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 an 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 for greatness. 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 second and final part of our interview with Sayo Yamamoto below:
— Sayo Yamamoto, it’s an honor to have you here with us. Before anything else, I’d like to ask what experiences lead to you becoming an anime director?
When I first entered the industry, I worked as a production manager at Studio Madhouse. That was around the turn of the century. From my very first day working there, I was driven to eventually become a producer. To do that however, I had to start as a production manager. Though, I didn’t really think that the job of production manager suited me very well. Managing schedules and wrangling people was not suited for me at all (laughs). I was thinking that if I had any breaks, I could try out some of the duties of a producer. I kept telling myself “You can do this!” While performing production manager duties, I was also drawing storyboards – I was assisting in producing.
— So what project did you first do storyboarding for?
At the request of my art director, Hideyuki Tanaka, I started working on some animations which were used as live visuals at a SMAP concert. The character designer and producer was animator Takeshi Koike. I was put in charge putting the storyboards into clean copy using Tanaka’s directorial notes and memos. Prior to this, I’d never actually storyboarded, yet I somehow manage to learn simply by watching others.
Because I went to an art college, I was familiar with programs such as Photoshop and Illustrator. It seemed like everyone at the Studio wanted me to make use of these skills, so I began studying key animation illustration so I could assist in those areas. I worked on Koike’s “TRAVA,” “World Record” from “The Animatrix,” and “Redline.”
— After that, what was your first project as an independent producer?
The first story I produced was an OVA called ‘Trava: Fist Planet, episode 1’ for a DVD magazine known as “Grasshoppa!”. I was doing storyboarding and producing, but Takeshi Koike was director on top of doing all of the series key animation, there wasn’t much I could actually “produce” (laughs). Koike made most layout timing decisions when he reviewed them, and even when it came time for editing, most of those decisions were left intact. There wasn’t much left for me to do because the degree of completion on those layouts was already very high.
— You continued to have a good relationship with Takeshi Koike after this, and even did some more projects with him, right?
That’s right; I took up more jobs at Takeshi Koike’s side. During that first project, I felt like I had seen something quite amazing. Koike truly is a genius.
— Following this, you moved from Studio Madhouse to Studio Manglobe, if I remember correctly?
I wanted to continue honing my production ability by getting used to handling television series, but there weren’t many opportunities for me to do so at Madhouse, especially since I was asked to serve as an assistant director on one of their new film projects. If I were to continue being employed at Madhouse, I wouldn’t have much control over my workflow, so I started to consider my options. It was around this time that I first met Watanabe Shinichiro.
— It would seem that you meeting with Watanabe Shinichiro would go on to shape a large portion of your career. What was it that lead to you two first meeting?
A fellow animator and acquaintance of mine was working at Madhouse at the time doing key animation for “Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” who was invited to work on “Samurai Champloo.” Around the same time Watanabe was looking for someone to fill a production role, where I was introduced shortly after. I believe that was sometime around the Autumn of 2003. I quit Madhouse and switched over to freelancing. As a freelancer, I joined with Studio Manglobe, and participated in “Samurai Champloo” as an episode director.
— After this you would take on many more episode directorial roles, with your first full directorial work being the animated series Michiko and Hatchin. Before that however, I’d like to take a step back and ask about some other things. What anime influenced you, and was there any series in particular that prompted you to begin working towards a job in the industry?
There really wasn’t any series in particular that prompted me to work towards the industry. However while I was an art student, there was this Mac program called “Director.” It was basically this presentation software that allowed you to animate things in 24 frames per second, which is the same as anime. Around this time I came across some still-shots of “Yojimbo” at school. (laughs)
— Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo”?
That’s the one. Especially the scenes in which Toshiro Mifune drew his sword and slashed people. I watched all those scenes and thought they were really cool. I tried drawing and animating the scenes myself in ‘Director’, and that was probably my first real inspiration for working in the anime industry.
— It was quite the coincidence that you would get to work on ‘Samurai Champloo’ then, wasn’t it?
Of course, at the time I had no idea that I would ever be doing that. (laughs) Looking back on it, I think that if I had seen pictures from Akira Kurosawa’s other work, “Ikiru,” instead of “Yojimbo,” I may have never even thought about trying out animation.
— So it was around the time you were in art school that you started to think about working in the anime industry?
That’s right. At the time, Japan was undergoing some sort of employment recession, which made things quite difficult. Art school students already didn’t seek employment in traditional ways. If you were a graphic design student, then it would be common for you to join a design company, but for people like illustrators and painters, it’s not common to go job hunting. I was into environmental design, so I was in a similar situation. Many others lost the motivation to continue job hunting and decided to simply start their own businesses. I didn’t have that kind of confidence though.
I was under the belief that having no job would be the equivalent to being homeless, and this led me to think that if I didn’t do something with momentum, I’d be stuck in a rut after graduation. However, I also didn’t have any distinct qualities as part of my artistic nature, so I figured I needed to hurry up and join some kind of organization or else I’d be in trouble.
— Since you mentioned your “artistic nature,” I’d like to discuss that briefly. In your directorial works “Michiko and Hatchin” and “LUPIN the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine,” the protagonists were women who can, in many ways, be seen as both cool and strong in nature. However in your latest work, “Yuri!!! on ICE,” this seems to change completely with the introduction of a mostly-male cast; and while there are some strong-willed women involved in the anime, the show still largely revolves around their male counterparts. To me, this seems to be your biggest artistic change. Would you mind explaining the reason behind that?
For me, my artistic nature and the gender of my protagonists have no relation. In the case of Michiko, it was more the president (of Manglobe) saying that he wanted to do an action-battle show with a female protagonist. Since I had worked with Koike in the past, I suspect that I was seen as having a knack for a more “American Comics” style… Of course, in terms of my work, I can more or less tackle drawing (the depiction of) women, but really I had no strong interest to do so (laughs).
I think I was sometimes also seen as being skilled at drawing woman because I was a woman myself. But if you do watch my works, you’ll realize that I haven’t drawn women all that much! Requests for specific character traits like “lovers” or “family” are just that — requests. Sometimes, I feel that to be a bit stifling. I like to depict whomever I please, regardless of age, race, and gender. With “Yuri!!!”, I was able to depict relationships and bonds without creative influence from others. This time, I wanted to create an impactful depiction of Men’s singles in figure skating in anime form! It wasn’t so much a matter of “I’m definitely going to draw men this time.” I had a love for figure skating that could not be suppressed, and since I did not have any orders from above, I planned the project with an attitude rather of “I’m definitely going to draw figure skating this time!”
— The Japanese anime industry is often considered to be a place where women don’t really have the opportunity to flourish. Do you think that bias exists, even now?
It was true that there were few women on production staff in the industry. When I was first looking for work, it was like that as well. And because there were few women on production staff, it was the men who moved up from those roles to become general producers and directors. But even in the past, I don’t think there was any huge split in the number of male and female animators.
— Do you think this is changing?
I think so. I’m currently working at MAPPA, and most of the people who come on to projects are women.
— What do you think changed?
Although I’m not really interested in defining people in rigid terms of two genders… I feel like girls are more likely to get the job these days. That’s really all there is to it. (laughs) There’s a lot of diligent women, and there’s a lot of men who drift around a little too much. Perhaps men have gotten used to an easygoing lifestyle — but that’s just life.
I think it’s just because they can continue doing what they love at work their whole lives. Women on the other hand; they get married, have kids –these are critical junctures that place a limit on what they can do throughout their lives, and they realize that they don’t have time to rest on their laurels as much. As soon as you realize that, it’s difficult to live that easygoing lifestyle. Before I originally began looking for a job, I knew an assistant stylist who was in her 50’s. She once told me that “idiocy is only forgiven until age 26.” And “If you only do as well as a man, you’ll never be recognized.” She probably lived quite a tough life to have said that. She originally started working in the 70’s, and I felt a really persuasive tone from her. It really got me thinking about a lot of things.
— She must have lived through a much crueler time, right?
I agree. That’s why I ended up leaving Studio Madhouse when I was 26 years old. I believed that I had to become a producer on my own, and it was at this time I became involved in the aforementioned “Samurai Champloo.”
— Not only women, but now more and more foreigners are getting involved in Japanese animation. Do you think the industry will accept such changes in the future?
I think that it’s best that we embrace this. I don’t think there is any difference between Japanese and non, besides our nationality. If one has a vision of what they want to create, then as an industry, it’s best for us to work together. If you are motivated, then I urge anyone to get involved in the industry regardless of race.
— Going back to your first directorial work, “Michiko and Hatchin,” what aspects of your workflow and planning have changed significantly leading up to your more recent works?
The director creates while imagining what they want to make. The director can embody the image of the project while sharing what they can say “is the most interesting” with their staff… as I had imagined. It is completely different.
— As you mentioned earlier, you were a young lady working to manage on your own in the animation industry, which meant your first work was a turning point.
Yes, and even though I don’t like to place a whole lot of focus on my being a woman, of course being tasked with directing was a huge turning point.
— Are there ever times that you look back on your previous works?
I don’t do that at all, actually. (laughs) When you start to look back on previous works, doesn’t it all become a bit scary? I start to think “Aren’t I going to die soon?” thinking about the years passed since. I feel like when I’m working on something, I’ve already checked it to death in the process. I always work to the absolute best of my ability on everything, so I really don’t need to look back on it anymore. (laughs)
This became especially apparent when I became a director and began creating plots myself. When those plots became screenplays, I checked them. Even when someone else created the storyboards, I was always checking them. I’ve seen it all so much (laughs). So I always give priority to making new things. And now, even though I am working on the theatrical version of “Yuri!!!”, my head is pretty occupied with the current figure skating season too. The Olympics only come once every 4 years!!!
An exemplatory talent well beyond her years, Sayo Yamamoto is without a doubt an individual who was born to make history. Through her progressive mindset, we’re offered a peak into the innerworkings of the anime industry, that only she could offer. It was shared yesterday that her animated series “Michiko & Hatchin” is also now available on Crunchyroll, which is excellent news. With the anticipation leading into the Yuri!!! on ICE film reaching it’s peak, we couldn’t be more excited to share the second and final part of our interview with Sayo Yamamoto with everyone. If you’re interested in checking out the first part of our interview, you can find it here.