Yoshiki Sakurai interview
Andrew Osmond interviews the screenwriter who links Hendon to Newport City
Yoshiki Sakurai has worked on everything from Stand Alone Complex to xxxHOLIC, from Evangelion to Redline. More recently he produced and co-wrote the acclaimed anime period drama Giovanni’s Island. In this frank interview, he talks about all of them, as well as about doughnuts, sarcastic English teachers, Jean-Luc Godard, the necessity of door-stopping animators, and whether you can have too many Angels…
Tell us about your background.
I was born in Japan but I went to Britain from the age of nine. My father was working for a Japanese life-insurance company and he was in the foreign investment department. I went to a school in London; the nearest station was Golders Green. I went to a private school, Hendon Preparatory School, which is now for both boys and girls, but when I went it was for boys only. But I was glad to see they’ve kept the absurd-looking blazer, in purple and black!
You’ve experienced both British and Japanese education; how would you compare them?
It’s difficult to say. I’m not sure I would call it discipline, but I do feel that Japanese schools run more on the workings of uniformity, everyone doing the same thing. I wouldn’t say English schools were freer, because some of their rules were really strict, especially as I was at a private school. My English teacher was really fussy about how we used the language. For instance, if someone said, “Can I go to the toilet?’ he would say ‘Yes, I hope you can’!
The classes that I had in England were much more interesting than the ones I had in Japan. Because everyone does the same in Japan, the procedure is slow. You might understand something but you have to keep on doing it forever because everyone else is doing the same. In England, when you’re ahead of other people, you can do whatever you like.
I was a captain of the Under-Elevens football team. When I was selected, the French teacher asked me if I knew why. I was hoping to hear that I was the best player, but he said it was because I was good at handing out doughnuts after the inter-school matches! That was memorable for me.
There’s a terrifying-sounding Japanese saying, “The nail that stands up shall be hammered down.”
Yes it is true. Even in my company right now! Some of them are not very happy that I come here with the director. [At the time of the interview, Sakurai was visiting the Annecy Animation Festival in France as producer and co-writer of Giovanni’s Island, together with director Mizuho Nishikubo.] Or there’s a feeling that it’s not natural for one person to be both an animation producer and write the screenplay. Some people think that I’m arrogant, or bossy, or doing things that I shouldn’t… You get used to it!
You went back to Japan aged twelve. How did you first get into animation?
While I was a university student, my professor was an acquaintance of the president of Production I.G, Mitsuhisa Ishikawa. I was reading theses about ‘Future Media Environments’ and ‘Future Political Situations’ and my professor said it might be interesting to see Production I.G because they were preparing Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex. I went there… At first I was just a student, giving some ideas of how the world of 2030 would look; for example, Asia might have adopted a unified currency, like the Euro.
The studio said the ideas were quite interesting, and that I could come back next week. Because I was planning to be a scholar, I was not really interested in coming back, but I thought it would be rude to turn then down! After about six months, I really wanted to quit… I wasn’t being paid at all, and it was taking time to write all these ideas. But they said that since I had given so many story ideas, I might try to write a screenplay for one of the episodes. I had never written a screenplay before so the series director, Kenji Kamiyama, gave me one of his past screenplays, which I used as a reference to write my own.
I wrote an episode about a runaway Tachikoma and a little girl (part 12 of the first series). The director liked that episode quite a lot, so he let me try another. That was the story of a young man running away with his android girlfriend (part 3).
That’s the one with loads of references to Jean-Luc Godard’s film Breathless (aka À Bout de Souffle).
Originally I wanted to use Bunraku, Japanese traditional puppetry, as the dialogue reference in the episode. But Bunraku is in a special, very old kind of Japanese, so the viewers would know that it was a quotation from the start. It had to be something where the viewer would not notice that the lines were quotations… and then in the end you realise it’s all quotations, apart from the very last phrase the android utters. I watched all sorts of different things, and Breathless made the most sense. Goddard was not particularly my favourite director, but it’s very natural for the man in the story, a movie lover, to have a film of Goddard.
What were you specialising in as a student at this time?
I was a student of economics. I was really interested in sociology and philosophy, Derrida, Nietzsche, Donna Haraway (the author of ‘A Cyborg Manifesto,’ who makes an appearance of sorts in Mamoru Oshii’s Innocence: Ghost in the Shell 2). I was not really interested in science-fiction. I liked Oshii’s film of Ghost in the Shell, probably because it was not exactly a sci-fi film….
I met Oshii later on at Production I.G and talked with him a lot. He uses sci-fi as a plate to serve his dish, but he’s not really interested in sci-fi. And he’s not good at computers at all! I was the same, more interested in philosophy, sociology, future science and media… That was what was good about participating in Stand Alone Complex. All the other writers were sci-fi lovers, and I was the one who was more into literature or sociological things.
At first, I was like an intern, but in the end I wrote eight of the twenty-six episodes of the first season. I wrote the first episode of the second series… That was the time I decided to quit trying to become a scholar. I finished university and was employed at I.G. I wrote several other episodes of the second series, such as the one where Togusa is in court (part 10), and a story of the sniper character Saito’s past (part 14).
Aside from Stand Alone Complex, what other things did you do?
Ishikawa is very generous about me working for other studios. I was sent to Studio Ghibli to help the promotion of Innocence: Ghost in the Shell 2 by Oshii. (Innocence was a Production I.G film, but its promotion was handled by Ghibli president Toshio Suzuki.) I made good friends with the Ghibli creators and producers… I worked a little on The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, writing a draft which Isao Takahata did not like; I was fired but we were not on bad terms…
I worked on Evangelion 1.11 and 2.22 for Studio Khara. Anno wrote them, I was credited with “screenplay cooperation.” The first film is mainly based on the TV series… I actually proposed cutting it more, making it shorter. The story was made for a series and I thought there were too many Angels for one movie. I think I wanted to cut the spider-like Angel with the long arms (Shamshel, the middle Angel in the film). But Anno would say something like, “Yes, I know, but this animation is really good so I can’t cut it out.” Anno is like my idol, so anything he says… I’m a big fan of his. The first TV series was broadcast while I was at high school.
As a Japanese fan, what did you make of the TV ending?
I didn’t quite understand what was going on, but I thought this was probably a totally new way of expressing things, which I didn’t understand because I didn’t have the capability… Actually I feel guilty, because I was not really a good screenwriter to work with Anno. He was too much of a big figure to me.
Almost none of my material got into Eva 2.22, except the scene where the characters picnic together in the aquarium. That was a scene I wanted to put in because I thought there should be a moment where Asuka and Rei and everyone are together.
I wrote the script for Redline at Madhouse, although quite a lot of it was changed… I’m not trying to criticise the director, but I felt that because it was a car racing movie, people could easily imagine that the main characters would win in the end. So I thought that the drama for the other racers would be the most important part. I wanted the audience to feel that, ‘I like the main character but I like this guy as much.’ And then there would more of a drama for the main character and his victory.
I thought the love story was not necessarily important, but it was emphasised more (in the final film) than in my version.
You also wrote for the CGI series Appleseed XIII…
I worked on four or five episodes. That may not have been a really high-quality TV series…. I think the budget and the schedule were not enough to make a series of that famous title. I wish we could have spent more on the production.
It was made with several different CGI studios…
That’s right. There were thirteen episodes and thirteen studios, which might be why it was so inconsistent.
Your other credits include the film version of CLAMP’s xxxHOLIC, subtitled “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Was that an original story?
Yes. I really want to make original stories, though the characters might come from somewhere else. The film is a story of a weird house, and of a collector who collects collectors.
It reminded me of Mamoru Oshii’s early film, Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer.
I liked Beautiful Dreamer very much, but I did not necessarily use that as a reference. I wanted the movie to be an extreme version of ‘holic,’ the utmost ‘holic’! I thought it would be interesting for someone to become a ‘holic’ of ‘holics.’
The xxxHOLIC film has some memorable animation by Shinya Ohira, who also contributed to Giovanni’s Island, and has quite a reputation among fans (there’s more on him in this article). Do you have much communication with animators?
Ohira handled the fighting scene with the rabbit and the hammer in the xxxHOLIC film. On Giovanni, Ohira did four shots of waves early on, around a point when some characters perish. As the Giovanni producer, I collected the key animators myself. I wanted Ohira for the wave scene… He lives in Nagoya, which is two hours from Tokyo by shinkansen. When I first called him, he said no because he didn’t know me. So I went to Nagoya by shinkansen, and waited in front of his home, and when he came home, I said “I’m the one who called you, and I’ve brought you these storyboards, and I don’t want you telling me you don’t know me, because you do now!”
Giovanni’s credits also include Toshiyuki Inoue, who’s famed for animating the bike chase in Akira…
Inoue animated the dancing scene at the very end of the film. He’s such a gentleman, and very easy to get along with, unlike some other animators… There are some crazy animators who never listen to what the director says. For instance, at the beginning of Giovanni’s Island, there’s a scene where a house stove turns into the stove of a locomotive running through space. This scene was done by an animator who’s very stubborn, very difficult. He would never follow the instructions written on the storyboard. I sometimes think he’s determined to ignore the storyboard!
So handling animators can be like herding cats?
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