OTAQUEST CONNECT - Kenji Nagasaki & Masahiro Mukai

Kenji Nagasaki & Masahiro Mukai Interview Pt. 1 [OTAQUEST CONNECT Transcript]

If you’re an anime fan it’s pretty likely that you’ve encountered My Hero Academia in some form over the past several years. Since it’s debut in Weekly Shonen Jump back in 2014 it has become one of the most popular manga & anime franchises all around the world. With many of our staff also counting ourselves among the fanbase of the series, we were incredibly happy when directors Kenji Nagasaki and Masahiro Mukai answered our request to participate in OTAQUEST CONNECT! Between the two of them they have led the creation of 4 seasons of the anime and 2 movies at this point, and we were excited to sit down with them and ask them more about the development of the series, working with series creator Kohei Horikoshi, and some insights about the state of the anime industry as a whole. Below is the first part of a transcription of this interview, the second part to come soon!

OTAQUEST: I’m here with Mr. Kenji Nagasaki and Masahiro Mukai from BONES. They’re the directors of My Hero Academia and today we’re going to be talking about the development of the My Hero Academia anime, the movies, as well as a little bit about their history in the animation field as well. Thank you both for joining us today.

Kenji Nagasaki and Masahiro Mukai: Thank you for having us.

OTAQUEST: To start things off, can you share with us a little bit about what inspired you to get into the field of animation?

Kenji Nagasaki: When I was in high school, I watched Castle in the Sky by Hayao Miyazaki. Up until then, I had always liked movies, but after watching that movie I saw the amazing potential in anime and decided to join the industry. After that, I watched a number of different anime, and after watching Perfect Blue by Satoshi Kon I decided to join the animation studio MADHOUSE, where I currently work.

Masahiro Mukai: Japan was in this Gundam craze from slightly before I became an elementary schooler. Ever since I was little I would make the Gundam models. When I got to middle school Mobile Suit Victory Gundam began airing and I watched that every week, and every week it’d bring me to tears and it made me want to make something like that myself. Mr. Tomino [the director for Victory Gundam] said in an interview that if you want to make anime, you have to stop watching anime, so I followed that rule to a tee. I ended up joining Sunrise, the same studio Mr. Tomino was at, and until I got the job there, I basically refrained from watching any anime, and that’s how I got involved with making anime.

OTAQUEST: So, you started out as a fan of Gundam and was watching animation when you were younger, that’s really interesting. I think that having a background of being a fan of action series is really cool. It’s great that you’re moving into that kind of field. Being a fan of Gundam when you were a kid and working for SUNRISE, that must have been like a dream come true as your first job in animation, right?

Masahiro Mukai: You’re exactly right. The first show I worked on was Gundam SEED Destiny. So when I went to introduce myself as a new member of the staff working on Gundam SEED to Mr. Tomino, he gave me this scowl and a really nasty attitude, and that’s always stuck with me. I think when I left the Gundam SEED destiny team and that was when you and I switched teams and you joined on the Gundam Double O team at SUNRISE.

Kenji Nagasaki: Yes, I worked on Gundam for a short bit.

OTAQUEST CONNECT - Kenji Nagasaki & Masahiro Mukai
OTAQUEST: So, both of you have worked on a number of different properties before moving on to My Hero Academia. Mr. Nagasaki, you’ve been involved with the My Hero Academia series since the very beginning, and Mr. Mukai, you joined the production in season 3. Can you share with us a little bit about how you both came to join the production for My Hero Academia?

Kenji Nagasaki: I initially got the offer from Ooyabu producer at BONES. At that time, I knew that the manga was being serialized, so I read the original manga. The conclusion I came to while reading it, and I like hero stories so I may be a bit partial, but I found it really interesting that it was set as an academy. Shonen Jump is a manga magazine that I have been reading since I was a little kid, probably the same as Mr. Mukai, and I thought I’d like to make something that people could enjoy the way I enjoyed Jump comics when I was a kid, so I took the job.

Masahiro Mukai: I’ve been on board for the opening and the direction of episodes from season 3. At the time I was working as direction staff at Bones for the second season of Blood Blockade Battlefront, uh it should be Blood Blockade Battlefront Beyond. I was offered by producer Oyabu to serve as director starting from season four. He asked me if I had watched it, and of course, I knew what it was but I hadn’t watched it and I hadn’t read the manga either. So, in preparation of becoming director, I watched all of the episodes and read the manga until that point in a hurry. Me and Mr. Nagasaki are the same age, and as a result, we have the same idea of what a Shonen Jump manga is like based off the ones in our childhood. When I read those manga, I felt this is what I wanted to read in Shonen Jump and I even felt happy. I even cried a lot while reading some manga. So also feeling like I wanted to make those kinds of anime, I became the director and he became the chief director starting from season 4. That’s how I got this position.

OTAQUEST: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the ideal of Shonen manga or what JUMP manga should be like. Other series that BONES has done in the past such as Full Metal Alchemist and Soul Eater which started off as Shonen manga, those series would last up to 64 episodes for the series. My Hero Academia is not running in that same style, rather a split-core type of style. Do you think that the era of long-form anime where it runs for 64 episodes of even longer than that is over and we’re shifting into a new era? Also, what kind of advantages do you feel anime has when being developed in these shorter seasons?

Kenji Nagasaki: I don’t think it’s necessarily over. When I was a kid the majority of shows would last a whole year. While you can make a story spanning ten years in one season, the big benefit of having longer seasons is the ability for both the characters and the viewers to grow alongside one another. There are many people that are fans of that style, myself included. If things like the subject matter and broadcast times line up well, then I think those kinds of longer seasons are definitely still possible. While there are many good things about having a year-long run, the big reason why we do single seasons of 25 episodes now is mainly for quality control. In order to maintain a certain level of polish, even on shows that have a lot of action, and controlling the staff’s workload, we came up with 25 episodes being the best workload. However, I personally feel as though My Hero Academia is airing in the best way that’s suited to the show. Even with that, I don’t feel as though the era of a year-long Shonen anime is dead.

Masahiro Mukai: I mostly feel the same as Mr. Nagasaki. I feel as though making a year-long anime is totally possible, and is something I’d like to make. I think the fans would also appreciate that. However, regarding how Japan handles its way of doing television shows, you have people like us, who are creators. Then you have the people who sell the things we make. Then you have the viewers. The thing is, the people that sell the shows don’t think they’ll be as successful as maybe some American fans would believe. While the people doing the actual selling are doing their best to make sure it sells, the people approving that sale don’t have the same faith in the product. So, even if you want to make a long-form animation, this becomes an issue on the production end in Japan, but from our perspective we’d love to do a year-long anime. The longer season anime that we grew up watching, like Dragon Ball, Saint Seiya, Kinnikuman, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Fist of the North Star, would inevitably catch up to the manga that’s being made on a weekly basis. In order to keep that distance, they insert these original stories and use that as a form of filler, but from my perspective it’s different from the manga I was reading and made me feel disappointed. So, I feel one big merit of the current 25 episode system is so that the anime and manga can stay on even pacing with each other. I had worked on Sgt. Frog Keroro, a show that had ran for 7 years. Through that experience I was able to experience just how hard it is to have staff always excited to work when the seasons are longer. I feel that in order to keep the workplace environment healthy, this current 25 episode system is good.

OTAQUEST CONNECT - Kenji Nagasaki & Masahiro Mukai
OTAQUEST: Talking about the adaptation of My Hero Academia from the manga to the anime, Kohei Horikoshi is known for his really excellent artwork in the manga, and during the Shie Hassaikai Arc in particular, he used a lot of really detailed double-paged spreads in it. When you’re adapting the scenes from the manga like that, does it pose any challenges for you from the perspective of making sure that the quality of the art in the anime matches up to the quality of the art in the manga?

Masahiro Mukai: It was a pain. By having big panels, the number of panels you have to work with is less. My job is to fill in the gaps between panels in the manga. If the number of panels is less, that means there’s more stuff between the panels. However, you can’t just put the wrong thing in between the panels, so I did that while being very cautious. Another point is with manga you can change the emphasis of a scene by the size of the panel, but with anime, the size of the frame always stays the same. So, you can’t rely on the art to fully carry the weight of the scene. Even so, the viewers want to have the same experience of opening a double-page spread and the impact of that, so I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to balance the manga and anime and make that work and I took a lot of care with that. It was a huge challenge.

OTAQUEST: Interesting. So, speaking of balance, in a different sense but still kind of related to how you balance things form the manga to the anime. The manga of My Hero Academia draws a really tight balance between the story elements of it with UA and the villains and the world that everything is set in, the action elements that occur throughout the story and then representing the everyday life of all the students going to the school and other characters as well like the teachers and such. How do you decide what elements to take from the manga and adapt into the animation?

Kenji Nagasaki: One point that I think is really amazing about the show is that it follows both plot beads of it being a school environment and that it follows the adventures of hero characters, and the boy called Deku ends up being a part of both themes quite well so we take a lot of care not to undervalue the emotional growth he makes as a character and try to adapt the manga in a way in which we can expand it as animation.  The manga follows both their everyday lives and their action scenes pretty evenly, and when things go back to normal after a big event, it doesn’t go back to the way things were before because Deku has grown as a character. How his interactions with his friends and family change over time, and how that leads to another big event. The repetition of this cycle and the growth that Deku goes through as a character is something fascinating about the manga,  and the impact it has on those around him is something we strive to tell accurately. Also, every season we make sure to mix in more lighthearted times with the more serious times. We don’t tell a serious story for all 25 episodes of the season. The manga itself made a point of doing that, so we just stick to it to a tee.

Masahiro Mukai: Yes, me as well.

OTAQUEST: Moving on to the production a little bit, studio BONES has many really talented animators working on the projects and Yutaka Nakamura’s work in particular left a very strong impression that you can feel that his work made all the fights in My Hero Academia. How much freedom do you let the animators have when interpreting particular fight scenes and how much do you encourage them to go beyond what was seen in the manga?

Kenji Nagasaki: There’s a lot of different kinds of animators so I can’t make any blanket statements, but, for example, people like Yutaka Nakamura can hear what we want to have done and then he creates this big rough sketch and tells us how things would go, and then he’ll ask us if he can create a draft based on his sketch. Then we look at his draft and check to see if it follows the plot points we want and is able to portray what we want to have shown accurately. Through this back and forth, we get Mr. Nakamura to finish it up. Inversely, there are some that will draw the entire storyboard for us. Either way, we make sure to have good communication with our illustrators, and then we go from there. Sometimes we’ll have wonderful art but that doesn’t fit what we want, so we’ll have them re-do it. So it’s not as though they are able to do everything freely, rather we maintain communication as the foundation for how we create My Hero Academia and we search the best way for the adaptation.

Masahiro Mukai: If we’re talking about the difference in work between an animator and the director, the director’s job is to put guardrails up along the street. We won’t police how you drive, just that you do it within these boundaries. So when they say that they want to do something a certain way our job is to see if it fits within those guardrails. However, the number of animators that say how they want to express a scene is, like Mr. Nagasaki said, actually quite small. The number of animators who want to create and insert their artistic sense is small, but for directors, they are an incredibly appreciated group. If you could look at that as how we split the workload, I think it’s a bit easier to understand.

OTAQUEST CONNECT - Kenji Nagasaki & Masahiro Mukai

OTAQUEST: Earlier when we were talking about the length of Shonen anime and everything, you mentioned that often in the case of long-term stories the anime will catch up to the manga and an original story will be made. Where you haven’t had that happen with My Hero Academia, you did create two original stories in the movies for My Hero Academia. With Mr. Nagasaki maintaining your role as director as both of the movies were in production, how difficult was it for you to develop a full original film alongside a season of the TV anime? Did Mr. Horikoshi also have a lot of input on the story and the development of the film as well?

Kenji Nagasaki: I was the director of the TV series at the same time as being the director for the first movie and that was really tough, both on my body and schedule. I ended up getting sick from being overworked, and so that’s where Mr. Mukai came in and where the system we have today started. For the first movie, it was a health and scheduling matter. For the second movie, I had Mr. Mukai take care of the show while I focused on the movie. We also tend to split the staff between a show and a movie when working, so there’s a TV team and a movie team working on My Hero Academia, and I think we could work efficiently. As far as Mr. Horikoshi’s ideas are concerned, we tend to make a rough outline of what we want to do and then we have Mr. Horikoshi check and advise and do the character design and then we put a little more substance to that outline based on his advice and begin work. So, there are instances where a character was male became a female, and as a whole, he is able to look at our ideas from the viewer’s perspective and offer criticism, which is greatly appreciated.

You can catch the rest of this interview on October 2nd during our OTAQUEST CONNECT 1.11 Re-broadcast event, or check back in the coming weeks for the 2nd part of the transcription!

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