Special Report 2016 Vol.04 The boundless potential of anime

The boundless potential of anime

A special interview with director Kyohei Ishiguro

“Your Lie in April,” appearing in 2011 as a manga series, is an adolescent tale depicting how a middle school student named Kosei Arima, a former child prodigy pianist, decides to resume playing the piano a few years after he stopped because of his mother’s death. The inspiration behind the rekindling of his love of music was Kaori Miyazono, a classmate who plays the violin beautifully although she is unwilling to follow the score. The series has sold about 3 million copies. Its first anime version was aired from October 2014 to March 2015, fascinating viewers with highly emotional scenes enriched by the sounds of classical music — a production that was possible only in the anime world. The anime version was Kyohei Ishiguro’s maiden work as a director. He was recently interviewed by writer Momo Tachibana.

Classic adolescent tale illustrates
high point of anime’s expressive power

Project reflects director’s
profound respect to the original

In the “Your Lie in April” anime, you combined a series of fine and beautiful scenes focusing on Tokyo’s Nerima Ward, classical music and insightful descriptions of what the characters had in mind. As the story of “Kimiuso” (a shortened form of the Japanese title “Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso”) progressed, the “lie” was gradually revealed, moving viewers to tears and drawing many responses.

Ishiguro I think even people who do not normally watch anime works enjoyed this anime version as the series was based on a pair of universal themes — the adolescent life of middle school students and music. The anime series was given a late-night slot, but I talked with the producer and his team beforehand — and they agreed — not to exclusively target anime fans. We decided to convey the appeal of Naoshi Arakawa’s original manga to audiences at large. From the moment I read the original, I racked my brains over how to arouse the interest of as many people as possible in Arakawa-sensei’s manga work. For this purpose, I looked for musicians who had no experience of working as anime artists. I chose the Japanese ensemble Goose house and the Japanese pop rock band wacci for our TV series. I expected their fans to watch the program even if they were not interested in anime. Likewise, I made similar approaches to various groups in the production process.

That is why you chose to look for locations in Nerima Ward. Your efforts bore fruit, indeed. Seibu Railway Co. put up posters in its trains to publicize the anime program and many people traveled to the ward to look at locations depicted in the anime.

Ishiguro When I read the manga for the first time, I wanted to present the anime version by linking the world drawn in the manga to locations in the real world. Therefore, I visited the Nerima Ward Office not only to submit applications necessary to location hunting but also to ask it to “collaborate closely with us to raise the popularity of both the program and Nerima.” We featured the Nerima Culture Center in a scene for the hero Kosei and heroine Kaori to give a musical performance. Actually, a real program-related classical music concert was held at the center. In addition, the shopping mall that appeared in the 16th episode of the series was based on the Seibu Shinjuku PePe shopping building. The place that [Takeshi] Aiza [a pianist the same age as Kosei] and his sister [Nagi] always felt nostalgic about was Sayama Fudoson temple [in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, on the Seibu Sayama Line]. All those settings were not new for the anime version. In fact, many places in the original manga looked similar to locations chosen for the anime series. It was natural for us to focus on areas along the Seibu Line as Arakawa-sensei himself went location hunting in and around Nerima Ward’s Oizumi Gakuen Station on that line before writing the original manga. When we were unable to find places suitable for the anime series, we showed the original manga to officials of the Nerima Ward Office and the Seibu railway company and asked for their ideas. As a result, our production team was helped from many important sources, including the ward office, the railway operator and other companies as well as residents along the Seibu Line. I’m sure this became possible because of the universal appeal of the original manga.
What I kept in mind from the very beginning of my involvement in the anime project was to maintain the appeal of the original work. I thought it would be unacceptable for the anime version to greatly depart from the original. For instance, the original had a seaside scene, but Nerima Ward is an inland area. Should I skip the seaside scene? No. I chose to follow the original as much as possible. So, I set the location where Kosei and his classmates lived in a hypothetic city that was very similar to Nerima Ward but still faced the sea.

It was clear from the anime series how much you respected the original. One scene was of the musical performance by Kosei, Kaori and their friends. In that particular scene, you employed 2-D and 3-D computer graphic technology instead of providing an opportunity to listen just to music. You allowed viewers to follow how each character felt emotionally throughout the concert.

Ishiguro Please let me say this in a loud voice, “It’s really tough!” As the anime version was intended to emphasize music first and foremost, we had to record music performances prior to drawing pictures for relevant scenes. In the fourth episode, the hero, who had given up playing the piano, appeared on stage for the first time in two years. Shortly after he started playing the piano, he suddenly stopped because it became impossible for him to bear the sound of the piano. Shortly afterward, however, he resumed his performance at the prompting of Kaori. We then had to create a scene in which the nature of the sound of the music he played was different from that you heard earlier. I asked Tomoki Sakata, the pianist on whom Kosei was modeled, to emulate that scene as precisely as possible so we could better imagine what it would really be like. It must have been difficult for Sakata-san to comply with my request because he had never before intentionally stopping playing the piano in the middle of a performance. What was worse, we weren’t able to give him any idea of such a scene as we hadn’t produced any video footage of it yet. Despite this difficulty, Sakata-san understood what I wanted and started playing the piano. It was a wonderful performance — far greater than I expected. In this connection, I was very thankful to [Kouchi] Baba of EPIC Records Japan for translating my wishes as an anime director into “music language” so that Sakata-san could easily and precisely understand what I wanted. I was also helped by Yuna Shinohara, the violinist on whom Kaori was modeled. As I kept working with Sakata-san and Shinohara-san in recording sessions, I — a person with little knowledge of classical music — began to gradually discern the delicate difference of the music they played in front of me from the sound of CDs containing their performances that were on sale.
What we needed was not limited to music recordings. I asked the duo to give performances that the hero and heroine would play while listening to recorded music from their earlier performances. We rented a music hall and both Sakata-san and Shinohara-san repeatedly performed many times as if they were Kosei and Kaori. Anyway, it was almost like a timeless experience. At the end of the day, the entire staff felt a sense of achievement.

As you mentioned earlier, your anime project involved a larger staff and more corporations than other anime projects.

Ishiguro It’s true that producing anime works requires the involvement of many people. I think that is one aspect of the anime universe. Of course, people like me who act as coordinators have great difficulty managing each team. Depending on how each team is managed, the outcome of production efforts can be completely different. In my case, I always considered creating an environment in which each member of the team felt sufficiently motivated to become positively involved in the production.
When we were working on the “Kimiuso” anime series, every member of the staff had to overcome one difficulty after another. I think they managed to do this well. It took us a year and three months to draw pictures — and two and a half years to complete the scenario. I’m thankful that the whole team stayed fully committed to the end by closely cooperating with each other. For example, given the nature of his work, Kohei Nawata of the Nawata Kohei Design Office, who was responsible for designing the logo, would normally have completed his involvement in the project by the beginning of the broadcast of the anime series. However, I made many changes, such as in directing the production process or in the design of the last installment. He kindly complied with all of my sudden and last-minute requests. It is common for us involved in anime production not to stick stubbornly to our ideas on some occasions. As for the “Kimiuso” project, I won’t deny that this was the case with us. However, I’m proud we could do the best possible job in such a limited time.

Joy of anime expression
that has limitless potential

Instructed by his domineering and strict mother to win piano contests against other children, Kosei plays the piano with mechanical accuracy by rigorously following the scores. As a result, he is not inspired to freely change the sound of the piano on his own. But once he gets to know Kaori, he realizes that “music is free.” He then begins to discover the sound of music that had been unconsciously and freely instilled in him in his childhood. Have you intentionally stopped adhering to the established norms of anime production?

Ishiguro To be honest, I’m not particularly bound to one aspect of the anime world. Of course, I stick to my own style as an anime director by thinking of what color to use, how to direct and varieties of expression with each work. But I am more interested in pursuing the potential of anime production as a whole.
Each anime work is a product that encapsulates what we on the production side want to express through the story, characters, background scenery and music, and so on. To give an example, Kosei Arima is a character to whom nothing occurs naturally. His appearance, personality, voice and every move reflect the intention of the production side to convey this message or that message. Unlike ordinary films and the stage, anime works do not try to display someone or something as he or she or it is. What we do is to edit each character and story in the process of converting the theme and story into an anime medium. This, I think, is why viewers tend to readily empathize with a protagonist who is different from many of them in terms of gender and age. Once audiences were able to accept the way we presented Kosei, in the case of our anime series, they felt they could share what the hero experiences — both hardships and joy — as in the scene in which he became incapable of playing the piano any further. What I am particular about as a director is to make each work as accessible as possible from the standpoint of viewers. When I worked on the series, I kept thinking of various ways to inspire audiences to take on the persona of Kosei. To that end, I adopted a method to show subjective and objective scenes in turn. The distinctive selection of Nerima Ward as the geographical stage of the anime series was part of this effort. I thought there would be a moment when the real and anime worlds would combine as the series kept showing scenes viewers were familiar with. I also thought viewers would identify more with the anime series — the anime scenes — when they actually visited the Nerima Culture Center, for instance. I expected them to recall that particular scene and tell themselves, “Oh, they played here!” I’m usually not particularly concerned about expression. But I always ponder how I can make my works attractive to a large variety of viewers — I call this universality. But I know that if I rigidly stick to that approach, I will end up overdoing things. In that sense, it is quite difficult to maintain a proper balance. There’s no easy path to learn this kind of expertise. Experience is the only solution.

In the “Kimiuso” series, music played an important role in drawing viewers into the story. The sound of music in the series was in sync with the inner sentiment of Kosei and other characters. Therefore, the sound of the same classical work differed, depending on the situation. This was effective in drawing viewers further into the story. You combined the story, music and images in such an exquisite way that the overall quality of the series was superb.

Ishiguro If we present music or voices alone, few people think of it as an anime work. On the contrary, when images are presented in motion even without any sound or in monochrome form, everyone has no doubt they are watching an anime work. What I mean is that pictures are essential for anime works. But if we are too particular about pictures, we tend to go too far in our quest to ensure that pictures are of high quality. Such pictures can become beautiful or distasteful, depending on our choices of music, color and ways of presenting them. No matter how scrupulously and beautifully pictures are drawn, they essentially have no meaning. It is important to be very selective of the information that is added to those pictures. Therefore, I think the potential of anime expression is boundless. Is there any other medium that is as interesting as anime? Of course not.

Good coordinator key to
global communication

Do you think anime has the same degree of potential abroad as in Japan?

Ishiguro As I mentioned earlier, anime works are a universal product and, for that reason, anime works can be accepted anywhere in the world. What we presented as Nerima Ward in the “Kimiuso” series was not Nerima Ward in a real sense. Likewise, no matter how precisely we draw Japanese scenes in an anime work, they are not real Japanese scenes. But even if they are not the real Nerima Ward or real Japan, I don’t think such scenes alienate overseas viewers. Instead, I expect them to feel they are experiencing “some place I already know.” If and when this kind of transformation is presented well, I believe overseas viewers will be really entertained. In fact, in a U.S. anime exposition, the “Kimiuso” program received many responses from visitors to the expo. They might have enjoyed my work not because they empathized with the characters, but because they had been lured to the fantasy of a different world — Japan — in a special form.
Even when we learn that our works are acceptable to foreign viewers, I don’t think it’s the right choice for us to reach them on our own. Instead of using our way to arouse interest among Japanese people in our works, I think it is important to seek out those people abroad who understand the appeal of the anime world and let them discover the charm of our works in their own way. As a practical approach, we should increase the number of people abroad to serve as coordinators, who are not only well versed in the culture and taste of people in their areas but are willing to find Japanese works that are compatible with that culture and taste. Even if we Japanese produce anime works for the overseas market and disseminate such products abroad, I do not think they will be successful. It is good for Japanese to keep producing things on the basis of our own sensibilities. What we then need is to have a framework to present our works abroad in a way that enables foreign viewers to enjoy Japanese works from their perspective.

What kind of Japanese sensibilities do you specifically have in mind?

Ishiguro I think Japanese is one of the “richest” languages in the world in terms of the breadth and depth of expression. For instance, we only need one kanji character to express virtually everything in a complete form. This linguistic property is unique to Japanese as it is based on ideographs. No such expression is possible for languages based on the alphabet. Another unique point to the Japanese language is the complex combination of kanji characters to enrich its expressions. Despite such complexity, we have no difficulty using the language when we think and in conversation. The form of presenting the Japanese language is very different from languages in the West. When you speak English, you begin with “I like” “what,” ”why” and so on to make clear each time what you’re trying to say. However, when you speak Japanese it is possible to refrain from clarifying your purpose and feeling until you say the last word or phrase. Due to this linguistic complexity, we can add sensitivity to each story. I think the uniqueness of the Japanese language sounds fresh to foreign viewers.
In Western culture, I believe one’s feelings and thoughts are expressed in a straightforward manner, whereas Japanese people tend to leave it up to other people to determine the meaning of words. Having “ma” (pause) between words, phrases or sentences without using any linguistic expression is one way to let other people understand what we are trying to convey. We Japanese know about the uniqueness of our language and are intuitively equipped with it. But because of this uniqueness, our way of communicating probably sounds ambiguous. I think many Japanese expressions require other people to actively try to understand what we say or people abroad may not otherwise understand us. This is why it is difficult to spread Japanese culture around the world. This particular point can be seen as an interesting aspect of Japanese culture. If we can manage to keep a balance [between such ambiguous and interesting aspects of Japanese culture], our culture will likely be widely accepted in other countries. To make that happen, it is critical to find coordinators abroad who can understand the interesting aspects of our culture. For my part, I would like to contribute to such a cause by taking part in events abroad—if opportunities permit. I am interested in communicating directly with people overseas.

(The interview was held in Koenji, Tokyo, on Nov. 17)


Kyohei Ishiguro

Born in 1980 in Kanagawa Prefecture. Began working at anime production company Sunrise in 2005. Debuted as director of anime “FAIRLY TAIL” in 2009. Became freelance director in 2011. He has been involved in the production of such works as “Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere,” “My Little Monster,” “PSYCHO-PASS” and “Danchi Tomoo,” among others. “Your Lie in April” became his first work as director. As of November 2015, Ishiguro’s “Lance N’ Masques” is being aired.

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