On 27 October 2020, Netflix held the Netflix Anime Festival 2020 where the streaming platform revealed its line-up of upcoming anime releases, such as Rilakkuma’s Theme Park Adventure, Thermae Romae Novae, High-Rise Invasion, Thus Spoke Kishibe Rohan, and The Way of the Househusband. With a total of 16 announced titles, Netflix restated its commitment to develop even more original anime projects for the platform, to fans all over the world.
KAORI Nusantara along with other media had the opportunity to join the roundtable interview session after the event with Netflix Chief Producer of Anime Taiki Sakurai, David Production Producer Shuichiro Tanaka, and Thermae Romae mangaka Mari Yamazaki. The interview was facilitated and translated by representatives of Netflix.
What can be done in anime as a medium that is hard to accomplish in live-action?
Mari Yamazaki: The work I create is two-dimensional so I’ve never really thought about whether it should be adapted into anime or live-action. Thankfully, my manga was previously made into a live-action film and seen by a lot of people. My background is in oil painting, so I have always been inspired by the power of art. I think for people to create moving images like that requires a huge imagination and a lot of creativity, which I feel is something very important. I think animation itself is a groundbreaking medium in the history of culture. Getting to see Thermae Romae not just as live-action but also in animation form, which are moving images, is something I’m excited about.
Shuichiro Tanaka: In Japan, we have traditional artworks such as the chōjū-giga and ukiyo-e. Instead of creating something very realistic, it’s closer to impressionism. Depending on one’s perspective, that approach can feel even more real and be even more expressive compared to live-action, which is what I have felt when watching animation since I was a child. Animation projects also involve a lot of people, and each one of those people gets to contribute their own ideas and knowledge into the work, which culminates into the final result. I think that process of creating animation work is very appealing to me.
Taiki Sakurai: I get this question a lot. I’ve been wondering about the answer to that myself, but I feel that for me, the answer is that animation is about creating characters. When you create a live-action work, people tend to see “Oh, he’s Caucasian, he’s from Asia, he’s Japanese.” But in animation, because what you see is a character that’s drawn, you see that “person” in an animation context and don’t necessarily think of their nationality or cultural background and such. So by creating this character that is drawn, people can relate to it from a more universal point of view.
What made you agree to enter the partnership with Netflix? Can you share more about the project you’re working with Netflix?
Mari: When Netflix first approached me, they told me that the work will be released all over the world in hundreds of countries. I’ve never imagined that my work would be watched by so many people around the world simultaneously. I’ve traveled a lot in my life, and I often have to try to explain what kind of work I do to people, to their confusion. But if my work is on Netflix, then it would be really nice that people will get the chance to see my work without me having to explain it.
Also, Netflix is a platform where you really don’t have to think about things like the sponsors or brands involved, so you have a lot of creative freedom. For example in Japan, you always would have to think about how other people would react to it or whether it’s politically correct or not. But with Netflix, I’m able to create the work freely. It’s very liberating.
What differences are there between producing a Netflix Original anime and producing an anime for domestic broadcast in Japan?
Shuichiro: In regards to the animation process itself, I don’t think there’s much of a difference between the two. However, when working with Netflix, your approach to producing the work might be different. For example, the meetings for regular anime productions usually are divided and sectionalized. But working with Sakurai-san, every information needed is available in one meeting. Also, the fact that the work reaches people living in 190 different countries is amazing.
Mari: How it reaches out to people in many different countries. With traditional broadcasting, it’s often the case that the show would first be broadcasted in Japan, with only the possibility that it might be aired in other countries. But with Netflix, the moment it’s released on the platform, then it’s automatically available to people around the world. That’s quite amazing, and I feel that’s how it’s supposed to be. I think that’s pretty fitting for our times, for it to go beyond the limitations of traditional broadcasting and the borders between countries. There’s a lot of infinite possibilities that I feel when working with Netflix.
What sort of trends in anime of you think has changed in the past decade, if any?
Shuichiro: That’s a tricky question to answer, and reminds me of the questions I’ve received over the years. For instance, in North America and China, we might say that the narou-kei type of works is still popular. That is one of the phenomena we’ve seen in the past few years. But the daily life genre is also one of the genres that still quite popular and relevant in Japan. In terms of what genres are relevant and popular, it’s the same across the board in anime, comics, and even light novels.
Those kinds of changes are one thing, but having said that, we also see works that can fit into multiple genres. So while the fact is that there are trends of leaning towards certain genres, I do think those genres itself are evolving. And the fact that those genres are undergoing such evolution is perhaps the biggest change we’ve seen.
Mari: That’s difficult for me to answer as I don’t reside in Japan for the most part, so I can’t really say nor have I kept up with the latest happenings in Japanese anime. But what I do see makes me feel very surprised that it has evolved so much. In the past, I was amazed by works such as Ghibli movies with their colourful hues, but now it seems that many people are able to utilize such colourful elements in their work and create such smooth movements in their moving pictures.
Comparing it to the anime I saw in the 1970s, the evolution that has taken place is quite significant. The analogue anime I watched is quite nostalgic for me, but seeing some of the anime today can give me that same nostalgic feeling. So I think now we are in the phase where anime itself as a medium has reached another level of maturity.
In the future, will Netflix embrace and utilize new technologies for projects, such as Sol Levante? How does Netflix intend to do so?
Taiki: In regards to using hand-drawn animation, there would be no change to that. But perhaps we can change the workflow, the number of people involved, or maybe duties and roles that have been segregated in the past can be unified to create a better way to produce the anime.
So changing the traditional workflow is something that we are considering. Exploring the combination of computer graphics and hand-drawn animation is another thing that’s on my mind. Producing anime in 4K definition, of course, is one of the things that we definitely have wanted to try such as with Sol Levante. We would like to embrace various technologies and methods in creating and producing anime. Using Unreal Engine, or maybe utilizing artificial intelligence is also another area that we could explore.
As a manga artist, do you intentionally create your works with a global audience in mind?
Mari: When you create manga, you do have to think about how it will be received when shown to the general public. I’ve been living outside of Japan since I was 17 years old, and I’m now 53 years old. Having gone around various different countries, I don’t necessarily view my identity as being just purely Japanese. I’ve embraced a comprehensive view of looking at the world from my experiences, which I find important, so I think that is represented in my works.
What is the role of Netflix in the anime industry and what changes in the industry do you foresee with Netflix’s presence?
Shuichiro: I’m quite the polar opposite of Yamazaki-san as I’ve lived in Japan my whole life. But even with such an individual like myself involved in Netflix’s anime work here in Japan, I can see from working closely with Netflix that the global influence has made its way into how we work here. I used to work in the toy industry, and back in the 1990’s you could find (retail toy store chain) Toy’s”R”Us even in suburban areas in Japan. I thought that the toy industry in Japan has truly become part of a global one, and that kind of feeling is what I feel in the anime industry today. In terms of the works we create, the fact that they will be distributed in 190 countries means that even living here in Japan we feel so closely connected to the outside world. I think the work we do enables collaboration with people who are very global in nature.
Anime is very much deeply rooted in Japanese culture. In the future, will you consider working with creators outside of Japan to create works which transcend that?
Taiki: Of course. We very strongly intend to do so, in fact among the titles from today’s event there are such productions where the director and showrunner are not Japanese, but the production company is in Japan. Or maybe the director and screenwriter are Japanese, but the production is made in Taiwan. Another work has an American producer and Australian composer, so it’s quite the international team. We already considered, and in some cases, already work with companies from Southeast Asia. As Tanaka-san says, it’s truly borderless.
It’s a truly international effort with Netflix having its hub in Japan, but also being able to utilize the capabilities of various studios in Asia, or maybe even further in Europe and the United States. The ability to create such an international team to produce work is an advantage and benefit of working with Netflix. Building those bridges and connecting those talents is something we intend to keep working on.
How important it is to be true to the original work when creating an adaptation based on manga? With many fans of the original work around the world, do you feel pressure when working on such a project?
Shuichiro: I do feel a lot of pressure from when you work on an adaptation from a manga that has a lot of fans. In the case of David Production, we hold planning meetings for several days where the directors, producers, planners, writers, and sometimes animators take part to discuss things like what is the core of the story we’re trying to tell, what is it do we want to achieve when making the anime from the original manga. For example with Jojo’s Bizzare Adventure: Golden Wind, we did an actual trip to Italy where the story is set. These are the kinds of things we discuss, then pass on to the production team so that we can say with confidence that we are being true to the original manga.
Mari: What I draw is two-dimensional, and when it becomes, say, a live-action film, the work moves into the hands of someone else and evolves into something different, so I don’t feel particularly protective of the original story. I just hand it over to the next creator for them to use as a tool in expressing their art form. In my case, because I draw a lot of history-themed manga, I research a lot of books and drew my version of things from my own interpretation and perspective. It’s the same process when creating something, so I don’t feel that strongly on whether the animated version of my manga should be like this or that. I want the creators of those project to express it in their own unique ways.
But also, as it’s on a global platform, maybe something that is drawn from a Japanese perspective might have a certain interpretation that differs from others, for example when it comes to things like religious depictions of Christianity or Islam. What’s acceptable from one perspective could be received differently from another and become a source of conflict, so we need to be very careful about such depictions especially when it comes to historical facts. Of course, it varies from viewer to viewer so you shouldn’t think way too much about it, but there are things we should be careful about.
The Indonesian Anime Times | Interview and text by Caesar E.S. | This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity