Sayo Yamamoto is, without a doubt, one of the most diversely talented individuals in the Japanese animation industry. She’s a woman shrouded in a veil of mystery, cast simply to ensure attention is set on her work, rather than herself as a creator. Set aside a few convention appearances, Sayo Yamamoto has always been one to ensure that her own hard work does all the talking she could ever need to do herself. That’s why when the unique opportunity to conduct the first ever English-language interview with Ms. Yamamoto presented itself, there was no way we would turn it down.
Even if you’re not familiar with Sayo Yamamoto as a person, it’s almost certain that you will be familiar with her works. From ‘Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine’ to ‘Michiko and Hatchin’, all the way to her more recent ‘Yuri!!! on ICE’, it would appear that everything Sayo Yamamoto touches is destined to turn to gold. She started off at the bottom and worked her way to the top, one step at a time. Unafraid to move forward without ever looking back, Ms. Yamamoto is more than just a role model for women, she’s a role model for society as a whole. Her signature style would go on to portray women as more than just side characters, but as powerful leaders that could do everything their male counterparts could and so much more.
Conducting the interview was Dai Sato, an individual who is equal parts a collaborator and friend of Sayo Yamamoto’s. In the past, the pair worked together on animated treasures such as ‘Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine’, ‘Samurai Champloo’, and ‘Space Dandy’, amongst a diverse list of other titles. The interview had a distinct air to it, feeling more like a discussion between old friends than the nitty-gritty talks between publication and director. Split up into multiple-parts, you can find the first part of our interview with Sayo Yamamoto below:
Let’s talk about your latest animated series, ‘Yuri!!! on ICE’, and jump right into the deep-end of it. First off, in the credits there’s a section under the title of ‘Name (Rough Sketch)’, but what exactly entailed for this position? Both your name, as well as the established mangaka Misturo Kubo are both listed under this ‘Name’ title, rather than the more traditional ‘screenplay’. Could you tell us why it is that you chose to work under this title?
Well, I originally sat down and thought about the structure and plot of the series; following this myself and Ms. Kubo worked out the details for episodes 1 – 5. From episode 6 onwards however, it was a totally different dimension (laughs). In the Grand Prix, we wanted to have at least six skaters go up against each other. The actual episode of the series ran for about 20 minutes and 10 seconds, with the actual short programs running for about 2 minutes and 50 seconds, while the free programs would run for 4 minutes and 30 seconds.
When we ordered the music, we reduced the length of it to about 2 minutes. In a bid to keep all of the elements from the skating program, we had our choreographer Kenji Miyamoto make adjustments to transitions and spins so it would all fit the cut. Even then, we still had to make it shorter; this is where we decided how many minutes each character would skate, we pretty much calculated absolutely everything. Then both Ms. Kubo and I decided on the key elements we wanted to incorporate into each episode, and would write them into the plot. After all these discussions, this was the point in which Ms. Kubo would start writing the names.
When comparing a ‘name’ to a ‘script’, the sketches are kind of like stage directions. It’s as if each drawing or sketch represented a different movement or scene. As a matter of fact, these ‘names’ were the script. Try not to overthink it though, it’s essentially just the same thing as a regular script… (laughs). Given the nature of ‘names’ however, they actually helped a whole lot when we began drawing details such as facial expressions for the characters.
Generally when an anime is created, it’s based on a pre-existing manga series or light novel, making it a little easier to work with. With ‘Yuri!!! on ICE’ however, there was no source manga to be used as a basis. So the thought of you bringing on board a manga artist to work with you on an original anime was quite revolutionary. Where was it this idea came from?
When I first thought of the project, I was considering working together with a screenwriter, thus taking the traditional route. I quickly realized however that screenwriters are typically working on multiple projects simultaneously, so I felt as though it would be difficult to find someone who could dedicate all their time and think about figure skating as seriously as myself (laughs). Right around that time, I was avidly listening to a radio show called ‘All Night Nippon’, which featured both Ms. Kubo and Mineko Noumachi. Even though I was just a listener, I always thought I could probably become good friends with Ms. Kubo (laughs).
Eventually I heard her talk about figure skating on the radio, and I thought her perspective was extremely interesting. I knew she had contributed to the 2011 film ‘Moteki’ as a screenwriter in the same ‘name’ format we utilized. However, after doing some further research, I found out she had been writing for ‘Shonen Magazine’ here in Japan for quite some time. It was after this discovery that I started to picture her writing scripts for a TV series. Admittedly, it was also a huge bonus to know that she was experienced in making manga based on novels as well. I had this idea that she must be accustomed to collaborating and creating various projects with others.
Were you acquainted with Ms. Kubo from the beginning?
No, not at all. I had previously made a PV for Japanese singer/songwriter Yasuyuki Okamura, and at the time Ms. Kubo was writing creating special manga boards as a bonus with Okamura’s releases. At a later point, I was invited for drinks with Mr. Okamura, and I mentioned me listening to Ms. Kubo on the radio, where he then mentioned him having her contact information (laughs). I guess you could say that my first real contact with Ms. Kubo was through this discussion with Mr. Okamura.
‘Yuri!!! on ICE’ has been met with much praise internationally, and not just because of it’s figure skating theme. It features a diverse cast of foreign characters throughout the anime, and whilst that isn’t exactly very special in and of itself, it’s believed that they were drawn and animated extremely naturally. It isn’t exactly something that is done often in Japan, so was this done with a certain demographic in mind?
Actually, we weren’t thinking about a market demographic at all (laughs). It’s impossible to write about figure skating without depicting foreign characters, which is how that happened. What I always wanted to do was recreate and depict the stories of the top class skaters in each seasons final competitions. So it was kind of inevitable that the setting would take place on a global scale.
I went to the Figure Skating Championships which was held in the Czech Republic this past January and happened to see a spectator in cosplay. They were minding their own business, but I saw them in the hallways dressed like Victor. I accidentally yelled out ‘Wow! It’s Victor!’ and they ended up hearing me, so they asked if I wanted to take a photo with them. I answered yes, and we ended up taking a picture together. I asked if they knew ‘Yuri!!! on ICE’ and they said they knew about the show (laughs). Later on I saw the same person at the station, but this time they were dressed as Otabek… waiting and sitting there, just like Otabek would. It was really cute honestly.
It’s almost like there’s a totally different feeling when interacting with foreign fans, right?
Exactly! It wasn’t like they were jokingly going to the tournament wearing an outfit that just happened to look like cosplay either. I was completely overwhelmed with joy when I realized that people were starting to take interest in the sport of figure skating because they watched ‘Yuri!!! on ICE’. I’m sure you’re aware, but I’m not necessarily promoting the wearing of cosplay at figure skating tournaments. We wouldn’t want to distract the competitors, would we? (Laughs)
Since this was the first ever anime to revolve around the world of figure skating, there must have been quite a few challenges. After all, animating figure skating would appear to be an incredibly difficult process. Did MAPPA know what they were getting themselves into right from the early proposal stages of the project?
You know, there’s no real guarantee that any original anime will be a success. I realize how difficult it can be just to get a proposal through, but I thought that if I ever made something, I would just throw it out there regardless of how reckless it may seem (laughs). I believe it’s important that when proposing such an idea, you take a moment to think and verbalize as many interesting ideas as you possibly can.
As for whether or not the production staff were aware of the difficulty of the figure skating scenes, we had already given the work orders for the songs and the choreography during the series construction stage, so I’m sure they were aware. There were moments however where I was asked to reduce some aspects during production when the team were struggling to get the work done.
How was the planning originally decided?
It was around the year 2012 when I started having these desires to make an anime about figure skating. I was previously the director for a project called ‘Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine’, and it was during that process that I decided my next animated project would be about something I truly care about, which was of course figure skating. There were often times when people would approach me and ask if I had any original ideas, and when I would suggest a figure skating anime, they would typically reject the thought (laughs). Usually they’d simply shake their head due to the sheer difficulty of such a project. I’d also get a lot of questions regarding whether it would be a ‘student figure skating club’.
When talking about modern anime that share similar themes, such as ‘Yowamushi Pedal’ and ‘Haikyuu!!’, it’s not often that you’ll see professionals of the sport being drawn, but I think that’s just the style of anime. With this work however, you flipped that convention on its head, and I think we all found that extremely interesting.
Thank you very much! When you’re in the process of planning an anime, you get a large amount of pressure to make the main characters young, and if the story is set in a modern time, they inevitably leads to the character being a student. I think that’s why a lot of the people who aren’t interested in figure skating thought this would be about a school club. On top of that, I feel as though people thought it would be easier to simply jump on the bandwagon of previous anime that have found success with amateur sports clubs. I also had a lot of people telling me that the series wouldn’t find success if it wasn’t based in Japan, and that nobody would follow it if the characters didn’t have Japanese names. But my usual reply was ‘Huh? What’s makes you think that?’ (laughs).
Looking back now, I think that ‘Yuri!!! on Ice’ was the result of me ignoring all this ‘advice’, and simply making an anime that I myself would enjoy watching — the story of a character who has already matured and is taking on their final skating season, not some story about a character who is just getting started. I feel as though that would make conveying my ideal image so much more difficult. So when I shared the idea of ‘Yuri!!! on ICE’ with everyone, people said ‘If you have more matches, we’d have to draw more skaters and that’d make things even more complicated!’ (laughs). I couldn’t even get a nod or a ‘That sounds interesting.’, but I was absolutely determined to create something incredible. If I tried creating something that people would simply ‘like’, it’d end up being nothing but commonplace and mundane.
What kept me motivated through the whole process was the inspiration I received from actual figure skaters while watching their matches. Even when their retirement could be just around the corner, they’d continue to keep fighting and challenging themselves — that compassion for what they loved really stuck with me. That’s why I first came up with the idea of Yuri and Victor; a skater on the edge of retirement and a world champion who becomes his coach, all while remaining both his hero and rival.
It almost seems like you were on some sort of lifelong mission to turn your passion for figure skating into an anime. Was there any particular moment that triggered this?
During the production process for ‘Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine’, Japan was devastated by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, and then immediately after that, one of my relatives passed away. My mental state was a total disaster. Usually as a director, there’s a certain element that drives you to create something interesting based on what you’re given, but I’d lost any emotional capacity to do that. I started to think to myself that it would be impossible to pull anything great out of someone else’s idea. It was at this point I realized I needed to create something from the heart, and for me that was figure skating.
I’ve heard there’s a lot of writers and creators in the industry who are afraid to apply the things they truly like into their works.
I hear that quite often too, the belief that you shouldn’t bring the things you like into your work. I had actually forgotten all about this, but the reason it was important for me to turn my figure skating passion into an anime was that doing anything else would have been impossible. The process of creating anime has become a really tough operation for me as of late. It was like I was creating, yet at the same time I was beating myself to death over it. My hands moved slow, and I would force myself to stay awake just in order to finish a project on time. So I thought to myself that I needed to work on a topic that I would never grow tired of, something that would keep me awake all day. Otherwise, I don’t think I could have ever made another anime, all while thinking ‘Someday I’m going to make something I like’ (laughs).
A woman talented well beyond her years, Sayo Yamamoto is a model example of just what the Japanese animation industry needs. We continue to expand upon this in the second part of the interview which will be made available in the near future. A preview of the second part is featured in our ‘Yuri!!! on ICE’ film announcement piece, which was made available here.