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.