Sakuracon 2023: Hisashi Kagawa Interview

Sakuracon 2023 - Hisashi Kawaga Interview

By Lisa Su & Sean Cruz
Transcribed by Lisa Su
Edited by Lisa Su & Sean Cruz

Japan-A-Radio was part of a round table interview interviewing veteran animation director & character designer Hisashi Kagawa Saturday morning during Sakura-Con 2023.

Q: You've done a lot of work on Sailor Moon and most of that included character design work. How do you go about designing a character?

A: I didn't do the character designs for the original Sailor Moon [animated TV] series, but I did do the character designs for the Sailor Moon S and SS movies. The approach I took was that I added something new and of my own color for the character designs from the original TV series.

Q: From Sailor Moon to Pretty Cure, the definition of cute has changed with time. How do you keep up with the trend of what is considered cute?

A: Indeed, around 30 years ago in Japan, there was a trend of adapting shojo manga into animation. I think it was already an ongoing trend before Sailor Moon. Sailor Moon certainly wasn't the first anime to be adapted from a shojo manga; it was a part of that trend.

Sailor Moon had started out as a shojo manga and when it was turned into an animation, the director Junichi Sato incorporated comedy and other elements, such as movement, into it that I think became the new definition of kawaii at that point in time.

Of course, it's been 30 years since then, and 15 years ago, I did the designs for PreCure. I tried to bridge the cuteness between it and Sailor Moon while also bringing in something new. The cuteness in PreCure was a different approach. This might be kind of negative-sounding, but I wanted to put in a little more crudeness and realism in terms of the head-to-body proportions. They're girls but also good fighters — and that was fresh and new for PreCure.

And now it's been another 15 years since then, and I think the definition of kawaii and the approach that people take to it changes every year. For me personally, I just try to create something new every year. Animation, as an art form, has the ability to incorporate cuteness into the performance and emotions. You can emphasize the cuteness via still images or moving pictures, and the expression differs by the approach taken. You have to conform to the medium... And you have to consider what kind of voice the character has, and their appearance and movements.

These things are only possible via animation. The eternal and unchanging part of it is what each particular era views as cute, so I think it's an ongoing challenge that changes with the medium.

Q: You've worked on the Toriko X One Piece X Dragon Ball Z special. How difficult was it to work on different characters from three different shows?

A: I was the overall animation director for the Toriko portion. There were other animation directors for One Piece, and the Dragon Ball Z staff handled the DBZ portion. At the time, we already had a very tight schedule for just Toriko. We'd already previously known it would be a joint project between Toriko and One Piece, but at the same time it was, like, "Boy, it's hard enough finishing Toriko, are we really going to be able to do this with the One Piece collaboration?" But the project had already begun, so we had no choice but to do our best. I'm not quite sure how the One Piece or Dragon Ball Z teams felt about it.

[Two other Chief Animation Directors were credited for the special, Takeo Ide and Kazuya Hisada.]

For me, I think the hardest part was working on the scenario, story, and storyboards, and balancing the main characters from big titles like Dragon Ball Z and One Piece, and also Toriko, all from Shueisha's Shonen Jump anime projects. Striking the balance between everything was the hardest part.

Q: You were credited as an animation director for Sailor Moon S. What's the difference, on average, between doing character design and being an animation director in Sailor Moon and other works as well?

A: Yes, for example, when I did character designs in Sailor Moon... The original Sailor Moon series was created by Naoko Takeuchi-sensei, but, that said, there are the original stories that we did for the Sailor Moon movies. It's not the same as creating from nothing since you have the original work for referencing, but you have to think about how to animate it and how to bring the characters to life, even if they're someone else's creations.

As you might expect, I feel it's easier to work based on existing IP. When I'm the animation director and I have an original work like Sailor Moon, I don't need to create characters from scratch, as opposed to when I'm acting as the character designer.

Contrast that with PreCure, which is owned by Bandai, and they did give us something to work with. They said, "We want to have actual toys that can exist and wear these costumes," so I had that to reference. But I had to think about how to animate these characters and bring them to life through animation.

Every year, we change the character images and I try to bring my own original character designs to the table, which I think is more fun, even though it is a challenge. I don't consider myself the sole character designer of PreCure, but I do feel like I'm one of the parents of PreCure. It's a collaboration and I feel like I've made my own original contributions to it.


A: ...Can I add something else?

Q: Sure!

A: To give you some more background on PreCure, there were supposed to be 4 characters in [Fresh] PreCure. Bandai initially only gave us the costume designs and references for 3 of those characters and they were basically just the general colors and palettes. So, from our end, we adjusted things like the sleeves, lengths, and fullness of the clothing. We created unique silhouettes for the anime designs. We also had a lot of freedom in customizing the hairstyles. No references at all existed from Bandai for the 4th character, so that character was completely our own original design.

A: Oh, can I add one more thing? I keep recalling things...

Q: Go ahead!

A: In a departure from 'cute' titles targeted toward girls such as Sailor Moon and PreCure, I thought I'd also talk about Tiger Mask W, a pro-wrestling anime that I did design work for. It's based on a fairly old anime from around 50 years ago with a pro-wrestling setting and adapted from the original manga. Tiger Mask W is not a remake but rather a reimagining set in the modern era.

The characters are based on the original characters from an old anime, but we brought them into the present day and it was a lot of fun creating these characters. While we didn't make them in the likeness of actual, contemporary pro-wrestlers, we took inspiration from them, used them as the base concept, and incorporated elements of these wrestlers into our character designs for Tiger Mask W. It was a really fun job!

Q: You've worked on a lot of the scenes for Sailor Jupiter in Sailor Moon. Sailor Moon and PreCure are known for their action heroines who engage in more physical fighting than just waving a magical wand. What do you keep in mind when you're designing for characters who have more physical movement?

A: Maybe not so much in Sailor Moon, but for PreCure, the heroines have these battles where they are punching and fighting and there's a lot of physical combat. Whereas Sailor Moon is more about the characters using special attacks involving fire and water to defeat enemies, along with lots of dramatic poses.

For the actual fight scenes, I'm inspired by action movies, such as Chinese and martial arts movies, that have cool or interesting battle scenes featuring ladies. When it comes time to create action scenes, I don't incorporate these movies directly into my work, but I recall them and elements from them end up there.

Q: I want to ask about Angelic Layer. How was it, working on that show? Were you disappointed that it wasn't longer?

A: I wasn't involved for very long with it... I've had a long career, including projects that I was with for a long time as a character designer or animation director. I tend to remember those better than the ones where I maybe just did some key art or worked on for shorter periods. It's not that I don't remember them (I do remember Angelic Layer!), it's just that I recall some works better because I was involved with them for much longer. Sorry!

Q: How did you originally get into animation and character design?

A: As a young boy, I watched a lot of shonen and robot anime. I also had an elder sister by 2 years who liked shojo manga and watched shojo anime, so I was influenced by her as well. I also liked drawing. As for how I joined the animation industry, I was inspired by Mobile Suit Gundam and the designer Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, who created amazing, fluid animations of robots. I realized that I wanted to do this as my job and join that world. I had no expectations whatsoever that I'd become a character designer; I didn't think that'd even be possible at all. I just wanted to be a part of the industry and that's how it happened.

Q: I recall that you'd asked Junichi Hayama to join Tiger Mask W as the action animation director. Anybody who's seen Tiger Mask W knows how impressive its action sequences are. Was there something particular about his animation style that compelled you to call him in as the action animation director?

A: I was the animation director for Tiger Mask W. There are 2 components to directing animation: the presentation and animation of characters, and the action and action control component.

When I was working on Tiger Mask W, I had to ask myself if I had the power to do both at the same time—no, it would've been impossible. Luckily, I knew Junichi Hayama-san. We're the same age and we knew each other well. He'd worked on Fist of the North Star, which had lots of action and very muscular characters. I went to Hayama-san, who I trusted, because I definitely needed him. I was grateful for his help.

*Our interview with Junichi Hayama can be read here.

Q: How much freedom do you have in creating characters and story content for pre-established series, such as Sailor Moon and Dragon Quest?

A: For Dragon Quest: The Adventure of Dai, Emiko Miyamoto-san was the character designer and animation director. I was the overall animation director.

When working on a project based on original work, I think the most important thing is not to break the original vision and atmosphere. At the same time, we need to make it easy to animate while expressing something new through animation. It wouldn't make sense to replicate a manga's character expressions frame-for-frame in the anime, because we can show characters from above and below through a wide range of camera angles, which would be impossible in manga. We have to design the characters in a way that takes advantage of the unique aspects of animation without ruining the original atmosphere or appeal of the manga. We want to make it just as good or better than the original work. It's a balancing act, in a sense.

A: Can I add something? Just a little more... We also need to add details that may have never been shown in the original manga but might show up in the anime, like what the bottoms of a character's shoes look like, or close-up shots of the hands, for the animation team to reference. So we do get to add all these kinds of details.

Q: What was your favorite project that you have worked on?

A: I really can't decide on just one. I really have an attachment and affection for all of them.

Q: Like a father for his kids.

A: When I'm in the middle of a project, it's filled with difficulties and suffering, but over time I forget about the hard times and all I recall are the good memories. So it makes it hard to remember what was my favorite project. I have good memories of all of them.

Q: Some people, even overseas, are aware of the working conditions at Toei Animation. Fans are worried about the health and well-being of the animators in the industry. How are the animators in Japan coping with the situation, considering how even more demanding and stressful the industry is nowadays?

A: Even within Toei Animation, there are various kinds of people with their own situations, so I can't really paint them all with the same brush and I can't speak for every animator. I can only really speak about my own bubble and experience.

You have independent contractors, company employees, and freelancers. There are relatively few trusted animators out there, so they tend to have stronger negotiating powers for better compensation and more freedom to choose which projects they work on. At the same time, they have to keep developing their skills so that they can negotiate for that fairer compensation, and they have to decide if they want to go freelance or the stability of being an in-house animator at a company.

I think, for myself, I value my freedom.

Q: In terms of your experiences, what do you think can be improved about the working conditions within the animation industry?

A: I think the most important thing (that there is too little of) is the opportunity to pass on the art, skills, and techniques of the trade—in particular, the subtle and detail techniques. I think it may be difficult without opportunities for people to teach and learn.

For example, you have a movie with different parts and you have to address questions and challenges that arise on a case-by-case basis. You have to be there by coaching and helping people learn. I think that's what we're the most in need of, more opportunities to pass on these techniques to the next generation.

A: My apologies for my long-winded answers and how I had to share additional things that came across my mind while I talked. It probably made things more confusing, sorry. I don't know if I got my points across very well, but thank you all for coming.

[Light laughter]