Hisone to Masotan: Original Character Designer Aoki Toshinao & Character Designer Ito Yoshiyuki

Original interview here.

How to Express Gentleness In Anime

— We’ve heard that chief director Higuchi Shinji extended an offer to you. Do you think you can go into detail about that exchange?

Aoki: There isn’t much to talk about since one day I suddenly got a Facebook message from him. At first, I thought, what could Higuchi Shinji want with me (laughs)? Live-action movies are the first thing to pop into my head when I hear Higuchi’s name, so I wondered if maybe he wanted an animated scene somewhere in a new movie.

When I went to look at the message, he said he was working with Bones and wanted to request my work as the original character designer for an original anime. I was a bit confused.

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In an interview that you did before, you mentioned looking at fan art of the drama Ama-chan.

Aoki: Yeah. I was looking at a whole bunch of drawings I had done of Ama-chan, thinking about how I wanted to make those come to life right around the time that they were filming that interview. It was a realization of, oh it was thanks to Ama-chan!

— You didn’t talk about the design at the meeting?

Aoki: I don’t recall asking why this story landed in my hands but I felt like I owed it to Higuchi, Okada Mari, and Bones to give them my best designs. I initially drew beautiful designs and brought them with me, but they were looking for more of a rough draft.

When I drew Ama-chan’s fan art, it was a rough sketch, so I assumed that’s what they wanted. That’s why I couldn’t draw clean of lines after that (laughs), sorry.

Ito: Oh, no problem at all (laughs).

Aoki: I want to see how those extremely rough drafts would come across on screen, and after watching it twice at preview screenings I became a fan. Seeing them was refreshing.

— Ito, how did you come on board the project?

Ito: The same as always. Bone’s president Minami contacted me saying this was their next project and would I work with them.

— You’ve created characters from a blank slate before, and this might overlap, but what is the most important factor when working with original character designs.

Ito: I’ve worked on many shows that already had original character designs (Star Driver, Concrete Revolutio, etc.) and the most significant factor to be aware of is how to draw out the distinct quirk and style of the original art.

On top of that, because there will be a lot of animators working together, I have to look into whether it’s duplicatable or not. I’m only now finding out that Higuchi asked you for a rougher draft (laughs), but when I got my hands on your designs, they were a lot rougher than I imagined. That casual drawing was the style I wanted to preserve, so it was a question of how I was going to bring their gentleness to the anime.

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On the other hand, the drawings were too stylistic. They weren’t something that could be easily replicated. I wasn’t even sure it was a design I’d be able to draw, so while adjusting it, I tried to preserve and express the same feeling of the original. I would make the designs, and Aoki would make corrections as necessary.

Aoki: Thank you for listening to all of my nitpicking.

Ito: It was no problem at all. I was worried whether I would be able to express your designs into animation adequately.

— There is fun in taking an original character design and applying the tricks and trade of animation to them.

Ito: But the problem with that is you can’t see the real results until it’s up and fully animated. A character sheet is just a blueprint after all, so it isn’t much fun to draw.

Some of the emotions and facial expressions can only be expressed in the official character sheet — that character sheet is just a key after all. Just because the feelings are drawn in doesn’t necessarily mean the design can stand on its own. When I draw them, I make it feel like they’re alive. I want a character sheet that makes animators think, “I want to draw this!” This is true of everything I’ve worked on, but when I first saw the characters moving, I felt this would be a fun ride.

— I’ve heard before that there is no point in separating the work of the character designer and the key animation director, but you’ve worked as the chief key animation director and know all about that, correct?

Ito: For this project, the animator director is one of Bone’s animators, so I work mainly as a traffic control of sorts. I took Aoki’s rough drafts, made them animation friendly, and entered a key animation director state of mind to make the character sheet.

Now, I say all that, but the chief key animation director’s time was taken away by the sheer amount of material he had to oversee. Having to look at the ever-expanding pile of cuts by oneself is impossible, but that doesn’t stop it from happening (laughs bitterly).

— Was it difficult to enter into such a pictorial category?

Ito: I got used to it faster than I thought I would. They were amusing to draw and fun to try lots of different ideas. The range of Aoki’s character designs is enormous and have the potential to be expressive beyond what we can imagine. Discovering and drawing that is the fun part.

— Aoki’s rough sketches themselves had a vast range.

Aoki: I want to make it seem like they came out of a manga. I’m not sure if that has been done with anime before, but if it has, it was probably around the Shōwa Era.

In the first PV, when Liliko is all fidgety in the bathroom, that expression was one that I didn’t draw. That expression was one born from the extended range of the characters. It took me back (laughs).

— Stylistically, the art doesn’t match with the rest of the mainstream anime, but it still feels like it fits.

Ito: Because of that mismatch we had to be careful to tune into the characters. We even put a lot of focus into having their hair not sharp at the end. If we made everything as round as possible, we would be able to capture and express the gentleness of Aoki’s designs. I think that’s what separates it from other anime.

— Among the current revival boom, there might be some viewers that feel nostalgic watching this, while other viewers will think it has a newer feel to it.

Aoki: The show has all kinds of hooks to grab you in whether it be Koyama Shigeto’s dragon designs, Kawamori Shoji’s fighter jet designs, or the atmosphere Higuchi induces.

What if Nao acted like a delinquent?

— Aoki, you attended the scenario meetings, correct?

Aoki: Yeah, I was free.

(Everyone laughs)

Aoki: With how the story progressed the character designs had to keep rolling out. I didn’t want to bring my work home with me though, so I ended up designing at the meetings.

While there, I listened to Higuchi and Okada Mari’s ideas, if necessary I would have them show me a picture of what they were thinking, and then I would draw on my iPad Pro. They would have a look and make decisions right then and there. If we were doing the same exchange through email, there would be a limit to how quickly the response could come, so it was faster to draw in the meeting room.

— So, were there any characters created in the meeting room?

Aoki: Yeah. Only the first design was created at my house. Of course, I took other designs to finish at home, but the majority were decided at the meetings. Oh, and when they were talking about scenarios, I would draw up whatever I felt the scene needed (laughs). I went off on my own a lot.

— That would certainly expand on the discussion.

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Aoki: There is that, but when we first thought up Nao she wasn’t a delinquent. When I drew her, I thought it would be funny if she were a delinquent and before I knew hit her character and the story moved in that direction.

— Ito, as the chief key animation director, who on the staff would you say you interacted with the most?

Ito: A single person doesn’t make animation, so it’s bad news if I lack communication with one group over another. No matter what position I’m in, I’m always in contact with others while creating.

First I finish the storyboard, then I meet with each of the respective episode animation directors, and we decide on the color settings for the characters. Once they finished their episode, I give any necessary corrections, and repeat that process over and over again.

— Now, you’re not just correcting the keyframes, right? You’ve got your hands in various parts of the project.

Ito: That’s right. I’m the one who is most accountable for the keyframes so until everything is composited together I hold responsibility.

— What would you say is the distinctive feature of this anime that brings the animation to life?

Ito: We actually did the voice recordings first with the expressions loosely conveyed on the rough animation clip for the VAs. From there the animators and post-production could expand on those emotions. I requested to do it that way because it seemed like a refreshing change of pace. In every meaning of the phrase, Hisomaso is a conglomeration of many people’s ideas.

— So that’s why the characters are so lively.

Ito: Well, it’s often the case that there isn’t enough time, so recording voices first isn’t all that rare (bitterly laughs). Before we deferred to the voice acting, we could put in their lines and make adjustments to the timing and storyboards, which was a big help. Usually, there’s only one chance to make edits, but we were able to solidify our corrections and create a fine balance.

Aoki: Nao’s face at the end of episode one, when she was picking a fight was terrific.

Ito: The animators did a great job with that.

Aoki: Are those movements something you had in mind from the beginning?

Ito: With anime, you draw the overlaying movements at the same time as the background rough draft. You add in the characters and the director or producer decide on the movement direction. As someone who often gets to add the last bit of finishing touches, I decided it would be best to leave it to the key animators. There’s a wide array of ideas, which gives it its film-like feel.

Aoki: You don’t say? If it were a manga, all the characters would be drawn by one person in a single frame-of-mind, but having a collective effort is entertaining too. It was fun watching expressions appear that I would never have thought to express.

Ito: The director Kobayashi Hiroshi was in control of the amplitude, so I was revising to line up with his ideas.

The Desire To Make Hisone Weird

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— Alright, let’s talk about each of the characters, starting with Amasake Hisone.

Aoki: I didn’t have much information to work with for Hisone, so I asked if my sketch was ok and rolled with it (laughs). Her side bangs were based on Kathy’s hair from Animal Treasure Island (1971). That’s about as much intensive thought that went into her design.

— Aren’t her pupils a little small?

Aoki: You’re right. Initially, they were big, but every revision they got smaller until she was stuck with an eternally puzzled face. When I first received her official character expression sheet, I worried that part way through she would become an expressionless character.

Thankfully, she was given a wide range of expressions once animated. I was like, my goodness! Who knew this was possible? If I drew her pupils big, she would end up as your stereotypical cute character, but with smaller pupils, she seemed a little off — which is what I wanted. She’s cute, but in a turtle-on-its-back kind of way (laughs).

Ito: Hisone was the first character Aoki, and I finalized after some back and forth. It was hard finding a good balance for the expressions. If we buckled up and hammered out the details first, though, it could be our model for the other characters. I’m glad we were able to agree on his drawings. Without solidifying Hisone, we wouldn’t have been able to get the ball rolling.

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— There was such a range of expressions that as long as you finished her, everything was ok.

Ito: Perfecting the spacial balance when her eyes were closed was difficult. They turned into something you don’t see in anime much anymore. It’s very reminiscent of the Shōwa era (laughs).

Aoki: That’s what I wanted (laughs).

— Continuing, tell us about Kaizaki Nao.

Aoki: As we said before, she wasn’t initially set to be a delinquent. She was supposed to be Hisone’s rival, and only after did she evolve into a delinquent character. We also planned for her only to have pigtails, but she wouldn’t be able to wear her hat around the base, so we walked that one back. We decided on her current design, and it’s a good fit for her delinquent style when coupled with her animal print clothes and gestures.

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Ito: The animators find her amusing, so her gestures and movements are well done.

Aoki: Like her facial expressions and punk walk (laughs).

Ito: No matter who you ask, they’ll say Nao is the cutest. She’s especially popular amongst the female animators.

Aoki: If you ranked the five girls Nao is the forerunner by far. Everyone else is with Hisone (laughs).

— Was there anything you got hung up on while designing?

Ito: Regardless of the character, Aoki had some difficulty, so I put all my attention into the anime versions. It was surprisingly enjoyable.

Aoki: When I watched the first and second episodes I thought, “are these really the faces I drew?”(laughs). Nao’s glare was hilarious — I was in awe. I work on manga, so I used it as a reference. I might be the one behind these characters, but with all they have to offer I wouldn’t mind working on a side story next (laughs).

— Next, can you tell us about Hoshino El?

Aoki: El underwent the most drastic design changes. The current El has a tomboy spirit to her, but she was not always like that. Oh, but her breast sized never change.

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— How did she change?

Aoki: Her initial design was a girl that never gave up, but could never catch a break. Like she would try and be cool, but life would rain buckets on her parade. That didn’t fit the natural story progression, however, so she became the El we have now.

Ito: In the first half of the show, El isn’t very expressive. She’s a pretty standard character to draw. The problem was that Aoki was coming up with a change to the design practically every week. I wondered when he would calm down and just held onto the designs until he finally decided (laughs).

Aoki: I’m so sorry (laughs)!

— How about Kinutsugai Liliko and Hitomi Mayumi?

Aoki: Liliko was decided straight from the get-go. We thought it would be best to draw her eyes in the same outlandish fashion as the main character from the TV drama version of Ninja Hattori (1966). After hearing the director talk about her pessimism, we offered up the sketch, and she was decided. The VA Arai Satomi breathed in a side of Liliko that I wasn’t expecting at all. It was a moment of, “so this is what Liliko sounds like (laughs)!” It’s interesting to see what side of the characters the voice actors can bring out that I would never have imagined.

Initially, Hitomi Mayumi’s hair looked different. It was Okada Mari that mentioned there should be a character with the unkept wild hair look, so we changed it. The problem was the Self Defence Force (SDF) requires all long hair to be tied up and when we did that she looked like a granny. We reworked it many times, but no matter what, hair up Mayumi always looked older.

— Are there scenes with her hair down?

Ito: Yes. Not while at work, but when she goes out drinking or during her private time. Everyone lets their hair down then.

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Aoki: Basically, we drew her alternate hairstyle before her official one.

— Do you have anything more to say about those two?

Ito: Drawing Liliko was second nature, but working on Mayumi was a struggle. I personally struggled with finding the right balance for her. That’s what it means to be a character designer though. There is always at least one character that you struggle creating. This time it was Mayumi.

Aoki: I get that. It’s a complicated balancing act between looking cute and looking too elderly.

Ito: Your sense of balance is superb. Looking at the storyboards, you can get a feel for how the character would act and take that into account on top of expressing their personality. Just relying on the character sheet can’t keep up.

Aoki: I guess you’re right. The character sheets that you sent cleared up places to improve, but there were times that I couldn’t make a decision. Like putting thick outlines is all situational in anime, but I’m not accustomed to it so I couldn’t make a solid decision.

When you see it move you have a lot more understanding of what input is necessary. That’s why it’s not finished until it’s seen in motion. Anime is something to be seen in action. You can’t skip that step (laughs).

— Are there any other characters you want to discuss?

Aoki: I get a lot of request for female characters, but because the setting of the story is the SDF there are a lot of male characters. Those were interesting to draw… I’ve never drawn a character like Sosoda Hiroshi before, but he turned out amusing. Otonogi was modeled after Yasuda Tatsuhiko (Issey Takahashi) from Shin Godzilla with his hair styled to the front, kind of like an otaku. In the end, he doesn’t give off those vibes, but it’s Higuchi’s work so I thought I’d keep it. I’ve also never drawn a handsome devil character like Ikushima, so that was fun.

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— Ito, is there anything you want to bring up about the designs?

Ito: I wanted it to feel like the characters were standing on set for a film instead of merely existing. This especially true with the story taking place in modern times, it’s easy to get a feel for their lifestyle.

Aoki: In the very beginning we talked about making the characters fit with the backgrounds. If not, it would feel like they’re just floating through their surroundings. I didn’t fully grasp what that meant so I left it to you, and you took it out of the park.

— Chief director Higuchi said that the anime progressed based on your drawings, is this true for the dragons as well?

Aoki: A lot of people come up to me saying, “Oh Masotan is so cute!” but the thing is I didn’t design him (laughs). Looking online I see a lot of people drawing Masotan — he’s really popular — but no one is drawing Hisone (laughs). But I agree. Masotan is cute!

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Ito: We were lucky to have the likes of Aoki, Koyama, and Okama to focus on their specific lines of work. With me working on the character sheet I think we were able to get a nice balance.

The backgrounds also weren’t digitally gradated, but hand-drawn. Everything was drawn on paper. It’s like we were back to the days of cel animation. If you look closely, you can see the paper’s texture, and that works to its advantage. With the characters in that setting, everything melts together, but you can still distinguish them. That was all accomplished by bouncing ideas back and forth with the background artist.

I learned while working in the cel animation days, so it was a walk down memory lane for me, but it’s hard on those that have no experience. Regardless, the background designer put his best foot forward and created something amazing.

Aoki: It’s a hybrid of Shōwa and Heisei eras. The fact that animation can be detailed to that level is really something.

— Well then, a word for the fans, please.

Aoki: Well, it’s entertaining, so please watch!

Ito: Well put. Please watch it!

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