Scotland Loves Anime 2012: Day 3, Naoko Yamada Q&A session

The brief question and answer session after the screening of the K-On movie yesterday was preceded by the announcement that a further, dedicated event would take place the next day. Free but ticketed, it was an unmissable opportunity to get an insight into what K-On was like to develop as well as working for one of the premier animation studios, Kyoto Animation.

Starting off with a message from Andrew Partridge, the festival organiser, that there should be no recording of any kind: video, audio or photographic. This reinforced yesterdays message passed down from the production company and with news that it would be enforced this time around, the message was loud and clear. (This means except for authorised stills if they are ever released, no photos on this post)

  1. Early life
  2. Joining Kyoto Animation
  3. Her time as director
  4. Audience questions
  5. Wrap up

Jonathan Clements started off by revealing that last year's event with Ryosuke Takahashi (of VOTOMs fame) cost them at least £200 per minute when you included flights and translation, and combined with the production material the company wanted to show, the post-film session wasn't a great format, hence the extra Q&A only session this year.

Producer Yoshihisa Nakayama was on hand to steer any of the questions away from any topics that might not be suitable or wish to be discussed. Obviously nervous, Jonathan started by welcoming Naoko to London, which is a quite a way from Glasgow but it eased some of the tension which had built up during the introductions.

When asked how Naoko was finding Scotland, she replied that it was cold but she was impressed with the buildings and had already seen some [Charles Rennie] Mackintosh pieces. On the subject of photos - as this was still technically a business trip - she said she would have to check with Nakayama but was sure he had taken more photos than she had.

Early life

Easing in to the more focused questions, Jonathan asked whether she had been in any school clubs having tried (and failed) to join the Chess / Shogi club when he was in Japan. In primary school she had been in the volleyball club, in highschool the tennis and photography clubs, in university the "special effects" club which was in the same vein as Ultraman / super sentai shows.

Obviously leaning more towards film at that point, for a while it was what she wanted to do after graduating. But she had always loved to draw, copying Dragonball and Patlabor from TV when she was young, however in highschool she somewhat lost sight of that passion and despite wanting to go into film after University, she saw the advert for Kyoto Animation and got her first job. Well, she first worked at a bakery but that wasn't revealed until later.

Some light hearted banter between Jonathan, Bethan (Jones, the superb translator) and Naoko ensued with mentioned of a comedy show Naoko had liked (Highschool Kimengumi) about a group of five boys who continually flunk in school, ending up still there in their twenties. Jonathan mentioned that Naoko's University subject - oil painting - would be hard to animate, a nightmare inbetweening an oil painting.

Did her parents supporting her choice of University subject? Definitely, and her father loves drawing and painting so they were both very supportive.

Joining Kyoto Animation

Providing some background to his next question, Jonathan mentioned that in the very early days of animation (1923-1950) Kyoto was the centre of anime, however that has now moved to Tokyo. Being born in Gunma, now living in Kyoto and despite Kyoto Animation counter-intuitively being well outside of Kyoto, Naoko didn't even think of working in Tokyo.

Her first job when joining the studio was as an inbetweener for Inu Yasha, and at the time there were only around 150 people in KyoAni but with 30-40 colleagues in the inbetweening section alone, with a general 60-40 split in favour of female staff. Despite when she joined, the studio had already switched to fully digital production meaning she never dealt with cel animation. Jonathan asked what software they used (thinkin that Yoshihisa would leap in to censor the answer) but they, like 80% of the other animation companies in Japan, use "Retas Pro".

Asking what her typical day was like, the blunt (and inadvertently hilarious) answer was: she gets in at 0930, works, has an hour for lunch, works, then leaves at 1830. This of course was a leader for the question as to whether KyoAni indulges in crunch time, or "killer weeks", which Jonathan explained was almost a policy for studios in Tokyo, with the women and married staff allowed to catch the last train home, while the single men were expected to work through the night.

Naoko responded by saying that image of sleeping at your desk was so cool! But KyoAni was nothing like that and sometimes worked slightly longer hours but on the whole not. There was the unspoken question as to whether this was simply the company voice but it's certainly hard to fault the studio for its continuously superb quality of output, a question an audience member would follow up on later.

Her time as a director

As for whether her work had a specific genre, perhaps aimed at the Noitamina demographic, or more specifically women? And in an oddity of translation, Jonathan mentioned she certainly wasn't working in hentai, to which she responded she preferred to be called hentai (weird) and even told her team: be more hentai! As for her genre, she says it's more about people, and the most important thing for her as a director is to watch people.

As to how she became a director - she was working as an episode director on Clannad and didn't feel particularly confident. So when one of her superiors asked to speak to her, she immediately began apologising only to be asked to direct the upcoming series, K-On. She was surprised, and accepted the position before any of her superiors had shown her the manga. It was a process she described as going from "hell to heaven".

Going back to the idea of her directorial style, she is very much a "method" director, preferring to get into the minds of the characters and although bits of her style may creep in, a creator "colouring" a work destroys the illusion. She would far rather hope that someone would watch her works, only to find out afterwards she had created them and for them to be their favourites. Naoko also mentioned the two types of directors: those who act as a cameraman and try to put their image on screen, and those who are actors and live within the characters.

For Jonathan's penultimate question as host, he asked Naoko whether she does much drawing now? In what seemed like a lengthy answer, she says it depends whether she's a director or an episode director. As the latter she oversees the general layout and though many episode directors draw important scenes, she however prefers to draw the rough movement and let others fill in. As a full director though she says she is far too busy to draw!

And her favourite and least favourite parts of being a director? The best part is meeting people, and having face to face conversations with animators, cameramen and music producers. The worst part is the difficult job of getting the idea she has in her head to the team.

Audience questions

Opening the floor to questions from the audience, the first one asked whether KyoAni had any foreign animators, and did Naoko have any advice for becoming an animator in Japan? Though the studio doesn't have any foreign animators at the moment it has had interns from America and Lebanon in the past. As for advice, the most important thing is to have passion (and to speak Japanese as Andrew Partridge eloquently put it).

Does Naoko have a project apart from K-On that is close to her heart - and as a supplementary question, does she like Kamen Rider? Her most treasured project will always be Air which was her first time as an animator, and she likes the older Kamen Rider which prompted a smattering of spontaneous applause from obvious fans.

An odd question followed, more of command really, to speak some of the Kansai dialect - one word seemed to satisfy the Japanese speakers in the audience.

Beginning with praise for the consistent quality of KyoAni's works, one audience member asked what makes the studio so different to others? A heartfelt thank you followed before a short spell thinking. Ignoring the obvious "boat loads of cash" response, Naoko said that it was likely because the studio had so many departments in one place with animation, colouring and filming (but not music) all under one roof, meaning there was a lot of intense face to face meetings.

Having come over to the UK and seeing our reactions, would she (and other staff) take the UK into consideration for their next projects? Naoko was touched by the response to her visit and was nervous to us watching K-On, worried that we'd walk out (as if!). Answering but at the same time avoiding the question, she said she would love to see us all again and to make something that we could all enjoy.

The next question was from a fan who had travelled from Japan and so with limited English, asked in Japanese whether Naoko would consider doing this kind of intimate question and answer session in Japan, seeing as it was all but unheard of over there? While she would love to do it, it is largely about the work schedule the staff maintain.

With time running out, the penultimate audience question was a simple "What anime do you like?" While K-On may have realistic characters she enjoys all sorts including fantasy shows with magic and faeries.

And the final question: given the restraints on resources, is a movie harder to make because you have more staff but similarly more resources? The movie apparently wasn't too hard as there were many talented staff in-house and her superiors essentially told her not to worry about the budget; but on the whole a movie isn't too different to a TV series.

Wrap up

With that, the question and answer portion ended and a brief signing session was held with people able to get their K-On related paraphernalia signed, or a Scotland Loves Animation programme guide if they hadn't brought anything.

As with the festival itself, a huge thanks to everyone who made this opportunity possible. Despite a slight case of the sniffles, it looked like Naoko had a great time meeting some foreign fans and it was fascinating to get an insight into an otherwise infrequently visited world. And of course, the best of luck with both Naoko's and Yoshihisa's future endeavours.