The following article was originally published in the May 2017 issue of Febri. The interview has been translated by Tumblr user Tora © 2017 Wave Motion Cannon
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A long interview where she looks back on her career, from Yuri on Ice to Michiko to Hatchin
Yuri on Ice, whose theme is figure skating, was the most popular anime this winter. Its director, Sayo Yamamoto, is a skilled director who attracted the attention of many professionals right after she stepped into the anime industry. What did Yamamoto think and what path did she walk before she found success with Yuri? We have asked her to look back on her career until now.
Born in Tokyo prefecture. After graduating from university she joined MADHOUSE. After working as production assistant, she debuted as series director on TRAVA FIST PLANET, directed by Katsuhito Ishii and Takeshi Koike. After leaving MADHOUSE she worked as a freelance series director, and in 2007 she debuted as director with the TV anime Michiko to Hatchin.
—Today we would like to take a look at your career so far. First of all, I would like to ask you about your childhood. Did you use to watch anime?
I used to watch a lot of anime when I was a little kid, but I stopped almost completely in middle school. During high school I was never home so I didn’t watch TV in the first place. However, when I was enrolled at University of Arts many people around me were anime fans, so I also started to watch some. Still, I used to watch more movies than anime.
—What were your favorite movies at the time?
I used to watch many different things, but I especially liked Asian movies. I loved the works of director Edward Yang. His movie A Brighter Summer Day is having a revival screening right now. I liked his works so much that I transferred the audio from the satellite broadcast recording to an MD and listened to it repeatedly.
—That sounds quite geeky (laughs).
I also did things like creating videos of the sword fight from director Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo watching still pictures of the movie.
—So you already had a talent, an affinity, when you were a student. I know that you joined the anime studio MADHOUSE after graduating from university, but if I’m not wrong that period was right in the middle of the ice age of employment.
Most people couldn’t find a job. I think 2/3 of the students in my same academic year didn’t get a job. Many students who graduate from University of Arts usually just drift aimlessly because they want to continue creating their works. But I didn’t think I was suited to become an author, so I felt that I had to get a job. And I was carelessly convinced that it would be easy to find something in the anime industry. Looking back on it now, I was definitely taking it too lightly. (laughs)
—Didn’t you ever consider the possibility of finding a job in the movie or drama industry?
Beside the fact that I liked animated pictures, I also believed that in the case of live-action movies you needed to communicate with people to create everything, and I thought I wouldn’t be able to do something like give instructions to someone for every single thing that composed the screen. Well, turns out that in the end creating anime was exactly the same…
—Ahahah. Why did you choose MADHOUSE out of all the possible production companies?
Back then the internet wasn’t as widespread as it is now, so I didn’t have the contact information of all companies. I looked up what I could on the yellow pages I had at home. At that time MADHOUSE was working on Trigun directed by (Satoshi) Nishimura-san and clearly stated that they were looking for “rookies”. I thought that if they were so eager to try something new maybe they would accept me.
—You joined MADHOUSE as a production assistant in 2000. The following year you were already in charge of your first storyboard for X…
No, actually the first time I wrote a storyboard wasn’t for X. X was the first time I did it for a TV series, but the year I joined the company I worked in the creation of a movie for SMAP’s concert, with character design by Takeshi Koike and art direction by Hideyuki Tanaka. In this job there were basically none of my superiors and I was supposed to be in charge of production. However, Tanaka-san used to work for live-action movies and couldn’t draw the storyboard for an anime, so I made a clean copy of his notes, and that was my first storyboard.
—So you already did that kind of job right after you joined the company.
In MADHOUSE people who aspired to be a series director were made to work as production assistants first of all, but I wasn’t suited for that at all (laughs). I wanted to try direction as soon as I had the chance, and I believed that I wouldn’t get any possibilities if I didn’t clearly state what I was able to do. Also, at that time MADHOUSE had something called “Mad Magazine”, originally devised by (the CEO Masao) Maruyama-san. It had a corner called “Conte Battle” in which aspiring series directors would write a storyboard based on a given theme and directors would correct it. Back then, people such as Tetsurou Araki and Takayuki Hirao, who were my seniors as production assistants, all participated in that corner. I had just joined the company, but was told “if you want to become a series director you should try”. I started drawing a storyboard right away following the others’ examples, but I was so busy with my work as production assistant that I could only draw halfway through. However, they actually published it… And thanks to that lots of people around me understood what kind of things I wanted to create, and a few, among which Koike-san and (Yoshiaki) Kawajiri-san, told me that they liked my art. From that we talked about the fact that maybe I should have worked on settings instead of being a production assistant, and I was invited to participate in TRAVA FIST PLANET episode 1, on which Koike-san and Katsuhito Ishii-san were working together as directors.
—It’s the short film that was included in the DVD magazine Grasshoppa!, right?
If we exclude the clean copy I previously worked on, the ending of TRAVA was my first storyboard. At that time I worked on the storyboard, series direction and setting design planning in parallel with my job as a production assistant. This situation continued for about 2 years.
—What did you find interesting the first time you were involved in the production of an anime?
More than finding it interesting, I was really desperate. I started the job without having studied anything about anime, therefore I had to learn from zero. I devoted my time to looking at the storyboards written by my seniors and writing mine.
—When did you first feel a sense of fulfillment?
With the ending of TRAVA, about which I talked just earlier. When I was a student I liked a band called Mott the Hoople, and Morgan Fisher, who was their pianist, wrote the music for this work. I was very pleased because I couldn’t believe I would be able to work with someone like him! My fangirl heart was satisfied too. Also, TRAVA was created by a very small team basically consisting of Koike-san, me and the color designer… I would turn the roughs drawn by Koike-san into key animation, I did sasshutsu* (*collecting the materials needed for photography and handing them out to the photography staff) with him and when photography ended I would take the film to Tokyo Laboratory to be developed and while I was waiting for them to finish processing it I would get some sleep, then when it was processed I did the rush check myself. The flow was like that. (laughs)
—That’s very much like an independent production (laughs).
Yes, it sounds like something an arts student would do… People like (Hiroyuki) Imaishi-san and (Hiroyuki) Kitakubo-san wrote storyboards for TRAVA, and since they were different from the type of people in MADHOUSE it was very inspiring for me. I went to GAINAX to get the frames drawn by Imaishi-san, and I saw a heap of rough layouts for a part that was about 5 minutes long piled up there.
—That’s quite impressive.
It is. Seeing something like that makes you want to go over the fence surrounding your studio and work with lots of different people. I know it sounds really impertinent, but in my third year in the company I thought that if I stayed there as an employee I would never be able to choose my work and might not be able to improve. Just at that time, Shinichirou Watanabe contacted me.
—I see. I guess that’s how you started your first independent work on Samurai Champloo after leaving MADHOUSE. Your first work as a director was Michiko and Hatchin 4 years later. Did you want to work as a director from the start?
Actually I didn’t really think “I want to become a director”. However, I did want to pursue what I found interesting. I was sure that something I wanted to watch would definitely be interesting, so I wanted to make it. And the only way to gain the necessary skills to express what I wanted to was to do as much series direction as I could. Also, when I joined (the anime studio) manglobe for Champloo I was still unknown and no one trusted me, therefore I submitted lots of storyboards. The CEO (Shinichirou Kobayashi) liked one of them and said “let’s make a project for this” right away. That project was Michiko and Hatchin.
—Which means that the first draft for the project was ready in 2005?
In the end the airing of the anime was postponed to 2008, but the draft itself was ready very early. However, the original draft was created before (the scriptwriter) Takashi Ujita joined in, so it was much messier than how it turned out eventually (laughs). It wasn’t as hard-boiled and felt less like Brazil. It reminded of South America but it was Japan.
—It sounds quite different from the final product.
During my time working for MADHOUSE I was too busy and didn’t have time to watch movies. That’s probably why afterwards I started to watch all kinds of them. I used to watch lots of movies at revival houses such as Waseda Shochiku. One that heavily influenced me was City of God. That’s what brought me to watch many other Latin American movies. For movies like The Constant Gardener, which is by the same director, I would collect the DVDs, watch them via satellite broadcast or in mini theaters when they screened them.
—Why did you get so hooked to Latin American movies?
I liked the concept of ‘trifling life’. Lots of people die, but the atmosphere doesn’t get excessively dramatic. It still feels somewhat bright. I got suddenly interested in Latin America and went to Mexico in 2004 and Brazil in 2005, both for the first time. When I was there I decided that was where I wanted to set the series!
—So that’s how the atmosphere of Michiko was born.
Regarding Michiko, meeting Ujita-san was also very important. There were a few candidates when I was looking for a scriptwriter for Michiko, but all of them lacked something. I had the feeling that if I teamed up with an anime scriptwriter the project would stray from what I wanted to do, so I decided to look somewhere else. And it turned out that a person of the production staff was a classmate of Ujita-san and (Kazuyoshi) Kumakiri-san at Osaka University of Arts.
—And that’s when Ujita-san’s name came up.
I watched a few works Ujita-san had written the script for — I think it was Antenna and Seishun Kinzoku Bat (Green Mind, Metal Bats)? I was attracted by many elements in the dialogues. In Seishun Kinzoku Bat there is Eiko, a woman played by Maki Sakai, who goes wild when she gets drunk (laughs). And it wasn’t only Eiko, I liked the fact that women in general were rough.
—Is that the reason Sakai-san voiced the character Atsuko in Michiko?
Yes, that’s correct. I wanted to make Michiko a stinging series and wanted the actors to sound realistic, therefore I cast many people who normally worked in live-action movies. Ujita-san’s connections were really important, as I myself wasn’t acquainted with any actors.
—It’s a work that required a long preparation, but how did you feel when you finished it?
I still think that it has high-quality visuals. My directing skills were still under development, but the animation was high-level. It would be difficult to do the same even now. I didn’t make any compromises in Michiko.
—Looking at it now, I think that Michiko and Hatchin’s relationship has some things in common with Victor and Yuuri’s in Yuri on Ice.
That’s possible. Regarding Michiko, the CEO wanted to create an action battle anime with a woman as the protagonist. I believe it’s because he thought I was good at American comic style, since I assisted Koike-san in his works… I can draw it to an extent for work, but in fact I’m not so interested in it (laughs). I personally feel that relationships with a name, such as “lovers” and “family”, are oppressive, and I wanted to depict a bond that wasn’t restrained by a name. In this Yuri is the same. Of course if you say that they are “a coach and a student” that’s true, but…
—But you wanted to depict a relationship that would go beyond that description.
An irreplaceable bond where both care about each other. The larger concept is very similar, but I was careful about how I portrayed it.
—I will ask you about Yuri again later on. Your next work as a director was LUPIN the Third ~The Woman Called Fujiko Mine~. It was 3 years after the previous work…
Actually, right after Michiko ended, in 2009, I was creating a project for a magical girl anime. That story was also about a relationship without a name, but in the end the project was turned down. As I was thinking what to do next, I received an offer for Fujiko. (Yuu) Kiyozono, CEO of Telecom Animation Film, which has been involved in all Lupin series, contacted me because he watched Michiko and decided that he wanted to make a Lupin series with that feel. However, I didn’t think I could create a series with Lupin as the protagonist.
—Why is that so?
Because if the character of Lupin is going to be the protagonist, you would get a better product by having it directed by someone who is more attached to Lupin than me (laughs). And well, I also wasn’t very interested in creating 12 episodes of that. My favorite Lupin character is Fujiko Mine. To the point that when I was little I basically used to watch Lupin just to see Fujiko’s sexy scenes (laughs). I thought that if the theme is “I want to look at Fujiko for the whole time”, then I would be able to create that.
—Fujiko has a playwriting that dives deeper and deeper into the inner side of a woman. Also, I think the fact that memories have an important meaning is something that you have always been skilled at portraying in the works you directed.
I think the story is to be credited to (the story composer) Mari Okada. The parts such as the episode of Fujiko and her mother, that kind of dark side is something Mari-san has inside.
—In a way, the dramatic relationships between the characters are Mari Okada’s territory, and your main job as the director was to create the layout and decide how to direct it.
Fujiko is absolutely like that. If anything, my role was to incorporate the trick parts that were not written in the script by asking lots of people. Also, while we were working on the anime the Tohoku Earthquake happened, and right after that a relative of mine died. All those things made me totally unable to write a storyboard. I was emotionally devastated.
—Indeed, the Earthquake happened before the anime started airing.
Originally, in the script of episode 1, she was supposed to use a large wave as a trick in the scene where she steals the treasure from the palace. However, at that time we couldn’t depict something similar to a tsunami, therefore I had to think about another trick but couldn’t come up with anything interesting… I also wanted to include more erotic content to recreate the sensual atmosphere of the original work but couldn’t get in that mood… We went through a lot of hurdles to create that anime. And as if that’s not enough, while doing Fujiko Mine I also started to think that I wanted to create an anime about figure skating next. At the time I was working on Fujiko I was already absorbed in figure skating, it was like figure skating was my only diversion (laughs). In Fujiko there is a character called Lieutenant Oscar, and for some of his outfits I got inspiration from Johnny Weir’s costumes.
—I didn’t know that! (laughs)
I thought “after I finish Fujiko I’ll definitely make a series filled with only the things I love!”. It was also partly because I was so depressed at the time, but I thought that if you don’t do something that you really want to do from the bottom of your heart you will not understand why you’re alive.
—When did you first get into figure skating?
I was starting to get into it when I created Michiko. At that time, the skaters competing in the men’s singles were Stéphane Lambiel, Evgeni Plushenko, Johnny Weir, Jeffrey Buttle, Daisuke Takahashi… So many amazing skaters that I would never finish listing them all.
—What got you hooked?
For example, talking about the short program, the whole life of an athlete is crammed into those 2 min 50 sec. The more you watch a program the better you understand the skater’s feelings as he performs it. Every jump has a meaning, it’s really spectacular. In 2009’s exhibition Johnny Weir performed Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” with his own choreography… It was absolutely sensational and it deeply impressed me. He self-produced a completely gender-neutral exhibition and skated it with make-up on.
—He was basically expressing his own self through figure skating.
It was really amazing. He participated in the Vancouver Olympics and gave a wonderful performance, but didn’t get a very high score. That caused a storm of booing from the audience, and at that time I thought “I want to watch him perform live!”. That’s when I started rolling down the cliff…
As soon as I woke up in the morning I would look at my Instagram where I only followed figure skaters, check all the news of what happened in North America and Europe, look at Facebook, Twitter, check the TV programs. I would stay awake at night to watch matches via a live stream. Most of my everyday life was consumed by figure skating (laughs). However, even if I said that I wanted to create an anime about figure skating, I couldn’t really find anyone who would accept to work on it. People would say “it sounds difficult” or “do you mean a school anime?” (laughs). I actually wanted to depict tournaments, which is what I enjoyed watching, but people wouldn’t really understand… At the same time, it also made me realize that I was trying to create something new that no one could imagine. Most of the times someone reads your project and tells you “this is nice!” it’s because they have already seen something similar somewhere.
—When did the project actually start moving?
In 2014 I went to watch the Sochi Olympics. After the men’s short program it was too much to bear and I remember standing in the Rostelecom square. The reason is that Plushenko had a sudden accident and had to withdraw from the tournament… I thought that if I went to that square I could talk to Russian people that shared my feelings. Then my phone suddenly rang, and it was a call from a certain producer. He told me “if there is any project you want to do, we can do it together”, and I said “I want to do figure skating!”.
—You just said it (laughs).
And for the first time he listened to me in detail. He also told me that he had just received a request from TV Asahi, because they wanted a sport anime. As soon as I heard that I decided that we had to do the Grand Prix Series. I thought the Grand Prix Series was something that could be done in 12 episodes, with the last episode showing the Grand Prix Final.
—So that’s when the project for Yuri started moving. Why did you decide to commission the script (in the form of manga storyboards) to mangaka Mitsurou Kubo?
At the beginning I was planning to do it with a screenwriter, but I also thought that there was probably no one that could think about figure skating with my same feelings (laughs). Just at that time Kubo-san was hosting the radio program “All Night Nippon” together with Mineko Noumachi. I really liked it and often listened to it. Even though I was just a listener I believed that I could get along nicely with her (laughs). One day, Kubo-san talked about figure skating on the radio, and her viewpoint was interesting. I knew that she had drawn the manga storyboard that was used as the base for the script of the movie Moteki, but when I researched her personal career I found that she also had a long serialization on Weekly Shounen Magazine and I could picture her writing the script for a TV series. Another important point was that she had experience working on a series created by someone else. I reckoned that she was used to creating something together with other people.
—How was actually working with her?
Kubo-san is a person who is able to speak her mind clearly. She interprets things her own way and she says “this is like this because that is like that”. It was like that in the radio and it was the same when I actually talked to her. One of the important elements I look for in a scriptwriter is their ability to write lines with a punch line. Ujita-san and Mari (Okada)-san could do that, and I was sure that Kubo-san was skilled at it too. In fact, she was even better than I imagined.
—Indeed, Kubo-san’s lines are pretty punchy.
Yes, they’re awesome! I figured that it was better if I did the series composing, as I was used to working with the TV series format, so I restarted studying scriptwriting to write the script myself. In Yuri there were many things that I did for the first time… First of all, we must show the whole matches and at the same time we must also show drama in a short amount of time. If we didn’t organize everything in detail it wouldn’t fit.
—You have to cram both matches and drama in every 20 minute episode.
Then there are the lines you want to add. Both high directional and scriptwriting skills were required, and I still didn’t have them. There were many qualities I lacked to make what I wanted to watch, so I decided to study to fix that.
—How did you decide the full composition?
The first thing we came up with are Yuri and Victor. I came up with the setting of a skater going through a hard time, with a man who is both his hero and that he also considers a rival that becomes his coach. I decided to make the story about the two of them trying to get the gold medal in the Grand Prix Final. I also created the match list toward the beginning (she takes out the match list).
—Oh, you brought it!
It was a lot of fun (laughs). In the end, although some of the medal placements were changed, the outline was already decided at this time.
—You’re definitely a real figure skating geek (laughs). I would like to ask you something about the characters. There are various characters in Yuri. How did you create them?
In Yuri, in many cases I took inspiration from real athletes. For example, in the case of Yuuri Katsuki, a skater who normally seems to have a weak personality, lacks confidence and thinks he is psychologically weak becomes extremely competitive and feels a strong desire to monopolize the eyes of the audience, judges and all people watching the TV from all over the world. I heard about someone like that and thought it’s an interesting mental attitude. I get ideas from things like this. Yuuri had that kind of personality, but he gradually changes after meeting Victor.
I think that people like Victor are actually not so rare in the figure skating world (laughs). They don’t really care about the way people look at them, and think that it’s just natural that they get attention. They act freely and believe that if they act freely people around them will be happy. Personally, I also really like it when someone like that suddenly shows up in a story.
—Michiko in Michiko and Hatchin was just like that.
Regarding Michiko, there was a girl I liked in middle school. And she showed me a world different from what I’d ever seen before. I think it was based on that experience. The big difference in “Yuri” is that the reason Victor goes to Yuuri Katsuki’s place is something Yuuri himself created. And he does so by using the power of alcohol because normally he cannot act confident with other people… (laughs) I think it’s fair to say that we were able to create characters with an excellent balance.
—Lastly. As a fan of director Yamamoto, I am very curious about a Yuri sequel. Is there something you are thinking of doing?
When Michiko and Fujiko ended I was like “now I’m gonna have some fun!”, but this time there are still a few things I would like to do… There’s a project I suddenly came up with while doing the video editing for episode 10. It might be quite a grand thing.
—The last episode wasn’t even finished yet (laughs). So basically, there are still things you would like to do.
Yes! Beside that project, one thing I can announce now is that Yurio’s exhibition will be included as bonus footage in the last volume of the anime, and when I was thinking about how that exhibition was created I came up with a really interesting idea (LOL). Since it wasn’t possible to include that part in the footage, I decided to have Kubo-san draw that story in the all-volume purchase bonus manga. The manga and bonus footage together form the whole story! First of all, I would like you to enjoy that.
Michiko and Hatchin
Aired on Fuji TV from October 2008 to March 2009, 22 episodes in total.
The first work she directed is a road movie set in a fictional town whose concept is based on South America. The protagonists are Hana, a tough girl living with her foster parents, and Michiko, a beautiful woman of uncertain age that claims to be her mother. Dragged along by the freewheeling Michiko, Hana embarks on a dangerous trip. The unemotional playwriting recreating the atmosphere of South America exquisitely matches the rich animation.
LUPIN the Third ~Mine Fujiko to Iu Onna~
Aired on NTV from April to June 2012, 13 episodes in total.
A work created to celebrate the 40th anniversary from the airing of the original “Lupin the Third” anime. With Fujiko as the protagonist, this anime with a mature atmosphere marks the start of a series of Lupin works aimed at adults. The dramatic playwriting of scriptwriter Mari Okada, Yamamoto’s direction filled with aesthetic sense and Naruyoshi Kikuchi’s soundtrack create a fascinating mix.
Yuri on Ice
Aired on TV Asahi and BS Asahi from October to December 2016, 12 episodes in total.
Based on figure skating, which is director Yamamoto’s personal passion, this latest work of hers became widely popular during its airing. The story is about Yuuri Katsuki, a competitive figure skater going through a hard time, and Victor Nikiforov, the world’s top skater who offers to become his coach. The two aim to get the gold medal in the Grand Prix Final.