Interview With Aria Directors Junichi Sato and Yoshimasa Hiraike
This fall, Nozomi Entertainment will begin re-releasing ARIA, the beautiful tale of 15-year-old Akari Mizunashi's journey to achieve her dream of becoming an "undine" - a female gondolier in the beautiful city of Neo-Venezia. To celebrate this new edition of the series, we're including an interview with the directors of the show, Junichi Sato and Yoshimasa Hiraike.
Tell us about your positions as directors.
Sato: It depends on the series, but I prefer to pass down my responsibilities to other people. (Laughs.) Before I do that, I always create a base for them to work on so they don't get confused or lost, though. Once they're given their tasks, I oversee their progress so that they don't stray too far from what I had in mind. However, it's important to give them some creative leeway. That's because if I'm too stringent and it doesn't turn out the way I want it, they'd just tell me to do it myself. (Laughs.)
Hiraike: I think one of the most amazing things about Sato as a director, is that once he gives a task to someone, he's able to let them have ownership over it until the very end.
Sato: I think that's because of my time at Toei Animation. At Toei, each series has a director, but every screenwriter also creates the episode as if they are the director. When you do that, there's a possibility that the characters' personalities can differ slightly from episode to episode. We were aware of that risk, but the strong consensus at Toei was that the screenwriters could handle everything themselves.
Hiraike: I think that approach is very unusual compared to other production companies. Usually, directors are very hands-on. In Sato's case, he's hands-off, but still hands-on enough to give direction and guidance. I guess both methods have their pros and cons.
Sato: Toei always had a system where the producer took on many of the responsibilities. Once the producer and the head writer finalized the framework, they'd discuss who the director should be. That's why at Toei, it was mostly the producer who was responsible for script content. When I left Toei, I was shocked. I thought, "The director has to do all that, too?!" (Laughs.)
What was your vision for the screenplay?
Sato: Whenever I'm the screenwriter, this is how I approach it. First, the director creates a story that best embodies the core concept of the project. Then, as the director's right hand man for that episode, I do my best to get it as close to that director's vision as possible. This applies to both original shows, and shows based on manga. My goal is to deliver an episode where people think the director worked on it him or herself. In that sense, it's easier to work with directors who have a clearly defined style, such as Hideaki Anno and Yoshiyuki Tomino. On the other hand, when I'm the director, I'm very conscious about providing something that the screenwriter can experiment with, but only if the show we're working on allows for it. If I'm told, "This is how I'd like the series to be," I try to respect that vision as much as possible.
Hiraike: Unlike Sato, I don't have a clearly defined vision as a screenwriter yet. For example, with ARIA, first I tried to get a sense of what Sato wanted to express, and I challenged myself to create something within that framework to the best of my abilities. I believe it's a learning experience that will make me better as a screenwriter. I'd be getting ahead of myself by calling myself the director's right-hand man, like Sato. (Laughs.)
Did you feel the screenplay for ARIA was unique?
Hiraike: When I was working on the screenplay, one of the biggest elements was the music. Anime is two dimensional, but I felt the music made ARIA three- dimensional. And that's exactly why there's so much depth to the series. If there's ever another season of Sketchbook, I definitely want to try doing something similar with the soundtrack. And after it's done, I'd like to go out for drinks with Sato and ask him if I was successful or not. (Laughs.)
Sato: No comment. (Laughs.)
Hiraike: Ehh? (Laughs.)
Sato: (Laughs.) He's right, though. I was convinced from the start that music would play an especially important role in ARIA. You know how the impression of a picture can completely change with music, right? Well, I guess that's a given, but that's exactly why there's music playing in so many scenes. Even the simplest scenes have music playing in the background.
Hiraike: You're always really conscious about music in your shows, right?
Sato: No show is complete without music, so I think it's normal to be conscious about it. But a show like ARIA is rare, because I had to view the music as "part of the picture."
Hiraike: It's just my opinion, but I think there aren't many directors like Sato, who are conscious about how sound is incorporated into the picture. The same goes for Kaleido Star. You let me handle the editing, but you were always there for anything sound related. Most directors do the editing themselves and leave the recording sessions to the Sound Director, so your style is kind of unusual. I think Sato does this, not because he doesn't trust the Sound Director, but because he places so much emphasis on sound when creating a show.
Sato: My thought process is that each part - scripting, storyboarding, drawing, recording - are all moving forward toward the final editing process of adding the sound effects and voiceovers. Once the sound is added the episode is complete, so I get really nervous if I'm not there during the recording and sound editing sessions. I'm like "What's going on?!" (Laughs.) Also, I've actually grown accustomed to playing music while storyboarding. If there's a song I want to use, I check the length of the song and figure out how many seconds into the song the chorus is. Then I build up the storyboard to the chorus, and edit it so it matches. It feels great when it all comes together. (Laughs.) Once you do this you can't go back.
Hiraike: You mean you construct the scene based on the song?
Hiraike: I can't even fathom doing that. When I worked on the screenplay for ARIA The NATURAL, I was really conscious about the pacing.
Sato: Yeah, you kind of second guess yourself at first. I remember Shigeru Nishikawa, the Editor, looking really worried during the editing sessions. (Laughs.) He said, "Are you sure you want them staying still for eight seconds?!" (Laughs.) Hiraike: Yeah, the show practically moves at the same pace as Akari.
Sato: Exactly. It's really dangerous to carry that over into other shows though. (Laughs.) We have to be careful about that.
Hiraike: True, depending on the show people might throw a fit! (Laughs.)
Sato: I don't want people to misinterpret me, but the events in ARIA are only a means to show off the characters. The most important part of the show is the emotion and feelings it evokes. The quality of the episode is contingent on how well those two factors are expressed; the story is just a tool to achieve that. Under normal circumstances, you wouldn't think that would work for a thirty minute anime, but the manga pulls it off wonderfully, so I had no choice but to believe in it and do it.
What is ARIA's position as a series?
Sato: I'm sure it's changed slightly over time, but I don't have anything precisely in mind. The first season, ARIA The ANIMATION, was thirteen episodes long, and I wanted to try a lot of things differently. For instance, I wanted to try being both the director and the series supervisor. I only wanted to use voice actors who I had already worked with, which I don't normally do, and I wanted to place a lot of importance on how the music mixed with the footage, which I mentioned earlier. It all came together so well that when it was over, I still wanted to do more, and that's how season two, ARIA The NATURAL, took off.
What's the relationship between Supervisor and Director like?
Hiraike: Luckily, there were a lot of important things I had to take care of, so I didn't have the mental bandwidth to worry about what Sato thought as the Supervisor for Sketchbook. (Laughs.) I just worked on it, figuring he'd say something if he had a problem. Come to think of it, I doubt Sato would help me if I was stumbling. If I were about to break a bone, then maybe he'd help me?
Sato: Nope, after you broke your bone I'd say, "I knew you'd break a bone." (Laughs.)
Hiraike: (Laughs.) But I think that works, too. If he helped me while I was stumbling, it'd be good for the project, but I wouldn't grow as a director. Even if I stumble and fall, the most important thing is to get up on my own and follow though with the project as my own work. Sato has created a brilliant anime adaptation of ARIA. I want to do the same thing he did with my adaptation of Sketchbook.
Sato: In general, I try to keep quiet and be hands off, or else the director won't feel like they have ownership. Regardless of how it turns out, as a director you need to feel like you did everything you could.