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The majority of animated television series in Japan are with the format of about 30 minutes per episode, and since the past decade more than 100 new series with that format have been developed per year in Japan. They are characterized by a high proportion of titles with overarching storylines featuring teenage protagonists, aimed for young adults. Crunchyroll, the world’s largest international online distribution platform dedicated to Japanese animation TV series, has 90 million free accounts and 3 million paying viewers as of 9th December 2020, according to official figures.

Free! (2013), a story of high-schools boys dedicating themselves to swimming, and BANANA FISH (2018), a hard-boiled fiction centering on a teenage gang leader set in New York, are globally popular titles directed by Hiroko Utsumi that represents the kind of TV animation series from Japan as mentioned earlier. Many of the adolescent characters’ sensitive and complicated relationships are carefully depicted in the two series.

We had the opportunity to interview Hiroko Utsumi, a promising young director in the Japanese animation industry. We’ve heard the insightful story of her career to be one of the leading young directors in the Japanese animation industry.

Interview with Hiroko Utsumi

Hideki Nagaishi (HN): Why have you set your sights for the animation industry?

Hiroko Utsumi: I thought that I wanted to become a manga artist because I really love to draw. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that I am not a good storyteller for developing my original stories. So, I had started to feel ambivalent about my life’s vision to become a manga artist. At that time, I came across a TV animation series titled Yu-Gi-Oh! and became a big fan of that. I felt “Wow, amazing!” and was really inspired when I watched some episodes of Yu-Gi-Oh!, which Takahiro Kagami worked on as the lead animator.

The role of the lead animator is creating uniformity in the visuals of all key-frames drawn by a variety of animators, so that generally the characters’ appearance of each episode are the same, no matter who is in the lead animator role. However, some episodes of Yu-Gi-Oh!, where Mr. Kagami was the lead animator, were overwhelming for me on the visual quality and the attractiveness of the characters; totally different than for other episodes. When I watched those episodes, I thought, “The role of the lead animator is such a great job. I want to have a job like this. I want to be a creator like him.” So, my dream for the future became clear.

(Courtesy of Crunchyroll)

HN: So, you’ve aimed to be a professional animator and built your career by becoming an in-betweener and then a key-frame animator?

Hiroko Utsumi: Yes. At that time, almost all animation studios in Japan were hiring animators with piecework payment contracts and my prospective income was not enough for me, living in Osaka at the time, to work for a studio in Tokyo. I’ve heard that many young animators became ill and quit because of the financial difficulty. I did not want to give up my dream like them. So, I searched for animation studios where I could commute from my parent’s home, and then I found Animation Do, a subsidiary of Kyoto Animation. Fortunately, I was hired by the studio.

HN: You’ve had the opportunity to become a layout/animation director after you’ve accumulated the experience of working as a key-frame animator, right?

Hiroko Utsumi: At Animation Do, in-house key-frame animators are evaluated by a rank system. You can take an internal examination to become a layout/animation director when you reach the sufficient rank as a key-frame animator. At a certain time, the studio was lacking in the number of layout/animation directors, and I was in the rank of key-frame animator who could take the exam. So, I took on that challenge, and luckily I passed that exam.

I was trying my best to be a creator like Mr. Kagami at that time, so my goal was to become a lead animator. However, I decided to work hard as a layout/animation director for a while as a learning opportunity, because a senior in the studio told me that having the work experience of a layout/animation director could be really valuable for me to set sights for a lead animator position, and I wouldn’t lose anything. Then, I happened to get the role of director while I was working as a layout/animation director. So, I really believe that you never know what life has in store for you!

HN: Has Kyoto Animation made you an offer to become a director of an animation title?

Hiroko Utsumi: Yes. I directed Free!, a Kyoto Animation series (as a creator belonging to Animation Do).

There was another creator in Animation Do who directed a Kyoto Animation title. His name is Yutaka Yamamoto and directed the first four episodes of Lucky Star (2007), a Kyoto Animation TV series. However, I was under the impression that only a creator belonging to Kyoto Animation would be able to direct a Kyoto Animation title. So, I was really surprised and pleased that Kyoto Animation would allow me, a creator belonging to Animation Do, to become the director of one of their titles. After becoming a director, it proved to the young creators in Animation Do that they could potentially become directors of Kyoto Animation titles, and that made me happy and think that the younger generation would choose Animation Do as a place to work, with hope for the future.

HN: Who are the creators you were particularly influenced or inspired by, as an animator?

Hiroko Utsumi: As I said earlier, the animation title I was influenced by is Yu-Gi-Oh! and the creator that inspired me a lot is Takahiro Kagami, the lead animator of the series. When I was a beginning animator, Mr. Kagami meant everything to me. At that time (and even now), his works are my goal and admiration as a creator, a source of study for me, and I love his work as one of his fans. Actually, I told him all that when I had him participate in the animation series I’ve directed, BANANA FISH, as the lead animator and a key-frame animator.

HN: What characteristic of Mr. Kagami’s works has caught your heart in particular?

Hiroko Utsumi: There are many! What influenced me from the scenes drawn by Mr. Kagami is the visual composition, the strength and power of the drawings, and the dynamic camera work with wide-angle lenses. He draws scenes with camera angles that are impossible to realise with real cameras. I could say that it is the exaggerated visual expression that is unique to Japanese animation. I feel it looks very anime-like and attractive.

I like animation which are typical of anime and what Mr. Kagami draws is exactly just that: very cool, anime-esque and dynamic animation. It is amazing that he can make attractive depictions of the Yu-Gi-Oh! characters, who have very deformed and very unique designs. I am always studying his work.

HN: You are active as a key-frame animator and also have complete management of an animation title as a director and layout/animation director. As a director and layout/animation director, were there any creators or animation titles you have been influenced by?

Hiroko Utsumi: Masaaki Yuasa is the person who has influenced me as a director. As I went up the career ladder to director coming from being an animator, which is a job that doesn’t deal with color, I feel that I’m not good at color-coordination. Mr. Yuasa’s works use anime-like color selection, yet they are colorful and vivid, so I’ve personally liked them very much. I also have been very influenced by Mr. Yuasa’s unique and interesting universe, design and direction.

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