FRI’s eye:The methods and stance towards production of GONZO, an animation study famously known all around the world – First Part –

GONZO is an animation studio which has released many great works, such as “Basilisk~The Kouga Ninja Scrolls~” and “Afro Samurai”, both being shows with westernized sensibilities, or their more epic shows such as “Last Exile: Fam, The Silver Wing” and “Aokana: Four Rhythm Across the Blue”. We spoke to Mr. Ichi Eda, head of the production and animation business departments, about their methods and stance towards animation which have produced such a variety of idiosyncratic shows.

— First I’d like to ask about the planning stages. How does GONZO go about organizing its project meetings?
 The truth is, we don’t hold any meetings which you could call “project meetings”. Our biggest meetings are with our external sponsors, where they usually ask us things like “we would like to make an anime show out of this product. If GONZO were to make it, in what way would you approach it?”, and so on. From that point we settle on an estimate and a schedule based on the contents of that particular work, and our staff structure at that given time.

— So your projects usually come from external clients?
 There are other times when it’s our producer who proposes an idea, after which we ask our director if he’s free during that time, then if he is we decide who’s going to be the animation director, etc… We try to approach ideas which are practical and reasonable. Subsequently, we ask ourselves “what should we use as the base story?”, and form a production committee to discuss this. Many of our projects start this way, but we usually only go through with 1 out of every 10 proposals.

— So it’s an average of 10%? That’s a narrow selection process.
 Well, it’s not just our producer who suggests ideas. In our working environment we are open to proposals from any one of us. But naturally, it’s our clients who set the budget, so their projects are the ones most likely to get made. Our show “Last Exile: Fam, The Silver Wing” is an entirely original production, and it was a rare case where all of us together created the plot, with Mr. Chigira the director as the central voice.

— So I guess it’s more lucrative to adapt works which have already sold many tens of thousands of units?
 That’s just because the majority of clients are not interested in taking risks. You see, if a manga has sold several hundred thousand copies for each individual volume, companies are really going to fight to obtain it.

— However, we have this image of animation companies as being very “cooperative”, and not “competitive” with one another.
 Well, it is true that if we’ve accepted too many projects, so that for example we’re working on various different TV anime series at the same time and are about to overflow, we may ask another company “could you help us with episodes 3 and 7?”. Then, whenever we are less busy, we can tell them that “we will help you out with 2 of your company’s episodes”. It’s not as if our relationships as companies are particularly heated, but of course we do have the occasional argument between directors about who gets to keep a certain show! *Laughter*

— In regards to your overseas expansion, GONZO has produced many works which use Samurai folklore. Do you think that shows with this stereotypical image of Japan are more likely to become hits among foreign audiences? Just a thought.
 Well actually, shows such as “Basilisk” have not received much attention overseas. I think the main reason we have made many shows like that is because our working environment favors that sort of content, since many of our creators are very knowledgeable on the topic of Samurai action stories. For instance we have Mr. Kizaki, Basilisk’s director, with whom I normally work together. If from the very start we already focused on our overseas audience, it’s very likely that we’d produce something a “little weird”. Shows like “Samurai 7” and “Basilisk” first became acclaimed by Japanese audiences, and I think that explains their success.

— So your approach is to always create quality content aimed at Japanese audiences?
 Precisely. We never think things like, “we’ve got to make this show in a way that will appeal to Americans”. The case of “Afro Samurai” was a bit unique, because the project caught the attention of Samuel L. Jackson, a famous star, and this really helped promote the show.

— Has anything else changed on the overseas market?
 Well, we’ve been exporting our techniques overseas. In Malaysia, some movies are financed by joint ventures of government and business, and from 2010 to 2012 we traveled there to teach them our Japanese style of anime production. I hope we can do this sort of thing again in the future, in many other countries.

— Did a finished animation come out of this process?
 Yes, an anime adaptation of an actual Malaysian heroic legend called “Satria”. It’s like a national period drama, but we added elements of fantasy. It all revolves around the topics of friendship and battles, with a plot about saving the people from the enemies. By using this kind of story, so representative of anime, we taught them that “this is how you create a Japanese anime show”.

— It’s not as simple as just teaching them techniques, like how to draw, isn’t it?
 No, it always must come from the “heart”, too. It’s clear that people from other countries see Japan as being “the country where the best animation is made”. But even if we also feel the same way, when creating an animation from the ground up we can never know if it’s going to reach the Japanese standard of quality, or not.

— How businesslike would you say the foreign market actually is?
 Guessing from the amount of financing they spend on their production committees, I would say their ratio is 10% lower than Japan’s. Japan is still the main revenue center. It’s just that China has a high chance of growing fairly soon. We’ve even got cases like “Reikenzan”, which was broadcast in Japan recently.

— “Reikenzan” is almost the opposite of most Japanese shows, since its merchandise figurines are made here in Japan and sold in China.
 It’s the same as with anime: even when you’re willing to fund a project and create a high quality product, in many cases you can’t actually make it in your own country. But I’m sure this will change soon, and they’ll be able to do so. – In the past, Korea was in the same situation, right? And yet on a technical level nowadays they’re able to make “Japan quality” anime. That’s why I think that in a few years China will also reach a point when they can make high quality products.

Continuing onto the second part

Fields Research Institute (FRI) conducts research in entertainment. This article was written by the member of FRI, through the original coverage of his/her interests that discovered from daily life.

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