Kengan Ashura

The Men Behind “Kengan Ashura” – Interview with Director Seiji Kishi and Screenwriter Makoto Uezu

“Kengan Ashura” is a martial art anime series, the first part of which began distribution on Netflix from July 2019, and the second part from October. Starting in January 2020, it will air on TOKYO MX, MBS, and NS Nippon TV. With this creator interview, we hope to find its appeal and give you a glimpse at things behind the scenes. In this edition, we interviewed director Seiji Kishi and series organizer/screenwriter Makoto Uezu. As many of our readers may know, these two are a famous duo who have been behind many titles, including “My Bride is a Mermaid” (2007), “Danganronpa: The Animation” (2013), “Arpeggio of Blue Steel -Ars Nova-” (2013), “Yuki Yuna Is a Hero” (2014), “Assassination Classroom” (2015), and “Radiant” (2018). For them, “Kengan Ashura” is the kind of martial arts anime they’ve been hoping to do for years. It’s because they know each other’s strengths that they’ve been able to come up with countless production ideas. The story begins long ago, even before planning for this anime began…

OTAQUEST: A year before “Kengan Ashura” began streaming on Netflix, it had its world premiere at Anime Expo 2018 in Los Angeles. Both of them were present for the event. Let’s hear about the event from them.

Kengan Ashura Team @ Anime Expo

Seiji Kishi: Man, what a party that was! We were still in production back then, but the passion we felt from them made for great feedback and boosted our confidence. The event was at an enormous hall, with seating for 2000. When we first saw the venue, we weren’t sure how much it would fill up, so we worked to advertise it on the day of its screening. We just picked up whatever paper we could find and made flyers with them.

Makoto Uezu: I joined the event volunteers as a sandwichman and advertised the screening. I passed out the flyers with the volunteers. The flyers had blurbs like “From the director of Danganronpa!” and “Music from Yasuharu Takanashi, who scored Sailor Moon Crystal!” It felt like we were putting on a high school festival. (laughs)

Seiji Kishi: And just like that, we got people’s attention.

Makoto Uezu: “Wait, someone from Sailor Moon?!” Sailor Moon, strong as always! (laughs)

Seiji Kishi: Once the screening was underway, even though this was the first time anyone was seeing it, it felt like they were watching a martial arts match with their loud cheers. I wish we could bring this kind of proactive first-time enjoyment of things back to Japan.

Makoto Uezu: It was enough for me to watch to capture it for a bonus feature documentary on the disc set. We often travel outside of Japan, and we learn things every time. The crowd of fans that came to the screening supplied us with their passion. They themselves had flown in from all across America, and I felt they were treasuring their meetings and exchanges from moment to moment.

OTAQUEST: Now that “Part 2” is up for streaming, you might get another big response if you had another screening event!

Seiji Kishi: Wouldn’t that be nice! I’d love to do that. I trust everyone would come…?!

OTAQUEST: Now then, Director Kishi, you had been asking to do a martial arts anime for quite some time. Seeing your physical shape now, I can see your enthusiasm. I take it you’ve been into martial arts since before this?

Seiji Kishi

Seiji Kishi: Yes. In the past, I had an interest in Bajiquan. By the time I was asked about working on this project, I had already read the source material, so I insisted on doing it. It was Mr. Uezu here that introduced me to the series to begin with. And once he did, I mysteriously got an offer to direct its anime. This isn’t the first time it’s happened. Curious, isn’t it?

Makoto Uezu: Well, I’ve got an eye for them. (laughs) All year every year, I’m constantly reading manga. And wasn’t it you that was always saying you “wanted to make a martial arts anime?” Words have power, you know. Sometimes you just have to get it out there.

Seiji Kishi: Quite so. And why wouldn’t I, when I had never seen what I would call a true “martial arts anime”?

Makoto Uezu: Whoa, now! (laughs)

Seiji Kishi: Sure, there have been “action anime.” But what about “martial arts anime?” There were some titles which have martial art moves mixed in. But the way I see it, none of them really showed you how the moves worked, or made the moves look cool specifically.

Makoto Uezu: I’m going to have to back up Mr. Kishi on this– he guided the production of this anime having actually been tossed around by a martial artist.

OTAQUEST: So Mr. Uezu, you recommended this manga to Director Kishi. How did you pick it up?

Makoto Uezu: I was reading the series all the way back when it began serialization in “Ura Sunday.” I think part of the reason it turned out so well was because it was supported by the launch of “Ura Sunday.” “Shonen Sunday” is a major name amongst manga magazines, but internet media was still a rising, relatively minor stage. It was a cutting-edge environment, and from what I can see, its editor was all for its more challenging aspects.

OTAQUEST: As a martial artist, what struck you as appealing about it?

Makoto Uezu: I liked it for a very simple reason. It’s got two things men love: money and violence. And to top this hardcore theme, its production team with Mr. Yabako Sandrovich writing, Mr. Daromeon drawing, and Mr. Kobayashi editing, all are well-versed in martial arts. They put all of their expert knowledge into it. And while I myself do not practice a martial art, I’m a talkative sort of spectator, and I love conversing about how a thrust worked, or how a kick connected, and so on. (laughs) Anyway, it’s a cool topic, and it’s very entertaining to see these young creators funnel massive amounts of reality-based information into their production. So yes, there have been famous martial arts manga up until now. But it was fun how this series is grounded on modern martial arts knowledge and information. In any case, its first chapter is incredibly entertaining. It’s all about violence, sex, and money. (laughs) Mr. Yabako’s line from the draft, “That day, Yamashita slept with a woman for the first time in 15 years,” will probably go down as one of his greatest lines. Not everyone can achieve that level of writing. From the way he captures that moment, I feel he is a brilliant writer.

OTAQUEST: Kengan Ashura’s animation was handled by LARX ENTERTAINMENT. Director Kishi, what do you think their strength as a studio is?

Seiji Kishi: To make a full-fledged “martial arts anime,” our only possible method was 3DCG. Even so, there’s a massive amount of work involved. Who could handle that workload? I looked back on my experience directing “Arpeggio of Blue Steel -Ars Nova-” (2013), which LARX had a hand in. That series was Japan’s first cel-styled CG anime, which was made primarily with the technically capable SANZIGEN company, but amongst all the studios that helped us in addition, I felt just as much talent from LARX. That’s why I figured that they could handle Kengan Ashura. Their CG director Ryota Fukushima and his technical overseeing skill has been critical to the project. Every single instruction issued to him is dispersed through every section, in a very smooth operation. Without his valiant efforts, it’s clear that we wouldn’t have been able to maintain production quality. We went about the anime’s production talking together. We discussed every angle, from the fight scene movements, character design, to the CG models themselves. He worked his hardest on the project until it was all over. He’s incredibly determined. You won’t find many others like him.

OTAQUEST: One amazing feature of the anime is how it replicated the exaggerated style of the original manga. Did you aim for these visuals from the beginning?

Seiji Kishi: Sure. I was confident 3DCG would be an important tool in recreating the style of the original work. Seeing how much of that was technically possible was part of the process.

Makoto Uezu: Talking with everyone about how to make the fights between 3D models look cool, we concluded that we should aim for something like the opening to Street Fighter IV. However, a lot of time went into making those few minutes of video. Our project was a serialized anime with 24 episodes, so we were worried we could keep something like that up.

Seiji Kishi: We were confident it was technically possible. It was just a matter of whether we had the guts to do that in a mass-production setup. (laughs)

Makoto Uezu: That required some configuration on our part to make it possible. This has been a problem since our work on “Arpeggio”, but CG productions make it difficult to change characters’ clothing. Even if it’s the same character, a change in clothing means a change in CG model. And since the production’s overall budget is limited, we have to careful choosing which characters get alternate outfits and mold the scenario to accomodate these limits. It’s an idea similar to the schedules created for live-action movies.

Seiji Kishi: That’s right. Without a clear plan for costs, any estimates are useless. For instance, if a character took damage in the middle of a fight, the rest of the fight would require a model which reflects that damage. We used 2D art to make up for those problematic portions.

Makoto Uezu: The obvious choice would be to have characters with fewer appearances show up as 2D art to save resources, but we can’t just doom characters who lose in one episode to being 2D. It would be a clear sign to viewers, “this character’s going to lose in one episode.” (laughs)

OTAQUEST: What was the hardest part of making the characters?

Seiji Kishi: The hardest part is modeling. How muscles shift around is particularly hard. The human body is a complex machine composed of many parts, a terrifyingly detailed clockwork. And since most of the fighters in this series wear a bare minimum, it’s easy for viewers to see what looks right and what doesn’t. I wasn’t as physically fit as when we started the modeling stage, but now I think I could have issued more specific orders concerning muscles.

Makoto Uezu: And that’s why Part 2, which was made while he was training, is even more amazing. (laughs) But unlike in fighting games, our characters have drama parts to appear in, not just fights. Obviously, even martial artists will wear clothes outside the ring. (laughs) That has a big effect on costs. CG models also differ in cost based on character detail and quality. Cost cutting can have a devastating effect on 2D art, but not as much as it would on 3D art. That’s a curious part of producing CG anime, and why you really have to figure out what parts of the character to emphasize in the pre-production stage.

Seiji Kishi: We have to figure out our priorities in early production, because we might not be able to have all the characters from the original work make appearances. Were we to stuff them in as 2D models, it would only serve to muddle the viewer’s impression of Kengan Ashura as an anime. It’s true that we can increase the number of characters by limiting character detail and quality. But that wouldn’t be the kind of series we’d want people to watch. In the end, the main visuals in this series are 3DCG, so even as a hybrid anime with 2D art, the art is all tweaked to look like 3D models, and textures are carefully applied to models so they look correct from any angle.

OTAQUEST: Amongst the 2D portions, the “special recollections” had a big impact on the visuals. Where did the idea for their style come from?

Seiji Kishi: That was the product of a lot of thinking. So much thinking, I thought my head would explode. (laughs) We needed these scenes for the narrative, but they’d be uninteresting with regular 2D representations. Viewers would think “well heck, it’s just a regular 2D anime after all.” It’s not the look we want. The project would be a failure like that. After much deliberation, we decided upon a “Witcher 3” method. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzTuMqODyd0>

Makoto Uezu: Western RPGs have these explanatory drama scenes or backgrounds are really vivid and efficient. They’re commercial-like cutscenes with slick transitions that stick around in your mind.

Seiji Kishi: With storyline-explaining cutscenes, we expected we could have sudden jumps to moving illustrations without interrupting what is supposed to be a 3D anime. Many of the serie’s main characters like Ohma and Nico have cutscenes like these. They’re important slices of drama that support the main story.

OTAQUEST: The rough lines also made for fascinating visuals.

Seiji Kishi: Those were used for recollections from guest characters. Normally, rough sketches aren’t the kind of thing you’d show in an anime, or any broadcast for that matter. But that’s only because they’re thought of as a step in the animating process. They can be used as a visual style in themselves, and if used in the right parts, I think they have their place. They introduce strengths and weaknesses regarding the drama portions. Yes, they were born of desperate measures, but that doesn’t mean that they lack impact as visuals, and none of the sketched cutscenes were ever inserted merely to save resources. They’re used in the production strategically, so that viewers can accept them when they play out.

Makoto Uezu: This practice comes from our experience working on “Danganronpa.” The punishment scenes, that is. That experience added motion graphics to our list of options. Like with most things, we work off of a foundation of previous achievements.

Seiji Kishi: Or, you might just say we like video games. (laughs)

Makoto Uezu: Sure, that’s an important point. Believe me when I say we have the utmost respect for the culture of games!

Seiji Kishi: Game creators have their own limits they have to work with in their productions. Products made with different shackles all feel different from each other. There’s no shame in swapping useful tools between mediums! That’s how I see it.

Makoto Uezu: Meaning our next production will be live action!

Seiji Kishi: No kidding. We could totally do it. There have always been people who try to cross over into live-action to weird results, or place live action in the middle of anime and confuse viewers. (laughs) How about it? Maybe I’ll work my magic and whip something up. I’d love to do it! Go ahead, write that down! Don’t worry, this will only find its way back to me. (laughs)

OTAQUEST: Aw, and we just had the cool topic of mixing video game and anime industries. (laughs)

Seiji Kishi: But to be honest, bringing back the topic of live-action, I have a fair amount of respect for TV variety programs. Putting Kengan Ashura aside for the moment, I spread my praise over a wide variety of programming, vareity, drama, movies.

OTAQUEST: I felt a lot of respect for professional fight events with the entry scenes.

Seiji Kishi: Sure. We’re entirely open about how much we adopt from the leagues. As I was saying before, in emphasis that this series is about martial arts, I’d like for the viewers to watch as if they were watching professional fights. You get that sense from the original manga as well, but animated, we crank up the likeness even further. Composer Yasuharu Takanashi even got themes for each character. We hope that viewers are able to be pulled in as if they’re watching real matches.

Makoto Uezu: We were confident from the beginning that detailed entry scenes would make viewers happy, so nobody was against committing resources to those parts. Takanashi worked hard and got themes unique to each fighter, each from different artists, giving us the perfect kind of atmosphere for a martial arts tournament. I’m very grateful to him.

Seiji Kishi: The group effort idea came from Takanashi himself, when we were all in LA. He’s very talented, but he wanted to share the spotlight with some lesser-known artists. It was a fun idea, so we were all for it. And as a result, we got help from very talented people. Meguro’s entry theme is incredible! (laughs)

Seiji Kishi Anime Expo sign

OTAQUEST: On Netflix, you can listen to the Japanese voice actors, and read subtitles in a variety of languages. Do you have anything to tell to our readers around the world about the Japanese voice actors?

Makoto Uezu: All of our voice actors had necks like logs! But then, we gathered a team of some real bad-guy types. (laughs) Their expressions of pain, their groans, are all perfectly realistic! They actually know what it’s like to smash your head on concrete. Imagine all the tough guys we had in once place for recording. That was fun. (laughs)

Seiji Kishi: That was crucial! Very crucial. You rarely see sessions as sweaty as those were. (laughs) Coming out of the recording booth, they were always drenched with sweat. That is to say, the power and enthusiasm in their performances rivaled that of actual fighters in actual matches. Every one of them was incredible, but my hat really goes off to the actors for Ohma (Tatsuhisa Suzuki), Raian (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka), and Sekibayashi (Tetsu Inada). Acting as any of these characters requires a lot of energy, and it’s very tiring. But they all stuck with it and saw their performances to the end.

Makoto Uezu: As the main character, I think Tatsuhisa Suzuki bore a heavy responsibility as a leader amongst the voice actors. In order to ensure the success of the series, he had to make sure not to let the other actors down, but rather lift their spirits. I felt he must be working under an incredible sense of duty.

Seiji Kishi: In the end, it was his enthusiasm that kept everyone in the game.

Makoto Uezu: He raised everyone’s boats.

Seiji Kishi: Yup. Fantastic guy. We had no qualms making him the ringleader. We don’t let anyone slip in fake or unconfident acting. It’s not very efficient. But in the end, it gives us the performances we need. They don’t just speak as the characters, they become the characters. Character acting is draining. There’s no getting around it. You can’t blame people who go through that for going out like a light at the after-work bar gatherings. (laughs)

OTAQUEST: All the more reason we’d like for people around the world to hear their heated performances. Now that Part 2 is out, is there anything you’d like to say to the fans as director?

Seiji Kishi: Sure. I can promise you all incredible sights the likes you’ve never seen in animation. We ask you for your viewership and support!

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