AnimeFest 2012: Dai Sato Panel Report

AnimeFest 2012: Dai Sato Panel Report Incredibly, this was the sixth consecutive AnimeFest where Mr. Dai Sato was in attendance. Mr. Sato is an incredibly busy man, with writing careers in both anime, video games, as well as hosting a regular podcast and co-hosting a radio program with Taku Takahashi. Aside from running around the convention floor and providing impromptu technical support for some of the other Japanese guests, Sato also ran two panels.

The first panel was a small writing workshop held on Saturday night with a crowd of around 30 people. Dai Sato’s anime writing resume is an impressive one, including Cowboy Bebop, Wolf’s Rain, Samurai Champloo, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Eureka Seven, Ergo Proxy, and Eden of the East.

For this particular workshop, where he wished to demonstrate how scripts become animation, he decided to use a script from his most recent series Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine.

“The script controls the timing and the pictures in an anime. What’s interesting is that no matter how much I write, what I write will never get published. An anime script is for the purpose of assisting the person who draws the storyboards. The script is instructions, or like a blueprint. Perhaps it’s best described as the score for an orchestra. In an orchestra you have a great many people, all who play different instruments, and a conductor, who trains the orchestra. In the case of anime, you can consider the director to be the conductor.”

For the case of Fujiko Mine, Mr. Sato was very careful to note that the role of series composition went to Mari Okada, and that he had only written three of the episodes. Of those three, he wished to walk us through episode 3, where it was his responsibility to introduce the character of Goemon.

“It takes about one month for the plot of a series to be decided on, and this is done primarily by the director. She is the one who decides what kind of series she is going to make. For instance, in episode 2, we’re going to introduce Jigen. In episode 3, we’re going to introduce Goemon, and I want you to do that. With that instruction in mind, I have a great deal of freedom on how to proceed, but there is also a lot of back and forth that takes place as well.”

“This is a writing method that requires a lot of trust between team members,” Sato said. However, since he and Lupin III director Sayo Yamamoto had worked together on Samurai Champloo, Eureka Seven, and Ergo Proxy, they had enough experience to know and trust that everything would work out in the end.

Mr. Sato opened up a script in boring, unglamorous Microsoft Word, and explained how the process worked.

“From right to left is the flow of time. Japanese usually write on a grid, which usually fits around 400 characters per sheet. Each one of those 400 character sheets is equivalent to around 30 seconds of time. So the two sheets you see on this screen here is about one minute of screen time. With the opening song, ending song, and commercial breaks, your script is usually going to be around 20 pages long.”

“If you want to give the storyboarders more room to be creative, you can limit yourself to around 17 or 18 pages. This is what I did for shows like Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, where there’s a lot more action that can be interpreted. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, on the other hand, had a lot of dialogue and very specific direction, so sometimes a script there might go up to 25 pages.”

“This sounds tricky, but I don’t think about it like, ‘okay, that’s one minute. Now I have to write another minute, and now another.’ I pick the core focal scenes and find out roughly how long they are, and block that time out. With the target goal of 20 pages in mind, I can find out what’s too simple and needs lengthening, and what’s too complex, and make adjustments along the way. And after changes are made, the script is sent to the director for review.”

Mr. Sato then returned to the script of episode 3 of Fujiko Mine. He translates the togaki, or “stage direction” that’s included in the script: In an undisclosed, mountainous location in Japan, a lone samurai stands over a headstone in a lonely graveyard. We first see his shadow, and then his back. He’s wearing woven straw sandals.

“You’ll note I never mention his name, or showing his face. I want the viewer to put the pieces together on their own, and only at the end, when the man steps aside, is the name of Ishikawa Goemon revealed on the headstone.”

Then Mr. Sato pulls up the storyboard for the episode, which were done by Takashi Sano. How did he decide to interpret Sato’s stage directions?

“This is the first cut,” Sato says as he points at the storyboard pane. “This is a Japanese graveyard, there’s the tomb, and you can see the back of the samurai. So you can see a lot of the stage directions were followed. But you’ll also notice some extra things: It’s raining. I never mentioned rain, I merely said the graveyard was lonely. It was the storyboarder who interpreted this feeling of loneliness as rain.”

“This is cut two,” Sato says as he gestures downward. “We’ve changed the angle, and we’re now looking down on the samurai standing in the rain. You’ll notice he’s wearing this hat. In the Edo period, some samurai used umbrellas, but often they would wear a straw hat like this to keep themselves out of the rain. The addition of the hat blocks the rain from the samurai’s face, but it also prevents the camera from getting a clear view of the man’s face as well. So the rain is a very clever interpretation of the direction. It shows the loneliness of the graveyard, and it also necessitates the hat which blocks the man’s face. It achieved the goal of my instructions.”

“And in the next cut, you see he pays his respects and steps aside, revealing the name Goemon on the headstone. Through this scene I hoped to introduce the character in a memorable way as the director instructed. So in this brief 15 seconds, you learn that this character is Japanese, he is very traditional, and that he comes from a legacy thief family, much like Arsene Lupin III does. It is when these directions are made into a storyboard that is the exact moment that words become anime.”

Sato then jokes, “This scene was only 15 seconds long, and it took about 30 minutes to explain it.”

“The trick in adapting manga and video games is to take advantage of the unique opportunities of anime. When things wouldn’t make literal sense in an anime series, it’s often better to interpret it than to provide a literal translation. You might even be able to help people better understand or appreciate the original work.”

“So, the job I have is to take the order from the client, blend that with my personal desires and ideas, and take into account the budget, and put it all together in a way to tell a compelling story… in around 20 minutes. It’s a work that’s relied on by dozens or maybe even hundreds of team members, and it’s something that will never be printed or published, and will actually even probably be thrown away when the project is complete. But that’s scriptwriting!”

Mr. Sato closed his prepared remarks with a plea for the audience not to give up on their dreams of working in the anime industry. “Keep in mind that I can’t draw pictures. I can’t play instruments. But I still want to be involved in anime. If it’s just typing words, anyone can do that. Consider Google Translate today, and consider where it might be even five to six years from now. If you have talent in writing, you may be able to write in English and still approach us even in Japan and perhaps start a professional relationship.”

“Six years ago when I first came here, I was surprised by how many talented artists there were in the artist alley. When I asked them what they wanted to do, none of them had plans for art as a career. I was surprised when they said that because they were not Japanese, they could not find a place in the anime industry.”

“But it’s never been true that ‘Japanese people make Japanese animation’. It’s most countries in Asia, like Korea and China who contribute as well. And it was even this way back when I was watching Macross in high school. So don’t discourage yourself by believing there is a barrier. Who made Transformers? Of course we can work together. Let’s collaborate! It’s for those reasons I wanted you to see how I do my job.”

In closing, Sato took questions from the audience. When asked whether the dialogue in the script was sacrosanct, or if voice actors were at liberty to ad-lib, Sato answered, “In Japan there’s a specialist who manages the sound recording, and it’s their responsibility, along with the director, to make any changes they feel are appropriate.”

Mr. Sato was asked about the difference in working on a show from the series composition role, and how that compared to the script writing role. He answered, “I think the ‘series composition’ role is specific to Japan. In America, it might be considered something like a producer, like JJ Abrams. The person in charge of series composition looks at each of the script writers, and identifies their specialties: Are they good at mystery, thrillers, comedies? They take the skillsets in mind and try and arrange and juxtapose the scripts in a way that will work best with the overall arc of the show.”

“You might also recall shows where in one episode the characters kiss, but in the next episode, they act suspiciously distant, like the kiss never happened. This kind of discontinuity. A more blatant example would be if a character died in episode 11, but in episode 12 they were alive again. Because so often scripts are written in parallel, it’s the series composition manager’s role to prevent these kind of mistakes, and to be the person who sees the big picture.”

“For myself, when I’m not worrying about series composition, I like to think of it as a competition with the people who are writing other episodes. I’m going to go off in a different direction. So, what if we do 20 minutes of nothing but talking, or maybe everyone turns into zombies and a star crashes into the planet and everyone’s dead. Yeah, start the next episode where I left off! Of course, when I’m the one doing series composition, I try and look for these mischievous people… and smash them.”

Dai Sato’s next panel was on Sunday, and there he focused more on his role in video game writing. He showed the audience a highlight reel of scenes from the games Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere, Sacred Rider XechS, Halo Legends, Tekken: Blood Vengeance, Resident Evil: Revelations, and EX Troopers.

Last, he showed a preview video for Gyrozetter, a new anime based on a video game that’s going to premiere in Fall 2012. “It’s directed by Shinji Takamatsu, who you may know from Gintama and Gundam X. It’s his first return to mecha anime since Gundam X, so I’m very excited to be part of the project. It’s going to be my first mecha show since Eureka Seven,” Sato said.

Mr. Sato also took questions at the end of this panel.

When asked what the difference was between writing for anime and video games, Sato answered, “With games, the story is created by the player. So you need to create dialogue that doesn’t appear unnatural if the player doesn’t do things in the order you might expect. I’m a game freak myself, so I try and figure out what I would like to experience, and try and write to share those experiences with the player.”

He was then asked what it was like to work on Lupin III, since he’d worked on Cowboy Bebop previously, and many people considered that to be inspired by Lupin. “When the possibility of being involved with Lupin was raised, I wasn’t sure if I should have been allowed to due to my work on Bebop. But many on the staff liked my work with Bebop, so I may have been chosen because of that. I hope that my work with Fujiko Mine helped re-pay the Lupin series in some respects.”

He was also asked why he was not involved with the new Eureka Seven: AO series. “My intention with Eureka Seven was to finalize the love relationship between the two main characters, Renton and Eureka. From my perspective it was a love story, and that story was ended with the TV series. You’ll note I was not involved in the Eureka Seven movie, either. Also, at about the same time that the AO project was coming together, I was asked to work on Lupin III and EX Troopers. The EX Troopers team wanted to recapture some of the feel of Eureka Seven, so I was happy to work on that project. If I’m going to try and revisit a previous work, I’d like to try and revisit it in a different form. So I chose not to participate on it in order to move forward with other works.”

The panels ended with thunderous applause, and hopes were expressed that he would return next year as well, perhaps then able to talk more about whatever project he was working on in secret during this convention.