K-On! staff interviews pt 1: Director Naoko Yamada & Series Composer Reiko Yoshida Dialogue

Director x Series Composer Dialogue

Naoko Yamada x Reiko Yoshida

Naoko Yamada:
Animator/Director at Kyoto Animation. Made her debut as director with K-On!. Previously worked as storyboarder/episode director on Clannad and Clannad After Story.

Reiko Yoshida:
Freelance scriptwriter. Notable works include series composer for Bakuman, Girls und Panzer, Tamako Market, and Yowamushi Pedal among other series.

A conversation with the two who are most acquainted with the K-On! anime. How was K-On! created? These two carefully chat about their production and their fixations about the characters.

“Adolescence” is the theme the new director wanted to energetically tell?!

– To start, would you please tell us what your impressions of each other were when you met for the first time?

Yamada: I was so nervous and my heart was beating rapidly when we first met. I remember doing everything I could to explain how “I want to try depicting K-On! as an adolescent drama with girls.”
Yoshida: That’s right. You were so firey talking about “This work’s theme is adolescence!”
Yamada: I was frantically talking away since I thought if I didn’t say anything, then I couldn’t convey how I felt. (laughs)

– How was working together as a pair?

Yoshida:  With a director who was so amazingly full of ideas, I was also quite stirred. Also, her ability to sense feminine characteristics was so amazing; it felt incredibly fresh for me. She was fixated on how to show girls being entertaining and cute characters from beginning until end.  When you’re able to gather that into such a great work, you’ll see fans support your efforts.
Yamada: I couldn’t help being excited from when we first met and I saw the plot develop. Also, I was overjoyed when I read the scenario for episode 1. I was finally able to experience feeling the word that’s now used throughout the world, “moe.”
Yoshida: (laughs)
Yamada: The scenario I had the pleasure of reading was very feminine. The emotional descriptions and psychological depictions were so marvelous and sensitive.  Even more, it was awash with good meaning with the types of situations that male writers tend to avoid writing about. She was able to properly and cutely write those ingredients.  And best of all, you could feel the love! It was so fun to read; I looked it over many times.

– By the way, what were your thoughts on the manga when you read it?

Yoshida:  The designs were cute and the way that the characters easily felt comfortable and close was immensely entertaining. It’s a work that feels stylish and will make you laugh without trying to be hip.
Yamada: It’s about ordinary stories in life and the characters too are ordinary. While that style doesn’t feel like it’s trying to win you over, it’s very easy to empathize with.  As a woman, my impression was that it was a fun read.

– What did you meet and talk about when deciding how to create the manga’s story into animated form?

Yoshida:  K-On! mostly only has female characters appear in it. And yet, the director’s thoughts were not about making it focused on “moe” but instead making its theme about “adolescence” to feel a kind of freshness that hadn’t been felt before.  For me, I wanted them to appear more than just being cute; I wanted them to feel “alive.” Also, I wanted to impart that feeling of “they’re living in no other point than at this moment.”
Yamada: I considered ways to show these girls who were living in this time period limited to their school days and limited to their school. After all, the manga also steadily moves the story forward each month without pausing. When you become a second year, you can’t return back to being a first year. That period of school life where “you only are in this very moment now’ was immensely important to me, but the girls themselves don’t realize it at all. I thought being able to see that aspect, but having that radiance of not having a moment to say it was something that would be great to include in this work.

Looking at all the episodes together, you’re able to understand how the light music club that spends every day leisurely is able to radiate the adolescent laughter and crying in their music by spending their fun days with each other.

Looking at all the episodes together, you’re able to understand how the light music club that spends every day leisurely is able to radiate the adolescent laughter and crying in their music by spending their fun days with each other.

– What discussions did you have when creating the structure of the story?

Yoshida: We also met with the mangaka, Kakifly-sensei, at the very first meeting and decided on a very general form that the story would take. With the manga being published monthly and the story changing along with the seasons, we were able to rather easily decide how far to go with the story and what to include.
Yamada: I was personally concerned with Azusa. Should she appear or should she not? Does she come into the picture or does she not? I constantly worried over it.  Well, I wasn’t 100% on board with her not appearing. (laughs) But there was a feeling that the story would be better if she didn’t appear so it’d be the main four from start until the end.

Character designs full of obsessions and challenges

– Director Yamada, please tell us what you were fixated on with regards to the character designs.

Yamada: I saw the character profiles that we received from Kakifly-sensei, but I was obsessed with making their heights and weights incredibly realistic. (laughs) They should feel near what normal high school girls would be.  There are a lot of really nice balanced proportions at this time where girls tend to be very obsessed with putting on weight. Since I was focused on pursuing that, it took quite a lot of time to complete it.  I even worried after deciding their heights. I’d decide “this should be about right…” and then that night I’d think “that’s so not right at all!” and frantically send a text to character designer (Yukiko) Horiguchi-san, and we’d re-do it again the next day.

One characteristic of K-On!’s characters is that their legs are plump and aren’t as thin as normal anime girls. They truly take the form of real life high school girls.

One characteristic of K-On!’s characters is that their legs are plump and aren’t as thin as normal anime girls. They truly take the form of real life high school girls.

– That sounds quite troublesome.

Yamada: I thought of various things until seeing them on the screen too. Generally, Japanese girls should be around 5.5 heads tall. Every time we decided something, Horiguchi-san and I would say “Yes!” once we had obtained the proportions we were looking for.

– What other portions of character designs were you fixated on?

Yamada: I wanted the designs to expand to fit their ideal life. Tsumugi has a bit of a gifted education feeling to her, so her design should exude that elegance. Mio might worry about her height being too tall, so should she stoop over a bit? But in the end, Mio would be the kind to stand straightforwardly.
Yoshida: That’s right.
Yamada: Furthermore, Horiguchi-san had the idea to draw their hair without highlights and I approved of that. It felt like the sparklingness of highlights would take away from that simplistic feeling of K-On!.  In the end, we included some highlights in the dark haired Mio and Azusa, but that experimenting was entertaining.

Cute, not beautiful, and bedhair going everywhere. Director Yamada lovingly expressed Yui’s expression right after waking up in the morning.

Cute, not beautiful, and bedhair going everywhere. Director Yamada lovingly expressed Yui’s expression right after waking up in the morning.

A scenario with real life and no fantasy

– What kind of tricks was used to portray that real life feeling of high school girls in the scenario?

Yoshida: I was always trying to think about how to write to match with the director always saying that it shouldn’t be fantasy-oriented.  I wrote the scenario while I thought about never moving the characters with that feeling of necessity to have them move somewhere.

– There were some original scenes and episodes in the first episode that weren’t in the manga.

Yoshida: The director said she wanted to include that running scene at the beginning. If we included it there, then there would be the impression that Yui is the kind of person who doesn’t run straightforward with her little diversions and such on the way to school.  After seeing this, the viewer would be able to feel that whatever Yui sees would take priority over where she’s supposed to be, even if it was scheduled for her to be somewhere.
Yamada: Well, that’s such a Yui thing for her to do. (laughs)
Yoshida: And then I was most pleased with the performance of “Tsubasa wo Kudasai!” in the first episode. Despite being performed in the music room, the camera would cut all around the school campus. I was quite pleased with how it greatly felt like it was at school from that scene.

Despite being late, Yui takes the time to stop many times. Even though it’s only 20 seconds long, this clip shows Yui’s idiotic, childish nature.

Despite being late, Yui takes the time to stop many times. Even though it’s only 20 seconds long, this clip shows Yui’s idiotic, childish nature.

– The scene where Yui reminisces about playing the castanets was also really cute.

Yoshida: The castanet story was mentioned in the manga, so I wanted to expand on that in an episode, so I got my chance when Yui saw the poster to join the light music club. There definitively has to have some kind of motive for someone without any experience playing instruments to join the club.   And in Yui’s life, she had fun playing music and she was complimented playing those castanets, so that would give her the reason to be pushed towards joining the band.

– There was also the tale of the part-time job in order to buy her instrument.

Yoshida: The first hurdle of someone starting to play music would have to be money, right? I was a member of the brass band when I was in high school, so buying an instrument was certainly a bother. I’d go to the store and see everything nice be really expensive, but I didn’t want to buy the cheap ones. (laughs) And so I’m the kind of person who worries about money, so I thought it’s be funny if a high school girl would carry around that kind of cash.
Yamada: Anime itself has that kind of fantasy world where it’d be simple for someone to buy an instrument once they become inclined to play it. I’m grateful that Yoshida-san wrote a scenario that was grounded with Yui’s feet on the Earth.

– What was the reason for the girls to take such a weird part time job like traffic surveying?

Yoshida: We discussed the various jobs that a high schooler could take for a short period of time to earn money and so once the opinion came out for “traffic surveying?” it became a good choice.
Yamada: It feels like that would be so uninteresting and amazingly boring, doesn’t it? I also participated in traffic surveying when I was in high school, so I know that boredom feeling quite well. (laughs)

Wanting to delve into the characters in original episodes 11 and 13

– Episode 11 is a nearly all-original story; was it Yoshida-san’s suggestion to make it original?

Yoshida: That would be right. There had to be a story about what to do right before the last episode. So then, what about digging into the characters and showing the emotions that high school girls feel?
Yamada: We could bring attention to the two childhood friends Mio and Ritsu there.
Yoshida: Of the five in the light music club, Mio and Ritsu have the longest relationship, right? We could also have our prized Ric-chan feature episode as well.
Yamada: I asked her to lovingly depict the long ups and downs that childhood friends go through. Things like Ritsu knowing Mio was there by the sound of her footsteps were somewhat mesmerizing. With both of them depending on the other’s presence, it feels like Mio would also be useless if Ritsu wasn’t there.
Yoshida: I wanted to depict the realization of the childhood friendship setting in for Mio.

– The extra episode 13 was also original.

Yoshida: This extra episode came because there wasn’t was a story where each of the 5 girls, who were constantly together, would have their own spotlight.
Yamada: I thought a winter episode that felt a bit nostalgic would be nice, so I requested one. Then it was also decided that it would be a “though it’s cold outside, it’s warm in here” story.

– Ritsu’s excitement over her mistakenly thinking the lyrics Mio put in her mailbox was a love letter was also nice. Who proposed to depict that side of her?

Yoshida: I was the one who proposed it, but the director wanted a part about Ritsu.
Yamada: I constantly wanted to insert a moment where Ritsu let her hair down. So to prepare for this episode, Ritsu always had her hair tied back, even when she was going to bed or going in the bath.

– Speaking of Ritsu, that scene with her breathing was also talked about. Was it also true that Satomi-san practiced saying things while doing a forward roll?

Yamada: What! Is that true?! (laughs)
Yoshida: This is the first I’ve heard of it. (laughs)  We had an enjoyable conversation about how she would enter the room, but we were only thinking of things that’d be fun to say when being passive. (laughs)
Yamada: That final “All right.” was perfect.

Episode 12’s crayfish fishing reminiscence scene is an episode that has no direct meaning itself, but the impact of seeing a bathtub full of crayfish was so impactful and entertaining that it was used.

Episode 12’s crayfish fishing reminiscence scene is an episode that has no direct meaning itself, but the impact of seeing a bathtub full of crayfish was so impactful and entertaining that it was used.

– What about Yui’s sumo talk in episode 6?

Yamada: At first that was supposed to be an alien voice. Something like “Take us to your leader!” (laughs) When the director for that episode, Ishihara-san, was drawing the storyboards, he pointed out “a gravelly voice isn’t like an alien” and I realized “now that you point it out, I see that.” And so what I thought to replace it was a sumo wrestler. But thinking about it later, a sumo wrestler doesn’t sound gravelly either! (laughs)

Yui’s movements were described with imitative words?! Balancing Ritsu was difficult!

– Yui’s gestures and movements were always amazingly described in the storyboards.

Yoshida: That has to be love, right? (laughs)
Yamada: Yui’s the kind of girl who’s hard to put into words.  I remember not being able to find the right words to describe what Yui was doing, so I would write sounds like “mocchari mocchari” to describe her gesture. I also wrote in bits like “should her idiotic expression fit here?” (laughs)
Yoshida: Since Yui’s the protagonist, those descriptions are very fitting….

– Apart from that, there’s a hint that she’d gradually turn into a bad girl.

Yamada: I’m sorry. (laughs) I asked Yoshida-san to write her as a bit tomboyish, but also as a girl who has her cute moments as well. But because I wanted Yui to be a girl who was loved by everyone, some kind of explanation was needed.  Although I’ll say I want her to be a girl who has her feet firmly grounded, so that while it may appear that she’s crumbling, you can tell that she’s still safe on the inside. By the way, don’t you really like Ui, Yoshida-san?
Yoshida: That’s right. She’s so honest in loving her older sister and furthermore can’t deny her at all. How can you not find that cute? (laughs)

This scene’s storyboards has “should her idiotic expression fit here?” written. In addition to this, there were other entertaining scribbles like “her perversion appears and disappears” and “(Yui’s) piggy bank should be a pig thanks.”

This scene’s storyboards has “should her idiotic expression fit here?” written. In addition to this, there were other entertaining scribbles like “her perversion appears and disappears” and “(Yui’s) piggy bank should be a pig thanks.”

– What about Ritsu?

Yamada: She’s amazingly easy to write. How was she at the scenario stage?
Yoshida: Finding balance for Ritsu was difficult. That’s not to say that I didn’t think when writing Yui, but Ritsu is part club president and she’s a childhood friend of Mio. With her also having a younger brother, she’s a character who has the most burdens on her. And despite all of that, it doesn’t make her a punctual person at all. (laughs) Balancing that reliableness and the “it’ll take care of itself” feeling was challenging.

Mio is a hidden romantic girl and Tsumugi  is a girl who hides a strong force in her heart.

– And Mio is?

Yoshida: I received some advice from the director to not go overboard in making her too moe-ish of a character.
Yamada: She’s a normal girl acting normally and yet within that is the hallmark of a beautiful girl. Even during the drawing stages, your eyes would stop to look at her.
Yoshida: I definitely wanted to keep that image of her choosing to play the base because she didn’t like vocals as much as I could. I wanted to protect that position of hers whenever I could.
Yamada: But then why did she travel to the Sea of Japan in episode 13 then?
Yoshida: She didn’t want to travel to see a stormy sea. (laughs) But she did want to write some dramatic lyrics.
Yamada: It’s not like she couldn’t write anything but enka songs!
Yoshida: Mio is a girl who hides her romantic side. Since she writes such cute songs, your imagination of what she hides can be intense. She just never brings it to the surface.
Yamada: I understand. (laughs)

– What about Tsumugi?

Yamada: I personally didn’t want her to just be a bystander. I wanted her to be a character that would strongly push at those points where she would watch. One of those would be how she pushed and pushed for Yui to stay and join the club when she came to resign from it in episode 1. I think her charm is being able to do that and not seem like an overly pushy character.
Yoshida: She also had a scene like that at the music shop with her “Once again!” line.
Yamada: As I was reading the materials we received from Kakifly-sensei, I was immensely pleased with the line for her saying “she’s attracted to normal life.” Wouldn’t you think a wealthy miss wanting to be a commoner is quite interesting? Furthermore she gets excited about the various things that appeal to her. As I started to think about those things for her, my image of Tsumugi started to inflate.

Tsumugi was the character next to Yui in the count of scribbles in the storyboards. The director had a lot of fixations like making her the kind of character who innocently pushed things along strongly.

Tsumugi was the character next to Yui in the count of scribbles in the storyboards. The director had a lot of fixations like making her the kind of character who innocently pushed things along strongly.

Azusa looks at things with a normal eye
Sawako-sensei’s performance was moving

– It felt like the club went through a delicate chance once the underclassman, Azusa, joined it.

Yamada: With Azusa joining the club, we were able to insert a third-person point of view to the club. She would be able to provide an objective look in contrast to the girls who had become accustomed to the club. I think that she bought a new feeling and a different appeal to the club would come out once she joined.
Yoshida: I think Azusa became accustomed to the club during the second training camp trip. Her impressions of her seniors changed during that episode.
Yamada: Since Azusa’s a twintailed younger sister-type of character, I thought it might be a bit of a waste for her once her image started to solidify. I felt there may be points that would dilute that image of her as we made her a bit normal instead of that good girl the image deserves, so I added a bit of a normal eye to her as well.

– Sawako-sensei’s impact was quite strong, especially in episode 5.

Yamada: Was that so? (laughs) In addition to being a flashback episode to when Sawako-sensei played in her band, it was also an episode that had Tsumugi draw inspiration from seeing Sawako-sensei and Mio write the lyrics to “Fuwa Fuwa Time.” Sanada-san’s performances were so amazing, she somehow made it into a habit.
Yoshida: No, she was definitely really talented in that role.
Yamada: Her singing “Jingle Bells” in episode 7 was moving. She asked me “how should I sing it?” I said “please sing it like how Doronjo-sama would sing it,” and I could see the question mark fly above her head when she entered the booth. And then that performance came as a result of that recording. (laughs) Though that desperation singing was a bit enjoyable too.

– Nodoka is Yui’s childhood friend, but they’re different than Mio and Ritsu.

Yoshida: Like Mio and Ritsu, Nodoka and Yui have some history behind them, so I prepared a few episodes from when they were children to feel like Nodoka has always watched over Yui until they entered high school. They’re childhood friends, but since they’re going down different paths, that relationship may not be as similar as before.

The flashback scenes inserted here and there not only show Yui and Nodoka’s relationship, but they also reflect how Yui became the character she is now from when she was a child.

The flashback scenes inserted here and there not only show Yui and Nodoka’s relationship, but they also reflect how Yui became the character she is now from when she was a child.

The vivaciousness of K-On! was created from all the staff

– Finally please give us your impressions after all 13 episodes.

Yoshida: It feels like it’s taken on this vivacious atmosphere that you hear about when people watch good works now. K-On! itself is supposed to be a story just about high school girls playing music with their friends and yet it’s also a work that’s awash in this pure feeling. That’s what I like most about it.
Yamada: It’s nice to have that adolescent time feeling though.
Yoshida: All of the staff, starting with the director, have worked their hardest to create this show, and so as a result, the world of K-On! has that vivaciousness that you can feel. I’m immensely happy that I could have helped a bit in creating it.
Yamada: K-On! to me is a very important event. It was a great experience taking an entertaining scenario that moved me, with a manga holding its own power, and making it into that kind of work while my heart flickered until the very end. I’ve created so many memories together with the staff and the light music club; even now it feels like I haven’t calmed down. It was very enjoyable. Thank you very much.

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