Interview location: Hikarigaoka, Tokyo
Interviewer: Yuichiro Oguro
Organized by Oguro, et al.
We sat down with director Akiyuki Shinbo to discuss his unique OVA series Le Portrait de Petit Cossette. Given that it was neither an adaptation nor a supplement for a TV series, Le Portrait de Petit Cossette is a genuinely original anime. Let’s kick things off by discussing how the OVA came to be.
PROFILE: AKIYUKI SHINBO
Born 27th September 1961. Grew up in Fukushima. Blood type O. After graduating from high school, he attended Tokyo Designer Gakuin College and entered the anime industry. He joined a certain production company and entered Studio One Pattern. After being involved with numerous projects as an animator, he debuted as an episode director in Musashi, The Samurai Lord.
He worked heavily on Yu Yu Hakusho, consistently producing work of distinctive craftsmanship. Upon being recognized for his talents, he was quickly assigned the role of series director for Metal Fighter Miku. He has since directed various OVAs and TV series. His representative works are Hurricane Polymar, Starship Girl Yamamoto Yohko, Tenamonya Voyagers, and The SoulTaker. Last year, he was the series director for three projects: Tsukuyomi: Moon Phase, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, and Le Portrait de Petit Cossette. He’s a busy man.
Oguro: When it comes to an anime as experimental as Le Portrait de Petit Cossette, “unique” is a better description than “masterpiece,” I think.
Shinbo: (chuckles wryly)
Oguro: Even though the anime is only three episodes long, it seems that hardly anyone’s been watching it, don’t you think? (To the producer Masatoshi Fujimoto, who is sitting with them) I shouldn’t bring that up, huh?
Fujimoto: No, it’s fine. Shinbo also directed Tsukuyomi, which is selling very well, but Cossette’s numbers aren’t quite matching up.
Shinbo: I’m sure you’re thinking, “Oh yeah, why’s that?” (laughs)
Oguro: Yeah, it’s not like you’re doing anything different.
Shinbo: Yeah. It’s no different.
Oguro: There’s an older man and a young girl, and something mysterious happens to them. It’s the same story, broadly speaking.
Shinbo: The structure isn’t too different. Tsukuyomi also mentions things like “a pact of blood” and the like. It occurred to me that they have a lot in common.
Oguro: So when did the basic concept planning start? What was the project where it all began?
Shinbo: It started when I met up with Fujimoto-san. That was around the time I was working on Starship Girl Yamamoto Yohko.
Fujimoto: We met at J.C. Staff. That was quite a while ago, huh?
Shinbo: I got a sudden phone call from you. (laughs) The first time we met was at a café in Oizumi.
Fujimoto: Yep. I said, “Do some directing for me.”
Shinbo: The project we came up with back then got rejected. But afterward, you asked me to come up with a proposal for an anime again. You were always coming up with plans for detective stories. Is that right?
Fujimoto: No, there were various things I had in mind. Wasn’t I going to do something with Tatsunoko at first?
Oguro: Fujimoto-san, what made you seek out Shinbo-san?
Fujimoto: I was looking around, wondering if there were any unusual directors.
Shinbo: (chuckles wryly)
Fujimoto: I was looking for the next up-and-coming auteur. Like Shinbo-san, I had only just entered the anime world at that time. Then I saw Neon Genesis Evangelion and thought, “Ahh, so there are auteurs like this in the anime business. Okay then, I’ll look for the next Anno-san.” I watched many different anime and realized that Shinbo-san was doing some novel things with the directing. “Ah, he’s interesting,” I thought. “I kinda want him to direct a series with me.”
Oguro: What work of his were you watching at the time?
Fujimoto: The Yohko OVA. After that, I watched some of his other works in their entirety, like Metal Fighter Miku. And then, when I met the man himself, he told me, “I want you to watch this episode of Yu Yu Hakusho.” So I watched things like that as well. It made me think, “Yep, this guy’s the only one for the job.”
Oguro: He must have asked you to watch the episode about the doctor’s territory (episode 74: “Sleep, Doctor, Sleep”), right?
Fujimoto: That’s right. It was very memorable.
Oguro: So he did ask you to watch that, huh?
Shinbo: Oh? Did I say that to you?
Fujimoto: You did.
Shinbo: Hmm, did I say that…? I don’t remember (laughs).
Fujimoto: Back then, we planned to do a remake of Devilman, or something along those lines. Unfortunately, it never quite came together. What we did eventually put together was Cossette.
Oguro: So then, you planned to make an anime that showcased Shinbo as an auteur right from the very beginning.
Fujimoto: Precisely. That’s why I knew it would turn out like this.
Oguro: Ah, so that’s one mystery solved. Ever since I watched the first installment, I’d been wondering just how that project got off the ground.
Fujimoto: Right from the very beginning, we never really thought about the commercial side of the project.
Oguro: Where did the goth loli come from?
Shinbo: Fujimoto-san and the others told me to put the goth loli in. They said, “From now on, we’re doing a goth loli anime,” and I was like, “Oh, okay.”
Fujimoto: It was a dark story with occult elements, so I figured that Shinbo-san would like it. Shinbo was the one who was saying he wanted to do an original anime with a dark hero theme in the first place. But before we could do that, he did The SoulTaker, right? So I thought, “We’ve got to do something completely different.”
Oguro: So when you watched SoulTaker, you found yourself thinking, “They got us!”?
Fujimoto: Yeah, I did. But you can’t really understand what’s going on when you watch SoulTaker, so I said we should go for something with a slightly simpler story but with similar visuals.
▲ From The SoulTaker, Shinbo’s representative work as a director
Oguro: That may be where the concept of Cossette started, but the final product is definitely not easy to understand. How did that happen?
Fujimoto: As we were making it, we gradually added more stuff to it. “This happens, and then this happens. Okay, got it.” That’s how it went. That might be why it ended up being somewhat opaque.
Oguro: I see. So you put too many things into it and lost perspective?
Fujimoto: Something like that. We didn’t stray from the plan’s intent, but we might have gone a little overboard.
Oguro: Oh no. This is becoming a postmortem session!
Oguro: I’ll go back to asking questions for Shinbo-san. Cossette is a completely unadulterated work of animation. I thought, “So this is what happens when
Shinbo-san goes all out!”
Shinbo: You think so? I have no way of knowing that myself.
Oguro: In terms of auteurship, it feels close to the first episode of SoulTaker.
Shinbo: Well, yes, but in that case I was actively trying to make something out of the norm. I thought I could do something a bit more out there. Now that they’re both finished, I can’t tell how similar they are myself. But if we’re talking about the physical circumstances I was in when I poured my energy into them, Cossette was the first time I storyboarded and directed everything in a three-episode-long series.
Oguro: How did you manage with Hurricane Polymar?
Shinbo: Polymar was close to that, I suppose. But that was two episodes long, and I got other people to do the storyboards. Between those three projects, Cossette was the only one I poured so much time into. That was a first.
Oguro: So you weren’t just the series director; you directed every individual episode well? (TL Note: Literally, “You handled all the enshutsu too?”)
Oguro: Then it’s pure, 100% Shinbo directing.
Shinbo: Indeed. But now that everything’s digital, I can’t do everything I want to. The system has pretty much changed entirely, and I’ve gotten quite a lot of help from those around me.
Oguro: This was the first project where you took the initiative in using digital technology, wasn’t it?
Shinbo: For the things I directed myself, yes. That’s why I had no clue about what I was doing. People told me things like, “It’s okay if you draw this in large-scale,” and I would think, “Oh, I had no idea.” (laughs) I was totally out of my element.
Oguro: When you say, “Draw in large-scale,” are you talking about the individual parts?
Shinbo: Yep. They told me, “You can draw it large and then scale it down to a smaller size.” I was like, “Huh? Really?” (laughs) The animation director (Hirofumi) Suzuki-san was more knowledgeable about it, so he was quite a help to me. Suzuki-san was also doing the 3D compositing and effects, you see. (TL note: Literally satsuei, which is often translated in the credits as “photography.”) Suzuki-san might have poured more effort into this project than I did.
▲ From Le Portrait de Petit Cossette, the latest anime directed by Shinbo
Oguro: I’m sure that’s not true. Anyway, I just want to return to the topic of how the anime’s concept came to be for a bit. I take it that the producers suggested the horror and goth loli elements.
Shinbo: No, they only asked that there be a goth loli.
Oguro: So the horror component was added later?
Shinbo: That’s right. I didn’t intend to make it a horror story either. I wanted to make it a fantastical story. I thought that the fantasy would break down if horror elements were included. Instead of being a fantasy, I suppose it would be an “atmospheric” story. When you’re making an atmosphere-driven anime, it won’t work if you make it too straightforward. So when I started, I tried not to make things go that way. It only turned out that way in the end (laughs), you could say.
Oguro: Why was that?
Shinbo: Things just happened to go in that direction. I was mentally resisting the horror elements when I was drawing the storyboards, trying to avoid as many of them as I could, though. (laughs)
Oguro: Were those elements in the script the whole time?
Shinbo: Yeah, they were. Indeed they were.
Oguro: The boy protagonist is drawn to a girl who shouldn’t exist and is ensnared by her. It was that kind of story right from the early stages, right?
Shinbo: Yeah, it was.
Oguro: So around when was that decided? After the scriptwriter joined the team?
Shinbo: No, the scriptwriter (Mayori) Sekijima-san joined the team when the initial plan was being hammered out. The outline of the story was more or less decided from the planning stage, but at the time, I wanted to spend a bit more time depicting the life of that girl in the glass.
Oguro: Oh, I get what you mean. They do encounter each other rather abruptly.
Shinbo: Yeah. I wanted to draw people gradually into the story with a deft touch, but it didn’t quite happen that way. Remember the scene halfway through the first episode where the protagonist sees illusions? When the skulls appear and such? When I watch it now, I think it feels kind of out of place. (chuckles wryly)
Oguro: Was the scene where blood gushes out of the protagonist’s chest part of your initial vision?
Oguro: So it wasn’t, huh? It came out that way while you were doing it?
Shinbo: (laughs) Yeah. That was the end result.
Oguro: Doesn’t the protagonist turn into a monster at the end of the first episode?
Shinbo: To be honest with you, I didn’t want to make him transform either.
Oguro: How was it in the script?
Shinbo: It was in the script. But instead of that, I actually wanted to do something like that scene in The Exorcist, the one where the priest is performing the exorcism.
Oguro: Yes, I see where you’re coming from.
Shinbo: I wanted to do that kind of scene. Instead of him outright turning into a monster, I wanted him to feel like it was happening to him. But I did some thinking, and it crossed my mind that a flashy transformation scene would work better for an anime. (laughs)
Oguro: The anime has monsters, but it might have gone in a different direction, you mean?
Shinbo: Yeah. But being able to create a scene like that was one of the payoffs of making this kind of anime, so I’ll take it. (laughs) Still, I do worry that the anime is all over the place. I can’t judge myself whether it’s good or bad.
Oguro: I believe that after episode 1 was finished, episodes 2 and 3 took quite a while to produce. Did the story’s plan change after you began work on episode 1?
Shinbo: When we were making episode 1, we finished writing the third script. I suppose it was back then when we decided that it would end up the way it did. But at first, we deliberated on whether to make the three OVAs part of one story, or whether to have each OVA tell a separate story. I don’t know which choice was better.
Oguro: Broadly speaking, the three scripts cover the slice of life scene in the first half, the climactic illusion scene, and the subsequent rush of eccentric plot developments, I suppose?
Shinbo: Yeah. Because the video covered three scripts, it would take a while before the next installment was released. Because of that, I thought of using an episodic format. That said, we might have launched an episode once every other month, for instance, or tell a single overarching story if it were a TV serial. It was quite a long thing to make. (chuckles wryly) It felt like the second installment took forever.
Oguro: It appears to me that the first installment was the most time-consuming, though.
Shinbo: Yeah. The first episode took the longest amount of time.
Oguro: Were the hydrangeas that appeared before the title credits in the first episode drawn using CG?
Shinbo: Those were based on photographs.
Oguro: So they were processed from photos? Speaking of which, was the town after that done the same way?
Shinbo: Yes, they were.
Oguro: Is that town located in Asagaya?
Shinbo: Yep, that’s right. (laughs)
Oguro: The store that the protagonist works in was hand-drawn by the background art studio, I take it.
Shinbo: That’s right. Because I simply asked the background art studio to handle all the photo processing, I’d say that those images don’t look particularly out of place.
Oguro: You probably weren’t able to accomplish that sort of thing until now, I suppose. What made you use photos?
Shinbo: We had trouble with the layouts.
Oguro: (laughs) Whoa, there’s such a thing as being too honest.
Shinbo: But that’s how it is. If we draw it from scratch it takes up so much time to wrap it up. In this anime, the backgrounds only tell you about the location, so there was no particular need for us to fuss over their significance. Other than the antique store, we just needed to create a stack of cuts in order to convey the atmosphere. That’s the solution we came up with.
Oguro: But wasn’t it an aim of yours to create an array of impressive set pieces?
Shinbo: No. If anything, I thought: “We’ll start with the ordinary life at first.” I figured that would make it easier for the viewers to watch. If I were to begin with an unusual setting, people wouldn’t be able to follow it. That was why I put that scene in. Basically, the parts where the protagonist runs across the town and goes into his own room in the antique store all take place in reality. And if this were reality, then wouldn’t it be better to use photos? That was my reasoning behind the directorial decisions.
Oguro: I see. Putting the story aside, what’s the reasoning behind the overall visual direction? No matter how much you enlarge it, the visuals look gorgeous, don’t they? I suppose it’s the kind of anime that’s “made for the big screen,” relatively speaking.
Shinbo: Indeed it is. I did that consciously. I want to make a screen even wider than the VistaVision size.
Oguro: My monitor’s tiny. When I first watched episode 1, I thought, “Whoa, I don’t know what the heck’s going on here!” (laughs) It occurred to me that I had to watch it on a bigger screen.
Shinbo: But it might be enough to watch it on a 30-inch screen. This occurred to me during the sound mixing sessions as well, but you can catch a surprising amount on a large monitor. I intended to restrict the level of detail on the screen, but there’s a surprising amount of it. That’s the power of our animation director Suzuki-san for you.
That’s all for now – check back for Part 2 in the coming days!