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.

HN: Could you please let us know if there was an animation title that you found personally impressive from the titles you were involved in, and why?

Hiroko Utsumi: It is Free!. It is very impressive for me because it is the first title I’ve directed. Since I clearly had what I wanted to express through the title when I directed that, I enjoyed directing it a lot by developing what I wanted to watch in the final without hesitation, even though it was my debut title as a director. I think of it as if it was my child. New titles of the Free! franchise, sequel, prequel and spin-offs, are continuously being developed after I left the project, so I look forward to watching them as one of the fans.

HN: I would like to hear about how did you become the director of the TV series Free!.

Hiroko Utsumi: A producer gave me the suggestion to direct an animation series based on a novel titled High Speed!, which received an honorable mention in the novels section of the Kyoto Animation Award 2011. I didn’t have the confidence whether I could accomplish directing that. But when I finished reading the story, I thought to myself, “the theme is a boys’ story and the topic is on swimming. I can do this!” I then begged him to let me direct that!

High Speed! is a story about elementary school students, but I asked him to change it to be about high-school students because it is my favorite genre. As a result, the story of Free! is quite different from the original novel High Speed!.

This is the key visual of the third season of Free! and Hiroko Utsumi only directed the first and second seasons.
(Courtesy of Crunchyroll)

HN: Free! is your director debut title, so I think you had the experience of putting together the core team members of an animation project for the first time. How did you decide on the members?

Hiroko Utsumi: I think that the way of deciding on the core staff of a project is completely different depending on the company. For example with Free!, the producer and I selected the best staff from the people from Kyoto Animation and also those who have a longstanding connection with Kyoto Animation. As I was too young to know all of them well at that time, I got various bits of advice from the staff members for that.

HN: What kinds of difficulties and hard parts did you experienced by directing Free!?

Hiroko Utsumi: I think all directors have something in their job that are not good at, even though a director is a position where one needs to manage all the parts of animation development. In my case, as I came from being an animator, I can have a clear vision for the drawing aspects of the title I’m directing, and fix the key-frames and in-betweens by myself if they are different from my vision. However, in terms of color-coordination, cinematography, and music of Free!, I needed to rely on the professionals of each section in the team and they supported me a lot to share my vision of the title with the staff.

For instance with the music, the music producer says something like: “So this kind of music will start to play in this scene, right?” I then reply: “Actually, no music starts to play in my mind with that scene, my head is silent right now…” I think other directors might be able to hear some music in their mind for a scene, for example: “It should be this kind of music for this scene.” And I think the more important the scene is, the more they develop the details of the scene by centering on the image of the music. Then, the music is going to be a part of the theme of the animation title. However, I remember that I could not hear even that kind of important music in my mind at that time.

So, I consulted about the issue to the music producer of Free!, who then said to me, “OK, then we will suggest music to fit each scene for you, if you would tell us your vision of each scene.” Since then, I let him know that “the protagonist’s feeling in this scene is like this”, and then he says, “in that case, it’s a sad scene, so the music will be like that, right?” And then we start our discussion on the music for the scene based on that. I think music is one of my weak points as a director.

HN: It is great that there is a chance for young creators to be a director and the young director can have the support of experienced staff. By the way, you said that when you directed Free!, you clearly had what you wanted to depict through the series. Could you please let us know what that was?

Hiroko Utsumi: It was the relationships and bonds of friendship among the high-school boys who are in the sports clubs at their school. They have their momentary shine of youth, which is a thing they can’t feel at that time. When they become adults, they realise that they are only young once and then they think to themselves, “oh, that time was really just a brief moment.” That brief sparkle for an instant appeals to me a lot.

I focused on boys in the series because I like ‘Shounen’ manga and I am attracted to boys’ relationships, where they are simultaneously both friends and rivals. It is a hidden relationship which cannot be depicted among girls. I think that girls are too careful with each other, for example they tend to think: “What if I end up defeating her, and what should I say to her after that?” More than that, I prefer that boys talk to each other with fists! It is hard to put into words, but I like a boys’ relationship where it seems that they don’t want to meddle with each other’s businesses at first glance, but deep down they have this incredibly fierce and fiery bond. And I am always wanting to capture that relationship.

I also think one of the big reasons is that I like to draw the physical beauty of the male body, with toned, beautiful muscles as an animator!

HN: Do you have anything from your life experience before becoming a professional animator that became of great use to you in your current work as an animator?

Hiroko Utsumi: Yes, but it doesn’t relate to any kind of creative aspect of the work. I played soft tennis in my three years of junior high-school and was committed to swimming for three years in high-school, both as school club activities. I could train my body and mind by throwing myself into sports seriously throughout the six years. I’ve got an indomitable spirit from that which enables me to endure, no matter how painful and how unrewarded the effort is. By the way, having swimming club activities at high-school was one of the reasons why I was recommended to become the director of Free!.

Directing animation is a role that gets you many unreasonable things, and it is a position of being resented by staff because you need to order difficult tasks to everyone. However, all directors must be responsible for completing the animation title to the end by strengthening their hearts. Staff will start to follow the director’s passion only when the directors themselves work the hardest, so directors should work harder than anyone else. So, in the case of a director, no matter how much skill you have, you can’t complete the job without physical and mental strength. I think this is a matter not limited to animation production, but any job position that carries a team.

HN: You made the TV series BANANA FISH a major success, after Free!. How did you come to direct BANANA FISH?

Hiroko Utsumi: Kyoko Uryu, a producer at Aniplex, kindly presented me an offer to direct the series. Then after reading the original manga series, I replied to her, “please, let me direct the series!”

HN: Could you please let us know what difficulties did you face and what did you take care when you directed BANANA FISH?

Hiroko Utsumi: The story of the original manga series is based on the historical background of 70’s America, but the setting did not resonate with me at all. Of course, I could have an idea of what it was to some extent, but I do not really understand it. America in the 70’s was far away from home for me and lacked tangibility. For me, developing the title with that situation was absolutely no-good because the issue comes out at every corner of the work. So, I asked her that if I could get the chance to develop an animation adaptation of the original manga series in this modern age, I would like to update the story to fit the current times. It was easier said than done: When I tried to change the historical backdrop of the story, it was really hard, but Hiroshi Seko, the lead writer who was responsible for the structure of the story throughout the series, supported and reassured me.

The story was set in the USA, but I was not familiar with the country at all. Because of that, I was uneasy when the project started. And the other thing was about guns in the story. Everything in the hard-boiled genre, which I had not been interested in at that time, was new to me!

These are the things that had me wanting to tear my hair out!

HN: Next, I would like to ask you about anime in general. I feel that Japanese animation has been creating new types of actions and movements that breaks the laws of physics. Do you take care of anything in particular when you animate?

Hiroko Utsumi: I also feel that the visual expressions in the Japanese style of animation is very interesting. I preferred Gainax-style*1 anime like FLCL (2000) and Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi (2001) before becoming a professional animator. I also admired loose, tricky and cool movements in animations like Hiroyuki Imaishi’s works, who is famous for directing KILL la KILL (2013) and PROMARE (2019), and I was imitating them a lot.

On the other hand, a senior animator gave me a warning that you should acquire basic skills in animation movement before drawing that kind of animation. It is because the animation would be superficial and unrealistic if you try to draw tricky actions without having the basic skills. So, I think whether you can draw the movements unique to Japanese animation depends on how far your skills will take you after mastering the basics.

*1: Gainax is an animation studio in Japan which is famous for anime titles such as Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise (1987), Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (1900), Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), FLCL (2000) and Gurren Lagann (2007).

HN: What is the secret in becoming that kind of animator?

Hiroko Utsumi: Actually, I would like to know that myself! To say what I would keep in mind, when I draw an action that’s possible for me to act by my body, I always try to do it on my own before I start drawing it. I don’t draw it as-is, but I draw it being more exaggerated. For example, if the character I draw is full of energy, I draw his or her action more cheerfully and with more energy. I think that kind of over-expression can help with tricky actions.

HN: What are the differences between working as an animator and as a director in terms of the mind-set, importance and focus of your work, if there are any?

Hiroko Utsumi: I still sometimes take part in animation projects as a key-frame animator. It is very important to understand the director’s intention from the storyboards*2 when we draw key-frames but it is not enough to do that as an animator. When drawing, keeping in mind that “make it better, in your own way” and “create something better than the storyboard” will also matter.

Of course, you would start to realise that your arrangement doesn’t work well and then the layout/animation director or animation director corrects your drawings. I think the job of the key-frame animator is to not be discouraged by that kind of experience and continue on your effort to improve the animation you are working on with your own arrangement.

It is because there are so many people involved in the production of an animation title and all of them create better output which is unique to each of them, that the title is going to be good at a level that cannot be reached by the director alone. In my opinion, that is the beauty of animation.

*2: Generally storyboards are drawn by the director(s) in the Japanese animation industry.

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