Wednesday, October 28, 2020

[Part 1/2] Shenmue the Animation: Famitsu Interview with Yu Kiyozono & Yu Suzuki | ENG Translation

Following the recent announcement of Shenmue the Animation, arranged an extensive interview with two of the key people behind the project: producer Yu Kiyozono and executive producer Yu SuzukiThis is Part One of our two-part full translation of the article.

Mystery and Anticipation: How "Shenmue the Animation" Came About

1999: the action-adventure game Shenmue was released for the Dreamcast. Its sequel Shenmue II was released in 2001 and then, after a long blank period, Shenmue III in 2019.

On 5 September 2020 an announcement was made for an anime, which was received with surprise and delight by Shenmue fans in Japan and around the world. It will be the first time an anime for the Shenmue series has been produced since its initial release.

Even with that being so, what prompted Shenmue to be made into an anime now in particular? With a view to learning how it came to be and the aim of its 2021 transformation to anime, we spoke with two Yu-san's: Yu Kiyozono, CEO of Telecom Animation Film and producer of this anime, and Yu Suzuki, creator of the Shenmue series.


President and CEO of Telecom Animation Film. Producer of Shenmue the Animation. Recently he has been working on TV movie versions of the Lupin the 3rd series.

Yu Suzuki

President and CEO of Ys Net. Creator of the Shenmue series. When at (then) Sega Enterprises, he worked on projects such as the Virtua Fighter series and Hang On, bringing into the world numerous revolutionary new games.

Why is Shenmue Being Made into an Anime Now?

Famitsu: I was extremely surprised to learn that Shenmue, the first part of which was released in 1999, will be made into an anime. Why is it that the "Shenmue the Animation" project has come about now, in 2020?

Kiyozono:  Well, to give a little explanation about the current state of the anime industry for background, it is partly because nowadays streaming-based services have grown immensely.

Famitsu: The Shenmue anime will be a joint production between the US anime streaming site Crunchyroll and the anime channel of the Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, won't it.

Kiyozono: Yes, with Telecom Animation Film creating the animation. These days, Japanese anime are watched not just in Japan but all over the world.

In the old days, an anime would be localized for overseas broadcasting: things like the music, the intro song, and even the content would be altered. It was normal for such "filters" to be applied before its overseas showing.

But the growing trend with streaming recently is to watch with on-screen subtitles, with the voices left as the Japanese of the original voice actors. Viewers overseas have started to want to enjoy them the way they were made by the Japanese creators.

Famitsu: Mm, mm.

Kiyozono: I had been wanting to further strengthen our overseas content delivery, and was looking for a strong title for overseas. I thought that Shenmue would be one contender. The game has sold well globally, and when we were getting the project off the ground it was also when Yu-san was working on making Shenmue III, so I was aware that it had a lot of passionate fans.

Regarding taking the animation project proposal to the original creators, I thought that with the content being from Sega Group, of which Telecom Animation Film is also a part, it would likely make it for a relatively smooth discussion, so I thought I'd make an initial enquiry... and that's how this project began.

Famitsu: You mentioned that the project was initiated while Shenmue III was under development, meaning that it was some years ago?

Kiyozono: When I visited YS Net they showed me some in-progress screens, and it was around 2 to 3 years ago. Going back further, to before the project was firmed up, I was out having a drink with someone else from Sega and talked about wishing I could make a Shenmue anime. That was a little over 3 years ago [laughs].

Famitsu: Sega's IP portfolio includes characters popular throughout the world, such as Sonic and others, doesn't it. Among those, was part of the reason you zeroed in on Shenmue in particular because of its Japanese nature, and its Japan setting?

Kiyozono: Sonic has of course been made into an anime, and a movie and so on, and is a super-popular character, but with Shenmue I felt we would be able to play even more to our strengths.

Famitsu: By your strengths, you mean...?

Kiyozono: Telecom Animation is a subsidiary of TMS Entertainment within the Sega Sammy Group, and it is a company with a rich history, starting back from around the time it produced the animated movie The Castle of Cagliostro with the likes of Hayao Miyazaki and Yasuo Ōtsuka and continuing up to this day. In particular, it has built up experience in areas such as action and art. I believe this is one of our company's strengths.

The Shenmue series starts set in Yokosuka, isn't it. As far as "showing Japan" goes, our company has its own in-studio art department. I think this is one of our strong points, and I think we'll be able to make the most of areas like this in which we excel, for the anime.

Shenmue I realistically depicts the streets and buildings of Japan.

In Shenmue II, the location shifts to Hong Kong. The brilliant neon and signs make a memorable impression.

Famitsu: One of the attractions of Shenmue is the way it undergoes such dynamic changes of setting, isn't it: Yokosuka, Hong Kong, Guilin... Yu-san, how did you feel when you heard about this anime project?

Suzuki: Above all, happy. After Shenmue II was finished, I was continuously asked by fans about when Shenmue III would be coming out [laughs]. When I thought about whether there was anything I could do, the possibility of putting out Shenmue III as an anime, novel or manga was something I was seriously considering.

I was able to launch Shenmue III in the form of a game, but in any case Shenmue is something of a special game, one that may be difficult to find wide appeal with all players. But with an anime the threshold is lowered - after all, there's no need to play it yourself [laughs]. You can get to know the world of Shenmue just by sitting and watching, and I will be happy if, through watching the anime, some interest in Shenmue is stirred and people then go on to play the Shenmue series.

Famitsu: Was there any relationship between the development of Shenmue III and the anime - for example, the anime being realized due to the release of Shenmue III?

Suzuki: There was no dependency there. They truly proceeded on separate axes. It's great that the anime was able to be announced the year after Shenmue III's release.

How Far Will the Story Go?

Famitsu: With 13 episodes in total planned for the anime, up until around what point in the game's story will it cover?

Kiyozono: That's... a tricky one.

Famitsu: [laughs]

Kiyozono: For one thing, when we got going from the anime side it was when Shenmue III was still being made; and with a total of only 13 episodes which is certainly not long, no matter where we make the cut I think there will be fans that feel it was just getting to the good part.

Speaking for ourselves, we would of course like to make it as long as possible, but initially there will be 13 episodes. Deciding how to incorporate and depict the story within those was very difficult. Of course, when you say you are going to do Shenmue, everyone naturally assumes you will be starting from Yokosuka; and we, too, will be starting from there...

Famitsu: How far to go within a limited number of episodes...

Kiyozono: Even Yokosuka alone would be enough; it has plenty of parts that could be included.

Famitsu: You could even use up 13 episodes on just Shenmue I, ending with leaving Yokosuka like in the game.

Kiyozono: Yes. However there has been a lot of feedback from people like the producer, scriptwriter and animation team expressing a strong desire to depict characters who appear in Hong Kong...

Famitsu: Like Ren, Xiuying or Delin.

Shenmue II: Wuying Ren, who also makes an appearance in Shenmue III.

Shenmue II: Xiuying Hong, a beautiful martial arts expert.

Kiyozono: I can't say anything specific yet, but in terms of the story, we should somehow or other be able to go about as far as Ryo setting foot in Hong Kong... I don't know if I should talk about it or not, but now I've said it!

Famitsu: Thank you. [laughs]

Kiyozono: The game has a huge number of characters, and even filtering through them gives a large number of characters for an anime; plus the location changes from Japan to Hong Kong, so the art staff also recognizes the challenges involved.

Famitsu: Shenmue is set in 1980's Japan and China, so was it hard collecting research and other materials?

Kiyozono: Dobuita, Yokosuka even now surprisingly retains elements of what you might call a "Dobuita feeling": traces of how it used to be, so while gathering materials we also paid a visit to the actual location. As we experienced the street's atmosphere and narrowness we filmed the signs and fixtures, and I think we've been able to reproduce its atmosphere.

It's the Japan of times past, back in the Showa period [from around 60 years ago up to 1989] when things were still dirty unlike the clean and developed Japan of today. Where the railings in a small park are rusty, or where corrugated iron is used here and there. An anime featuring a magical girl set in the present day doesn't portray much rust or corrugated iron.

Famitsu: Right.

Kiyozono: We're attempting to portray the Yokosuka of Japan's Showa period, right down to those small details which aren't found in that kind of anime. That's something that we are good at doing, and I think we've really been able to bring out that atmosphere. I'll be happy if that Japan nostalgic feeling also comes across to viewers overseas.

Ryo's leather jacket is another example. Being a hand-drawn anime, having a texture that differs from the game would normally be something that's hard to avoid. However, the director of photography applied a kind of special effect to it himself, to bring out the feel of the leather jacket. Within my staff, they're using all sorts of methods to build the atmosphere, and make it as good as it can be. The texture of a leather jacket from that time is something only truly understood by someone who actually used to look at and wear them. Paying attention to such small things is something that every one of our expert staff enjoy doing.

Famitsu: That "lived-in" feel and sense of reality is what makes Shenmue so appealing, isn't it.

Kiyozono: To take Hong Kong, as portrayed in the game it feels like a Hong Kong of a bygone time, a Hong Kong of the good old days, doesn't it. It also has Kowloon [Walled City], which has already been torn down. Kowloon is jumbled and crowded with people; a menacing place where you feel something is going to happen...

Kiyozono: It is one of the highlights of the second half, and we've spent a bit more on budget than for an ordinary TV anime to model lots of background characters and people on the streets. And right now, we're working on things like taking room shots, and parts where the camera can zoom in and so on. I'd like to add some weight to the anime by creating the bustling movement of people on streets using CG. If it goes well, it should be something that can be used in future TV anime works, so we're in the middle of experimenting with it.

Main Voice Actors from the Game to Reprise Their Roles

Famitsu: This is something I think many fans would like to know, but will the voices for the characters be cast using the same voice actors as the games?

Kiyozono: Of course, my feeling first and foremost is that I want to make it appealing for fans of the game, so for the core voice actors I want to secure the same casting as the game as we move forwards.

Famitsu: Oh! I'm glad to hear that.

Kiyozono: In addition, I'd like to make younger anime viewers who don't yet know Shenmue aware of the game, and my goal is for them to want to also try playing the game. In that sense, part of me also feels that I'd like to introduce some new voice talent.

The game has an epic story, and furthermore a rich casting of voice talent that includes some prominent names. So various things will come into play, such as the budget aspect to some degree, the dubbing schedules with the coronavirus, and changes to the way the recordings are carried out. Achieving exactly the same cast is something that would pose some difficulties.

However, with respect to the core characters, basically my intention is to go with the game's voice actors, so look at it another way, I think it should make for quite a cool cast for a modern TV anime [laughs].

Famitsu: We're looking forward to it!

Shenmue also had "Shenmue: The Movie" which summarized the story of Shenmue I in around 2 hours using footage from the game, and a film director and scriptwriter were appointed for the game itself. Given this, did you always have a strong cinematic awareness?

Suzuki: Back at the time I was working on it, one difficulty was that talk of making a game cinematically was still far from being met with full comprehension. With Shenmue: The Movie, when I was making Shenmue I the real-time movies and cut scenes amounted to a fair duration, so I decided to try connecting these together in some fashion and make something that could be watched right to the end, without playing the game. My thought was that this would then make it easier for people to start Shenmue. 

Making everything from scratch would have required an astronomical budget, so I think it was good we were able to make it using just material used in the game. Of course, making it in high quality and specifically for the movie, like with this anime, is really the better way to do it! [laughs]

Famitsu: How satisfied are you with Shenmue: the Movie?

Suzuki: It can't be compared to a normal-style movie, but for something that was made using only game content, under those conditions and using those materials, I think we were able to make something that turned out to be watchable.

Famitsu: Mr. Kiyozono, have you watched it?

Kiyozono: Yes. I watched it at the beginning, after it was recommended to me. I have many staff who have joined the project part-way through, so I have those who haven't played the game watch it, and it has been very useful for getting them familiar with the characters and story.

However many of our staff members in their forties or thereabouts were Shenmue players. Once, back around when it was still in the planning stages, and I hadn't officially yet told the company, people were starting to gather around with a "What's up?" - and the next thing I knew, they would be talking about Shenmue: "These parts are fun", "You've got to do the forklift!" and so on. Everyone would offer their commentary. [laughs] And then, I remember, everyone grew gradually more and more excited. There was an anime producer who hadn't yet played it, and he put a console on his desk and played Shenmue while he worked, engrossed in it.

Famitsu: That's a great workplace. [laughs]

Direct Marketing from an Overseas Applicant to the Staff!?

Famitsu: Turning now to talk about the production team, the director is Chikara Sakurai.

Kiyozono: Yes. 

Famitsu: With his work on the One-Punch Man and Naruto series, I am looking forward to Hazuki-style jujitsu and intense Chinese martial arts battle scenes, but when it comes to the creation of this anime, whereabouts do you most want to focus efforts?

Kiyozono: Having seen work-in-progress footage during development and from playing the games ourselves, something that I felt is that there are already many movie-like cuts in the games. I felt we must aim for what Yu-san offers to his audience through means of one tool - the games, through another tool: a movie.

Famitsu: Different trails, but aiming for the same summit.

Kiyozono: What we will express are the parts that the filmmaker inside Yu-san likely wanted to express, using anime techniques. Action parts will have a lighter touch, and video scenes will be given more artistic layouts.

I want to add interest to the "in-between" sections of the game to supplement the player's imagination, and have more scenes that will make you feel when you watch the anime, "Ah, I wanted to see this kind of scene in Shenmue!". With anime, that's where layouts come in. Mr. Sakurai is someone who has worked as animation director on Naruto, so he of course has a great command of action timings, and is someone able to construct grand layouts. Hence, I asked Director Sakurai to take charge of this.

Famitsu: I see. What kind of people make up most of your staff?

Kiyozono: An anime is make-believe in a sense, but with Shenmue I don't want to make it feel excessively so. I'd like to properly show martial arts with a sense of weight, while instilling in each dialogue and dramatic scene a feeling of substance, as if you're watching a movie. I formed the staff structure with that aim in mind, and they are slightly older with most being around the age of 40 or so. 

So at scenario meetings, examples people give are more likely to be from Japanese period dramas, Korean dramas or Chinese dramas rather than from anime or manga. We'll use live-action films as reference, making comments like "How about that kind of cut?" or "This type of scene works" as we go along.

People used to normal anime creation, have said that they'd like to be part of the project, since they would be able to be involved with something epic, a proper drama, for the first time in a while.

After the announcement of the anime version, even through Twitter there was an enquiry from someone overseas saying "If Shenmue is to be made into an anime, I'd love to take part in making it."

Famitsu: Amazing passion! [laughs]

Kiyozono: I've been in this industry for quite a while, but this is the first time I've experienced it. [laughs] I felt Shenmue's strength, one that's world-wide. That made me really happy.

Famitsu: Will the person overseas be joining the project?

Kiyozono: I've guided the person to apply through head office to start with. I'd like him to join us if possible.

Famitsu: If your criteria and so on are met, then that would work out well for both sides, wouldn't it.

Source: (Japanese)

Go on to read Part 2 of the interview.

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