FEATURE: Why Are the Backgrounds of P.A. Works so Beautiful? An Interview with Anime Art Director Kazuki Higashiji
Read all about the love put into Nagi no Asukara, the pain of Charlotte's schedule, and more!
The first key visual from Nagi no Asukara
This is the first key visual from the TV anime Nagi no Asukara (2013-2014), created by P.A. Works.
Set in a world where people are divided by earth and sea, NagiAsu brings its “boy meets girl” romance to life with rich colors and exquisite attention to detail. The series is beloved by boys and girls alike.
Mr. Kazuki Higashiji, who worked on the background art for this series, gained experience as an assistant art director on high-profile projects like Sakura Wars: The Movie, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Paprika. Currently, he works as an art director for iconic P.A. Works titles such as Hanasaku Iroha and Tari Tari.
Even those who haven’t seen NagiAsu are blown away by the beauty of the backgrounds. Just how are these works of art brought to life?
We asked Mr. Higashiji about his thoughts on the role and working process of background artists in the animation business.
This interview was conducted by asanoappy / Atsushi Kamata.
Royal Space Force was a “Game-changer”
──What made you join the anime industry as a background artist?
Kazuki Higashiji (henceforth, Higashiji): I’ve always enjoyed drawing pictures ever since I was little. I wouldn’t say that I watched anime religiously, but if I had to cite my influences, they were things like Hayao Miyazaki’s post-Castle of Cagliostro works for Studio Ghibli. Also, I was really engrossed in what my older brother was watching, like the film versions of Space Battleship Yamato and Galaxy Express 999.
At the time, though, I didn’t necessarily want to handle the backgrounds for an anime or anything like that. I took up drawing because my high school art teacher told me that I had an aptitude for art. From there, I found myself thinking idly, “Guess I should continue drawing.” I studied oil painting at art school.
But when I was torn about what to do after my graduation, I thought about what had influenced and moved me the most. It certainly wasn’t a world-renowned title. When I thought about it objectively, I realized that the world-building in an anime film I saw in middle school had a huge impact on me. That film was Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise. So I figured: why not do anime? And that’s how I ended up in the business.
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise Blu-ray / from Amazon
──So the world-building in this film was what inspired you to get into anime background work?
Higashiji: That’s right. To put it more precisely, I wanted to make something that would wow and inspire others like it had inspired me. I want to move the hearts of today’s children. That feeling is one of my main motivations for doing this job.
What is the Role of an Art Director in Anime?
──Can you tell us about the job of an art director in detail?
Higashiji: I’ll start with the brainstorming stage. When working on a particular project, the director’s first order of business is to meet up with the main staff and decide what kind of world to depict. The director will then submit a request to the art department asking for a particular kind of drawing. Based on that, the background artist will produce a black-and-white blueprint called a setteiga.
For example, I created this blueprint to clarify what kind of building the cafeteria is in Angel Beats!
Angel Beats! setteiga (cafeteria exterior)
I create a ton of blueprints for any given series—over 150 of them, as a matter of fact. I get antsy about what will happen to the backgrounds if I don’t create a heap of them. The storyboard artists look at the materials from the art department as they scrutinize the scenario. When they draw the storyboards, they position the characters against the backgrounds, creating a blueprint for what gets shown onscreen.
After I’ve finished my work on the background designs, the main work begins. I keep an eye on the background designs as I draw the art boards (guideline backgrounds for the background artists).
Angel Beats! art board (cafeteria exterior)
Angel Beats! art board (cafeteria exterior illuminated at night)
Angel Beats! art board (cafeteria exterior during a night concert)
Is it evening? Is it night? The backgrounds look different depending on the situation. I create a standard template for the coloring and shading based on the look and mood of each scenario.
As you can see, I put as much work as I can into the main boards to get things just right. Once the world of the anime starts to take on a solid shape, I begin drawing art boards to accompany specific scenes from each episode. I take those boards to a meeting with the background artists and assign each staffer a scene to draw.
Hanasaku Iroha: The road near Kissuiso
For example, in this case the technical director asked for things like: “We’re having photos taken of a road with tire marks from cars screeching around the bend, so could you please make a book (reference materials that are placed on top of the backgrounds in order to aid the drawing process)?” or “The camera will start at this point and zoom in on this point, and then finally stop at this point.” At the meetings, we’d double-check the orders and devise strategies to deal with any problems that emerge.
As you can see, the work is highly stratified. The background artists receive the directions and draw the backgrounds. It depends on the anime, but if an episode contains 300 cuts, the background artists will produce 300 files of backgrounds in total. I look at each cut individually and adjust the colors to bring balance. If need be, I’ll add and erase some details and put everything in order. Once I’m done with that, the work gets checked and sent off to the photographer. That’s the main job of an art director.
How about it? Makes you think of creating canals so that the water can flow seamlessly.
From Hanasaku Iroha episode 26: “To Bloom One Day”
──Quite a few different roles are involved in making a single background, it seems.
Higashiji: The background designer, the art director and the background artists all work together. I suppose it might be easier to think of them as the person who creates the shape, the person who creates the colors and the person who brings the art to life, respectively. Everybody does their very best to help set the stage for the anime.
Unfortunately, time is becoming a scarce commodity in the anime industry these days. We also have to grapple with the extreme difficulties of retaining a high level of quality when it’s crunch time.
──I assumed that technological advances would give you more breathing room.
Higashiji: It’s the other way around, actually. Personally, I feel that the technological advances in the industry use more time than they improve quality.
While we do use machines, the backgrounds are hand-drawn in the end, so it still ends up being a time-consuming affair. Many of us are concerned about how to create a product that will satisfy the viewers.
The Changes in the Anime Industry and the Road to Becoming the Art Director of Angel Beats!
──You previously worked on projects like Ghost in the Shell and Paprika. Now you’re working as an art director for the core projects of P.A. Works.
Higashiji: To tell you the truth, until I began work on Angel Beats! for my art director debut with P.A. Works, I never really handled those so-called “bishōjo” anime.
Back in the old days in the anime industry (pre-90s), there was a general feeling that films were the cream of the crop. Ghibli is the first that comes to mind, and then there were things like Akira and Royal Space Force. I felt that the top-class anime staffers flitted between film projects instead of working on TV anime. That’s why I aspired to participate in film projects when I began working on anime backgrounds in my twenties.
But as we entered the 21st century, the anime world also took on a slightly different course. Bishōjo anime have been around for eons, but there was a definite sense that they had become mainstream.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya Bluray Complete Box Set Jacket / from Amazon
Up until that point, I had been entirely convinced that films were superior, but the reality that the consumers sought something along an entirely different line slapped me in the face. On top of that, I sensed that the unquestioned assumption that films were superior had been demolished, and so in my thirties I struggled to gain my bearings.
If they’re fast, many people can become art directors in their twenties, but I was a late bloomer. I spent quite a lot of time at the lower end of the stratus. And so I feared that I’d be stuck doing menial work for the next five years and that I’d turn forty without ever debuting as an art director.
Looking back, I think that’s quite a haughty way of putting it, but at the time I was so anxious about it that I wanted to become an art director no matter what. “Who cares if it’s a moe anime or a bishōjo anime?” I thought.
And, as if on cue, Mr. Kenji Horikawa, the president of P.A. Works, invited me to apply to be the art director for Angel Beats! Unfortunately, submitting my drawings would mean that I would have to leave the team dedicated to film projects for other studios. After reaching a point of no return, I was really torn about what to do, but in the end, I knew that I wanted to become an art director. I submitted my drawings and they ended up getting used. That’s how I got the job as the art director for Angel Beats!
The Angel Beats! school building
I was really desperate back then. I was intent on being recognized, you see. Maybe that’s why I’ve been told that the backgrounds in Angel Beats! were very sharp.
──You put a lifetime of preparation into them.
Higashiji: You can catch a glimpse of the changing times. I felt keenly that if I worked on the animation projects that I thought were best, then the viewers wouldn’t seek out my work. That was somewhat saddening to me.
Fussing over the Lighting in the Pursuit of Realism
Tari Tari Shirahamazaka High School: The entrance hallway (regular building)
──Mr. Higashiji, could you tell us about the work you do on the background art?
Higashiji: It’s not just a matter of art; it’s also a matter of having the right feel. The basic concept is that everything is composed of light and shadow. You can’t convey light without shadow, and you can’t convey shadow without light. I suppose my job is to convey the backgrounds using those common sense principles.
A person who looks at a blank white screen wouldn’t think of the light as bright. But a single point of light in the middle of a pitch-black space would appear dazzling. That sort of concept is on display consistently. When I try to draw the shadows precisely, that means drawing the lights precisely as well. It’s tricky when the attributes on the screen affect how the characters appear, but I think that even when it’s tricky you still ought to do it.
Angel Beats! OP/ED “My Soul, Your Beats!/Brave Song” CD jacket。You can see how the clouds are reflected on the right side of the piano
It’s the same with the background lighting. Everything the eye can see is influenced by other objects, and that’s how things obtain their color. I don’t think that anything has its own unique essence or that they must be shown in a certain way. By being depicted in relation to the backgrounds, the object naturally takes on its particular form.
For example, the scenery outside a window is reflected in the scene in some way. By drawing the background with the lighting in mind, I think of how the surrounding scenery looks like and how it would unconsciously affect the viewer.
From the film Hanasaku Iroha: Home Sweet Home
Even within the halls of the Kissuiso from Hanasaku Iroha, the light from the garden illuminates the inside. By drawing the piece with the background lighting in mind, I can picture what the interior looks like. I’m deeply conscious of such things as I draw.
Hanasaku Iroha in particular followed this rule to a T. Throughout the entire series, I was absolutely consistent about everything, from where the sun would rise to where it would fall. I asked myself, “How would things look if I stood here?” and envisioned it all in my head.
Tari Tari Shirahamazaka High School: The music preparation room
After Tari Tari, I took a slightly different approach. If the lighting looks cool from my perspective (regardless of the direction it came from), then I figure it’s fine to use it even if it’s not realistic.
──Are there are others who are very particular about how the lighting is presented?
Higashiji: Of course there are a great many people who care about that stuff, but within the current system in the anime industry, it’s not just the background artists who pay particular attention to lighting; the photography department does too. They’re the ones who insert things like rays of light into a shot. They work on a lot of other things too.
It’s just that in my case, I work in the same studio as the director, so there are parts that I can fuss over personally. Because the director and photographer are situated in different places, there are cases when the director’s wishes aren’t quite reflected by the photography department.
That’s why in some cases I’ve submitted plans for the backgrounds that cater to the director’s wishes and received permission to use them. The director has also given me more specific requests than he gave to the photographer at times.
From the first Hanasaku Iroha OP
This cut from the Hanasaku Iroha opening just shows Ohana in the train, but it was incredibly complicated to put together.
First of all, there’s the back part of what can be seen on the screen, where the light shines directly. The backdrop might be barely animated, but because the buildings reflected in the shot move alongside the train, I needed to create a book for it. The roof of the train is drawn on top, and after that layer gets drawn, the character cels make their first appearance.
Because the hanging straps sway in the scene, we needed a book for it. On top of that, the buildings in front of Ohana are reflected in the window, along with the sky. Since the buildings are also out-of-focus, I had to sort them into books as well. And finally, the sun sparkles at well-timed moments. I was allowed to position the flare (the strains of light that appear on the screen when light from the sun or some other light source hits the camera lens) at my own discretion.
Every aspect of the cut from the front to the back is given separate attention. The cut is just a few seconds long, but it was necessary to go through such an involved process just to make it realistic. A complicated process like this is impossible to implement without the director’s involvement in making things run smoothly.
──Is the concept behind a background like this also largely the director’s intent?
Higashiji: Of course. My job is to grant the director’s wishes. That said, however, the directors have given me a fair amount of creative freedom in the P.A. Works projects that I have participated in.
From Hanasaku Iroha episode 18: “A Mermaid Princess and a Shell Bra”
With this episode of Hanasaku Iroha, I made some suggestions to the series director and the technical directors. I imagined that Nako had tried her very best to make the postbox cute, but the postbox itself is old and the acrylic plate is poor quality. You can see some thin pamphlets inside.
Actually, the names of Nako’s family members weren’t set in stone at first, but when I drew the nameplate, I decided on the names with the technical director’s assistance.
──That feels very true to life. You have a keen eye for detail.
Higashiji: The finer details of the peeled-up stickers weren’t drawn in the layouts, so it wasn’t absolutely essential for me to draw them. But I wanted to include more details that the viewer could take notice of. I have no doubt that the anime is so rich with detail because of all the little things that add up.
Falling in Love with Nagi no Asukara
Nagi no Asukara: The meeting place
──Now then, you introduced NagiAsu a little earlier. Can you tell us about it in more detail?
Higashiji: NagiAsu is an anime that is judged well nowadays, but at the time it aired it most certainly was not a success. When it finished airing, my heart was crushed with defeat.
Nagi no Asukara: Namiji middle school exterior
Normally, I don’t get too emotionally invested in the background art when I’m drawing it. The viewer ultimately decides the worth of the anime. That was the belief I held in my heart. Any feelings and emotions that I pour into my drawings have nothing to do with how the consumer evaluates it. That’s why I never got carried away by emotion when it came to my drawings. I’d do my job from an objective standpoint without putting my soul into it.
And yet I put my emotions into NagiAsu. Actually, I didn’t want to be the art director for NagiAsu at first. You see, I’m not very good at fantasy settings.
──Could you be more specific about what you don’t feel good at?
Higashiji: Whenever I find myself wondering what sort of images people get moved by, about what sort of atmosphere inspires people to feel things, I find myself thinking back to my memories and trying to express what made me experience the same emotions. For example, the school, the classroom, the road back home from school, the town, the hall—those sorts of locations might be a common motif in anime, but that’s because it’s easy to relate to them.
Angel Beats!: Gymnasium
For example, take something like the gymnasium in Angel Beats! No matter how you spent your time at school, everyone has memories of a gymnasium, you know? The mere sound of basketballs bouncing and gym shoes squeaking against the shiny floor opens the floodgates of one’s memories. That sort of thing is an incredibly effective means of setting the stage for a story.
Unfortunately, when the genre is fantasy, you have to draw locations you’ve never seen before. When I’m told to draw backgrounds that can bring out emotions, my reaction is along the lines of: “Hold up a second here. Nobody has fond memories of what it looks like inside the ocean.” (laughs)
That’s why I tried to worm my way out of doing NagiAsu at first, but in the end I had to accept the request. And if I was going to do it, I figured I might as well lay myself bare. The only things I could bring to the table were the memories of my adolescent fantasies and daydreams.
And thus I began to draw with my teenage soul. Even though the merits of the anime are 100% up to the viewer, I poured my emotions into my drawings. My art contains my feelings of falling in love. When the viewers—or their girlfriends, as it were—didn’t respond to those feelings, it was a shock for me.
Nagi no Asukara Original Soundtrack 1 CD jacket
──You fell in love with your own work.
Higashiji: Yep. I poured a lot of myself into a work that will be judged by the public. I suppose I committed a taboo… When NagiAsu first aired, it received less attention than I imagined it would. I never thought that a man past forty like me would feel so crushed. (laughs) It was the first time I’d gotten so carried away by emotions for a long while.
The Grueling Workplace of Charlotte
Charlotte teaser visual
──Did you continue to put your own emotions into the background art when you worked on Charlotte afterward?
Higashiji: I went back to my old ways with Charlotte. If I put my own feelings into Charlotte as well, I would never have been able to finish it, I think.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve not been able to draw a thing since Nagi no Asukara. Even so, I still had a job to do. As an art director, then, I devoted myself to the question of how to improve quality.
Let’s talk about the practical problems. Compared to Angel Beats!, the schedule for Charlotte was much tighter. In order to improve the quality, I quickly cast off my personal ego that wanted to draw pictures according to my own vision. Ayaka Shishido, who worked as an assistant art director for Tari Tari, came over and assisted with the art boards while I brushed up the backgrounds. The first matter of business was to delegate the roles and get straight to work so that the main backgrounds wouldn’t break down.
From the Charlotte OP
If I didn’t divide the background art work with another person, I would have had to draw 300 pieces a week—and even then, I wouldn’t have been able to keep afloat. To top it off, the entire setting gets flipped on its head in the final episode. That caused a lot of trouble for the background artists. Flipping the setting on its head meant that we couldn’t use a single art board from all the episodes we had worked on previously. It was a grueling situation, to say the least.
For me, Charlotte was an anime where the main concern was getting the job done and not betraying the audience’s expectations. And so NagiAsu remains the only work I have ever poured my emotions into.
──Do you think that you will ever have the opportunity to handle another project like NagiAsu?
Higashiji: Who knows…? The anime in question has to connect with me on a deep level, so it’s hard to say if it will ever happen. But the part of me that wants to move people’s hearts probably won’t go away, so I’d love to encounter an anime that makes me think: “If I finish this, I can die happy.”
What moves a person’s heart depends on the individual. An anime that can move ten people’s hearts out of ten has to be something truly special. In my case, Royal Space Force made my heart tremble when I was fourteen or so, but I was also very impressionable at that age. That played an important role.
My adolescent heart could only have been moved that way because that was who I was at the time. As I grew older, my heart could not remain so simple and carefree. Over time, I built an elastic shell around my heart, and I thought it was fine that way. And yet, even if I encountered something with a sensitive touch, I wouldn’t feel anything. I think that’s what becoming an adult is like.
That’s why I want to work on something with a particular feeling: something with a sensitive yet heartbreaking touch, the kind of emotion that one can only experience during their adolescence. I want to keep drawing for an anime that resonates with this kind of emotion. I will hold that feeling close to my heart.
The Backgrounds are a Jewel Box with Jewels Inside
From Tari Tari episode 5: “Throwing Away and Holding On”
──Mr. Higashiji, what role do you think backgrounds play in the context of anime?
Higashiji: On a fundamental level, anime stories are about the characters, so I generally think about what I can do to enhance the appeal of the characters. For instance, I often say that I put all my effort into the backgrounds so that the audience can bask in the glory of the characters without any distractions.
That’s my way of thinking, but in the context of anime, the backgrounds are like a soccer goalkeeper. While there are players in front of them that score the points, the goalkeeper’s actions are what carry the match. The forward can safely go on the offensive, knowing that the goalkeeper is an iron wall.
To use another analogy, the story and characters are the jewels. So, then, what are the backgrounds? All those valuable jewels would have to go inside a jewel box, I suppose. Naturally, the value lies in the contents, but the box plays an integral role in presenting those contents.
When it comes to the role of the backgrounds, it’s a matter of two things: how best to complement the anime’s themes and setting, and how to make the anime shine.
Hanasaku Iroha TV series Blu-ray compact collection distributor: Pony Canyon
Tari Tari Blu-ray Disc BOX distributor: Pony Canyon
Born in 1974
He gained experience as an assistant art director on high-profile projects like Sakura Wars: The Movie, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Paprika. Currently, he works as an art director for the core projects of P.A. Works.
He is best known for Angel Beats!, Hanasaku Iroha, Nagi no Asukara, etc.