Sakura-Con 2014: Sword Art Online Press Interview

Japan-A-Radio was invited to take part in a press conference at Sakura-Con 2014 with some of the creative staff behind Sword Art Online, including Director Tomohiko Ito, Character Designer Shingo Adachi, and Aniplex Producer Shinichiro Kashiwada.


Q: What career would you have if you worked in a different field?

Tomohiko Ito (TI): I was in a seafaring school, so I would be a sailor.

Shingo Adachi (SA): I went to film school, and its not easy to become a film director after going there, I was going to look into getting work at a small TV production company as an assistant director, but as I come from the baby boom generation competition was very fierce and it didn't work out, and around that time that's when one of my sempai's recruited me into anime production. At the time I also was seeking jobs in TV production as an assistant director and also video game production with companies like Konami and Capcom but I didn't make it into any of them

Shinichiro Kashiwada (SK): I wanted to be a police officer but didn't like to study so I would have never passed any of my civil service exams. I actually studied engineering in school so I studied something that has no bearing on what I do today.

Q: Sword Art Online explains the gaming terminology pretty well, were there a lot of gamers on staff? What was it like getting used to the video game terminology?

SA: I played.. I was addicted to Final Fantasy 11, so much so that it affected my job performance... so you could say that I did all the research necessary well before working on SAO. It was my wife who scolded me and made me make the bitter return to “Real Space”. Around the time when author of SAO, Kawahara Reki was addicted to Lineage I was pretty much playing the other Korean MMO Ragnarok Online. So both of us were pretty familiar with the current online gaming lingo.

Q: This question is for Tomohiko Ito. You stated Neon Genesis Evangelion inspired to be an Anime Director. With the You (Can) Not movie series releases. What are you thoughts on the execution of the movie series?

TI: You know me well (laughs). Once you become a pro in the anime industry its hard to watch anime from a fan's perspective, that being said Evangelion is one of those shows I like to watch as a fan. I don't really look at how its changed between the old Evangelion and the new mobies.

Q: What challenges were there in adapting a story that was originally self-published online vs adapting an already established title from a manga, video game or light novel?

SK: The challenges of animating that was not so different, granted before SAO was published as a novel. It was self published online but I'm pretty sure ASCII Media Works pretty much knew that and it was pretty much popular back then. That is why they picked it up to publish it. Unlike say video games, SAO always was something that had appeal not just to the Japanese audience but to the world. That was the hook we had to grab it and to animate it.

SA: This wasn't just SAO but my previous show Working!! also has it's self published doujin roots and I think it has come to be that publishers are looking at pre-existing works by authors who did so not for their lively hood but for their passion. That tends to help create diversity in the genre, you can say that with Hatsune Miku on the music side of things as well. I think this trend will probably continue.

Q: What challenges did you face during the production of Sword Art Online?

TI: Back then this would have been 2012. We wanted to pose the question, "what would be a new fantasy world?"

SA: Back when I was in High school, very much the Euro-Western fantasy was the rage. It was very popular with titles such as Record of Lodoss War, and I was certainly one of the fans of the genre. Eventually the audience started to get bored and the popularity of the genre died down. We thought that if we followed the same formula we would end up the same way. The producer told us not to go with that but to go strictly with the created world of the video game fantasy world (within SAO), and not the general online fantasy world(s) and take it from there.

SK: This is more of personal view, in SAO one of the characteristic premises is that “game over” means personal death. But If you compare death in a live action to animation, I always thought it was hard to beat the realism of death in animation but if you look at other recent shows such as Attack on Titan, the desperation of the character is no less unrealistic, so I thought it was something that is fairly depictable using the anime medium.

Q: The first season of Sword Art Online is very popular internationally, Is there any pressure on the staff for Sword Art Online season 2?

TI: Yes.

SA: In SAO when you move into a new game, the characters looks completely change, we can't use the character designs from the previous production and carry it on to that. That is very different from my previous show Working!!, where you can just continue on with the previous character designs. IN SAO, you have to come up with new character designs from scratch for the next season and that is a tough thing to do as an animator. But if you look at the previous characters, Kirito and Asuna, you can see how time has changed them. They have grown up a little and that is something we can look forward to seeing.

SK: Well, for me I do not have the pressure but it was so in season one and it still so in season two that we're blessed with good and character designers and that there are good staff people in Japan. I know we can do it and I know I can trust them. And in season one, this was a world of combat where it is sword vs. sword. In season two this is sword vs. guns and this is a new world. It won't be the same as season one and this is what to look forward to.

Q: Sword Art Online's ratings in America (on Toonami) are 7.1 and 5.8 (out of 8). What do you think about those numbers? Did you expect that popularity?

TI: The producer doesn't give us those numbers.

SK: I'm glad to hear those numbers.

Q: This question is for Adachi and Tomohiko. Since your debut works, (Tomohiko: Death Note & Adachi: Rockman) what changes do you see in the production process?

SA: As a character designer, Rockman was my first series but I had been an animator for 10 years before that, the biggest challenge was changing from cel work to digital work.

TI: Another change is the executive animation direction system. Each episode would have its own animation director but the episodes would be overseen by the executive animation director, so that became a bottleneck but does allow the character designer and executive animation director to make all the cells consistent and give a consistent feel to the entire series. It does depend on talent of one single artist but that has been the change for the good.

SA: For me I wish this system were not in place. Japanese fans are very demanding and want consistancy in style through the entire series. Constant sales in DVD and Blu-Rays show success in the system, but makes the working studio environment difficult.

TI: I worked on Death Note but it was not my debut, that would probably be Monster. Going from an episode director to series director means you have better influence for the entire production. I have to figure out when to apply the controls since I'm not an artist, so I can focus more on the soundtrack or the screenplay for those. When you're allowed to do a lot of things in digital production, it allows you to do a lot of things in a short amount of time, but you end up being forced and compelled to do a lot of things because you can.

Q: This question is for Ito-San. Can you give us your thoughts on your collaboration with Gen Urobuchi?

TI: Wow that's a very specific question, we only collaborated on one episode (Madoka Magica, ep 11). But he would have plenty of suitors who want to collaborate with him.

Q: When adapting a series how much input does the original author have, and from what point do you actually take the reins?

SK: The beginning and the end were read out to the author and that was determined with his presense. We're working on a fixed time frame, and certain things, elements in the story that were cut out were with the consent of the author. We did this to avoid problems later on such as the author saying that these things were done without his consent, or that the production staff did not understand the intent of the story.

SA: As animator when I am given pre-existing works to do my work on, you may have popular books and titles that are already in the book stores stacked up for everyone to grab but there is also the part of the population that has not grabbed any of those books and who don't know of the existing work. I think it is my task to take the art style of the original books and stylize into something that is more accessible to everyone else. No matter how great a show might be if you don't grab them on episode 1 they don't start watching the show. So I think as a character designer one of the most important is to come up with the key visuals that would entice the potential audience to try episode one. So that they would be sitting down in front of the television when episode one is broadcast, and that would be all pertinent to the key visuals that I work on.

Q: What was the most memorable moment you had while working on Sword Art Online?

TI: Well, probably not the best moment but I got dumped during the production... well after the production of SAO.

SA: On the final episode we worked for two weeks straight so I didn't go home. My wife told me she was thinking of divorce.

SK: During the course of the series there were certain ways that we anticipated the audience reacting, such as Kirito proposing to Asuna, then we reflected it back to Ito-San and Adachi-San.

SA: While I was working on SAO, fan popularity wasn't something that I consciously removed from mind while working on it. I was later happy to learn that BLURAY sales were good and there was a second pleasant surprise to hear that there was an American audience that enjoyed SAO. That also leads to being invited to places, like here in Sakura-Con. You can say I had more memorable moments with SAO after production.

Q: Adachi-San, As a character designer what personal touches and details do you add to your work to make it special and stand out?

SA: It's difficult to see my own work in an objective fashion. I always try to respect the style of the original work but there seems to be a something that is my own character that I can never remove from the art. Whether that is considered my own character or whether that is something desirable, I can't really tell or perhaps because of that, that is why I keep on getting work. I am still not sure if I should completely remove that or retain that.

Q: What are your thoughts on Sakura-Con and anime's popularity in the U.S.?

TI: I'm happy.

SA: I am happy to see fans here and to actually be here. At the same time I still have a hard time believing that it is all here too. When I work on a show, I really have the Japanese viewers and audience in mind, and that is also the sensibilities I draw on. There are certain styles of art that is popular in Japan, so to see that get accepted overseas is something I find very incredible because I always thought that American audience, perhaps that the style of American comics, the style of Marvel would be the only one that is popular here, and to see other styles be accepted is a discovery for me.

TI: Looking at the cosplayers, I see some longevity in the costumes (referring to the titles they're cosplaying from). Lots of Sailor Moon cosplayers, for example. I hope that 10 years from now there will be lots of Kirito cosplayers.

Q: Another question for Adachi-San. When doing character designs, do character expressions come naturally to you?

SA: The character's expressions seems to come naturally to me when you look at the story board and visualize the scene. You go through it so many times in your head tha the expressions come pretty naturally, however all artists can identify that when you're drawing a character with a certain expression you tend to be mirroring that a lot and so when doing a sad expression you look sad as an artist. When drawing a smiling character, you are smiling, you are also grinning and looking pretty. I often look at myself that way as well.

Q: What work have you done on other projects since Sword Art Online season 1?

TI: I worked on a show called Silver Spoon, it's based off of a manga from the creator of Full Metal Alchemist. It takes place in a agricultural school and is very subdued. It's a refreshing change, both mentally and physically.

SA: I worked on Galileo Donna, the first original title that I've worked on. It started out with no artwork so I had to create it from scratch. I worked very hard on the key visuals so people would watch episode 1, I also worked very hard on the covers for the DVD jackets, maybe you can look them up online. It's different from working on Sword Art Online or Working because on those shows you can anticipate the kind of reaction you would get but on an original show like Galileo Donna you're not sure so I worked very hard on getting the key visuals right.