Sakura-con 2016 - Sword Art Online Interview

Japan-A-Radio had a chance to sit down with some of the creative team behind Sword Art Online, including Author Reki Kawahara, Producer Shinichiro Kashiwada, Illustrator Abec, and Publisher Kazuya Miki.

Q: What was your favorite anime or manga series growing up?

Shinichiro Kashiwada (SK): I've mentioned it several times but my favorite series is City Hunter. It was an aspect of I read the manga first and then watched the anime and seeing and hearing everything come together in terms of the sound, music, voice acting, animation, it was one of the reasons why I decided to join the anime industry.

Abec: For me one of the first Otaku related series was Slayers, I do a lot of work in light novels and Slayers was the first light novel I purchased so for me, Slayers.

Kazuya Miki (KM): Dragon Ball, both the anime and the manga. When I was growing up I was living in the countryside in Japan, and even in the countryside, everywhere in Japan Dragon Ball had an impact, and I thought that was one of the amazing parts of it.

Reki Kawahara (RK): I read a lot of series when I was younger, but Dragon Ball had the most negative impact on my eyesight. In terms of anime Gundam, and in particular when Zeta Gundam started because there were a lot more complex designs, I think that was the biggest shock that I had.

Q: What challenges did you face coming back to work on Sword Art Online (SAO) after working on other shows since you last worked on SAO?

SK: It's been two years or since the 2nd series had ended and right after the 2nd series ended discussions started on doing a movie, so we had Kawahara-san provide a basic concept of the movie, so its not like we stopped working on it but since 2010 its been constantly on the move.

RK: As I was working on the SAO movie script I was also working on the Accel World script so I tried to make sure not to link them but at the same time introduce common elements in both stories so you'll have to watch the movie to see what those common elements are.

Abec: As the illustrator, each series is really a new game, a new world, and in that game world I have to create a new visual language for the world and the clothes of the characters change and the characters themselves change their look. So in this case I read the script and came up with designs for the world, so in this aspect it is the same usual work that I do.

KM: One of the differences in working with a movie is that it's a completely new story from the original, so you're basing a new story off of the original story side. It's more of trying to recall and bring back memories of what you've worked on in the past, and this time, because its a completely new story everybody is starting on the same page of trying to build something and create something really new.

Q: What motivates you to keep working in the industry? What drives you to wake up in the morning and get to work?

SK: I have to be really honest with you, if I'm working 365 days a year there's only one day where I'm totally having fun, and honestly I can live with that, that's fine. In working with SAO and all these other stories there's joy in working with all these stories, and other big part is that when you create something, there's the joy in being the first to see what's being created. There's also the response of the customers, you get to see the viewers reaction and that's probably one of the biggest reasons why you work 365 days a year and then have that one good day. Not all the responses from customers are going to be positive but you take that response and try to make the next project you work on even better, so that sort of mindset as a creator, that's what drives me for those 364 not so great days.

RK: So the two novels I'm writing, SAO and Accel World, they're both not yet complete, so that's one of the reasons that I can't let my readers down and leave the story unfinished. The 2nd is that through social media you can get feedback directly, so I get messages from readers all over the world and that gives me encouragement and I also get messages like "so does Kirito actually love Asuna at this point?", and in order to really respond and answer the fans, that's what gets me up and at the desk writing everyday.

Abec: This might sound kind of generic but as a creator we thrive on feedback, we want to see a response from the people that see our work. Kashiwada-san also said this but there are days that are really tough to draw and sometimes its pretty rough, and through the media and internet and twitter you work through it, you keep working at it and sometimes the response is not so great and sometimes you work really hard through the tough days to make good art and put it out there and you get the response like "hey, that's really good, that's really awesome!". That sort of keeps me from going lazy in the end and not putting out my best work.

KM: As the others have mentioned there are tough days, and its a tough job, and there's a feeling of "It's me, I have to do it, otherwise this project won't move forward", so there's this thing inside of me where I try to do a job where "it's only me, the only person that can do this is me, there's no other replacement." So when I get up in the morning and go "oh well, maybe I won't work as hard", then on the flipside there's "if I don't work then these projects simply won't go forward." So I feel a responsability to make things go forward.

Q: What are your impressions of Seattle and of foreign events and of their work being so popular abroad, and for Kashiwada-san and Kawahara-san if anything has changed at Sakuracon since their first visit?

SK: This is my 3rd time at Sakuracon, so its like "hey, I'm back at Sakuracon!" This is one of the events I'm comfortable with. I haven't been to Anime Expo, but I have been to Otakon, but Sakuracon is definitly an event that I'm comfortable with.

RK: This is my second time here, and this time I said I wanted to go. I've had invitations from various anime events around the world but I was thinking of why I enjoy Sakuracon and I think it might be that I really enjoy the city of Seattle, to the point that I might want to move here at some point in the future. As for the event, in Japan these anime events are rather self contained, for example cosplayers in Japan wear their cosplay in the event space but not outside, but here in Seattle, you go downtown and there's people in cosplay just walking outside and that's really open and really cool and I wish Japan would be more like that.

Abec: First off, regarding the cosplay here, I see cosplay that I don't even recognize, and there's also characters from American works. As Reki-San also mentioned Japan has a lot more rules so, in Japan they go to the sites, they change then they change again back into their normal clothes and then they leave, but over here there seems to be a lot more openness and expressiveness, that part of it is really interesting.

KM: I work on several other projects and other anime so I have a lot of opportunities to attend events in Europe and Asia. One thing I've noticed is that the fans are fairly similar, especially when fans are waiting for an autograph session in line, its the same kind of big smiles on their faces when they're waiting to see the people who create their favorite characters. So it doesn't matter if its in Europe or Asia or the U.S., there might be a little difference in the emotions culturally, do you hold them back a little or do you let them out forward, they still love the works in very similar ways.


Q: Regarding SAO the beginning VR test and the victory of AlphaGo, what do you think of the advances made in Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence, and how close are we to creating the SAO experience that you see in your mind?

RK: With AlphaGo, it had a result of four wins and one loss (In the board game Go), I was watching it live online and the result with four wins was totally surprising and I was watching the comments and reading the comments and one was saying that the AI was looking at Go from a completely different perspective than humans and that really surprised me. From there, AlphaGo uses deep learning algorithms to make itself better, and deep learning is, in a sense a black box. We have very little insight into what's happening with it, so in particular we can't know why it made a specific decision and that's a little sci-fi for me and a little scary. Ideally I'd like for the deep learning system to have the ability to talk and sort of explain the moves that it's making.

For SAO in the beginning, from a technology standpoint its different than the novels or the anime in that its not a full dive system, but its a combination of existing technologies. It uses four sets of sensors to map the user, there's the head mount display, and on the hands each finger is being tracked, there's also the full body sensors that's being tracked, and then there's the walking sensor that tracks the motion of walking. So with these four different types of sensors and data that it collects there's this really deep sense of immersion into the virtual world, so deep that when the users first encountered a monster, due to the sheer size of it some of them would fall over, and once some of them got into a fight, the sensation of fear overwhelmed them so much that some people would just take off their headset, and so, if we're looking at the technology for the nervegear I think we're at least multiple decades away from something like that, but if its the experience of a full dive, I think we're just about to reach the entrance of that sort of experience.

Q: What is your biggest work related regret and how did you improve from that experience?

SK: This is a really tough job.

RK: So your biggest regret is joining Aniplex?

SK: No no no (laughs). My biggest regret is joining the industry. It's not a job that anyone can do, its a tough job. You really want to have to do this job, especially in this industry, there's a lot of people that don't want to do the job or that have no interest. I don't want to put out work that would embarass me in front of people that are outside of the industry. So say I have a second life and I had a chance to redo it, I might, I dunno, study harder and become a public servant. Some people though would say no, I'd still do this job even if I had a second chance. I've made my decision, I've joined the industry, I'm part of the industry so I'm going to do the best that I can so that I don't have any regrets. I'm probably going to die working face down rather than backing away from it, so no, I don't have any regrets, I will do the best I can do.

RK: I originally wanted to become a mangaka, so I worked in editing and on commercial projects, but what I learned was that creating manga was a really hard job, its really difficult, from there I moved into writing as a novelist. In terms of the ability to convey whats in my mind and put it out there, novels are at a slight disadvantage to manga, and that's due to my limitations as a writer, my skill in terms of putting it out as text isn't as high as I want it to be, and those are the times that I have frustrations, like this is what I'm thinking but I can't communicat it just right. So from there I go: "If this was a manga would I be able to get it just right?". The other side of that is the physical side of creating a manga is very demanding work, so you get a lot less sleep, you have many assistants helping you. I'm thinking that If I were a mangaka I would have gotten very ill and probably stopped creating after breaking down physically. In terms of becoming a novelist I have no regrets, but I do have bouts of frustration, and all I can do is commit and write the best novel that I can.

Abec: So I started working as an illustrator when I was 18, 19 years old and now I'm 30, so I started working in this job fairly early, so my life experience outside this job is fairly limited, so I don't really have additional pockets of experience or have the depth of those extra experiences to draw upon so I do have a little bit of regret there. In work I've made mistakes in scheduling my work and so on, and in order to overcome them in this line of work really, it's just that you have to keep drawing, you have to continue to gain more skills and get better at it.

KM: So I'm on the publishing side, so working in the publishing side means that you have to sell the books, and when you're working on that side and you don't give 100% you say that ok, I'm going to give myself a little break or I'm going to go easy. Then when the books don't sell that's when you have the regret of "well, I could have done more, there's something more I could have done." But if you've done all you can and if you've given your best and if the readers don't like your book or it doesn't sell really well, at least you know that you've done everything you could and you can at least make your peace with it and say "well, alright, I did my best." It's when you didn't do your best and you could have done more is when the regret hits you. So I guess its, just do yout best and give it everything you've got.

Special thanks to Aniplex for granting this interview.