An interview with Atsushi Nishigori, Masayoshi Tanaka, and Yuichi Fukushima at Crunchyroll Expo 2018!
As previously mentioned, the DARLING in the FRANXX trio of Atsushi Nishigori, Masayoshi Tanaka, and Yuichi Fukushima were one of the biggest attractions at Crunchyroll Expo 2018! The director, character designer, and producer--respectively--hosted two panels going over the creation of one of the biggest hit anime of 2018. They were also kind enough to give me an entire hour of their time to answer some of my own burning questions about the landmark mecha collaboration. Here's the full interview where we go over the concept, production, and designs of DARLING in the FRANXX!
How did A-1 and TRIGGER end up working together on the project?
Atsushi Nishigori: I used to work at GAINAX and a lot of my peers moved to TRIGGER while I was working on [email protected]. Now I’m nearing 40, most of my co-workers are moving up and directing their own shows, so I felt like this might be one of my last few chances to gather my favorite staff members and create something together.
Since GAINAX was very good at action and giant robot anime and A-1 is better at everyday life and more subtle dramas, I felt that gathering this group of staff together would allow me to do what I envisioned.
I also hadn’t had the chance yet to work with the talented Tanaka-san, so I felt it would be a good challenge for me to add new blood into my group of favorites.
Can you tell me a bit about how you came up with the concept for the series?
Nishigori: It basically started with my thought “what can I make with this staff?” The fortes of the staff that I gathered are robots and everyday life The concept was a natural result of the staff I had gathered and also the thought that I don’t feel it has been done very well in the past few years. It definitely came afterwards, however. First the staff, then the concept.
As the Director, Storyboard Artist and Writer, you played many major roles in this anime project. How did you manage all three roles?
Nishigori: The hard part of a completely original series is portraying the vision of the director to the staff. If the staff doesn’t have the correction vision, they’ll just take bits and pieces from other shows and create something that’s very common. I didn’t want that, so I had get the point across to my staff before my viewers. That’s why, in the first half, I had to do everything myself so the staff could see what I envisioned.
Once the staff sees my vision, then I can leave them to do whatever they want. As the case with Tanaka-san, once he knew my intentions, I can let him be free with it.
During the Anime Expo TRIGGER panel some original concepts for the FRANXX were shown off which were much more traditionally mecha. Can you tell me how they came to the more organic design?
Nishigori: The early designs were very “robot” robot but, in adding all the dramatic essences and emotions of everyday life in the characters, I felt that the two weren’t meshing. We started brainstorming and thought “does it really have to be robots? How can we portray the idea that robots and pilots are one and the same?” and that's how it evolved into a more organic form which, in the end, turned out to be very symbolic for the series.
Did this require a lot of collaboration between character and mech design? Making sure the mechs and pilots had similar features?
Nishigori: Yes. The armor and silhouettes ended up having more imagery from girls clothing such as skirts and puffed shoulders. Traditionally robots are very wild, rough, and cool looking. I wanted to have the concept of beauty and the final designs seemed to be more suited for the show and what I was envisioning.
The one concept I had was the staff would all be working together on the production. Despite the fact that Shinzo Koyama-san was the mech designer, he was working as a team with Tanaka-san so that they could develop their ideas together. I didn’t want it so the the character designer has nothing to do with mech designs. They’re not separate things. Everyone is integrated and has a sense of why they are doing what they’re doing.
What was the collaborative process like for Tanaka-san? Did you have to adapt any early character designs to match the mechs?
Tanaka: There weren’t that many changes to the characters themselves, but the design team had a lot of influence in slight changes in the piloting suits and the cockpit designs.
DARLING in the FRANXX is atypical as a collaboration across multiple studios. Can you tell me about how the production played out?
Yūichi Fukushima: There were times when the director and main staff would go to TRIGGER to have meetings or vice versa, but the actual production work was done in each studio with their staff, so there wasn’t too much intermingling beyond that.
What was it like working with the two different studios?
Fukushima: They’re very different and how they managed their time and workflow were also very different. The hardest part as the producer was finding ways to mesh together the two different processes to work as one.
Did the studios come together for a wrap party when it was all over?
Fukushima: We did have a wrap party with the two studios gathering together to have fun.
Tanaka: For the final episode we also gathered both studios together for a viewing party when it was broadcast.
Given the success of the project, can you see pursuing similar collaborations in the future?
Fukushima: It’d be nice, but it’s very hard to say. In this particular case we thought it could work using the action from TRIGGER and the drama from A-1. It could be the other way around might be interesting with TRIGGER doing everyday life while A-1 does action. It’s very good for the industry and interesting as a project when you can highlight the unique characteristics of a studio in a particular anime, but the process of collaborating between studios is very difficult. We were thinking “how realistic is this?” and essentially winging it because we weren’t sure how much we could do.
Did a lot of work go into transitioning between the unique looks of each studio within episodes?
Nishigori: It’s more of a feeling of “this is this” and “that is that.” I didn’t strive for it to be a perfect homogenous mixture, but more just cramming in everything that I like. So it’s not going to be streamlined but I put in everything I liked. If it works, it works or, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t, and that’s how it goes.
Zero Two is rare for being such a recognizable centerpiece of the cast and her design has a lot of fans. Can you tell me a bit about your intentions going into her design?
Tanaka: The design team was focused on what sort of existence Zero Two is more than what she looks like, but we had the vague image of a badass transfer student that’s kind of devilish and acts as a tempstress to Hiro. At the same time we wanted her to be very iconic of the series so we started adding things here and there like pink hair and eye shadow to make her stand out.
Nishigori: With most of the other characters we thought about how much we could take away from them without compromising their core design, but with Zero Two the idea was to just toss everything in and keep adding until we reach critical mass and can’t add anymore.
Tanaka: We really hoped the viewers would like her enough that they would cosplay her. Since we’re seeing a lot of cosplay and the nature of your question itself was about how iconic she is, I feel the concept we had in the beginning was a success.
How about True Apus? Was that more of a Tanaka or Koyama design?
Nishigori: One of the first concepts we had was that Zero Two would become a giant robot in the end. We had a lot of meetings with Koyama-san and had to think about how we would bring her back from the final battle. I mean, she’s a giant robot. It was kind of weird to leave that as the final form, so we thought “why don’t we create a form which is her most beautiful form?” and that’s how she ended up wearing the wedding gown. She couldn’t turn into a human in the end, but she was still in the most beautiful state she could be, so it was more of a design concept.
Sci Fi as a genre often comments on modern issues. The armageddon that exists within the world of DARLING in the FRANXX seems to have been brought about by humanity losing its ability to reproduce. Was this inspired by current issues in Japan?
Nishigori: It wasn’t really devised as a social commentary, but a depiction of the current environment that I’ve been in and am feeling. It’s not exactly Japan now, but it’s what I feel living my everyday life looking at the people around me. It’s a world without adults or people to teach morals to others. More of a thought regarding what I see as opposed to what Japan’s society as a whole is.
Mecha and environmentalism also aren’t exactly strangers. Was the destruction of the environment by the claiming of Magma energy also based on your personal perceptions or as a greater theme?
Nishigori: That may have been something we played with, but wasn’t a primary issue. Problems caused by the lack of fuel resources and overpopulation are fairly common in storytelling. Instead, all of that was included to show what kind of environment the protagonists grew up in. If it was possible, we’d draw everything within only a 5 meter radius of the children, but you have to show some sort of minimal depiction of the conditions they’re in to see where they’re coming from.
There was an early arc in which Ikuno was unable to take on the role of stamen since it’s impossible for girls, but we later see the 9s were able to swap positions. When I first saw that I thought “that’s not fair!” Was there something different about them that let them do that?
Nichigori: The 9s were definitely perfect, but is perfect good? One of the key concepts for the series was having a twisted personality like Ikuno or trying to do everything for the person you love only for it to backfire like Ichigo is human and being human is good. My thinking was that I’ve lost if everyone thinks the 9s are so perfect so they must be better. Being perfect is not fun, humans have emotions. They’re going to laugh, they’re going to cry. That’s one of the concepts I wanted to portray to the younger audience.
High production mecha series, especially ones using 2D animation for the mechs, are becoming rarer but DARLING in the FRANXX felt like a very confident production. Was there a lot of confidence going into this project despite the trajectory of the industry?
Nichigori: It’s getting harder to find mecha animators since the industry is moving toward 3D. Since one of the concepts was character equals robot, we wanted a more warm feeling. We wanted the robots to be big and have action, but also that characters were more robots than characters. That’s the feeling we went in with.
DARLING in the FRANXX has been very popular in the west. Have you noticed a greater fan reaction from overseas?
Nishigori: You might know better since you’re from here. Maybe you could tell me?
Definitely very popular.
Any final thoughts of messages you’d like to give your fans?
Fukushima: This is a very unique point in my career having such unique talent such a Tanaka-san and everyone at TRIGGER and A-1. It was very overwhelming and I don’t know if I’m going to have a project like this again in my career. It’s definitely been my favorite project, so I hope everyone enjoys it and loves it just like I do.
Tanaka: Looking at all the tweets out there, I noticed there was a lot of reactions from overseas and I didn’t realize there was such passion from overseas fans. It was kind of like a lightbulb for me. We’ve been doing what we wanted to do for a long time but it was thinking more about just the Japanese audience. This was a good catalyst for me to know how what I work on is perceived by the world.
Zero Two’s design is definitely one of the more popular parts.
Tanaka: Ah, thank you.
Nishigori: I agree with Tanaka-san that the overseas reaction was a lot larger than expected and a lot of it was different from the Japanese audience, whether it be good or bad. The overseas fans seem to have a bigger voice than the Japanese fans. They’re more loud. The fact that there wasn’t much time lag between the Japanese and overseas reactions gave the feeling that simulcast is closing that distance. It’s something to keep in mind that my target audience is no longer 100 million, but up to 6 billion. It’s worldwide.
Having grown up as a Japanese person, I can’t really switch to a global mindset immediately, but now that I have knowledge that there is such a big audience out there that I haven’t really thought about, it’s a very happy feeling that I can create for more people.
Peter Fobian is an Associate Features Editor for Crunchyroll, author of Monthly Mangaka Spotlight, writer for Anime Academy, and contributor at Anime Feminist. You can follow him on Twitter @PeterFobian.