With anime more popular than ever all over the world, we sat down with some of the people who actually produce it to hear some of their thoughts about the production process and a few behind the scenes stories too. This interview series is a collaborative project between Japanese language news site Anime! Anime!, Tokyo Otaku Mode, and Chinese language sites Bahamut and Manrenzhi.
You can check out all the other interviews here.
Nippon Animation’s representative works: Chibi Maruko-chan, A Dog of Flanders, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, Rascal the Raccoon, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Ukkari Pénélope, Tonde Burin, Les Misérables: Shoujo Cosette, and Haikara-San: Here Comes Miss Modern.
Nippon Animation has touched the hearts of fans around the world with the World Masterpiece Theater series which began with A Dog of Flanders. They also produced Chibi Maruko-chan which has remained popular not just in Japan but throughout Asia. We sat down with Jun Takagi who has directed Chibi Maruko-chan since 2007 to find out about the joys and difficulties of directing as well as Nippon Animation in general.
[Interview/composition: Ryota Fujitsu]
– You’ve been directing Chibi Maruko-chan since 2007. How did that come about?
Takagi: I was an AD on the first season of Chibi Maruko-chan back in 1990-92, and then I became a director. I took a break during season 2 (1995) to direct the movie of Momoko Sakura’s Coji-Coji, and Penelope, but I did work on it as a director, and then Yumiko Suda who had been directing quit around episode 600 and it was decided that I take over. A little before that, the producer had asked me, “Mr. Takagi, if I told you Suda was going to leave, would you be interested in directing?” I thought he was joking but I didn’t know that Suda was really going to leave so I just replied, “What are you talking about?” (laughs).
– So you were just picking up where Suda left off?
Takagi: No. Because Suda told me, “You’re the director, so do what you want.” I thought maybe we could collaborate over one or two script meetings, but as soon as her final episode was done she was right out of there (lol). So I could do as I pleased, but it must have been confusing for the screenwriters to suddenly change the way they did things.
– As Suda directed so many episodes she must have had a deep understanding of the world of the show. Is there a particular episode that’s stayed with you from the time you were directing?
Takagi: In Momoko Sakura’s original script there’s an episode where Maruko’s dad borrows an 8mm camera (episode 95). You don’t often get to see small devices like 8mm cameras, so I remember the story developing out from there and being really fun to do. Also, “Ureshii Ochugen” (episode 129). That one too, in her original script there’s stuff that wasn’t in the manga, so turning it into anime was really fun to think about.
– What is it that you really concentrated on when you’re directing Chibi Maruko-chan?
Takagi: It’s been nearly 30 years since Chibi Maruko-chan started and it’s been going all that time with the girls living in that same world. So I really try to remember that when creating the episodes. You can’t just have them do something because it sounds fun. If you really want to go in that direction, then you really need to think it through and be conscious about what you’re doing. It’s a real pain a lot of the time.
– What kind of things give you trouble?
Takagi: Maruko’s world is firmly set between 1974 and 1975. But then, there’s a lot of seasonal storytelling. As a rule, we try not to have anything which couldn’t happen more than once. For example – Christmas. There’s an episode where Maruko has a Christmas party at home. Therefore, she can’t ever go to anyone else’s Christmas party on the same night. There are only 365 days in a year, but fundamentally the action takes place at home and on the way to and from school. We’ve made over 1,200 episodes, so that’s quite a difficult thing. Some years ago, there was an episode with the kind of bento boxes you can buy at the station. We had a fancy bento with “Kamameshi” in a pot made by a famous ceramics company. While we were making it we were trying to remember if we’d ever had a Kamameshi bento before and when we went and looked it up, I realized we had in an episode I had directed. If we hadn’t realized and had Maruko react like she was experiencing it for the first time, what would that mean for the Maruko from before? It’s difficult to eliminate that kind of thing completely, but if something lines up strangely with the past it’ll end up feeling like a parallel world.
– Is Maruko easy to motivate as a protagonist?
Takagi: She’s a bit difficult. As you know, Maruko’s quite lazy. She’s not the kind of protagonist who writes her own stories (laughs). Even if you really shout at her “Hey, Maruko! Do something!” she might not do anything interesting for you. She’s just a regular elementary school student after all. What makes it fun is Momoko Sakura’s perspective from the manga and the amazing dialogue. That’s why you really have to do your best to get close to the flavor of the original manga.
– In 2015 you released the first Chibi Maruko-chan movie in 23 years, Chibi Maruko-chan: A Boy From Italy.
Takagi: When we were putting the movie together we didn’t have a story. We hadn’t even decided whether to leave it to the scriptwriter or discuss it with Momoko Sakura. Then we asked her and she wrote something for us right away so we had our story. Only, in the first draft the regular characters like Maruo didn’t appear so we asked for a rewrite and then headed into storyboards. The main character was a boy, Andrea, from Italy. We agreed with Sakura that Maruko and Andrea were just friends – it wasn’t meant to be a first love story, but as we made the movie it started to get more emotional and ended up feeling like first love after all. Lots of people on the creative team really liked Andrea too and were sorry when the movie was over because they wouldn’t have much opportunity to draw him again.
– Chibi Maruko-chan is really popular in other areas of Asia, have you ever had any experiences which brought home to you just how popular it is?
Takagi: I really felt it when I went to Hong Kong. Maruko had been running for so long in Japan that it felt kind of ordinary, but people there were still really into it. It had been broadcast in Asia for a long time too though, and it wasn’t just kids, there were a lot of grown up fans in their 30s. “Maruko’s world” is Shimizu in Shizuoka, but fundamentally it could be anywhere. Maruko’s the kind of character people can identify with; there could easily be a kid like Maruko in your neighborhood. That might be why she’s so popular abroad. And she has dark hair so she really fits in anywhere in Asia.
– There are a lot of fans overseas who really want to support Japanese anime and wonder what would make the people who make it happiest. What could fans do to make you happy?
Takagi: This isn’t limited to fans overseas but…I’ve been in this business for over 30 years. I grew up making TV anime. Fundamentally, TV is a one directional medium. We don’t really get direct reactions from viewers. Sometimes, TV stations invite people to write in so you can see how people feel about the show or what parts they really liked. That’s all well and good, I have to say for myself though I’m not so bothered about being praised on social media (laughs). Really it just makes us happy if people watch our stuff, and maybe feel good enough about it to think “thanks.” Especially for overseas fans, just making a conscious decision to watch the show is enough to keep me happy.
– We talked about Maruko as if she were alive, but you really feel the characters are living beings in Nippon Animation’s representative series, World Masterpiece Theater.
Takagi: Right after I joined the company, I worked on Tales of Little Women as an AD, and then I directed Tico of the Seven Seas. So I think I can say I’m someone who knows about World Masterpiece Theater and I think the experience I gained there was extremely helpful for working on Chibi Maruko-chan when it comes to figuring out what it means to draw a human being.
– You’ve been working at Nippon Animation ever since you joined the company in 1987. What was it that made you want to work there?
Takagi: I was in the film department at art school when someone came recruiting at the university. As a child I liked Mazinger Z, Tensai Bakabon, and Space Battleship Yamato, among others. It was the time of the anime boom in the early ‘80s, that’s why they’re all kids’ shows. You could really feel that they cared about the storyline. Nippon Animation took the trouble to properly portray human drama in the World Masterpiece Theater series which was inspired by European and American children’s literature, so I applied thinking it looked like an interesting company. At that time they were broadcasting Uchusen Sagittarius which had a very lived-in feeling, and a little earlier they’d done Hayao Miyazaki’s Future Boy Conan, so it seemed like they made a lot of stuff.
– What was Nippon Animation like back then?
Takagi: Back then before we had this building, we were in an old, rundown two storey place. It’s how it was everywhere in those days, but the lights were on all night. I was an assistant director on Tales of Little Women from the World Masterpiece Theater series, but Bosco Adventure had just finished, and Uchūsen Sagittarius was in production, so you really felt they were going all out with TV series. At that time it was all guys too, there were only a handful of women. One was Eiko Tanaka who now heads up Studio 4ºC, but she quit right around the time I was joining to go to Studio Ghibli.
– You made your directorial debut with Nangoku Shonen Papuwa-kun. Was there someone you really looked up to at that time?
Takagi: There wasn’t really anyone to teach me about producing or directing. But if you mean someone who worked alongside side me all that time, then there was Kozo Kusuba who also directed for the World Masterpiece Theater series and passed away last year. Then there was Tsutomu Shibayama who directed along with Yumiko Suda on Chibi Maruko-chan season 1. It wasn’t like they taught me what directing was or how to be a director, but I really looked up to them as they guided me through the retakes during the production process.
– What do you think is Nippon Animation’s strength?
Takagi: Strength… A TV producer once said to me, “Nippon Animation makes all kinds of shows. Some are good and some are bad, but they’re all Nippon Animation shows.” There’s some truth in that. Our shows aren’t that amazing, but they’re kind, soft, modest… I hate these kind of clichés, but they really do warm your heart. We have a long history of making shows like that. And I think we have the strength to go on making them.
– After such long experience you must really have an idea of what it is to be a director.
Takagi: I guess so. Rather than becoming stiff and conservative, I think it’s better to go on making new work that leaves a trace of yourself behind.
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