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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.

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