Guin Saga : Interview with Director Atsushi Wakabayashi (Part 2)

The following interview was originally posted as special interview on

© 2019 Wave Motion Cannon

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wakabayashiProfile: Born in 1964. Became an animator after joining Tatsunoko Anime Technique Laboratory. He then worked for Studio Pierrot on several shows like Yu Yu Hakusho (animation director) or NARUTO (episode director).

Part 1 | Part 2

Currently, fantasy novels like Lord of the Rings and Narnia are being turned into live-action films. It seems like the public’s acceptance of fantasy is much greater than it was when the original Guin Saga novels first started to appear.

Yes, I also have the impression that more than back then, we’ve settled into an era where you can do heroic fantasy films.

But basically, for me it’s not so important whether Guin Saga is ‘heroic fantasy’ or not. The main thing is that the characters and drama are compelling. Making an anime that can go head-to-head with epics like Lord of the Rings or Narnia – that’s not really what I’m thinking about at all. I just want to portray human drama.

It’s the same in terms of visuals. I’m not hung up on that western fantasy style. I want to create something with a fresh look. For Guin Saga, I think the look and feel of Asian films, like those of Zhang Yimou [TN: Chinese director known for his films like Red Sorghum and Hero], is a better fit. Rings and Narnia are extremely well-made films, but in my opinion, they can’t win against the look of Asian movies. I feel if you aim for a vivid, anime-like look, you can one-up western fantasy.

What Zhang Yimou films do you have in mind?

House of Flying Daggers and Hero, for example. The colors, for instance, or the way the characters move – he has an intuition western people don’t. Just recently, [Yimou’s] opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics was amazing. I thought to myself, “this is like Mongolian warfare” (laughs). Yimou’s works make the audience think, “is it really okay to push things this far?” It’s the same with animation: if you’re not taking risks trying to shock and impress people, you’re not pushing the medium forward.

The costumes and such in Guin Saga are portrayed in quite a lot of detail on the covers of the novels.

I’ve been referring them quite a lot. Just as [Yoshitaka] Amano has his own particular colors and compositions, all four illustrators have their unique own takes on the material. But in addition to referencing the covers, I’m also adding original elements to the anime.

How will you portray Guin, and especially his leopard mask, in anime form?

As far as Guin goes, the illustrations are really firmly planted in the minds of a lot of the readership, so the first time they see the anime, it’s possible they’ll feel something is a little off. Not only because of the way anime cels are painted: the appearance is also totally different. I feel like no matter how you do Guin in anime, people will say “this is wrong” (laughs). Actually, for the anime version of Guin, we’ve put a lot of weight on hand-to-hand combat. In the original, he uses a sword a lot.

In the novels, he does do a lot of cutting and stabbing, doesn’t he?

It’s certainly possible to copy that straight to animation, but it does come out a bit grotesque. We wondered if that was okay for our high-minded hero to do. When we gave hand-to-hand combat a shot, that fishy feeling went away and it worked well. We were able to see a kinder version of Guin.

What about characters other than Guin? There are quite a number of principal characters.

There are a lot indeed. I think there are two directions you can take when adapting a story with many characters. One is to introduce each player in detail one-by-one, and the other is to start with the group and pinpoint everyone over time. I chose the latter method, with everyone introduced at first simply as a kind of large chunk. With Guin Saga, if you spend too much time fixated on every character’s individual particularities, the whole thing will collapse under its own weight.

Will the anime introduce new characters, or will you stick with ones from the original?

wakabayashi atsushiWe’ll basically stick to the original. However, there are restrictions, so some characters appear earlier than they do in the novels. We are doing things like that. Of course, the original series is extremely long, so you can’t adapt to anime as-is. But there’s definitely a way to properly adapt it, and it’s our job as professionals to figure that out. We’re making a smart, slimmed-down version. We’re attempting to avoid making it feel like an awkward compilation, so I think even fans of the original will accept and enjoy it.

On the other hands, there are people who haven’t read the novels, who will be getting their first taste of Guin Saga through the anime.

That’s right. I definitely want those folks to see how cool Guin is. He’s that kind of old-school hero that arrives just in the nick of time. When you’re about to give up, he always lends a hand. I think that type of hero is rare in modern anime.

Recent anime features a lot of twisted, complicated heroes. It’s harder to have a simple, cool adult these days.

Exactly. But it works with Guin. The reason is the leopard mask. It hides all his emotions, so he becomes a mystery, right? I don’t think viewers are able to accept the same from characters whose faces are visible. It might be because you can see the hypocrisy on their faces.

If you think about it like that, that concept might have the same roots as old masked superhero shows.

I think the idea is the same. Kamen Rider feels like a hero because he’s wearing that mask. It’s like in Noh. That might be a unique Japanese perspective not found in the west.

I think of that mask as something that prevents Guin from showing his emotions. Instead, I think we should show his anger and sadness through his actions and dialogue, through the way we compose scenes. That’s the real pleasure of being a director.

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*Interview by Izumi Murakami

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