A 30-year veteran of the anime industry, Kazuki Akane worked his way up the ladder at Studio Sunrise by starting out as a Production Runner in the 1980s on Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ and the film Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack. In the 90s he took on assistant director and storyboarding jobs until his first major break as a director, when he collaborated with Macross creator Shoji Kawamori and directed Sunrise’s original 1996 series The Vision of Escaflowne. Escaflowne sees Japanese high school girl Hitomi Kanzaki whisked away to a fantasy world where her fate is intertwined with that of a young prince battling against the expansionist Empire that invaded his fallen kingdom, and where the fortune telling she once did for fun may be a matter of far more importance than she could have dreamed.
Escaflowne’s unusual mishmash of high fantasy with mecha (giant robots) and no small amount of romantic drama achieved no small amount of crossover appeal among fans, and paved the way for a spinoff movie and a substantial directing career for Akane. In the 00s Akane did directing work for Studio Statelight on Geneshaft and created and directed Heat Guy J and Noein: To Your Other Self, before going on to direct Birdy the Mighty: Decode for A-1 Pictures. Most recently Akane returned to Sunrise to produce the recently completed mecha anime Code Geass: Akito the Exiled, a direct-to-video spinoff series inspired by the popular Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion.
Kazuki Akane was a star guest of the Otakon 2016 convention in August, a timely event given the imminent high-definition rerelease and redub of The Vision of Escaflowne this October from Funimation Entertainment. A press conference session attended by Toonzone News was held that weekend, where Akane spent a half hour answering questions about Escaflowne and his experiences and perspectives as a director. Akane spoke through a translator, and an edited transcript of the full session follows.
Q: You are both the creator and director of the series Noein, which recently saw a rerelease in the UK. How did you come to get an opportunity to create your own series?
KAZUKI AKANE: So regarding Noein, my ideal when creating such an original work is Mr. [Yoshiyuki] Tomino – who is famous for Gundam – or Mr. [Hayao] Miyazaki. Both of them have a talent for making things that are not from only manga or novels, but [they have] generally very original things to express in anime. So in terms of that, I do have a certain ideal in what to make for an anime original series.
Q: Can you talk about your experience working with Director Tomino?
KAZUKI AKANE: I respected Mr. Tomino a lot. When I got out of University, I want straight into Sunrise because that’s where Mr. Tomino was at. But upon entering Sunrise the first thing I heard was Mr. Tomino scolding his team, so that was a very unique experience! But I did feel that Mr. Tomino is the kind of person who got up in the morning and was constantly thinking about anime 24/7, until the moment that he got in the bunk. So in that sense, I felt that the animation industry was a harsh world where you needed to do that to be able to prosper.
TOONZONE NEWS: I’d like to follow up on that. In your time at Sunrise, can you talk about your experience with your first directing job?
KAZUKI AKANE: So the first anime I was able to work in as director was Escaflowne. That was the first anime where I had full permission to put what I liked into the show. Until then I had spent about three years as a kind of second-tier director that would answer to the director, but I wasn’t able to put my thoughts into the anime that was being worked on. But once I got into the director role in Escaflowne, I put in everything I wanted to see. It was a great feeling to see what I wanted to see specifically, but then at the same time there were many responsibilities that came with the power. It was a really stressful job, but it is a very nice feeling to be able to see what you wanted to see materialized in animation form.
Q: Following up about Escaflowne, we know that when you came into the project there was a big change in character design, and I believe that was initiated by you. I wanted to know how the studio felt about that, and if it was your idea to bring on Nobuteru Yuki as character designer?
KAZUKI AKANE: With regard to Mr. Nobuteru Yuki in Escaflowne, he was in the project even before I was there, so the character design was already heading in a certain direction. But what I put into Escaflowne was the fact I said well, you know, anime before now, they had the long-haired dreamy girl kind of heroine that was very prominent back in those days. I was thinking I wanted to see a female lead that would actually stand up for herself, do things for herself, who would not just be protected but would be the one to do things. So what I said to Mr. Nobuteru Yuki was “This long hair, why don’t we do away with it and have a short-haired heroine that would be able to stand up for herself?” He was very accepting of the idea, so we talked about it over many days and we discovered we were on the same page when it came to things that we liked. So it was a very interesting experience, though I must say the nose designs were up to him. It was not my order.
Q: Is there an anime out right now that you wish you had a part in making or that you wish you had the idea for?
KAZUKI AKANE: The short and blunt answer would be, there is not! What I believe is that as a creator, the view you should constantly have toward other works is “this is interesting, this is fun”, but not “I’d like to be part of the project.” Because as a creator, if you’re satisfied with what you’re seeing, you’re not a creator anymore. As a creator, I constantly want to be able to say “this is interesting, I’ll do something better.”
KAZUKI AKANE: Since Escaflowne was in the 90s, the audience was predominantly male. Back then I thought that you know, there are many female characters out there, but how many would make a female audience agree to that character? How satisfied would a female audience be with seeing a character like that? It’s not that I wanted to appeal to a female audience, but I thought it would be better to have a character that would resonate with female viewers too. As much as the guys in animation should have a choice, the girls in animation should have a choice. It’s not just about the guys and the toys. In Europe and North America there were movements to say females should have more of a role in society, but Japan was late onto that. So, I wanted to break the stereotype for how a female lead should be. I do admit the character might have been early for the age, and it might not have resonated with everyone. But then again, I did see a drastic increase in the female audience for Escaflowne. So I believe that I had a valid point there, right?
Q: As an animation director you’ve worked on many projects. Do you have creative control in animators that are brought on, or have you found people that can capture your ideas?
KAZUKI AKANE: With regard to creative control, I would be able to say to the producer that “I’ve seen the works of this person, I’d like to work with them.” It is a thing that we want to work with animators that have worked on different projects. If you see the projects, you can extrapolate the animators’ ability. But another important thing is actually getting to meet the person and working with them, because you don’t know if the person will click with you and if there will be chemistry going on. I also believe that animators are artists, and they have a significant belief of what they want to portray too. I believe that since they’re artists, it’s not about words but about their nature and getting to know their nature is very important. So, I do try to respect the animators’ ideas of what they want to see in a show.
The Vision of Escaflowne will be rereleased on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD on October 18, 2016. Select episodes of Funimation’s new English dub are currently streaming on Funimation.com.