With anime more popular than ever all over the world, we sat down with some of the people who actually produce it to hear some of their thoughts about the production process and a few behind the scenes stories too. This interview series is a collaborative project between Japanese language news site Anime! Anime!, Tokyo Otaku Mode, and Chinese language sites Bahamut and Manrenzhi.
You can check out all the other interviews here.
Production I.G’s representative works: Ghost in the Shell, Psycho-Pass, Kuroko’s Basketball, Haikyu!!, The Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Die Neue These, B: The Beginning, Ultraman.
Production I.G is well loved by anime fans around the world for its edgy anime such as Ghost in the Shell and Psycho-Pass. The studio has also produced some of the era’s most important franchises and creators including Ghost in the Shell and Ghost in the Shell Innocence’s Mamoru Oshii, Eden of the East and Ultraman’s Kenji Kamiyama, Attack on Titan’s Wit Studio, and Birthday Wonderland’s Signal.MD. Its influence on the anime industry is immeasurable.
We sat down with Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, founder, president, and CEO of Production I.G in charge of managing all those talented creators, to discuss the company’s history as well as his vision for the future in this long interview.
[Interview/composition: Eiwa Ishijima]
90% of anime depends on the animator
– You started your career at Tatsunoko Pro. How did you get into the anime industry?
Ishikawa: Originally, I was training with a “Kuruma Ningyo” doll theater company. It was an itinerant company and at that time they were going to perform abroad but they left me behind! While I was waiting for them to come back, I often saw ads for Tatsunoko Pro in a jobs magazine, and without really knowing what kind of work it was I joined the company. It wasn’t that I particularly liked anime, but I did admire the character design of Judo Boy and Speed Racer. It was after I joined that I began to become familiar with Tatsunoko’s works. By a quirk of fate I ended up becoming deeply involved with this industry.
When I think back, I was always more captivated by doll theater than I was by kabuki starring human actors. I like live-action films too, but maybe I’m just naturally more taken with anime.
– What kind of work were you doing at Tatsunoko Pro?
Ishikawa: For about 15 months I was a production assistant on Golden Warrior Gold Lightan and Mirai Keisatsu Urashiman. After that I was a desk and line producer for four years. Truthfully, the year I was a production assistant was so tough I barely slept, but I got to see a lot of key animation and in-betweens. It was a lot of fun. I think it was the most fun I’ve ever had in life with anime.
It was at that time that I got to understand that 90% of anime depends on the animator. There’s the quality and schedule too, but you win or lose on how well you get along with the animators. I’d stake my life on that.
In the production environment where the staff work in various sections, the animators are like moody gods, they’re not easy to deal with. You can’t just leave it at sorting out salaries and contracts. You have to be extremely sensitive.
– It seems like you really take care of your animators at Production I.G these days.
The creators who supported I.G’s independence, and Kyoto Animation
– What else did you learn during your time at Tatsunoko Pro? For example a management skill, or was there a manager you really respected?
Ishikawa: Hmm… Of course, back then I was very young. I used to think that “old people” were useless and the managers were incompetant because all they ever did was play golf and have dinner even though there were so many talented creators. I was quite brazen and even said to Mr. Kuri (Ippei Kuri, at that time the president and CEO of Tatsunoko Pro as well as the character designer of Muteking, The Dashing Warrior ) “I respect you as an artist, but you’re useless as a manager.” I remember that he asked me what kind of grudge I had against him (Ha!).
– Wow (laughs). You must have been very passionate to be so frank…
Ishikawa: When I became a manager myself, I began to understand Kuri’s position and way of thinking. I really was full of the fire of youth. What was I thinking saying that to him?
– Is that why you decided to leave Tatsunoko Pro and go independent?
Ishikawa: I guess so. I felt there was a limit to the organization when I saw so many fantastic animators leaving because they weren’t needed in such a big company. On the other hand, Takashi Nakamura (key animation director on Akira ) invited me to join the Urashiman project, and Koichi Mashimo ( Urashiman chief director) made a special exception to add my name to the opening credits, so everyone was very good to me there.
Even so, I started to think that if I could convince myself to quit, I wanted to concentrate on projects led by lively young creators who would support the anime industry in the future. Then because I was put in charge of Zillion which we were developing at that time, I was able to talk to some fantastic creators about the possibilities.
Nakamura and Moshimo, Goto (Takayuki Goto, now a company director at Production I.G) who sponsored Studio Chime, Hiroyuki Okiura ( Jin Roh director) who was at that time with Osaka’s Anime R and Mu, Kazuchika Kise ( Ghost in the Shell Arise, Production I.G company director), Mizuho Nishikubo (chief director on Miyuki ), and Oshii all helped out part-time. Kyoto Animation was very helpful too.
– That’s certainly a very distinguished team! Do you have any strong memories of them you’d like to share?
Ishikawa: Yes, about when I was talking to Okiura. He was really busy because he was the key animation director of Black Magic M-66 but I told him that Nakamura wanted him to do something and promised to send over Nakamura’s key animation art and time sheet. That was the deciding factor in becoming friends with him.
– I guess you could negotiate as an animator, knowing how much value there is on getting to work other talented animators. How did you make contact with Kyoto Animation.
Ishikawa: I really respected Kyoto Animation because if you asked them to finish up during production then they’d stick to budget and schedule and turn out something great. When I was thinking about bringing together unique creators, I wondered if I could get Kyoto Animation to help. I went to Kyoto in person to ask them.
When I was setting up independently, Hatta (Hideaki Hatta, CEO of Kyoto Animation) said I should take charge, and he invested and helped us get going. I’m so grateful for their support even now.
– You didn’t have any projects lined up so how did you manage to get people’s endorsement? By the way, how old were you then?
– So young… but, you’d been a producer on Zillion.
Ishikawa: On the business side, there were people supporting us with a “It might be fun to let Ishikawa’s guys have a go” kind of feeling, but in the end I was talking to the company in tears and they let “I.G Tatsunoko” have a project independently. It was the first time I’d ever cried in front of people (ha!). I needed money too, and even went as far as asking my parents and brother for an advance on my inheritance.
– You went that far and yet you still had to have “Tatsunoko” in the name. Why was that?
Ishikawa: I.G was Goto’s idea. It’s each of our initials. It was me who wanted to add Tatsunoko. I thought it would be easier to get work. And they had been good to me. People really are contrary, I guess I was in two minds.
Animators taking the lead
– After going independent you concentrated on TV anime for a while. Which works do you have strong memories of from that time?
Ishikawa: Legend of the Galactic Heroes original series episodes 3, 9, 12, 13, 14, 18, the Patlabor OVA 1, 3, 5, and Mami the Psychic. Galactic Heroes was for Kitty Films. Masao Maruyama (now the Chairman of the Board MAPPA) at Madhouse really helped us out too. From Maruyama I learned to be uncompromising in pre-production, planning, and settings.
Shin-Ei Animation looked after lots of young team members on Mami the Psychic and Chimpui. Personally, I really like Mami the Psychic, but especially episode 46, “Yuki no Furu Machi wo,” which was directed by Shinya Sadamitsu ( Crayon Shin-chan ).
At that time at I.G, we were aiming to become the best subcontractors.
– What did you mean by that?
Ishikawa: The kind of studio that people come to because they take care of the quality, schedule, and budget. The best kind that would still be around decades later.
– Ah, a kind of animator’s guild.
Ishikawa: Yes. But, I gradually started to realize while we were handling the Patlabor movie that we were writing “production co-operation” on the staff roster but we were actually making it and the name that was getting attached was the primary contractor. I thought that was unfair! (laughs)
Maybe I was still in two minds. Deep down I really did think we wanted to be the best contractors, but also I’d started to feel we couldn’t survive on such low budget projects.
So then we started trying to protect our territory by becoming primary contractors. With Patlabor 2: The Movie we invested in setting up a separate company, Ink.
– So moving from subcontractor on Patlabor 1 to primary contractor on Patlabor 2 you had to make an investment.
Ishikawa: No one else was really doing it in anime so I thought we could. My instinct is that if you’re going to invest in people or in projects then you have to give it your all. Normally, being stingy is fine but this is one occasion when you can’t afford to be mean.
– Talking of I.G’s human capital, you already had Mamoru Oshii?
Ishikawa: When I saw Oshii’s storyboards for the first Patlabor movie I shook with excitement, but deep down I thought maybe it was just like a long manga. But when I saw the storyboards for Part 2, it seemed really cinematic. So I thought we had to invest in it even if we put everything else on pause.
– And then there’s Ghost in the Shell. Did you commission Oshii to make it?
Ishikawa: No. Kodansha came to us several times to talk about turning it into an anime but we turned them down. Later Oshii came to us and said we had to read the manga and that it was difficult but if we wanted to turn it into a movie here’s how we had to do it. Bandai’s Shigeru Watanabe ( Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise ) encouraged us too.
Oshii wanted to do it and he already had a proposal, so there was no need for me to make him an offer. When he said he’d do it we started creating the environment for him to make it happen and we were proud of the system we set up so people who could draw the kind of images Oshii was thinking of could raise their hands at any time.
The results were amazing. Oshii’s storyboards are strangely powerful and have wonderful balance. And then there’s Nishikubo’s skill at direction and Kise’s endeavours in key art. The movie was well received in Japan and internationally and Oshii was regarded as a master. I think it’s because we knew we could depend on people.
– I.G has produced famous directors and masterpieces, but that’s precisely because of the animators who support them, and you were already taking care of them right at the beginning.
Ishikawa: Simply put, I think their work is beautiful and cool, so I don’t think there’s anything else I could do. If you don’t have good animators, you can’t make good anime. Animators play the leading role in animation. I think animators are cooler than actors and performers in TV dramas and movies.
The organization changes but I.G stays the same
– Following on from Oshii’s smash hits Ghost in the Shell and Innocence, the 2000s saw TV anime prime contractor work like Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Blood + increasing. Do you think that was a kind of a turning point?
Ishikawa: After Ghost in the Shell, we started to expand into games and movies centered around Stand Alone Complex. I.G acquired the rights to adapt the Stand Alone Complex manga as an anime directly from Kodansha. That’s why when putting together the production committee I.G could take the lead and issue rights to each of the participating companies.
– So you went from a subcontractor to a rights issuer.
Ishikawa: I think it’s a necessary step to come full circle and start issuing licences as the rights holder after acquiring the rights and making the show. Production I.G has changed its structure in line with the times, but the stakes were pretty big. We made the right call and a lot of money came into I.G, and we also got the opportunity to widen the scope of our activities with TV series and games.
To digress, Maruyama is the producer I have the greatest respect for. As I mentioned earlier, his planning and setup are fantastic. Even in 100 years, I could never match him. If we’re talking about someone to take over, I think it’ll be Bones’ Masahiko Minami. I could never be as good as he is.
Related article: Why Are Bones’ Shows So Well Made and Charming? Masahiko Minami Looks Back Over the Last 20 Years
For my part, I’m thinking about how to reform the production committee and corporate structures. With respect to Maruyama, I’m thinking about how best to address it in my own way.
– In respect of the system changing, you set up I.G Port by merging with Mag Garden, as well as Lingua Franca for digital distribution, and a partnership with Netflix, so the business keeps expanding.
Related article: The Upsides of Working with Netflix? I.G’s Ishikawa x Bones Minami Long Interview
Ishikawa: When we listed on the stock market and set up I.G Port, even though anime studios had done a lot of cool stuff, people told us “anime companies have no money,” “it’ll be a nightmare.” I wanted to change that image. Setting up lots of different companies, I wanted to ask people if we couldn’t do something a little more interesting, and so I’m always trying to do something new.
Including now, I think we’ve always been in a precarious position over the last 30 years. Every five years I try to take the company apart and put it back together again better. We’re about three years into that cycle right now so I’m pouring all my energy into creating a new structure. More than making the things I want to in the workplace, I’m prioritizing the wishes of the young creatives and producers. The result is, since the 2000s, we’ve had the opportunity to do more TV series and projects inspired by Shonen Jump manga.
– Since you started working on TV anime, the projects seem to have a different flavor. Then again, looking at them at a glance, they all seem very “I.G.” Why do you think that is? Other than being of a very high standard…
Ishikawa: Isn’t it because we pay so much attention to the animators? To make a good anime you need a good director, but to get the most out of a director the animators really need to shine. To create an environment in which the animators can shine the company needs to stay the same, and so I don’t regret the investment.
– Your attitude to the animators really hasn’t changed since I.G Tatsunoko.
Ishikawa: As for the quality, because we’ve started producing for the big screen, even when we’re working on TV the animators and production team inherit the same approach. Then again there are pros and cons. It’s hard to catch your breath working on a long project, and I.G do a lot of one and two cour series. Toei Animation make shows with more than four cours, and that’s a different side to maintaining quality.
Efficiency is an inevitable problem in anime production
– What are you concerned about when it comes to formulating a structure right now?
Ishikawa: This isn’t limited to I.G, but fundamentally, people who make anime will fall into a sense of crisis if they aren’t being efficient. For example, when it comes to labor costs involved with production, they say the director’s pay is too high, but half of the time is waiting time. It’s inefficient.
– Yes, time spent waiting for the completion of key animation. If you think about it again, it’s certainly time that could be used for something else.
Ishikawa: If you can solve the deficit caused by the wasted time and the inefficient methods like needing to increase manpower to work overnight though remaking the production system through pipelines and AI guidance you can reduce the time and manpower, and ultimately link quality and revenue.
On that point, Kamikaze Douga has raised its quality level through eliminating pointless overtime and I think that’s wonderful. You can really feel the love for the work and the creative team. I have a lot of respect for them.
Related article: Ninja Batman Proving Popular Overseas, Kamikaze Douga’s Junpei Mizusaki Talks 15 Years of Anime Production Policy
– Kamikaze Douga also works with overseas companies, do you think that kind of operational efficiency is essential for international development?
Ishikawa: Yes, I do. Korean and Taiwanese studios can produce backgrounds and character designs in a week that would take two or three months in Japan. Sometimes those overseas companies are rivals, but other times you work with them on a project and if the production isn’t efficient it won’t work.
Also, because everyone is proficient in languages, if we carry on like this in five years no one will give us the work. It’s not as easy as saying you’ll just team up with Netflix.
– You think it’s a precarious situation.
Ishikawa: Fortunately, I.G has a lot of projects, and a lot of ways to make money. However, if we just carry on the same way the future seems very uncertain. I think it is a precarious situation.
But precisely because it’s a bit dicey right now, I can see a way through if we work hard and look forward seriously. I don’t really like the word “endure,” but in these times when you ought to fight you should be preparing the way.
The same for projects, I’m confident the projects that will be born in two or three years from these labor pains will really move people. These might be the most difficult times, but they’re also the most fun and it really feels like there are things worth doing.
– We’re looking forward to seeing something new!
I want to be the “girder” waiting in the corner
– Finally, can we ask about your views as an individual?
Ishikawa: Before I was talking about labor pains and precarious situations, but from a personal point of view, no one is allowed to do exactly as they please. Just doing what you please and leaving the business world behind might be irresponsible. When I was young, I used to be angry with older people, but now that I am older I want to give something back to the young.
– You’re the leader of the educational training program “Anime Tamago,” and you’re also supporting document preservation in the I.G archive room. So I guess those are some of the ways you’re trying to give back.
Anime Tamago 2019 Complete Press Conference, Young Animators Carrying the Next Generation Participate in Training Project
What Is the Current State and Problems with “Anime Archive”? Interview with the Head of Production I.G’s “Archive”
Ishikawa: Yes, that’s some of them. I’ve found someone like our archive head, Michiko Yamanaka, who wants to look after all our documents to leave them to the future, and there are people in the animation association who are seriously approaching animator training. If my name and existence can be useful to those people, then I want to be a “girder” for them.
– A “girder”? You mean you want to serve and encourage those people?
Ishikawa: Oh no, nothing so grand as that. I just want to be there for those times when people are passionately trying to do something but feel as if something’s missing. That’s a girder. The way I see it, “girder” seems to be exactly the right expression. That’s what I want to be.
– Completely different from those annoying old people you were talking about before.
Ishikawa: Yes. I want to do what I can do in the position I’m in now.
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