The Most Necessary Element for Communicating Through Anime
-- Interview With Tetsuro Araki, Director of “Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress”
With their involvement in titles such as “Attack on Titan”, Director Tetsuro Araki and WIT STUDIO have been under the spotlight, winning several Grand Prix awards in anime competitions. The two sides joined forces once again for “Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress”, an original anime featuring a truly impressive team that has drawn plenty of attention. The composition and script for the series were completed by Ichiro Okouchi from “Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion”. Continuing from “Attack on Titan”, Hiroyuki Sawano - who is also known for his work in “Aldnoah.Zero” and “The Seven Deadly Sins” - handled the music this time as well. Original character designs were taken care of by Haruhiko Mikimoto, who was also involved in the Gundam series and “The Super Dimension Fortress Macross”. “Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress” describes the battle of a terrified human population against the threat of monstrous humanoids referred to as “Kabane”. With a compilation film set to open in theatres on December 31, 2016, we spoke with Director Tetsuro Araki to learn about how he created the deep and profound perspectives of the series.
The moment we become willing to sacrifice our lives without hesitation, we become “something significant” - I wanted to capture that moment
What’s important is to make Ikoma and Mumei lovable
For that purpose, I realized that charm is required for each character
-- “Kabane” are monstrous humanoids that cannot be destroyed unless their steel-coated hearts are penetrated. After being bitten, their victims become resurrected as Kabane themselves. In this series, the stage is set in Hinomoto, an island country in the far east, where Ikoma and other characters take their stand against the Kabane threat. The series is rich in elements such as steampunk, sword fighting, trains, zombies, and traveling.
Hayajiro, an armored steam train that serves as a connection between the “stations”.
It runs to protect humanity from the Kabane threat.
Araki The series was loaded with themes that I enjoy, and everything just happened to turn out that way. There were only two main themes I had in mind when I was coming up with the basic settings. One was to make the series historical, and the other was to ensure that transportation took place in Hayajiro, a type of armored steam train. The vehicle allows for travel between stations that serve as fortresses in which people would take refuge. All the other elements are based on those two themes and came naturally as I continued to think. I thought about how the characters would live, and how they would fight. I also considered what kind of position samurai should assume if they were to exist in the story. It wasn’t like I was trying to pack in as many elements and themes as possible. On the contrary, the importance of preventing the story from becoming one where “anything goes” was always in the back of my mind.
For example, I knew it would be important for me to create a clear rule about defeating the Kabane. After deciding that the only way to destroy one was to penetrate the coating of their heart, I was able to move onto the designing the characters who would invent weapons to counter the Kabane. If the rule wasn’t in place, there would be far too many possibilities, and anything would go. The protagonist swore to defeat the Kabane, but what would he do to reach his goal? What could he achieve? The rule served as a key leading to the dramatization of the story.
-- In the very first episode, Ikoma - the boy who confronts the Kabane with his own weapons - is bitten by a Kabane. With his research and knowledge, he is able to save himself from being resurrected as one. However, his efforts convert him into a Kabaneri, something that is neither Kabane nor human. In this sense, Ikoma is comparable to Devilman, who is neither demon nor human.
Ikoma: the protagonist and the Kabaneri who is neither man nor Kabane
Araki Basically, I’m a person who enjoys stories about the audible crumbling of ordinary life under the effects of a calamity. Similarly, I also like people who are driven into corners by the adversity they face. What makes Devilman and other related series so attractive is the change caused by inhuman forces that protagonists experience. The protagonists attain great power that compensates for the negative effects they suffered at the hands of the inhuman characters. There's something romantic about stories like that. Times of worry and grievance are what makes the protagonist a hero. I’m particularly interested in the moment when a young boy - who's full of anger towards the world - becomes a hero himself, and I always think about how much I want to work on such characters. In this series, the most important part was to portray the attitude of a boy who would give up his life to save a girl after he became a Kabaneri. I don’t think anyone can shine brighter than a person who is ready to give up their own life. The emotion in making the decision was all I wanted to portray. Before I knew it, the setting had already expanded so much that I sometimes wonder how it all became so complicated [laughs].
-- Mumei, the other protagonist of the series, is a twelve-year-old girl who really made an impression. She became a Kabaneri even before meeting Ikoma and decided on her own that she would stand up against the Kabane. She also possesses the strength to carry Ikoma forward.
Mumei is a twelve-year-old girl who demonstrates exceptional strength.
She is also a Kabaneri herself.
Araki I thought endlessly about how to bring out her charm, and also about what would make her look as cute as she could possibly be. While working on the series, presenting the protagonist pair - Ikoma and Mumei - in an attractive fashion was one of the most important challenges that I wanted to take on. When you look at them separately, they might not give off the greatest impression in the beginning. However, by showing the conflict and encouragement they share, the two characters become increasingly lovable. I wanted to portray the charm that is complete when they work together as a pair. Up until now, I’ve created imaginary worlds, worked on zombie pieces, and generated mecha through CG. For this series and for the first time, I thought deeply about how I could create characters that the audience would love. In the end, nothing is possible when you can’t get the audience to fall in love with your characters. Whether or not a viewer will watch a series until the very end depends on the whether or not the protagonists have the right amount of charm in them.
For that purpose, I depicted Mumei as a beautiful girl and made sure that Ikoma would also have his share of charisma, too. Ikoma lacks the cool and refreshing personality that people tend to favor. He shuns the world and becomes biased after having his efforts looked down upon by those around him. Instead of simply presenting good characters to the audience, I thought it would be much more appealing to show negative characters in a positive way. Ikoma has a straightforward sense of justice that encroaches on the border of insanity, and Mumei is a troublemaker who can be a bit dry and unresponsive to subtle emotional changes. I thought that if I could bring them together, prevent them from becoming even more negative, and show a relationship that reveals their true and likeable nature instead, they could both become even more lovable. Their visual appearances were something that I paid close attention to. Due to the story’s nature, the on-site animators would tend to make expressions a little grimmer and make characters a little more muscular. I asked them to increase eye sizes, slim down the body proportions, and do whatever they could to make Ikoma and Mumei more attractive. It was all done because I believe charm is more important than anything else.
-- Is your fixation on charm a product of your previous experiences with other titles?
Araki It is, but only in terms of knowing the importance of having characters that are loved. The hint that really sparked my interest in charm came from Maeda in “The Kirishima Thing”, who was played by Ryunosuke Kamiki. Maeda is a zealous boy who is very passionate about films. Parts of his personality are consistent with the protagonist of the anime, but neither the audience nor the other characters pay much attention to his zeal. Most people see him as a boy who is cute, brave, and even slightly entertaining. When I thought about why this happened, I came to the conclusion that charm was the key factor. Maeda’s charm cancelled any resistance the audience had against the sweltering feeling of pressure that was produced by his zeal. His existence served as a hint for me in the process of character creation, and he ultimately became the model which Ikoma is based on.
The original model I had for Ikoma was Travis from “Taxi Driver” who is played by Robert De Niro, though [laughs]. To be completely honest, the essentials of the story in Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress are all from “Taxi Driver”. A boy who aims to become successful in a world of prejudice meets a girl whose circumstances are controlled by another man. The man is deemed to be the evil of the world, and the boy attempts to defeat him. The boy decides to sacrifice his life for his cause but makes it back alive. That’s what both titles are essentially about. When I moved on to thinking about how to create a Travis-like character who would meet the tastes of the audience and be easily accepted, I decided to include the charm that I found in Maeda played by Ryunosuke Kamiki. The result of it all together is Ikoma.
-- That’s quite a surprising episode! Could it be that Ikoma’s close friend Takumi is based on Maeda’s friend Takefumi in “The Kirishima Thing”?
Araki In terms of his presence, that’s correct. One big secret that encourages the audience to treasure certain characters is to have other characters treasure them in the series. Just like how Takefumi was there for Maeda in “The Kirishima Thing”, Takumi is there for Ikoma. There are plenty of other secrets and techniques that allow characters to be appreciated by the audience, and this series marks the first time I decided to seriously study and use them. It doesn’t matter how much you want to talk about your themes or how great the quality of your pictures are. If people don’t love your characters, there’s just no point. So, I always considered the lovability of Ikoma and Mumei as the most important element as I worked on “Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress”. Now that I’m finished, I do feel that I was successful to a certain extent.
I wanted to write about personal fears, and about people who stand up against them
-- Episode seven showed how the two characters connect with each other. In the episode, Ikoma and Mumei enjoyed themselves at the Star Festival event, and talked casually in the shrine grounds. It was an ordinary scene, but also a symbolic one that showed the audience who Ikoma and Mumei really are.
Araki I decided to keep episode seven free from any battles. In all the other episodes - even in comical scenes - the story progresses through a backdrop of blood. I wanted to avoid any bloodshed in that one episode, though. Trying to fit such a broad story into just twelve episodes is quite a challenge. Having an episode that didn’t involve conflict with the Kabane would require even more work in packing content into the episodes before and after that one episode. Even in the face of such difficulties, I still decided to create a single episode of peace. What I wanted to give Ikoma, Mumei, all the characters who made their appearances, and also everyone watching the series was a day worth longing for. When Takumi wrote on his card for the Star Festival that he wanted to keep living, Ikoma asked him if it was enough to simply be alive. That sparked a discussion among other characters about their hopes and dreams in life; hopes and dreams that they had only because of the situation they were in. During the scene, Mumei states that she wants to be able to have rice again until she’s stuffed. Before her statement, Ikoma said that Hozumi* - Mumei’s real name - probably contains her mother’s wish for her to be able to eat rice until she’s full. He also asks her to stop fighting the Kabane, promising her that he’ll make her human again. Mumei’s statement was her answer to Ikoma since she couldn’t tell him how she felt directly. Ikoma only found out when he accidentally overheard Mumei speak to her friend Kajika about the topic. I hope the sense of bliss I intended on including was able to reach those who watched the episode. Despite all of that, the appearance of Mumei’s master Biba in the very next episode quickly breaks apart their relationship. Episode seven was necessary for everyone to look back on, and also for illustrating the crack that opened up between Ikoma and Mumei.
-- Biba instilled into Mumei the idea that those who could not perform their duties were to be considered as useless. However, he ends up becoming an enemy and an obstacle. As the story progresses, his mask begins to peel, gradually revealing the insanity hidden within.
Biba is a guide for Mumei.
What is his goal, and what are his true intentions?
Araki My favorite type of enemy is the type that's intelligent but rabid - the type that can pressure others with their knowledge and also perform acts of cruelty without hesitation. Mumei had pledged her loyalty towards Biba, but Ikoma found their relationship to be odd and went on to criticize it. Due to these reasons, the connection Ikoma and Mumei were able to establish broke apart. In the latter half of the story, Ikoma’s challenge was to separate Mumei and Biba. What troubled me during the creation process wasn’t how Biba should be made as a character, but rather why Mumei adored Biba so much. I thought about what kind of experiences would be necessary for the bond and the trust these two characters share. If Biba was just a cruel individual who uses Mumei however he wants, there’s no way that Mumei would have any faith in him. Because of the limitations that come with creating a television series, I wasn’t able to include everything that I wanted to. Although Biba is a man who doesn’t think twice about casting things or people away to reach his goals, I’m sure there was something in him that made him want to take care of Mumei. I spent lots and lots of time talking about this to Sayaka Senbongi and Mamoru Miyano, who voiced Mumei and Biba respectively.
Because of our discussions, the scene in the final episode where Mumei stands off against Biba was even more affectionate than I had imagined. The voice actor’s technique allowed Biba’s love for Mumei to saturate his voice. We even changed the images of the scene to something that was kinder and more gentle than the original. The voice actor performed his role with all his heart, and his efforts came around to the effect the story itself. Being able to experience that made me feel that life was indeed worth living.
-- To Mumei, Biba was an important character that she needed to part from. His contrast against Ikoma also appears to be an important element that was emphasized. When Ikoma was twelve, he left behind his younger sister who was bitten by a Kabane and lived on carrying an incredible sense of guilt. When Biba was twelve, he was the one who was left behind in a battlefield overrun by Kabane. Both of them are fueled by their fear and warped emotions, but they present themselves in opposite ways. Because of this composition, Mumei becomes trapped between the two as they face off against each other.
Araki And that’s exactly what I was hoping the audience would think about when I worked on the series. Honestly, I wanted to spend more time developing Biba as a character. Like I said before, that wasn’t possible under the length limitations of television series. As a creator, there’s nothing quite as embarrassing as the need to explain what I couldn’t convey adequately. If I could go ahead and explain something, I would have to say that the real enemy isn’t the Kabane, it’s everyone’s personal fears. As revealed in the story, it’s part of Kabane nature to gather around sources of fear. This series is about people who face their fears, and how they fight back.
During his monologue in the first episode, Ikoma talks about how the key to living on is not to hide and protect oneself but to fight the Kabane without faltering at all. Biba doesn’t know about Ikoma’s thoughts, but there’s a scene where he says the same thing to Ikoma despite the fact that they’ve never even met. The thought processes of Ikoma and Biba are essentially the same. What’s differentiates them is how well they treat others. Still carrying the guilt of abandoning his sister, Ikoma vows never to repeat the same mistake, and never to leave anyone behind again. Biba, on the other hand, was the one who was abandoned. To bring forth justice, he believes that casting away others is necessary. Their thoughts cause them to treat Mumei differently, and also generate conflict between them. Having said that, Biba always knew that he was very similar to Ikoma since they first met. He was aware that their circumstances and experiences were very much alike. In front of Mumei, he pretends not to care about Ikoma, whom he's so similar to. However, he's always cruel to Ikoma and tests him to see what he’s truly capable of.
-- In episode ten, Ikoma starts a rebellion together with Takumi and the others after being captured. There is a scene where Biba - who knows all about the group’s plans - replaces the escape key with a fake in advance. In reality, Biba could have prevented the rebellion altogether. Was this another one of his tests?
Araki At that time, Biba bluntly declared that Ikoma had “failed” the test because he believed Ikoma - who was so similar to himself - could have done much more. One of the things he could have done was question the authenticity of the fake key, but he didn’t. Biba wondered if that was the limit of Ikoma’s abilities, and became truly disappointed in him. Biba has personal fears that he could never overcome, though. He understands that he’s a coward, and devotes all his attention in hiding his fear. The same cannot be said for Ikoma. From the start, he performed his duties while knowing precisely who he should point his weapon towards, and stood up against murderous groups of people who would kill others in fear that they were possibly Kabane. That’s what made the difference in the final battle between Ikoma and Biba. It was about whether or not they could overcome their personal fears and be brave enough to look death in the eyes. I believe that the moment we become willing to sacrifice our lives without hesitation, we become “something significant”. I placed those thoughts into these two characters. If I had more airtime to work with, I could have shown the world from Biba’s perspective. I could have also made the audience feel like they had a clearer and richer experience after they finished the series… There are hints available here and there, so I hope you’ll take the time to watch the series again.
Even Imposed Kindness Could Become Someone's Salvation
-- Mumei is twelve years old, and the age of Ikoma and Biba when they had their defining experiences was also twelve. Do you have any emotional attachments to that specific age?
Araki I didn’t intend on making the ages the same - that’s just the way it turned out to be. For Mumei, it was necessary to add the element of uncertainty to her true identity. Mumei is caught in her doubts as she stands between Biba and Ikoma, who are her fatherly figure and her new reliable partner that she found for herself. She's a girl who had completely accepted the values that were taught to her, but she comes to realize that there's more than what she was told. She becomes capable of choosing her own values, and in that moment, she becomes an adult. I thought that the age of twelve was perfect for this transformation. It’s the age where people repeat what they were taught in school as if it were all correct and just, but also begin to develop their own conscience. I consider it to be the age when people begin to solidify their identity for the very first time. Without realizing it, I guess those thoughts turned up in Ikoma and Biba as well.
-- Does the confidence in one’s identity affect how they can stand up to their fears? Maybe Biba was unable to treat people kindly and chose to turn others away because he could not accept himself. He could not accept a boy who was betrayed by his own father. If his behavior is a result of his efforts to protect his identity, this series may be about more than just Ikoma and Mumei. It would be about Biba’s salvation as well.
Can Ikoma protect Mumei’s wishes and grant her happiness?
Araki That could be true. However, Ikoma didn’t think the way that you do. Even in the final episode, Ikoma still knows so little that it’s truly laughable. When he received from Mumei a stone that he considered to be lost, he had no idea how the stone made it back to him. Of course, he didn’t have the slightest clue about the emotions and thoughts behind it all. He wasn't even touched by the fact that he got the stone back since his mind went blank just before that step. Mumei was the only one who understood it all and laughed. I thought the last scene was tranquil and just right the way it was. I do enjoy feelings of happiness that are lukewarm.
Masafumi Mima was the sound director of the series. During the dubbing process, he would often tell Ikoma’s voice actor Tasuku Hatanaka that he (Ikoma) was an idiot, so he shouldn’t spend too much time thinking [laughs]. Ikoma is a simple-minded character who does save plenty of other people, but that just how things happened to turn out. Unlike Biba, he doesn’t plan out all his actions and move according to his designs. When he said that Hozumi, Mumei’s real name, was given to her so that she could eat lots of rice, he was just making it all up himself. There’s no proof that he’s correct. When he promises to let Mumei have as much rice as she wants, he isn’t thinking about Mumei’s feelings. Instead, he’s simply imposing his way of life onto her. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, though. I believe even there’s always value in kindness, even when it’s imposed. Also, I feel that such kindness could possibly become the salvation that someone might need. Sure, Ikoma’s promise were one-sided and forced onto Mumei, but it made her happy. I think her attitude came around and saved him. People help Ikoma because he is a man who remains focused on what he believes in and moves forwards based on those firm beliefs. To keep the promises he makes, he’s willing to risk even his life. I think Ikoma is fine the way he is. It all connects to the charm that he has. I know I’ve said this before, but my greatest wish for this series was to allow Ikoma and Mumei to be loved. The fact that they are loved is the most significant gain I’ve made from working on this series.
Interview conducted at WIT STUDIO on November 17, 2016
Text by Momo Tachibana
Photography by Toru Fujii
Translated by Tokyo Otaku Mode Inc.
*Translator’s Note: The kanji characters that make up “Hozumi” can be interpreted as “a stockpile of grains”.
“Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress”
Born in 1976 in Saitama Prefecture. Works as an animation director and a producer. After graduating from college, he started working at Madhouse and later resigned in 2010. He currently works as a freelancer. Some of his most significant titles as a director include “DEATH NOTE”, “Guilty Crown”, and “Attack on Titan”. In 2013, he won the Director's Award for “Attack on Titan” in the Newtype x Machi Asobi Anime Awards 2013. With the same title in 2014, he won the Director’s Award in the Anime of the Year Division of the Tokyo Anime Award Festival 2014. The anime, script, and music of “Attack on Titan” also won much praise and various other awards including the Animation Kobe Award and the 36th Animage Anime Grand Prix.