“‘I don’t understand what’s interesting about it, but I can’t help but watch anyway’ is the highest praise.”
An Interview with Director Kiyotaka Oshiyama
Challenging Difficult Subjects
Feeling Through his First Work as a Director
1—First can you please tell me how it is you came to be involved in this work?
Oshiyama: The original catalyst was my meeting with the CEO of 3Hz, Yuuichirou Matsuya, and Hideaki Kubo, who ran the production desk for us [for Flip Flappers]. Back when they were at [the animation studio] Kinema Citrus they kindly said they wanted to work with me on a certain project. That ended up not happening, but later, after they left to start up 3Hz (around March 2013), they said “Hey we’d like to do something with you at 3Hz some time.” Sort of the idea behind 3Hz as a company is “we want to make original works,” and that’s something I wanted to try too, and so that’s what got the ball rolling.
I guess things started moving in earnest around the summer of 2013?
Matsuya, Kubo, Takayuki Nagatani, Kunihiko Okada, and myself all holed up together for a few days to brainstorm, and by the end we’d pretty much decided on “passing through a hole to have adventures in another world” as the concept.
2—Who proposed that “go through a hole to another world” idea?
Oshiyama: By the time they came to me about directing it, two themes already decided for the project were “space opera” and “the protagonists are two girls.” But they were also saying “instead of a space opera with spaceships broadsiding each other, or aliens popping up, why don’t we try to do one like nobody else is doing?” Using that as a jumping off point, I proposed the idea.
3—When did it change from the original space opera to a road movie-esque thing about exploring Pure Illusion?
Oshiyama: From when we decided to go with the idea about the hole. From the beginning of the project there was this thought that “if the developments of the story put too much stress on the viewers they won’t stick with it.” Like if something bad happened and we didn’t resolve it within that episode, viewers’ interest in following the show would drop. So we decided very early on that for the first half, we would try as much as possible to have each episode have sort of a happy ending, and then put a hook for the next episode in the C Part [after the credits/ED] and pass the baton that way.
4—You put a lot of work into the visuals of the battle and action scenes, yes?
Oshiyama: That was to help make this show by some no-name director stand out among all the other shows going on (laughs). Most of my career has been as an animator, and I don’t have much experience directing, so to some extent I felt like if we couldn’t put up a fight on the animation front at least, we’d get buried by other shows of the season. Despite that, it didn’t really occur to me to make Flip Flappers into an action anime. That came from the producer side, who requested adding things like “making the girls transform,” “having them fight using big weapons,” “having them transform once every two episodes,” etc., and as we included those aspects during creation, it ended up being a show with a lot of action. Fortunately action scenes are one of my relative strengths as an animator, so I tried to make the storyboards with just enough symbolism/implicit meaning so as to ensure a good animator wouldn’t feel restrained. Action scenes won’t look good without a dynamism to the animation, after all. Also, since we had the chance to explore other worlds here, it would be a shame to not have the characters move around a lot in them. So yeah, in the end adding flashy action like that helped widen the field of what the anime was able to do, and became an important aspect of what made the show what it is.
5—There’s a lot of flashy animation even in the OP, isn’t there?
Oshiyama: It sounds like you’re saying it’s a show with lots of flashy animation, but in my mind neither the OP or the body of the show have that much animation to them (laughs), so it makes me happy to hear people say that about it. Compared to my past works it’s relatively still, and I’d bet my animator friends were thinking “Oshiyama, it’s episode one and you’re hardly moving anything!” while watching (laughs).
Creation of a Mystical World
Messages Embedded in Visuals
6—Does that mean you’d say you put more focus on Pure Illusion, and the events surrounding it, than the action, then?
Oshiyama: I’d say so, yes. I felt like using the multifaceted nature of human thoughts and perception to add some variation to the story would be something a lot of people would find interesting, but at the same time, there’s so much you can do with Pure Illusion that it makes things difficult. I knew going in that it would be a risky theme to tackle from a business/financial standpoint as well, but I figured “hey I’m still young, and if I screw up this director thing I can still make a living as an animator” (laughs), so I decided it would be worth the risk of trying something challenging. Things seems to have worked out well enough, so I’m glad now that I didn’t back down early on. I don’t feel like these 13 episodes were enough to do everything with Pure Illusion that I’d have liked to though (laughs).
7—There are a lot of parodies and metaphors packed into this work; are you yourself very knowledgeable about these sorts of things?
Oshiyama: I just filled it with stuff I liked, I wouldn’t say I’m very knowledgeable about this stuff in a broad sense. You can blame me for most of the things like that added to the visuals, though (laugh). Generally we made it such that you’d understand the story even if you missed these visual elements; they were mostly something I wanted to add that would just be supplementary. Also, because “illusion” is one of the themes of this work, figuring out what I could do with the visuals to hit on that was also one of my personal challenges. And partially it’s just simply that I like this sort of stuff in my media. Originally most of my knowledge just came from reading this book by behavioral scientist Toshitaka Hidaka that did a good job of talking in easy-to-understand terms about stuff like the Umwelt (a concept that every animal has it’s own perception of the world based on the senses it possesses (sight, smell, echolocation, etc.), and that it exists as the primary actor within that individually perceived world), behavioral sciences, and analytical psychology. Later, the works of the famous psychologist Hayao Kawai about the field of psychology, myths, folktales, and such were very helpful as well. Pure Illusion is fairly similar to the idea of the Umwelt, and one of the themes of the show is the multi-faceted nature of the internal world we each have, so I felt like psychology would be pretty relevant. From there I just included various references or symbols that came to mind. There’s actually a lot of that sort of stuff included in episode 18 of Space☆Dandy too (Oshiyama was the episode director, storyboarder, and animation supervisor for that episode), but nobody noticed (laughs).
It’s not mentioned in the story who’s world each of the different episodes’ Pure Illusions are, but if people watching were thinking “I wonder if this world is that character’s?” then that’s just what we were aiming for. Of course, as the creators we have some sense of which is which, but we’d prefer to not say it outright. There are various hints mixed into the visuals, so hopefully people will try to puzzle it out themselves. However, there are a lot of people nowadays whose position is “I want to enjoy a show with a minimum of stress” or “I want to just relax in front of the TV after a long day’s work,” so in order for people to be able enjoy the show as a fluffy story about some middle school girls, we focused less on the story and more on creating appealing characters, included yuri aspects, etc. Ideally we wanted people to find the show enjoyable in whichever way they pleased, whether that be relaxing with brain turned off, digging into all the details, or whatever else. So when I saw people on Twitter saying things like “I don’t understand what’s interesting about it, but I can’t help but watch anyway” or “I don’t get why I like this show” I was very happy.
8—Speaking of visuals, can you tell me about the appointment of tanu?
Oshiyama: The hiring of tanu was something the producer side suggested, but I was the one who asked them to do the concept art. Originally people were saying “How about having them do the character design?”, but that was something I wanted us to have control of ourselves. I was much more interested in having someone think up the image of the world as a whole, and when I asked tanu about this they said “I’d prefer it that way too.” Also, I didn’t want to have this be too similar to any existing works, and there’s another original anime out there—one that shares a lot of staff with this one—that tanu also did the character designs for (laughs).
9—What exactly did “doing the concept art” entail?
Oshiyama: At the start, it was mostly us asking tanu to “draw us an illustration of this Pure Illusion world,” in parallel with the progress of the script writing. In the second half though, after the script was largely finished, I’d say to Matsuya “let’s leave this part to tanu,” and we’d bring tanu in for the meetings. There were a few times we’d get some general ideas about the characters from them, but for the most part it would be things like “there’s going to be a location like this that comes up, give us your idea of what it would be like.” Basically I would tell them my general idea of what the place was, tanu would make a visual of it, and if we could use it we’d hand it off the background people to clean up and put on the art board (used to maintain consistency in the backgrounds etc.). It was useful as one tool to help describe the atmosphere/feeling of scenes.
10—When asking them to do a particular piece, did you explain to them background/setting of the characters/world?
Oshiyama: Depending on the specific thing, I changed how I explained it. In general I was afraid that explaining everything in detail would lead to them producing something not very different from my own mental image, so I would leave a lot of things vague when making requests for concept art. Later, when time was short, I wouldn’t have a solid image myself yet, so I was kind of creating it in my head as I was explaining it to tanu. They really provided me with a lot of ideas that were very different than what I would have come up with by myself.
Playfulness and Pickiness
Freedom of Choice
11—Was there anything you found caused you difficulty in creating the show’s visuals?
Oshiyama: It being an original anime, for one. Without a base to work from it was tough to get all the staff together, so there was a huge amount of work that all had to be left to me. I was given time to work based on schedule estimates from other projects, but it ended up not being enough. I do think I did everything I could though.
One of the good things about it though, especially being the director, is that I was able to include all sorts of things that I wanted to do. In a different position, even if I’d come up with an idea I would first have to consider “does this fit with the original work?” or “what does the director think about this?” which kills a lot of ideas before they get a chance to go anywhere. But since I was the director, from the storyboards on I had a lot of freedom to do whatever I wanted and was thus able to include all sorts of things. Had I not been able to be so indulgent, the visuals would certainly have been lighter on content.
12—You did the scriptwriting for episode seven, but did you have any influence on the direction of the story as a whole?
Oshiyama: I did, yes. Once the general concept was established and we brought Yuniko Ayana in, we worked together to get the framework of the story built. In the second half of the show we had (Naoki) Hayashi come in to take over the script writing, but by then everything that was supposed to happen was already decided on and it was just a matter of making a script to match it. The schedule was very tight at that point, so having Hayashi there was a huge help. For the first half, I would decide on the core things to have happen each episode, and the script writers would add whatever they wanted on top of that. For example, the yuri elements that Ayana is so good at. That’s something a lot of viewers nowadays find easy to hook into, so it was especially important I think.
13—Is there anything you’re particular about with regards to yuri?
Oshiyama: I’m actually not very knowledgeable about it. However, in talking with Ayana I think I got a good grasp of “things you shouldn’t do” and “lines you shouldn’t cross” when it comes to yuri. That said, I maybe broke the rules a little on episode seven. That episode features various personalities of Papika, and some of them are rather boyish. Thinking about the yuri perspective, I figured it wouldn’t be good to pair Cocona with a boy her age, so originally I had Papito and Papiya with female bodies too… but Takashi Kojima wanted to make them boys (laughs), so they ended up more male in places. My initial sketches of Papiwo, too, included a sarashi wrapped around her chest as a “definitely still a girl” signal. Also, in episode 8 there’s a boy their age, Occhan, who shows up; I made him a little shorter so he wouldn’t be at eye level with Cocona and the others.
14—Is there any episode that you feel you especially left your mark on as a director?
Oshiyama: Every episode, really. Many storyboards were outsourced, but as the work’s themes were rather firmly set, by the time the requests were sent out the visuals were mostly already decided. So I’d say the me-ness of each episode is quite thick. Not to say there wasn’t a lot added to each episode by the episode directors as well though. But things like the Fist of the North Star or Dragon Ball parodies in episode three are mostly me (laughs). The people in charge of the storyboards each added their own parodies and such too, but the ones that people of my generation are familiar with were mostly added by me during the storyboarding step. The robot in episode eight is another example. From the very beginning of this project I’d wanted to have a robot episode, but considering the calories (man-hours) that would take I wasn’t sure we’d be able to do it up until the last minute, and even if we were able to do it I wasn’t sure what kind of robot it would be. There were talks of doing a (Masami) Obari-style mecha for example, but without the right staff we’d never be able to pull it off, so that didn’t really go anywhere. There were definitely places where we had to adjust what we were doing to match the staff that were available. Fortunately, the episode director for episode eight, Hayao Shun* Enokido, was a young powerhouse that I felt safe trusting to pull off something cool, and we went with a Choushinsei Flashman-style robot, since I figured that’s one that probably hadn’t been done much in anime before.
*(Apparently the correct reading of his name is Shun, though many online databases incorrectly list him under Hayao.)
15—Were you a Flashman fan?
Oshiyama: When I was a kid I made doodles of it all the time. For me personally, Flashman, or maybe the series before it, is the real start of Super Sentai Series stuff. One of my oldest memories is the image of Flash King being broken into pieces, so I guess it was burned into my brain at the time (laughs). The boxy silhouette of Great Titan definitely left a big impression on me as well, and that’s also something I wanted to try using here. At the scriptwriting stage there was no robot action at all, it all came in during storyboarding. The insert song I’d actually wanted to play in three different, but decided that was just too many for one song. I regretted not having three different songs made, but since that train had already left the station I was forced to cut the one song down to being played twice instead of thrice (laughs).
16—You show up as a voice actor in episode five, correct?
Oshiyama: So, “illusion” is a big theme of this work, and I wanted to include an auditory illusion with the female students’ voice at some point. You know how sometimes you can listen to a voice recording and have no clue what it’s saying, but as soon as someone tells you you can instantly make it out perfectly? That’s what I wanted to go with. At first I figured maybe we could use a mouth harp I happened to have as a hobby to pull off something like that, but when I got up to do it in front of the cast, heart pounding, it sounded way too silly to actually use and I resigned myself to having the sound people digitally edit something instead. However, later on in production I was practicing circular breathing (a technique that allows for uninterrupted tone when playing a wind instrument) with my didgeridoo (a wind instrument), another hobby of mine, and it hit me that we could totally use this (laughs). At a later episode’s recording I got them to record me again using the didgeridoo this time, and that’s what we ended up using.
17—Is there a character in the show you’re particularly fond of?
Oshiyama: I’m fond of all of them really, but if I had to say, probably Papika and Yayaka. Yayaka feels very human and also suffers from bad luck (laughs), so I get a painful feeling like I’m sort of watching myself that makes her very relatable. On the flip side, Papika is in some ways an ideal figure. The magnificence of innocence maybe you’d call it? A girl with her genuineness, honesty, purity, it’s just nice. I don’t want to forget that authenticity even after becoming an adult, I want to think there’s value in that, so I admire that part of her. Also she’s got great survival skills, so she can go out adventuring whenever she feels like it. She’s got something modern people have lost, an important something that we used to have as animals, that’s the kind of character she is. Though, since she lost her memories once before she has fewer experiences than her visible age would suggest, so her vocabulary is sometimes lacking and her personality is childish in some ways. She was basically the same even before the incident though, so it might be hard to tell (laughs), but she’s by no means dumb.
18—Finally, do you have any words for the viewers eagerly awaiting the last episode?
Oshiyama: I think it’s easy for people to see this show as something you either get really into, or find not engaging. To figure out all the deepest parts of the show certainly does require a lot of mental energy, which has led some people to label it as trying to hard or pretentious. However, to the people who haven’t watched it yet or those who dropped it early on, I would encourage you not to succumb to a feeling of “oh this show seems like it’s hard to watch.” I think if you continue watching you’ll come to feel that a show like this can be good sometimes too. I would be honoured if you might spend some of your winter break, or other time, giving Flip Flappers a try.