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.
Anime Site Collaboration Project
Anime Production Studios Gaining Global Attention and Paving the Way to the Future Vol. 20: Kinema Citrus Part 1
Kinema Citrus’ representative works: Made in Abyss, Revue Starlight, The Rising of the Shield Hero, Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, etc.
Our challenges are there on the screen. Kinema Citrus’ power 11 years after its foundation
Kinema Citrus has produced hit after hit including such popular series as Made in Abyss, Revue Starlight, and The Rising of the Shield Hero. Only founded in 2008, it’s still a young studio. Is there some secret to their success? We visited Kinema Citrus to ask them and found the studio to be full of young, energetic staff. The answer seems to lie in that powerful environment. Also, they’re pushing ahead with bold new production methods. Kinema Citrus is primed to become a representative studio of the next generation.
How do the staff members go about their work? We sat down with Shinnosuke Harada from the digital department, and animator/character designer Hiroyuki Saita to find out.
[Interview/composition = Tadashi Sudo]
■ Kinema Citrus’ strength: everyone pushing themselves and giving it their all
– Could you tell us a little about how you came to join Kinema Citrus?
Shinnosuke Harada: I came to it late. I freelanced after university and then joined the anime industry at 27. At first I was in the anime photography section. That lasted about two years. I was interested in production, and just when I was wondering about applying somewhere Kinema Citrus was the only place hiring. I’ve been here five years now. I’m 32.
– What is it that you do now?
Harada: I’m attached to production. Mainly coloring and 2D work, designing posters that show up in the background, etc. I’d like to move into producing in the future.
I also manage the digital department. As I’m cheerful around the computers, digital animation included, I’m taking charge of the transition from paper to digital, preparing for introduction and setting up meetings to create formats.
Hiroyuki Saita: I work in the animation department where we handle character design. At Kinema Citrus we’re working on Kuma Miko: Girl Meets Bear and Revue Starlight.
– What made you want to get into the anime industry?
Saita: I started watching anime in high school and fell in love with it then.
– Were you good at drawing back then?
Saita: No, I couldn’t draw at all. I feel like I only started practicing when I joined a specialist school. Around the third year of high school, a classmate I got on well with handed round a sketchbook for everyone to draw in and that’s when I started drawing. And I fell in love with drawing then. Everyone said they wanted to go to a school with an anime department, but in the end it was only me who went (lol).
– How did you come to work on the character design for Kuma Miko: Girl Meets Bear?
Saita: Freelance animator Hisayuki Tabata invited me to work on the opening titles for Yuyushiki and that’s how I got together with Kinema Citrus. Little by little they started giving me more work, and then they asked me to work on character design for Kuma Miko: Girl Meets Bear.
– For young people who say they want to become animators and work on character design, you’d support them enthusiastically, like “go ahead, do it!”?
Saita: If you like it then I think it’s good to go on challenging yourself.
– What sort of people do well?
Saita: I have no idea! (lol). Even those who are no good at all in the beginning can become extremely proficient after a few years. But I don’t know what it is that makes someone good.
– You’re both still young, but as for the employees and contractors in general you’re a pretty young studio.
Saita: Speaking for the animation department, we’re mostly in our 20s.
Harada: You’re at the upper end too. I turned 32 this April and I’m one of the oldest in production. Of course, we have some veterans in their 40s and 50s, but about half are in their early 20s so yeah we’re a pretty young studio.
– So that’s your trademark. It must have advantages?
Saita: I mean it in a nice way, but they all work hard for us. I feel like everyone is pushing themselves and giving it their all. We get some amazing frames, don’t we?
■ Don’t sleep on Kinema Citrus
– Could we ask a little about your work? You’ve produced some cool series like Made in Abyss,* Starlight Revue*, and The Rising of the Shield Hero. How did that happen? How did you pick them? You must have picked them, right?
Harada: More than anyone else, we’re very conscious that you have to protect the quality. CEO Muneki Ogasawara has always encouraged that in his career and now it feels like it’s coming to fruition in the film. Maybe (lol).
Saita: Young people have a lot of passion. They’re all knuckling down and making stuff.
– Is there one of Kinema Citrus’ works that you’d particularly recommend?
Harada: Hard question. In the beginning I only knew about Kuma Miko: Girl Meets Bear. (lol). It’s from the early days but also Tokyo Magnitude 8.0.
Saita: You watched it in real time.
Harada: I’m not good with good stories. I cry (lol). Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 really got to me, I still like it now.
– That was the origin of Kinema Citrus.
Harada: I think that’s because it has that spiritual quality, but if you ask Ogasawara he might tell you you’re wrong (lol). Then there’s Barakamon. I feel like we have a real variety now. It’s a little different from where we started, because people have changed.
– What do you think, Mr. Saita?
Saita: Speaking for myself, the revue scenes from Revue Starlight which I worked on. Koide, a natural born animator at Kinema, handled it. He handled the whole thing and the quality is amazing.
– The Rising of the Shield Hero has been a big hit recently both in Japan and abroad. How did you manage that and what are you hoping for in the future?
Harada: Can I just speak for myself a minute? What indeed. (lol). There’s work I want to carry on with. The show we have going now, we haven’t exhausted the source material. We’ve been talking about what to do after that. We’ve worked so hard making it that we want to be able to continue. We’ll keep going, that’s what I’ll say. (lol).
Maybe we’re more popular overseas. If you asked if we planned it that way from the beginning, then I think we achieved the objective. There are times when you stray from the plan on purpose, to avoid predictability, and people tell you it’s very “Kinema.” The drama really feels real.
■ Introduction of digital production, the frontline of production at Kinema Citrus
– Around how many people are involved in-house right now?
Harada: Other than here (the Ogikubo HQ), we have another studio at Nishi-Ogikubo. It’s really fulfilling. Here we do coloring to finishing. We also do in-betweens and have a section dedicated to checks. We have about 10 in-betweeners. T2studio (Takahashi Production) handle photography. Color coordination is 50/50. Hiroyuki mentioned Koide before who works with him in animation, he wears many hats and can do animation direction and character design.
Saita: That’s right. Producing and key animation too.
Harada: There are some who can do producing and key animation, but I think you can count them on one hand.
Saita: Around five, maybe?
Harada: With the personnel we have now, and the ones who will join us later, as we train them up and the numbers increase, I can see us being able to do a whole episode in-house. We’re aiming for that now. As for production, including the line producer, there are about 20 of us.
– Seems like you’re really growing.
Harada: I think we have to. Looking a little further off, in 5 to 10 years time, I think we’ll have increased the lines.
– What about the male/female balance?
Saita: Are there more men in production?
Harada: A few. But, the numbers of women are really increasing. There were more women last year than the year before. Last year there were a few.
– You mentioned that you’re transitioning from paper and pencil to drawing on tablets and digital animation. How far along are you with that?
Harada: It seems like Ogasawara wanted to start before I joined the company but they couldn’t do it as well as they wanted. When I was in charge of Made in the Abyss, Satoshi Mori was running a digital animation studio in Gifu called Giftanimation. I took advantage of that too.
In the beginning I thought it would be easy. We wouldn’t need to send materials or travel far outside of work. But once we started, the production assistant’s job became much more difficult and complicated. We had to digitalize or we couldn’t go on. I wanted to do it because it had its upsides too. We tried out several kinds of production methods with Mori. We tried to do the animation of episode 13 of Made in Abyss digitally as far as we could. There were so many problems, but with the experience we gained The Rising of the Shield Hero was about 60% digital from episode 3.
– What was the reaction from the animators who are actually drawing it?
Harada: Even at Kinema Citrus, there were a lot of difficulties when we were trying to proceed with digital animation. It was Saita who explained to us how difficult it was during the meetings.
Saita: When Kinema Citrus was talking about going full digital, Kinema proposed the equipment and software, and the people who’d been using it so far could use it but for the people who had never used it before, even if they understood the terminology, they had no idea how to use it efficiently. Files were all over the place, checks were a pain. We started talking about what we could do about it. It was at that point that we needed to make some rules.
Harada: You draw a little, and then if there’s a problem you go back. I feel like we’ve finally got there now.
Saita: To that extent we came up with the rules and then we were standing at the start line. (lol)
Harada: In the beginning, Saita said that because we’re doing this at Kinema we needed to put out quality work while creating a system where the amount of work done in a day wouldn’t change from the paper days. Since then there have been a lot of problems, and we solved them, so I think it will go well from now on.
I’m in production, Saita is in animation, but because we meet properly to talk through problems we can apply the ideas to the work. Kinema’s strength is that when something happens we can come up with a solution.
– You must work well as a team?
Harada: I think we’ve finally perfected a system now. Thinking about the Kinema of 10 or 20 years time, I want the employee turnover to fall. If someone quits, you have to start over from scratch. As we’re finally perfecting digital animation after such a long process, if someone leaves we’ll have to start again from there. It’ll never get finished.
If we want them to stay, we need to think about a new production method from the point of view of working practices and conditions. Up to now we’ve relied on freelancers but that won’t be possible in future generations. When it goes digital, companies will need to maintain equipment, that will cost money, and to use it properly will require people in the office continually doing good work. We need to change the anime industry, and make sure people stay in it.
■ Thanks to Twitter, you can participate in the Revue Starlight animation from overseas
– Are there any employees from overseas at Kinema Citrus?
Saita: Someone joined this year.
Harada: From other parts of Asia, but yes there are. There’s someone from China working in production. He joined the company right out of technical school.
Saita: Last year we had a girl from France intern with us to train in animation.
– Would you like to recruit more staff from abroad if the opportunity arose?
Harada: There’s no need to restrict yourself to people with Japanese citizenship. There might be a language barrier, but that’s not such an issue for animators.
Saita: It might be difficult with the language problem in production where communication is key, but it doesn’t really matter for animation. I taught an in-betweener from Taiwan once, but it wasn’t any different than teaching someone from Japan. The conversation might have been a little halting, but the passion was the same. Maybe, the overseas students are keener even (lol).
Harada: If you’ve left your country and come to Japan just for that then you must have real resolve.
Saita: I think that’s probably true.
– Japanese anime is really popular overseas, have you had any responses from international viewers?
Harada: You really get a lot on Twitter.
Saita: Yes. Ogasawara gets a lot of responses to Revue Starlight on his Twitter feed. We get fan letters from overseas too. Made in Abyss is really popular overseas.
– Do you make the shows with overseas fans in mind?
Harada: I don’t either. Rather than country, I think it’s better to say anime fandom. Rather being aimed at someone in particular, someone watching, someone who is interested, even if it’s just one person watching a lot that’s enough. Come, wherever you’re coming from (lol). Wherever you’re from, fight.
– What if someone offered you work overseas? “Hey, come do character design for us!”, would you do it?
Saita: Sure! Though I don’t know if they want Japanese anime style overseas.
– I think you’d be OK across Asia.
Saita: I see illustrations from illustrators all over the world on Twitter, etc., and they’re almost identical to ones by Japanese illustrators, it’s amazing! We’ve got animators from overseas working on key animation for us right now.
Harada: There are a few people working on Revue Starlight overseas. Ogasawara put out a want ad on his Twitter.
– Do you have anything to say to international fans?
Saita: Please watch Made in Abyss!
Harada: Your expectations are high but I think we can meet them. The anime production method is taking a step forward, so look out for that.
■ Doing all kinds of things, Kinema Citrus’ future
– Could we ask a little about the future?
Saita: I want to make a hit! (lol). “This is our masterpiece” – that kind of thing!
Harada: Me too. Something that will become a pillar we can build the company around so it can continue.
Saita: Like Dragon Ball for Toei, or Gundam for Sunrise.
Harada: If we can stabilize just by doing that, then we’ll be able to train people too. I want to get rid of all the bad stories you hear about the anime production environment. To do that requires money though, so we need a big hit that can support us. We’ve made a lot of good shows, but we need to take it further.
– Can I ask a big question? Where do you think Japanese anime is headed? Are there any trends?
Saita: Hmm, what’s going to happen? I’d like to know. If I knew that I could make a hit!
– What about pictures? Once there was a time that lines had really increased, but these days they’re pretty slim.
Saita: There are a lot of motion heavy shows lately so the lines have become simpler. I grew up loving bishoujo anime so my lines are a little bigger (lol).
Harada: I grew up watching movies and TV drama so I think if you can make something that has real soul so that people can get lost in the story then they’ll keep coming back to it. That’s somewhere between a hope and prediction.
Saita: Recently, people have been remaking old properties. We’ve gone back a little to the way things used to look. So you could say that’s the trend. However, Kinema doesn’t have a characteristic kind of show. We make all kinds of things. We even do fantasy – anything.
Harada: There’s space for everything so you can make anything. It’s good to maintain diversity. You get more experience by making different kinds of shows. In a company with a broad outlook, animators can become all-rounders and I think that’s a good thing.
Harada: Finally, I’d just like to announce that we’ve started recruiting new graduates for this year’s intake. We’re doing an orientation session for the first time. We want to strengthen recruitment, production, and animation. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, or how old you are. We want to make edgy work. If you’re the kind of person who can open their own doors, please come and knock on ours. We’d love to work with you. Though, as we’re only going to get bigger, it would be really great to find some people with drive.