Japanese anime is more popular now than it has ever been before. These interviews with anime studios will reveal the behind-the-scenes processes and emotions that go into making anime. This is a large-scale project done in collaboration with anime news sites throughout the world, such as the anime news site Anime!Anime!, Tokyo Otaku Mode, which has 20 million fans on Facebook, the huge Chinese site Bahamut, and more.
P.A.WORKS’s best-known works: Iroduku: The World in Colors, Maquia: When The Promised Flower Blooms, The Eccentric Family, Sakura Quest, Shirobako, Hanasaku Iroha, Another, Angel Beats!, Nagi-Asu: A Lull in the Sea, True Tears
Have you heard of P.A.WORKS? It’s an anime studio that represents Japan through its anime that is strongly supported by fans even though it’s out in Nanto, Toyama, a city far away from Tokyo that has a population of fewer than 50,000 people.
The Toyama studio was opened 18 years ago. We were able to interview the founder and president of P.A.WORKS, Kenji Horikawa, about the company’s anime production, animator education project, and its creation of regional activities linked closely with anime.
This is Kenji Horikawa, the founder and president of P.A.WORKS, whom we were able to interview.
Little by Little on a Grand Scale
– First, please tell us about the founding of P.A.WORKS.
Horikawa: I wanted to work in the anime industry and got a job in 1990. There were no opportunities available to work in anime in the countryside. It was the era of cel animation and I worked on anime in Tokyo for 10 years.
I made a promise when I started working that I would return to Toyama. When I was thinking of getting a new job, I realized I wanted to keep working on anime. It was right when everything was getting digitized and it started getting easier to make anime in the countryside, so in 2000, I opened up a studio here.
We started with only two people, but after all, we are so far out in the countryside. We realized that people wouldn’t come even if we recruited them, so as P.A.WORKS started getting more famous we started getting more employees and educating them.
We’re an extremely small company, so even though we started like a family, the bigger we got, the more our company’s organization changed. We’ve changed over time to match the number of people we had, the requests we had, and the changes in the industry, bringing us to now, our 18th year.
The Inquiries That Guide Their Titles
– P.A.WORKS produces many original titles and I believe it’s a rare company that’s managed to make them all successes. What is the reason behind your success?
Horikawa: I don’t know. Whenever we’ve made an original title, when we talk about what kind of project we want to work on, we discuss the themes rather than the story. The director and other people involved in organizing the series discuss what themes they want to include.
When I say themes, I don’t mean that we make titles by saying “the most important thing is love or friendship.” Instead of doing something like that, we’re curious about thinking deeply regarding modern society or things that we feel throughout our daily lives. We begin by wondering what those answers are.
– The questions come first.
Horikawa: That’s right. We make titles because we’re looking for the answers to those questions. So if we don’t do it well, it’s scary if we don’t answer the question by the last episode, but I think it’s extremely interesting to make titles by continuing to ask questions that we’re interested in.
Because we have those questions, I think it becomes easier to think of things like what directions will the characters take, how will they think, or what kind of incidents should we include. We’re able to adjust the flow in a direction that will give us the answer to that question.
When it comes to creating the titles, starting this year there are parts that we leave up to the young producers, but when we’re making original titles, we tell them to make sure to keep in mind what questions are their stories asking.
No matter what, original titles take three years to complete. It’s fine if the audience watches it as something transient, but when we’re thinking non-stop for three years about what we’re making, that’s a little unsatisfying for us, so we want it to have a good response that suits the three years we spent our passion and time on.
– Is there a particular title that started it all?
Horikawa: Our first title was Hanasaku Iroha. We made it with the feelings of wanting to know what troubles young people just starting to work have and how they overcome them. We were also new and learning a lot, so we as creators were coming up against the same themes. There were a lot of things that we stumbled and were troubled over.
For Shirobako, we enjoyed making anime, but it was a time when we started hearing a lot of outcry about the industry and how difficult it is. Japan’s commercial animation industry started 60 years ago and we’ve inherited it. We’ll have to pass it on in the future. On a grand scale, we were asking the question, “Why are we creating anime?”
For Shirobako, we didn’t have the answer from the beginning. We made every episode by discussing the kind of troubles that often happen in a studio and came up with the answer to each problem as we worked.
In the end, the answer to why we continue to make animation in this industry that we inherited differs depending on the person, but my answer is included in the main character’s lines in the launch party.
– A team that experienced making something like that must come up with amazing ideas.
Horikawa: I believe creators should treasure curiosity or a spirit of inquiry. People who do creative work all around the world don’t come up with expected answers when there’s some kind of problem.
I believe part of creativity is looking at how things have always been done, doubting it, and trying it from a different angle.
I want young creators to think about that when they’re working. But on the other hand, I think that kind of thinking is also old-fashioned.
Take a story that presents the problems in human relationships. I felt that the normal way would be to pursue those problems and have the story revolve around that, but the young creators stopped me from going in too deep. It made me think.
It wasn’t a failure that we didn’t build the personal relationships up, but rather an intentional decision to not go there. That’s one of the ways the current generation thinks. I see it as a way to create something that feels relatable to the demographics that are watching our titles.
Make Titles that Remain for 10 or 20 Years
– This connects to your previous answer, but I feel that both the teams and the titles of P.A.WORKS are diverse and have different senses of values.
Horikawa: One of the themes of Sakura Quest is the coexistence of different cultures. It’s the idea of assimilating traditional culture, new knowledge, and different thoughts and absorbing them.
So, just like how I talked about the way young creators think, I believe we should think about looking for things we can absorb and finding things that are interesting. Creators should especially think that way.
A long time ago, I read a book called The Walking People. It’s a collection of oral traditions that have been passed down for tens of thousands of years among the Iroquois tribe from the United States about how they lived while traveling around the world despite not having a big population. I was extremely stimulated by that book.
Within that tribe is a storyteller. The knowledge and experiences that they had were passed down in the form of stories. Because they tell the story in an interesting way, everyone becomes interested in it.
Animation and novels are the same way. You don’t explain what happens as-is. Even if you change the format or alter it in some way, as long as the important parts are kept intact, the true essence will remain.
Our desire to make titles that remain for 10 or 20 years comes from that. Because we recorded different knowledge and culture in our titles as entertainment, people can be more interested in it as opposed to if it were just an academic thesis and it can spread. I think that’s what’s interesting about it.
Give Shape to Inherited Culture
– I have an impression that you put a lot of effort into training and educating animators, especially because P.A.WORKS is so far away from Tokyo.
Horikawa: Everyone has their own style of animation that they prefer. But having a proper curriculum about the basics and teaching that is something that this industry is sorely lacking.
P.A.WORKS’ curriculum will soon take shape. We will be able to create a company tradition where we can show how our art is inherited and how we direct things. How to do this or that will be updated every year.
It might be different if you go to a different studio, but this is what we at P.A.WORKS hold dear. I think that if every company created a curriculum like that, the education for new creators would be better than it is now.
We’re going to open a training center this spring. We’re thinking about what to teach every day and what techniques will be useful to be put into practice, and I’m very excited to see how it will develop and what it will turn into in a few years.
The Story Connecting the Countryside and Creators
– Are there any titles or projects that you’ve found stimulating lately?
Horikawa: I’m involved in it, but that would be Sakuragaike Quest, a spin-off project of Sakura Quest. We’re working on it with the idea that it would be interesting to get local people involved in this connection between anime and the real world.
* About Sakuragaike Quest:
P.A.WORKS’ Sakura Quest is set in Nanto, Toyama, the city where P.A.WORKS is based. The lake, Sakuragaike, is famous for cherry blossoms, but lately, more withered and injured trees have been discovered. Sakuragaike Quest is a new regional promotion where fans of Sakura Quest can help maintain and rehabilitate those cherry blossom trees and develop the area.
There are plenty of young creators with passion and skill here in Nanto. It’s different from business, but I wondered how I could create a way of life here in the countryside. We thought about how different creators could come together to work on one theme.
Niigata’s Echigo-Tsumari Art Field, in which an entire village becomes art, has been held since 2000. World-famous artists are involved and hundreds of thousands of people go to see it. One of my current interests is thinking about how to connect local people and creators here in Nanto. How can we use our point of view to take this area, use our talents in creating stories, and make something creative out of it?
I believe the medium of animation has incredible transmission power. What are Japanese creators and craftsmen thinking or pursuing when they create? I think that if I record their answers and make it into something entertaining, then many people around the world will watch it.
We Want You to Treasure What You Find in Our Titles
– Finally, please give a message to anime fans around the world.
Horikawa: I really look forward to what fans around the world think. I often look at what Japanese fans write, but I believe that in Japan, many people worry about if their opinions are different from others or worry that other people don’t watch the same shows that they do. However, once people outside of Japan love a title, they support it for years. I find the spirit of digging into the title and forming their opinions to be very charming.
What you get out of our titles is entirely different based on the themes that you’re currently engaging with and your own experiences, so I don’t think there’s any need to match with what others around you feel. I want everyone to value that.
The titles that we at P.A.WORKS create might be plain compared to others, but they are made by digging deep into themes to answer our questions. Because of that, I would be happy if you tell us your opinions based on what you thought, what you realized, and how you enjoyed it rather than parroting someone else’s opinion.
This project also includes fan participation featuring Otaku Coin, a community currency which is set to launch this fall. The aspirations of Otaku Coin are to connect Japanese otaku culture fans and creators throughout the world and to create a community that transcends borders with a community currency.
In collaboration with that, fans who read these articles will be able to use the Otaku Coin Official App to send the studios messages of support and gratitude. The support project will launch at the same time as the app in fall 2018. Please subscribe to the Otaku Coin mail magazine to receive the latest information and updates.