ultimatemegax: I’ll be working on translating the interviews from the guidebook for the next couple of weeks. This is the first in the series. Thanks to irrevilent for editing assistance and OliMcGown for help with swimming portions.
Director Hiroko Utsumi Interview
Free! was Director Utsumi’s first role as a series director. In this interview, she passionately talks about the enthusiasm she put into this work as well as the thoughts she had during the creation of the characters.
Director Utsumi’s obsession with Free!’s staff
–The original novel, High☆ Speed!, took place in elementary school. Why did you decide to make the characters into high school students in Free!?
To start, I felt the manuscript was an awfully charming work when I first read it. At the same time, I felt the same as our judges; “They sort of feel like adults in children’s bodies.” High☆ Speed! takes place when the main cast are elementary school kids, but wouldn’t it still be entertaining to see a tale when they’re high schoolers? That was how I began thinking about having the anime set in high school. I was in a swimming club when I was in high school, so I could use my experience and help people understand the characters. Even now I can’t remember how I felt in elementary school despite having thought about it over and over… (laughs) And there’s also another more personal reason for it to be in high school… I like to draw beautiful bodies. (laughs) And so when I replied that I’d also like for the anime to be set in high school, Free!’s production began.
–I’m told that the character designer, Futoshi Nishiya, was designated by you.
Yes, I had truly wished to have him join, so I proposed to him. (laughs) I’ve been watching his work since a while ago; he’s an artist I’ve been quite fond of. Our company has been involved in many works over the year that focused upon female characters, but you can catch a glimpse of male characters in there as well. The way he draws males is so charming; to put it in one word, they’re sexy. This would be the first time I ever directed a show, so I just knew the only one who would be able to listen to my wishes regarding the boys’ appeal and also be able to firmly draw their beauty would be Nishiya-san. I thought it had to be him and so I requested he work on this show.
–How did you create the designs for the characters? Also, were there any characters that gave you difficulties?
At the very beginning, I created image boards of all the characters based off of the image I got of their appearance, ambiance, and physical shape based from the novel. So thus this project started with Haruka, Rin, Makoto, and Nagisa. At that time, it wasn’t certain that Free! would be made into an anime, so I asked Nishiya-san to draw some temporary designs. They were a step below what the current designs are. As for the anime original character Rei, his name nor personality doesn’t match what I had originally imagined when I first started creating him. Originally he was supposed to be a very cheerful and energetic boy, but as series composer Masahiro Yokotani and I progressed through the story, he pointed out that overlapped with Nagisa’s character. Surely not….. Then what type of character should I make? A frank and serious character? A committee chairman? As I began making suggestions, Rei’s draft started to form. And then that character completely changed and the Rei we know now doesn’t match names or personalities with those drafts. His design and ambiance was completely original as I left it up to Nishiya-san to create that. My only request was to ensure he wore glasses.
–Besides Nishiya-san, would you please introduce us to the important staff you collaborated with on this show?
First, I’ll talk a little about the veteran staff I asked to direct how the water looked. I avoided the water and stayed out of it during the production of Free!. After all, water is very difficult to draw and yet when it came time to draw the swimming scenes in the water…. these people were able to wipe away their anxiety and aggressively show the wonderful form and motion the water took. They allowed me to focus on the drama portion of the show.
Next will be Joji Unoguchi, the art director for the show. I can’t speak at length about the background process, but the setting materials he drew were a bit different than reality; I really liked how they created a very gentle atmosphere that I had definitely wanted to depict in the show. And rumor has is that if you want to depict a rural location, Unoguchi-san’s the best choice in the company! (laughs) My favorite scenery has to be the streets around Haruka and Makoto as well as the older style of Haruka’s house, both inside and out. He also lived up to the minute details I had requested about the pools’ scenery. The color key Yuuka Yoneda also had senses that were close to mine and helped me out in so many various ways. She’s the one who decided on the beautiful shade of blue for Haruka’s eyes. They’re so fitting for him! Though I also made her work so much on thoughts for casual clothing and the like….
I actually didn’t work that much with prop designer Seiichi Akitake, but I felt that the tiny details for all the props he drew felt so natural for all the characters in our company’s previous shows. When he was designing the goggles, he actually wore a pair so that he could thoroughly draw them from each and every angle. He was a real life-saver.
Finally, I want to highlight the director of photography Kazuya Takao. I’ve sparingly worked with him before, but I was charmed by how entertaining and expressive his ad-libs were during production. I’ve heard he also had a lot of disobedience during production too. (laughs) I was always worried that the directions I gave for the many difficult portions wouldn’t be transmitted to the photography process, but they always knew what I meant and delivered visuals beyond my imagination. One of those scenes was the night scene at Samezuka’s pool where the water swayed back and forth when Haruka was swimming. It was Takao-san’s job to film that scene and he surprised even me with it. “You could do something like that?!” And then when I handed over the first pieces of the first cut from the ending and told the photographer “Good luck☆” expecting disappointment, I came back and was met with this amazing sight. “Who did this?!” “I did,” said Takao-san with a satisfied smirk on his face. (laughs)
–That Samezuka pool scene was really pretty.
I thought the pool would look really beautiful in the night setting. With moonlight reflecting on the water surface and the glass ceiling above reflecting the water, it looks soooooooo gorgeous! This was why we created a glass ceiling for the pool in the academy. I really like outdoor pools where you can see the blue sky above, but indoor pools have charming points like this as well.
The cast brings out the appeal of the characters
– Please tell us about the casting process. I’ve heard that you didn’t hold auditions.
That’s right. I requested to receive various voice samples from different actors that read for the show and chose the ones that matched the image I had inside of the character. For example, Haruka’s main premise is a cool character, but that doesn’t mean he’s cool all the time. There’s times where he’s emotionally elevated or depressed as well. He usually doesn’t speak, so when he does speak up, it’s important that his words carry a certain power. I don’t think just anyone would be able to perform this role; it’s required to get all the minute details out in your performance. When I heard Nobuanga Shimazaki-san’s voice, I immediately thought “Ah, it’s Haruka!” His fearlessly clear voice completely slipped into my image of Haruka.
–Were there other impressions you could share from the remaining casting processes?
Actually, casting Makato was a surprise when the role was determined. I had requested the opening song by OLDCODEX and I was listening to Tatsuhisa Suzuki-san’s voice sample as a reference and thought “It’s Makoto!” It must have been fate. (laughs) I immediately requested “Suzuki-san has to play Makato!”
–Please tell us your thoughts during the live recording sessions.
I thought everyone in the cast brought out the appeal of each of the characters. They shared a tight bond with their character; I was moved by how strong it was. Shimazaki-san came with good questions about how to appreciate the succinct Haruka, Suzuki-san proposed several suggestions for Makoto, and there were a lot of great ideas and ad-libs to change scenes as well. My chest grew hot as I heard Miyano-san speak Rin’s role from the delicate scenes to the violent rage scenes. Yonaga-san gave us several ad-libs for Nagisa during recording. The way that Hirakawa-san’s Rei spoke so fondly about Haruka was so cute it melted my heart! I have a lot of gratitude to everyone for how they played their characters.
Wanting to create Free! to be a realistic drama
–Free! obviously was a swimming anime, but other than that, were there any points you fixated on or were difficult to work on?
At the beginning of the production, the decision to make it occur in either fantasy or reality was a big selection. I wanted to depict it as a realistic drama, so I chose to base it in reality. I dislike it when people think the swimming races were a bit fake when they watch it. I personally have a lot of experience swimming, so my utmost desire was to never give off a false feeling when people watched it. On the other hand, there are many different frames that were hard to draw and maintain a sense of reality. For example, when you’re swimming front crawl, you need breathing spells where you breathe out through your nose and in through your mouth. I think people who may watch would have a different impression, so while I think you do have to include a few fibs, I did my best to apply the rules of reality in this series.
–This show has a lot of comedic elements interweaved in; were those determined during the series composition?
That’s right. I’d tell Yokotani-san “That’s one part I won’t give you!” I personally love comedy, so I wanted to include it in this series; however the original novel had very little comedy, thus I initially left it out while I decided if it was alright to include it in the anime. Yokotani-san weaved it so well into the composition, so gradually the comedic direction and impression began to match its image. One example of that is Haruka’s stripping upon seeing water. If you just look at that, you’d think he’s just a strange boy, but there’s actually a reason for it. Haruka loved to swim, but he stopped swimming when Rin left, so the stripping is an unconscious reaction when he sees water. Underneath the comedy, we show a reason for things to happen so you get a greater appreciation for the characters, or rather understanding them better after seeing the whole tale.
On the animation side, one of the adlibs was in episode 1’s scene where Haruka and Rin take their clothes off before their race. In the storyboards, they had the same style of undressing, but the key animator changed Rin’s style to be very aggressive and showed me the rough drafts. “Would this be alright?” I felt it really contrasted with Haruka’s cool image, so I replied “It would!” and so it became what you saw.
–By the way, who’s idea was it to have Haruka’s eyes flutter once he sees water?
That was my idea once I saw the video footage. In the scenario, the directions says his eyes show “his trembling soul” but I thought more about what to do when I saw it on video. Since Haruka doesn’t speak much, having his eyes throb once he sees water would easily communicate his feelings to the audience. Video is great to communicate feelings through actions and expressions. In the studio we called Haruka a “waterdere” since his heart starts to beat once he sees it. (laughs)
–Speaking of comedic scenes, the fashion show in episode four was a shock.
We had already decided that Rei would show off his swimsuit in a flashy manner during the scenario planning, but was it alright to have him wear a butterfly suit? (laughs) Haruka’s eyes not changing a lot was Yokotani-san’s idea while the obsession with tightness was mine. In a race, you’re also competing against the water, so it’s important to lose resistance as best you can. I don’t have any professional swimsuits; since they’re so tight, people wouldn’t want to put one on voluntarily. Haruka unconsciously feels like that too…. right? (laughs)
–This show has a lot of female fans, so what points did you keep in mind when handling the female characters?
At first, it was very difficult to determine where the female characters stood; I even said the show should take place in an all-boys school back then. But since I went to a co-ed school, I had girls appear in this show. Gou is Rin’s sister, so she was allotted the role of in-between for the Iwatobi team and Rin. From Gou being around, Haruka and Rin were able to meet again in episode 1. Besides that, I also gave Gou the role of being the person to explain about muscles. (laughs) If Gou was only Rin’s sister, she would be a rather weak character, so that’s why she was given that depiction. However cooking or the like being her strong point was too ordinary for a manager, so she grew to love muscles. (laughs) Her outward appearance was something we paid attention to as well. When she’s next to Makato, she looks incredibly small, but her height is 160 cm, which is by no means small. If you compared any of the guys to a girl in height, they’ll be bigger; I thought that would give a better sense of the guys having masculine bodies. And so, looking back, Gou was assigned these various roles. If she wasn’t there, I don’t think a lot of things would’ve happened.
–What about Amakata-sensei?
Compared to Gou, who’s the more beauty type character, Amakata-sensei is the cute type of character Nishiya-san requested to insert in. She also has a cute tale to go along with her looks, but to economize the cast, she was also put in as an adult. Having an adult woman was also important too since we also knew that women were also attracted to stories with a woman in the core.
The final image was determined from the start
–What scene from the entire series continues to leave an impression on you?
Definitely Rin’s crying scene in episode 12. I’d always wanted to make him cry! (laughs) Perhaps that’s due to me wanting to say what happens to him, but I couldn’t say it until now! At last I can! And I wanted to hold him tight in that scene. (laughs) That scene means so much to me; it’s what we worked for this whole time since the very beginning, so I won’t forget it easily.
–The series started with a scene from their elementary school days, didn’t it?
Yokotani-san did a wonderful job weaving in the memories of their past throughout the series. We deliberately planned scenes so that the audience would keep in mind their youth and that spectacular relay race from that time and how everything tied together in the final episode.
–Besides the pools, this series also had a lot of focus on the sea as well.
Originally the swimming club only swam in the pool, but we inserted the storm scene in episode 6 because I wanted to show a different image of water. Swimming in a pool has a very safe image of water: there’s no waves, you can touch the bottom easily, and it’s totally clean. In contrast, the sea has the situation where the weather can change to make it a dangerous place. I wanted the audience to experience that feeling of danger and thrill from violent water.
–It felt like the entire second half was a full rush to the final episode.
The episodes after episode 7 were very condensed down. We also had to re-do the scenario many times. There was also a very strict schedule to follow.
–How did you come about deciding what to do for the final episode?
I had decided on those events at the very beginning. I wanted to show Rin swimming in the medley with Haruka and their friends, especially that joy of holding your teammates. While I had easily decided that Rin would replace Rei in the race, I was very troubled about how to get there. During the scenario meetings, we went over many ideas and I couldn’t agree to any of them. We thought of everything we could during those meetings.
And then, since I’m not great at thinking about series construction, I began to put myself in Haruka’s position. Suddenly, at last, I could see the story unfold in front of me. At first, Haruka said he didn’t want to swim any other way than free, and then he couldn’t see other people besides Rin. So how did his friends get him to want to swim in the relay? I noticed that was the turning point in the story. If he never said he wanted to swim with everyone else, he wouldn’t have grown. After seeing how Haruka felt, I next went to how Rin felt. Rin had the same problem: how would I get him to notice other people besides Haruka? Shortly after I came to a decision on what he would go through and told the general gist to the staff about what would happen and they gave their understanding of the situation. Yokotani-san said “Let’s proceed with that,” and we started once again.
–Please tell us a little about the opening.
Since this was a sports series, I requested my desire to have an opening song that had a very upbeat tempo from the music producer. At the same time, I also wanted it to have a painful melody to reflect the moments in the story that pulled at your heart. And then the song I received, Rage on, was so beyond what I had imagined, my hands stopped moving. “What should I do….I don’t think I can make cool visuals to match this song.” (laughs)
I listened to the song many times over when making the animation. I inserted swimming cuts during the portion of the hook when the song reaches its peak. My favorite cut is when Rin is crying. Though that only appears at the end of the tale, I wanted to suggest it in the opening so people would get a hint at it throughout the series. His crying is so beautiful! It’s still an opening that gives that “cool” feeling until the very end.
–Please tell us a little about the ending.
I wanted the ending to be completely different than the main story. The opening and main story give away a large serving of water but the ending dried up. (laughs) To do that, I thought it would be interesting to detail something you’d never see in it: a world parallel to the main story. While Haruka and the other characters are in there, he still searches for water, showing there are things that haven’t changed.
–Looking back over production, what comes to mind?
It felt so fast. I frantically crammed all that I could during the limited time we had. I greatly love these boys and grew fond of treating them harshly (though lovingly of course!). I think everyone was able to catch what I wanted to show after having stuffed it all in. (laughs)
–Finally, please give a few words to the fans.
I’m truly grateful for all the viewers who watched to the very end. Thanks to all of the encouragement of the viewers, we staff were able to give our best efforts in this dash to the end. I’m happy to think that the viewers and I were surely tied together like the bonds I wanted to describe in Free!. What makes me happiest is that everyone also loves the boys like we do. Thank you from the bottom of my heart and maybe… you’ll have fond memories of them when you see people diving into the pool come summertime.
Truly, thank you to everyone who watched! During production, the gentle and fiery cries from all the fans gave us strength. Thanks to your encouragement we were able to make this show happen. If asked to say one thing to everyone who loved the boys, to everyone who felt the same coolness I did, to everyone who doesn’t swim, but was inspired to, to those who enjoyed the summer sensation, it’s that I’m truly happy you enjoyed it. From here on, I think we’ll always be looking at Free! together.
Hiroko Utsumi (内海紘子)
Her previous accomplishments include co-directing K-On! The Movie!, as well as episode director/storyboards for Hyouka and Chuunibyou Demo Koi ga Shitai!. This work was her first time as a series director.