I decided to stop procrastinating and finish translating the interview I started three hundred years ago, mainly because no one will love your favourite character as much as Nobuyuki loves the Kuji brothers (Chikai in particular). It’s actually a pretty interesting interview which reveals quite the amount of thought put into the smallest details and some unexpected inspirations and homages. By the way, I haven’t seen the series in quite a while, so any inadvertence is my fault.
Oh, and speaking of Takeuchi. Remember Enta’s walking bridge? Turns out it really was Takeuchi’s homage to Utena.
This is your third collaboration with Ikuhara. How did it go this time?
The first thing I did was to figure out how to introduce the ア sign on-screen. Besides this design oriented position, I also had a clear role this time, that is, the direction. I directed the first half of the first episode, episode four and episode nine, while receiving input from director Ikuhara and the rest of the staff. The first episode starts with Kazuki jogging by himself in Asakusa and I figured I should introduce him to the ア sign somewhere. Director Ikuhara has also said it, but I wanted the viewers to see the ア as a living thing. I thought it would be better if the ア moved when illustrated in 3D or cells, because in animation ‘moving’ equals ‘alive’. It’s the same for Kazuki: while running, he encounters the ア signs that fall from the sky. Kazuki is running on the Azumabashi from the Asahi Building and is descending towards the riverside, while the ア signs fall from the direction of the esplanade.
The moment Kazuki passes through the ア signs remains a mystery. However, in the last episode, when young Kazuki reaches for the micanga, the ア signs show up and when Tooi jumps into the river, he passes through those ア signs as well. It feels that passing through those ア signs signifies something important.
The ones in charge with the last episode were directors Ikuhara and Matsushima, my last contribution was episode nine. In the first place, the ア signs in the first half of the first episode were originally white Keppi being a pink ring in Ishikawa Kayoko’s imageboard, not the ア signs. In that first half, the pink ア signs rotate and go through Kazuki at high speed; I wanted the viewers to sense that those signs had come in order to tell Kazuki something, like they had crossed time and space. The viewers can interpret Kazuki’s feelings at that moment any way they want; I wanted to transmit the fact that that meeting was a sign of good things to come for the ア signs, for Kazuki and for Asakusa itself. Also, broadly speaking, I see the apparition of the ア signs in the following episodes as making food. I added them in a way that would leave room for the viewer’s imagination.
That is very interesting. You were also in charge with the storyboards of episodes four and nine in their entirety, revealing a very thorough storytelling.
I used different approaches for the fourth and the ninth episodes. In the fourth episode, the character drama was revealed as several important moments taking place in the same cut, while in the ninth episode the setting was mostly one cut – one action. I wrote the ninth episode like that because I wanted the action to flow slowly and silently until the essential parts came up: the ending of part B and the entirety of part C. Enta is shot and unconscious, so the only thing Kazuki, Otone and his grandma can do is watch over him. I am a patient person myself, so I have dubbed the ninth episode the ‘patience episode’ several times; I wanted to show a standstill, where people must be patient even if they want to move and act. I did have to find a way to show this on-screen though, so I introduced several diversions, like homages to other works. In addition, light shows up in Reo’s and Mabu’s scene, yet the visuals illustrate that they are influenced by something that doesn’t exist in reality. The beginning of episode nine starts with Kazuki under the spotlight, same with Sara pushing around frozen Keppi and Keppi’s surgery. I wanted to shine the light on each character.
It feels like they are being controlled by something immaterial, doesn’t it?
That is exactly the case in Reo’s and Mabu’s case. In other scenes it’s used as part of the gag or because it makes for interesting visuals. However, I already had these scenes firmly established in my mind.
I see. The past of Tooi and Chikai is shown in episode four and the way their room is set up truly reveals their human nature and lifestyle.
That’s right. There was already a rough sketch of the room drawn by Ms. Ishikawa, so I flipped the image, left the furniture where it was and added a few things here and there. The outside of the building is the same as an already existing restaurant in Asakusa (I digress, but on my way back from location hunting I ate at a delicious okonomiyaki restaurant nearby). Now onto the family photo; I gave it my all. That photo is the most important part of episode four. I was the one who sketched the layout of the family making soba before they opened the restaurant, but I believe the nuance of their expressions added by Ms. Nishibata was excellent. At first sight, this looks like a happy family photo around the time Tooi was two years old, but the look on Chikai’s face and his energetic gestures show his haughtiness and impatience. We aimed to show how even one wrong step would lead such a boy down the wrong path through the way his eyebrows turn up, the size of his mouth and the look in his eyes. He feels as if he opens his eyes as much as possible. Moreover, his father’s smile suggests that even if he saw that face, he would feel there is nothing to worry about. The mother is sitting on a chair in the back, holding a very young Tooi. These three are not alongside Chikai, but a little separated from him, hinting that the mother hadn’t been able to notice the risk he was in either. Although this photo seems to show an extremely happy family, I also wanted to reflect how unsteady it actually was. Its white borders are the ‘walls’ formed by a family. These white borders have lately disappeared from printed photos, but I aimed to show a glimpse of the family through this white fence. The photograph foretells the strain that would later appear among the four, an omen similar to Tooi’s wish that his brother had died instead.
The first shot of the soba restaurant is a wide angle. Does that also hold meaning for the Kuji family?
It’s a really strange scene, isn’t it. I was at a loss, since it’s based on a real building, but I wanted the audience to feel the weight Tooi and Chikai have on their shoulders. It looks rather dark, but the shadows were actually added to the real picture. When the camera pans up, the image curves imperceptibly, giving off a somehow distressing air.
In the last part of episode four, when Tooi is running around the city at at night, the shadows on the walls that gradually turn bigger and bigger were impressive as well.
There have been many ways of reflecting shadows in many different works, but this time I chose ‘The Third Man’. Director Ikuhara showed me images of Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ as inspiration for episode four and told me he wanted the Azuma Bridge to be similar to the Manhattan Bridge as seen from the streets of Washington on the movie poster. The movie is about boys who commit crimes in the vicinity of that bridge and it seems director Ikuhara wanted to follow the idea of boys acting around and committing crimes in the vicinity of Azuma Bridge. I wasn’t really able to portray that in the show, but I felt like including the type of night scenery as seen in American film noir or new cinema.
The night scenes left a deep impression indeed. You mentioned before that in the fourth episode you decided to show several movements in a single cut.
‘Turning and then walking this way’ or ‘putting the necklace in his pocket and walking towards the camera’ or ‘Tooi’s gaze following his brother’, for example. It’s simple, but there are so many things animators have to do in order to show more than one movement. It was a difficult task for them, I thought.
The movements felt lifelike, and gave the scene a very real feeling.
That was how I wanted to portray them. I was careful to show as much as possible how the two brothers appear in each frame so as to make the feel of the Kuji family as real as possible.
Another scene that stays in mind was Tooi shooting the gun inside the tunnel, with the ripples and the sparkles that follow. Despite the darkness outside, the light inside the tunnel is beautiful. I felt that the murder taking place in a bright place and not somewhere dark fit the two brothers.
The script had the murder take place in a backalley actually, but I changed it. Director Ikuhara had the image of the bridge in his mind and wanted to bring in the sound of water as well, so I changed it to the tunnel, since I was thinking along the same lines. My image of the story of the Kuji brothers was based on Uchida Rintarou’s illustrated book ‘Dareka ga boku wo korosanaide’ and I figured this was the only scene I could actually use similar visuals. That is why for me the shooting taking place in that kind of place was very important. Isn’t the form of the tunnel half of a circle? That particular shape was also essential in this series. Not to mention that I was conscious that this dreadful event had gained a gentle image in Tooi’s mind.
This scene shows not only someone’s death, but also the bond between the two brothers.
An important fact is that this moment is seen through Tooi’s eyes. The ripples are what Tooi sees, a mirror image of what is going on in his heart at that very moment. I wanted to show the figure of his brother beyond a river he could and couldn’t cross. The distance between them. That was what I had in mind.
If we include the image of the river, the smoke resembles ripples.
It’s rather unclear whether it is smoke or ripples. It is easy to understand if you take a look at this book cover, but the colour of the ripples was changed two or three times and in the end I had to work together with director of photography Ogiwara. I asked him if he could absorb the tunnel’s colour and turn it into the ripples’ colour and I was relieved to see that the end result was so beautiful.
Another point that left an impression were the photographic images, like the propellers of the ship forming waves in episode nine. Such techniques lead to a very different atmosphere.
The first time I used it was in the A part of episode 1: when the ア signs are falling, the sight of the river surface reflecting the pink Skytree and the Asahi building in the background. Director Ogiwara processed the clips we took of those sights. I have so many things to thank him for. The river in episode nine was filmed by Tajima Tao, and I had set my eyes on it from the moment I saw it in the PV. There were various talks about using photographic images from the start. The round pieces of paper in episode four were also originally photographs that were later used as material for the show.
Like the scene where Kazuki and Tooi are planning Azuma Sara’s kidnapping. Those speech bubbles that designate people.
I used photos to make them feel like cardboard. I wanted to attract people’s attention a little. All the do is talk about the kidnapping plan here, so I figured I could come up with something creative image wise.
In the ninth episode when frozen Keppi is moving around, the background is also photographic image.
I used photographs taken by Ms. Utsumi. In scenes like the thief sketch ‘It’s eight o’clock…everyone gather!’, there is a patrol car stationing on the stage while everyone is running around; the road is shown through a technique called screen process. I felt like playing a little.
Interesting. You used certain types of visuals in the fourth and ninth episodes in order to illustrate Chikai’s and Tooi’s story. Chikai’s and Tooi’s parting in episode nine was very touching.
The scenario was supposed to end with Chikai’s last words ‘These connections are so annoying…’, but I added Tooi’s scream and his line ‘Shit!’ and lengthened the scene a little. I had trouble thinking of a way to write Chikai’s death, but what came to mind was Michael from The Godfather movies who had been involved with crime from a young age. I wanted to make it a homage to the Corleones. If we think about the ending of the tenth episode, where Tooi is taken by Black Keppi, I needed to throw him in the depths of despair beforehand, I wanted to show that Tooi is fed up with himself. When I wondered how to do that, I realised, and this is just what I think, that up until that moment Tooi had only seen one side of his brother and had never noticed his true nature at all. Perhaps that was what led to his feelings. Also, in order to show Chikai’s true nature, I needed to show little Tooi. The past scenes with Chikai and Tooi show up in the second half and are supposed to be seen from the point of view of both little and teenage Tooi. The Chikai seen by the two of them is again different from the Chikai seen in the family photo I described earlier. Chikai as we see him in the flashbacks is not frolicking like in the picture. Why? Remembering his brother in the past, current Tooi notices something and sheds one tear. Perhaps the things Tooi had claimed to do for his brother’s sake hadn’t actually been for Chikai’s sake at all. Perhaps this is how he should have actually acted towards his brother. Did his brother have to die for him to notice that? The tear he sheds is the regret he feels over how late he managed to notice that. This is also reflected in the background music. There is a female character who reveals her fiance’s acts to his lover’s husband in the middle part of the opera ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’. The husband goes mad and vows to take revenge. The woman is seized by huge regrets once she realises she had invited such unforeseen results. Once that insane scene ends, the famous melody starts playing. It is the background music of the last scene of The Godfather III. With the brutal atmosphere that continued from episodes eight and nine as background, I wanted to show the connection between Chikai and Tooi using the visuals and music of these works as homage. The scene in Godfather III only contains one part of the original melody, played on repeat, so I kept it the same, arranged by Ms. Hashimoto, in the ninth episode. The piano is beautifully played by Mino Haruki. I matched his playing style, which is a little different from the original, to the visuals, and since the first part in particular is supposed to show through sound how Chikai’s life is coming to an end, the piano is played with small pauses. During the flashbacks the musical notes are the ones tying together the visuals, showing the days spent together with Chikai. The cheerful way in which the notes are struck underlines the ephemerality of those times.
When thinking about Chikai’s life, I figured he’d probably played football at some point, but he might not have been too good at team sports. There is a football in the flashbacks, but I never showed him actually kicking it. Chikai is not the one who can play together with Tooi anymore. Perhaps he’d already thrown football away and he might have noticed only Tooi had the things he did not have anymore. Well, this is just what I think. In the afterword of Uchida Rintarou’s picture book my inspired the way I potrayed Chikai he says that (excuse the summary) when he was thinking of becoming a yakuza, he remembered his mother repeating how cute he was and taking him in her arms. That naturally made him smile. It was thanks to the strength of those words that he was now the man he was. He was able to not stray from the right path because he had remembered those moments. That made me think that perhaps Chikai had lacked something like that. Just as the line ‘Throw away everything you don’t need’ showed, Chikai could only lead a life based on that way of thinking.
Taking that into account, I would like to ask you something. Tooi sheds a tear when Chikai dies. That tear turns into a circle and bursts open, and right after that we see Chikai lying in a pool of blood the shape of a circle. Perhaps I am overthinking it when I say it resembles the ア sign, but the shape of a circle is an important factor denoting the connections in the show. That was why I was thinking, perhaps Chikai managed to connect with Tooi as he was dying.
Indeed, the pool of blood around Chikai was drawn as a circle on purpose. I think connecting it to Tooi’s tear is an interesting idea, but the interpretation is up to the viewer. What I wanted Tooi to feel in that moment was that he was being allowed to live. That means his brother lives on together with him as well. His dead father and mother too. And from time to time, he would be able to talk about the Kuji family’s soba or about his brother together with Enta. I would like for this to be the driving force in Tooi’s life from now on. I hope this won’t invite misunderstandings, but even though Chikai’s life on this earth has ended, as long as Tooi and Enta live and do not forget about him, he is not completely gone. When everyone has forgotten about him, then Chikai will truly die.
Truly makes you think. There’s a certain depth to Tooi’s and Chikai’s story. A few final words now that you have finished Sarazanmai?
If I were to put it into a couple of words, it would be ‘thank you’ – truly. I have been in the anime world for a long time, but my career as director has been quite short. For example, if it weren’t for Ms. Shigeoka from production advancement and setting production, episode nine would have been rather different. She also helped me a lot with episode four. We worked on the arrangement of the cuts for episode nine’s C part right until it went into editing. When I first received the storyboard, I thought Tooi should take off Chikai’s sunglasses. The idea was for him to throw them away. Michael Corleone had done the opposite, putting on the sunglasses, which weren’t a bad thing in itself, but this way, Tooi would have returned Chikai’s face to the way it had been with his own hand. When I got my own revision of the storyboard, I was asked ‘Isn’t the thing with the sunglasses too sudden? Is there a meaning to this?’. When I revealed the meaning as I did above, I was told – ‘Isn’t that a little strange?’. I realised then that I had put in too much of my own point of view and had stopped thinking at the same time. Thanks to this, the scene turned into the 10000 yen bills thrown into the air. We reached this result through discussion. That is why I had a lot of fun and I can give a big ‘thank you’ to many members of the staff. I can say this about a lot of moments. I am really glad I was able to do what I did.