and demand aren’t balanced, it’s hard to make a successful one cour series.

If there’s a limit to supplementing the domestic budget, the production committee will have to take investment from abroad. You also have to consider the possibility of collaborating with an overseas production committee.

– These days working with foreign studios is becoming much more common.

Nunokawa: Even Hollywood is doing it. If you make use of studios from other countries you can create something really great. Now that the internet is developing, it makes getting image data much more convenient. I think it’s great that production is becoming much more global. That way, Japanese techniques can spread throughout the world, and the scope of “anime” will also increase.

Japanese animation is inextricably linked with manga. Manga magazines are released weekly or monthly and new projects start at regular intervals which doesn’t happen in other countries.

Overseas, people are often surprised by Japanese production and creation capability. Manga relies heavily on one creator’s creativity. I think that’s still true, but anime relies on bringing a lot of creators together. Manga continues to be a big inspiration for anime but in this day and age when paper is becoming less popular, I predict there will be more original anime.

– Viewers have switched from TV to streaming to enjoy their anime.

Nunokawa: To talk about the benefits, the revenue from streaming is getting bigger. Because we’re increasingly moving towards paid viewing, both production and earnings have to change in line with the times. That’s not the creator’s job, producers will have to see to that.

In Japan, the system where only producers can do anything is deeply rooted, and so there’s a tendency for the producer’s tastes and biases to come out in the work. But if this is a business, then it’s not good for one person’s sensibility to define the project.

Internationally, it’s natural that the producer directs, and the director produces. The producer doesn’t just budget for money and labor, they need to have a sense of the market and an understanding of viewers’ needs. If you don’t have a good sense for reflecting that balance in the work then however much time passes the workplace won’t be successful. Even people who become producers need to be able to read storyboards and scripts. That’s why I started NUNOANI Juku so young recruits could learn about business.

The evolution of characters, preparing for the next generation

– Where do you think the Japanese animation industry should be heading?

Nunokawa: In Japan, we gradually start throwing old things out because we always want something new, but there’s a limit to how many absolutely new things can be created. In Hollywood right now there’s a huge trend of remaking old ideas with new technology. For instance, look at how Mickey Mouse has evolved over the last 100 years – Japanese characters should be doing that too! We really have to treasure the hit franchises we’re inheriting from the past.

Osomatsu-san was inspired by Osomatsu-kun and it’s become a huge social phenomenon so you could really say it’s evolved and adapted to the demands of the times. How did you come up with the idea for that?

©Fujio Akatsuka/OSOMATSUSAN THE MOVIE PROJECT 2019

Nunokawa: These classic hits really do strike a chord with today’s viewers. If those series have a chord that can be struck, then if you can tweak them a little bit to bring them up to date, you can make something new. Creamy Mami is now 35 years old but when we made it we only thought of it as a one year TV series. Even now all these years later it’s been picked up again and loved by generations of viewers because it really has heart.

©Pierrot

I always say, “put your soul into the things you make,” and whatever it is you’re trying to do it will turn out boring if you don’t. The stuff you come up with in production committee meetings tends not to be so interesting.

On the other hand, when the producers and directors are making their pitch presentations and they say “I just love this project so much I’ll die if I don’t do it” that kind of passion always wins. And when you’re getting the team together, if you tell them “this is why I chose you, I want to do it just like this” then that passion really gets transmitted and the work really has spirit.

Animation is made by a lot of people, but the director is key. Then you have the screenwriter, character designer, and the animation director so that’s six or seven people in the main team. Then if you can cast a few voice actors you begin to build up an image of the show. The producer then thinks about whether they can really make that image a reality properly and whether they can present it to sponsors.

– One successful example of that is Osomatsu-san.

Nunokawa: Shirokuma Cafe laid the groundwork but it’s really the coming together of the producer’s idea and the director’s intention.

Nunokawa’s book on the theory behind anime production, Osomatsu-san no Kikaku Jutsu

– What do think is essential for the anime industry in the future?

Nunokawa: First of all, digitalization. It’s indispensable for getting the best cost performance out of the limited budget. It’s not really worth worrying about, but as there are more people learning digital skills at school, I think it will happen naturally with the next generation. When that happens, more than looking for an increase in quality you need plentiful creativity to create good stories and characters. That’s the main thing.

Also, I really want people who have the desire and ambition to make anime rival Hollywood to enter the industry. You need creators and artists, obviously, but you need producers to spur them on too. I want people who want to make anime evolve to join, especially people proficient in foreign languages.

At NUNOANI Juku, we have a lot of students from China, Korea, and Taiwan. If you can understand Japanese, then you’re very welcome even if you don’t have a Japanese passport. The course is only one year but we run it so you can come for a second year without paying fees. So, please come and study for a year or two.

– Do you offer any training at the studio?

Nunokawa: We might have done that originally at Pierrot, but it’s difficult to make space for studying in the workplace. People work so hard to join Pierrot, and then when they see how hard it really is they walk away. I can’t bear it when that happens. That’s why I came up with the idea of the school – a place where you can step back a little from the production environment and remember how fun anime can be.

– Is there something that you’d like the fans supporting the studio to do?

Nunokawa: The cutting edge of the entertainment industry is music. Now that CDs don’t sell so well anymore the main thing is live concerts and at live concerts they merchandise. It would be great if we could do something similar in the anime industry. We’re already doing 2.5D stage shows inspired by anime and manga. If we could just make it a real interaction with proper communication between sender and receiver that would be something quite special.

We have broadcasts and streaming, but it’s hard for us to know how the viewers really feel and it’s hard for them to know how we feel too. Another idea is if fans can come to anime fairs and events so we can really interact.

Of course, from the creator’s side, the voice actors, directors, scriptwriters, and the whole of the creative team need to get up on stage and speak. It’s really important to have that kind of positive mutual interaction. In any case, you have to have a guaranteed business. And for that, you need a producer.

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