Made in Abyss director Masayuki Kojima on staffing decisions and the appeal of MIA

This interview was originally published in Volume 44 (October 2017) of the magazine Febri. Images added by the translator and sourced from HIDIVE.

“Made in Abyss doesn’t shy away from depicting the reality of adventure”

The last episode that aired before this interview was Episode 10, where Riko and Reg are attacked by an Orb Piercer. It was a heavy one, wasn’t it?
Kojima: I was worried people would send in complaints. I imagine it was tough for a lot of people to watch, but fortunately, it seems like people accepted it.

Ahaha. I’d like to ask about your thoughts while creating this series. First of all, what led up to you accepting the role of director?
Kojima: Producer Ogasawara at Kinema Citrus reached out to me, told me about their upcoming show, and asked if I wanted to work on it. He gave me the first volume of the manga, and I accepted as soon as I saw the cover and the first color page.

So, it was immediate.
Kojima: I knew it would be interesting. It had a clear vision, including the artwork. I didn’t know what it was about at the time, but I just had a feeling that it would be good. Then, once I actually started reading it, it was even better than I imagined. I haven’t personally read very many adventure stories or stories set in other worlds, but Made in Abyss (abbreviated as MIA) is very realistic. It has a contemporary feeling, in a way, where it unflinchingly depicts what would happen to a boy and girl if they actually went on an adventure in this world. That “not shying away” aspect really came out in the tenth episode that just aired. It was a severe development in the manga, so I took care to keep it the same way in the anime.

“Yoshinari is in charge of his own cuts, down to the animation”

I’d like to ask about the staffing. You have Kazuchika Kise on character design, Kou Yoshinari on creature design, and Takeshi Takakura as design chief, who are all talented staff. Why these particular people?
Kojima: I knew Kise’s name before, of course, but this was my first time working with him. I didn’t think he was the type of person to work on something like this at the time, but the character designs he came up with were great. I even had him direct all of the animation on Episode 1, and he was a big help. Kise is a director himself, so his explanations of the storyboard are detailed. If the drawings and nuances or the timings were off when he saw the key frames, he fixed them at the animation direction level. When I saw his edits, I thought “exactly, this is what I wanted to do.” I really felt his hidden strength.

In a way, he stepped into directing territory and looked at the animation.
Kojima: I think our storyboarding and directing styles are different, but even if his style wasn’t mine, he had the capacity to match it. I was really impressed by that.

The creature designer Yoshinari also does key frames, right?
Kojima: He does. In the cuts where there are monsters, he doesn’t do all of the key frames, but he does as much as possible.

In the cuts that Yoshinari is in charge of, there are monster designs without solid lines.
Kojima: That would be quite difficult for anyone other than Yoshinari. It’s thanks to his drawing work that we can make some places work without solid lines. At the storyboarding stage, I have certain places that I intend for Yoshinari to do.

But it depends on the circumstances whether he can actually do it or not.
Kojima: Right. He was able to do quite a few cuts, though. Of course, it takes some time, since he does all of the key frames and animation digitally by himself. Usually, we have in-betweeners who connect the key frames, but Yoshinari does those frames himself. That’s how we can get that kind of movement, so it wouldn’t have the same appeal if Yoshinari didn’t draw everything on his own. I planned to ask him for that as soon as he agreed to join the project.

What does Takakura do, specifically?
Kojima: I originally had him join the project on prop design, but he does all sorts of things, down to the details. He participated as early as the initial meetings with the original creator Tsukushi, and he did research on the setting of MIA, such as what kinds of fields are in Orth and what the people there eat.

I didn’t know that!
Kojima: That’s why I think Takakura may have the best grasp of the setting out of all of us. For example, there’s a gondola that goes down into the Abyss in Episode 1, but the gondola itself doesn’t really make an appearance in the manga, so we had Takakura design it. I can also ask him to increase the detail in the revision stage if I look at the key frames and think they’re lacking in detail, or I can have him draw subtitle pictures. He plays an active role in a variety of situations.

“The people in MIA are interesting because they think differently from people in Japan today”

This is your first time working with series organizer Hideyuki Kurata. How was the organization of the story solidified?
Kojima: The first big thing was to settle Nanachi’s episodes to some degree. There was also the question of what to do with the prologue section at the beginning if we’re adapting up to volume 3 or 4 of the manga. Those who have read the manga know that there’s a lot of content before Riko and her team sets off. I wanted to keep it within the first three episodes, but I didn’t think it would work because we also had to establish the Abyss as a setting.

That meant there was a lot of information that you had to show.
Kojima: That was when someone, I think Kise, suggested that we start from where Riko and Reg meet. I thought it was a great idea, but it meant that we would have to establish the setting of the Abyss little by little as the story continued. In the end, we had Kurata divide it up effectively.

I see. Ozen has a very big role mid-story. She’s a very quirky character…
Kojima: When I read the manga, Ozen was difficult to grasp as a character, but the anime depicts Ozen’s humanity as well as changing the place where the flashbacks with Lyza come in. I had Kurata do the organizing for that part, and he put the conversation between Lyza and Ozen further back in the anime — at the end of Episode 8. The scene is the same as in the manga, but the place it appears makes it much easier to understand Ozen as a character.

You can tell that she has her own objective and acts by her own principles.
Kojima: Although what she’s doing is awful (laughs), it’s logical in her own mind. I think putting that at the end made her actions clearer.

On the other hand, Episode 10 introduces Nanachi, who was very popular in the manga.
Kojima: Nanachi has a cute appearance, so I think they will be a well-liked character, but their appeal is not only in their looks, but their secretive background. I especially like their relationship to their companion Mitty, so I want to take care on that part in particular.

As a result, it confronts life and death head-on.
Kojima: That was always the kind of work this was. What I think is interesting is how the mentality of the people in the Abyss is completely different from that of people in Japan now. In Episode 2, the people of Orth have a celebration when they think Lyza may have died. That shows how their view on life and death is different from ours.

You’re completely right.
Kojima: When Riko said she wanted to go into the Abyss, it was Nat who helped her in the end, despite objecting at first. It would normally be unthinkable to let a child go into such a dangerous place in Japan. The fundamental worldview of the people in MIA differs from ours in that way. Made in Abyss is a story of people who are bound by the draw of the Abyss. I think the fact that they don’t have a Japanese mentality is the draw of this work.

The draw of the Abyss wins over one’s own life.
Kojima: The episodes with Mitty are rather severe as well. To discuss how the actions Reg took should be interpreted, it’s not that he didn’t have any feelings of affection or love. The love part itself is no different from what we experience, but the actions motivated by it are completely different. So I don’t want people to judge Reg to be abnormal based off our modern Japanese mentality. That’s how I feel about it.

“MIA is a work that lets me utilize everything I cultivated so far in my career”

As the director, what do you think is the appeal of Riko and Reg as characters?
Kojima: Riko is very mentally strong, as you can tell from Episode 10. Despite being on the verge of death, she understands that she has to do something. She’s still a child, so she doesn’t have much experience, but she has the strength to come to a decision. In that sense, Reg is mentally weaker.

That’s true.
Kojima: In a way, Reg’s perspective is closest to the viewer’s. He came from the Abyss, but he has no memories of it, so everything he sees is new to him. That was something I especially kept in mind.

There are many episodes where you yourself are in charge of the storyboarding. That seems like it would be quite difficult for a TV series…
Kojima: I want to storyboard as much as I have time for myself. For MIA in particular, I have to take into account the color palette and the lights and shadows in order to express the tone of the work. I wasn’t able to go as far as coloring it myself, of course, but I tried to keep the lighting in mind at the storyboarding stage. In that sense, I thought the picture would be easier to create if I did the storyboarding.

The scene in the latter half of Episode 2 where Riko and Leader (Jiruo) are talking stood out to me because of how their conversation was reflected in the lighting and shadows.
Kojima: I wanted to do it since it’s something that’s only possible with the TV series. Expressing the human psyche with light and shadow is something that has to be planned out to some extent. I thought that sort of realism would be especially important here.

The art style is manga-like, but the scenery and composition are very realistic.
Kojima: That’s how it was starting from the storyboarding. It may have this art style, but the things they’re doing are very real. That’s why ever since I first read it, I thought it was worth doing and had plenty of factors that I could be creative with.

Lastly, as a veteran who has been making anime since the 80s, what kind of work did MIA become to you as a director?
Kojima: It’s a work that has let me utilize everything I’ve cultivated so far in my career, including in the scene composition. I like depicting people in and of itself, but I felt that the manga deviated from the usual tropes, including the presence of the characters. Following what the characters are thinking and how they will behave is the style I like, so it was a very rewarding project in that sense as well.

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Kim Louise Davis

Kim Louise Davis

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Kim Louise Davis is a freelance Japanese to English translator and hobbyist musician.