As a Christmas gift this year, I received from an anonymous follower on Twitter the first half of an interview with Shoji Kawamori (Macross, Escaflowne) on one of my all-time favorite anime—AKB0048. This anonymous translator, who asked that I give credit for the translation to their anonymous account @chottojolly, gave me permission to post the translation here on my blog. Aside from a few bits of proofing and very minor editing for readability done by me, the translation credit belongs entirely to them. Thank you again, chottojolly! This was a wonderful present!
And, without further adieu, here’s Shoji Kawamori on AKB0048!
13th Generation Maeda Atsuko disappears? We ask AKB0048’s director, Shoji Kawamori.
Super Dimension Fortress Macross’ Lynn Minmay. Macross Frontier’s Ranka Lee and Sheryl Nome. Shoji Kawamori, creator of these legendary idols, hits a theme closer to home by completely reshaping AKB48 into the brand-new AKB0048. In this new story set in a near future where music is banned, the musical group AKB0048 succeeds each of the AKB48 members’ names and fights an oppressive government while traveling the universe to deliver music to their fans. This interview takes place right in the middle of the climax [of First Stage], two episodes before its finale. We start the interview at the beginning half of the finished AKB0048 (First Stage) episodes.
Oh and for those of you in areas where airing starts in July, be careful of spoilers. Please watch up to episode 11 and come back to read this!
— Originally, I had no interested nor much knowledge of AKB48. My first experience with them was your AKB0048.
Kawamori: Really? I’m very grateful for that. I don’t actually hear much feedback from those kinds of people (laughs).
— Conversely, I became interested in AKB48 after watching AKB0048. I watched documentaries and searched the group up on the internet (laughs).
Kawamori: That’s the ideal pattern right there (laughs). On the other hand, if AKB48 fans became interested in anime – if that kind of mutual exchange occurred – I think I’d be really happy.
— It was very easy for anime fans such as myself, who don’t know about AKB48, to understand the story thanks to the mechanics and battles that were very much in your style. However, when making an anime centered around AKB48 I feel like there are a lot of other options that could have been created. What’s the story behind how we got the AKB0048 we have today?
Kawamori: Initially I was asked by King Record’s producer Otsuki (Toshimichi) if I’d make an anime with AKB48 as its central theme. I thought about it a lot, but AKB48 isn’t just your everyday idol group. They go so far as to even show their fans what’s happening backstage.
— When I watched the documentary that part did surprise me.
Kawamori: Twenty, thirty years ago what happened backstage was shrouded in mystery, so an anime about the behind the scenes would have sufficed. However, in AKB48’s case now, watching the documentary will get the job done. So, I changed my perspective and thought—what exactly was it about AKB48 that made them what they were? Back then, I also didn’t really know many details about them. I only knew about two or three members.
— Up until AKB0048 I knew about that much as well.
Kawamori: But when I looked it up, it was really fascinating. They had rivalries with one another while upholding the value of teamwork, and they worked really hard backstage. It was a level of difficulty I couldn’t even image girls their age delving into.
— It’s that difficult?
Kawamori: If it was simply physically difficult, then it would be no different than athletes. But I’ve never seen a group dealing with so much emotional pressure (laughs). There was such a huge difference between the hard work they were putting in and the cute idol image they were maintaining. I wanted to show that huge difference in an anime, but if left as is, it would just be a pale reproduction because if you go to the Akihabara theater you can see much of their everyday life with your own eyes. So I thought of taking that and making it more anime-like. For such a setting, the idea of “a world where music is banned” came to me relatively quickly. In order to draw that feeling that backstage was like a battlefield, I wanted to actually bring it to a time where war was rampant. If I drew that, then I would finally be able to capture the same difficulty [that AKB48 actually goes through] (laughs).
— So like the difference between putting your life on the line and not (laughs)?
Kawamori: Yeah, yeah. Kind of like the difference between physically risking it and emotionally doing the same (laugh). But AKB48 and the military have a fundamental difference. The military moves upon hearing orders from above. AKB48 on the other hand, despite being just as difficult as the military, moves on its own. They’re given the topic, but the approach and how to make something a success is generally left to them. I was very impressed by this.
— So why was it that you decided to set the story in the future and have the AKB48 member’s names be succeeded?
Kawamori: First off, setting the story in the future increased the freedom of how the live performances could be drawn. By drawing the sixteen members and 250 seats inside the theater, there is really no way to escape. No matter how you frame it, there are going to be a large number of people shown. It would take a lot of work on our animators’ part, and we still wouldn’t be able to show anything all that flashy.
— So by setting it in the future there were less restrictions.
Kawamori: Yes. When we changed the setting to the future, we dabbled in the idea of having the actual AKB48 members go through some kind of time slip or cold sleep so they would end up in a different time. However, when you use real people there are lots of things you have to watch out for. Viewers might watch and say “That’s not what A-chan would do.” I thought they might hate it and had to rethink things. It was at that time that Macross Frontier: The Wings of Farewell was in production. The main character, Alto Saotome, was originally from a family of kabuki actors. With that, I thought of successors. By succeeding their [the original AKB48 members’] names, the characters could hold the same positions. For example, Minami Takahashi’s character would hold the captain position and Yuuko Oshima’s character would be cheerful, lively, and a bit mischievous. That way we could take certain characteristics of the members but still say they weren’t the actual people (laughs).
— I see.
Kawamori: So we thought up the story of a thirteen-year-old girl suddenly getting Atsuko Maeda’s name bestowed upon her, presented our plan, and got the go-ahead.
— Having the 9 main characters be trainees is quite different, though, isn’t it?
Kawamori: Yes, it is. We went back and forth with the plan. At first we wanted to personally gather information by seeing the stage and going to handshake events. However, when we went to a public performance, the regular members were too busy to come so the trainees had to fill in and they were amazing. Even though they were just trainees, it was surprising how good they were. With that, we decided not to center the show around the successors, but instead around the trainees who were aiming for the top. We thought the process of showing their growth would be interesting and match the concept of AKB48. Initially it was planned with only three girls competing, but in the end it became nine. We rung our own necks (laughs).
— With the successor system, I initially felt it was an interesting way to establish characters, but as the story has continued it seems to be a source of drama—particularly between Takamina (the 5th Minami Takahashi) and the 75th generation’s Kanata Shinonome. Did you intend to have the drama center around this from the get-go?
Kawamori: It does become the center of the drama, doesn’t it? There were times when we had to figure out how we would depict this successor system that doesn’t actually exist within AKB48. For that, I consulted the script writer Okada (Mari), and the director Hiraike (Yoshimasa). Coincidentally, HKT48 [one of AKB48’s sister groups] was doing some of their first public kickoff events, so we went to a Hiroshima handshake event to gather information. We heard some very interesting stories from the management staff. If for some reason a main member is unable to perform on stage, they will quickly name an understudy, make sure she knows that member’s dance and lyrics, put her in costume, and have her wait for the curtain to rise. If that fallen member returns just before the performance, the understudy is told to shed the outfit and step down.
— That is exactly what happened with Takamina and Kanata in episode 9 (Stage 9 “Emotion Relation”)!
Kawamori: It wasn’t actually something that happened to Minami Takahashi, but it is a true story. That story gave us a huge hint as to how to draw the relationship between the successors and understudies. Okada and I borrowed chairs in the back of the staff room and started planning out everything right then and there (laughs). After hearing that story, we did a huge upheaval of episode 7 and onward. The initial thought was to have some story based around the successors versus the understudies, but with this new information we felt we were stepping the tension up a level. There was also one other interesting story we heard at that time. Within AKB48, there is only ever one outfit made for each position for each song. Anyone who performs must wear a outfit made for the member who initially performed said song.
— It’s like the hand-me down system that clubs with a small budge use (laughs).
Kawamori: Yeah, just like that. If a tall member is succeeded by a shorter girl, then the outfit would be baggy. Even so, they have to make the best of it. Names are also written in them, so for a trainee to work her way up and finally receive an outfit she can write her own name in is a very special thing. If by the time one becomes an understudy and doesn’t have their own outfit, they take the stage wearing something with a name already attached. It pretty much felt like a successorship. It’s as if even in the real AKB48 there was this metaphorical successorship as the backbone of their system.
— That is quite a coincidence.
Kawamori: There were actually a great number of coincidences; it was incredible. Speaking of coincidences, Atsuko Maeda was actually another one. Maeda has a very strong presence. We brought in her rivalry with Yuuko Oshima to the anime as is, but it was difficult to correctly portray her interactions with the trainees. On top of that, she was a very difficult character to create. “What could she mess up on? What could she say?” We really had no idea. We really had to depend on using the real Atsuko Maeda. Yuuko Oshima, on the other hand, was a relatively typical character to draw. So we decided to have the the 13th generation Atsuko Maeda disappear. And then, the unthinkinable…(laughs).
— Atsuko Maeda suddenly announces her graduation from AKB48.
Kawamori: Before the anime’s airing too! I keep getting asked if I knew, but there’s no way I could have known (laughs).
— Indeed, the charm that you didn’t know what to say was showing.
Kawamori: It really was. At that time, we just happened to be at the concert in Saitama’s Super Arena and we were shocked (laughs). But a little after that shock, we were really glad that we had gone with successors. With successors, we had prepared for if that kind of thing were ever to happen, but I never would have thought Maeda would be the one. AKB48 really is interesting. You never have any idea what is going to happen next.
To be continued in the second half of the interview!