Over the weekend of Anime Boston 2013, I was granted the opportunity to speak two of the most vital members of the Sword Art Online production team, director Tomohiko Ito and producer Shinichiro Kashiwada. In the anime world, the two men are storied figures, whose careers brought them through one incredible title after the next. Ito worked on critically acclaimed hits like Summer Wars, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and Monster, while Kashiwada had legends like R.O.D The TV and Azumanga Daioh in his resume.
So, to put it bluntly, it was intimidating to be seated no more than ten feet from these people, whose efforts touched the lives of tens of thousands across the globe. As the conversation began, though, these worries melted away. Both Ito and Kashiwada were incredibly charming, insightful individuals, whose years of experience gave them a truly unique perspective on the anime industry as a whole.
I’d like to thank both Ito-san and Kashiwada-san for the experience, and for the Anime Boston staff for helping to arrange the interview itself.
Anime Herald: This is a question for both of you, it’s actually a two-parter. When did you develop an interest in animation and filmmaking, and how did you first get involved in the anime industry?
Tomohiko Ito: Actually, I don’t really necessarily want to mention my age (laughs) but back towards the end of high school, I saw Evangelion, and it was probably the first anime that I saw where I was more aware also of the production process, not just the actual finished product. And I was, like “Wow, that’s kind of cool!” And I actually went to college majoring in something completely different, but at the same time, I was involved with an animation production club. And that’s kind of where I guess I got my start.
Shinichiro Kashiwada: I actually, I don’t know if I could put things opposite of the direction Mr. Ito took, but when I originally went to college, I was thinking of going into a career in law, and I was studying law. But then, I decided to look for a job. I thought I might just enter a company as a regular company employee.
And so then I had to think about “well, what kind of career do I want? How do I want to make a living?” And in terms of inspiration, one of the series that I really enjoyed when I was younger was City Hunter. In fact, I kind of wanted to be a cop, and that was partly because of City Hunter as well. So, getting close to graduation, looking for a job, I actually ended up in the animation industry. It wasn’t to say that I thought of entering the anime industry from the very beginning.
Tomohiko Ito: In my case, it was kind of simple in the sense that, it’s like how I’m sure many people look for jobs here. I sent cover letters to anime companies. But unlike today, where the anime industry’s much more open and very popular, and you can apply to enter the company through the company’s homepage, back then, over a decade ago, there wasn’t even much info on where the different production companies were located. So I actually had to go log research and send, like, a letter or postcard saying “I’m very interested in working for you!” So I did the actual legwork myself, and then I got accepted.
Shinichiro Kashiwada: Actually, once it became the time that I decided I wanted to enter the anime industry, just like Director Ito, I wanted to be a creator. So I decided to apply to apply to different production companies as well. And, actually, there’s a company that’s called J.C. Staff (The Slayers, Revolutionary Girl Utena), but I was there for over ten years. And even within the industry, which is a difficult industry in terms of very hard working, very competitive, J.C. Staff is known in particular for being very strict and very rigorous.
So I figured that, even though it was rigorous, that would be a good training ground for me. And I decided if I had experience there, and I could stay there a long time, then that could translate into other opportunities at other companies. So that was kind of my first step.
Tomohiko Ito: That was quite a well thought answer! (laughs) I just entered the first company that I got accepted to! I didn’t make any long-range plan of where I should apply to. I just applied to as many places as I could and took the first job offer that came to me! (laughs)
Anime Herald: What do you feel is the most importing thing that you must keep in mind when adapting a popular title like Sword Art Online?
Tomohiko Ito: Whether it be a novel, a light novel, a manga, or any other media that there’s an original work, I think definitely what we want to do is we want to come as close as possible to recreate the same feel you had in the original work in the anime as well.
For example, very specifically adapting, if there there’s a manga, just by taking each panel from the manga and making them into moving images doesn’t necessarily mean that the viewer will get the same feeling they did when the read the work. But we strive for it. I mean, we want to do that. And part of the way we do that is we try to find out, in each original work, what the kernel of that work is, and then kind of try to build upon it.
So, for example, specifically in Sword Art Online, we decided that it was really important within the series was the character’s key thought Asuna, how they meet, how they interact, and how the story progresses based on this whole development. So, I think that’s what’s important is to keep the spirit of the original but also make sure it “reads”, or can be seen in the same way that the original work was.
Shinichiro Kashiwada: And, specifically in terms of animation, whether it be a TV series or a theatrical adaptation, there’s very strict frameworks in terms of the running time, number of episodes, et cetera.
In particular, in terms of TV, in this case, Sword Art Online, they’re thirty-minute episodes, so you already have a frame of how long it is. Plus, on top of that, we decided that we were going to make a 25-episode arc. So we had to make sure we squeezed each individual story into that 30-minute frame, and the whole thing within the 25 episodes. And then, also, we wanted to keep the emotional, we had to make sure we built it up to the climax, and still also ended it in a the whole place that we wanted the viewer to feel.
So, to take something as brilliant as Sword Art Online, the original light novel, and squeeze everything into that framework is quite impossible! So it was as important as what we wanted to keep and what we wanted to focus on in the series was also what to cut. And, of course, I do hear from the fans occasionally about “Why did you cut that scene from the light novel?” But that creative decision process can be very challenging and difficult.
Anime Herald: What would you say is your greatest challenge in your roles as a producer, Kashiwada-san, or as a director, Ito-san?
Shinichiro Kashiwada: I’ve been in the industry for over ten years, but frankly, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I haven’t yet produced an anime series in the genre that I really want to make, which is actually hard-boiled drama. Partly because, it’s a little tricky, how should I put this? The sales figures for such genre may not be that good. But of course, everything that I’ve already handled, like I said in that earlier question, I want to make something that’s enjoyable to others. And I think that’s maybe the challenge is that, in this company, as a producer, I can’t just think of myself. I always have to think about how others will perceive of what I’m producing. In this case, because it’s animation, the viewer. So having to having to always think outside of just my own needs, I think, is a challenge but also what’s very enjoyable.
Tomohiko Ito: So you want to make something like City Hunter? (laughs)
Shinichiro Kashiwada: Yeah! (laughs)
Anime Herald: I’d love to see it! (laughs)
Tomohiko Ito: In terms of a very simple answer to your question, the biggest challenge is to stay on schedule.
And, in terms of a more regular answer, like a day-to-day answer, the challenge is to, for me to be able to create an anime that could be enjoyed by any age. But my dream is to make a theatrical release that will win an Academy Award, and I can go to the Oscars! (laughs) You have to be able to say your dream in order to even make it possible that it will come true. So, that was my statement!
Anime Herald: You both have a list of impressive, incredible titles in your resumes. What would you say was your favorite to work on, and why?
Tomohiko Ito: Well, I should say that there’s a saying among directors that one’s newest work is always one’s best work. So, in my case, my favorite, and my best would have to be Sword Art Online. (laughs) There are plenty of titles that I’ve worked on that were quite difficult, that were painful! (laughs)
Shinichiro Kashiwada: The short answer to that is just like, as the director said, it would probably have to be Sword Art Online. It was a lot of fun to make, and I think it’s quite a distinctive representative work for me.
But just prior to that, I also worked on a title called [A Certain Scientific] Railgun at J.C. [Staff] and in a very different way, like I’ve mentioned before with Sword Art Online, how I was blessed by the presence of Director Ito and the other staff that I was able to assemble for that. The director of Railgun, Tatsuyuki Nagai , I had a lot of fun working with him. It was a very enjoyable experience, and I don’t think it’s possible to necessarily make something good if everything went smoothly. It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of rigorous experience to make something good. But it was fun! It was definitely a fun experience.
Anime Herald: Is there a manga or light novel title that either of you would personally just love to adapt looking forward?
Shinichiro Kashiwada: Actually, in my case, of course there are existing books, series, manga, that I would love to product, not just original. But, right now, I’d say that one thing that I’d love to do is there’s unique challenges to making an original anime, because you have to start from scratch. Whether it’s the character designer, there’s no obvious author so we have to writer, and so forth. Unlike Sword Art Online where, like I said before, there were already 100,000 copies per volume sold before we even made the anime, with the popularity of Sword Art Online, Director Ito also kind of gained a lot of acclaim. So my personal project would be a totally original anime with director Ito!
Tomohiko Ito: I, myself, would say that personally, my pet project would be to work on an original anime, whether it be series or film. But because I get this question so much, I usually have to think of an answer!
The only problem is most of the manga that I like are not ones that are very popular, or at least don’t sell a lot of copies. So whenever I mention something, everybody’s like “No, but that wouldn’t really sell well!” (laughs) I like rather low-key manga.