INTERVIEW: The Director Who Stole Our Hearts Away to Antarctica: In Conversation With Atsuko Ishizuka

In Conversation With Atsuko Ishizuka, Director of A Place Further Than the Universe

At the most recent Crunchyroll Expo, I had the unbelievable opportunity to sit down with Atsuko Ishizuka, the director of A Place Further Than the Universe, one of the most revered series of 2018, anime or otherwise. Aside from being my personal favorite TV show of the year, the New York Times gave the coming-of-age adventure a prominent spot on its “Best TV Shows of 2018” overview. The series was nominated for several Anime Awards and rightfully so - it’s poignant and compelling from its very first episode, and doesn’t lose an ounce of charm throughout its run.


Of all the interviews I’ve given with creatives in the anime industry, my time with Ishizuka-san was remarkable for the incredible passion she radiated, not to mention her thoughtful considerations on the collaborative process of creating an anime. I’m grateful that Crunchyroll was able to help produce this title and that Ishizuka-san was able to answer my questions here, and I hope that you enjoy this interview as much as I did!




Q: A Place Further Than the Universe is a very important title for us here at Crunchyroll. Looking back a few months out, how do you feel about it?


It’s my first original anime title, so I was very uncertain. I was anxious at first but I’ve received so much support.


On the topic of original titles, how did the series come about in the first place?


This started from the team that made No Game No Life, and when we were done with the screenplay, we were talking about continuing on with the same team. We were tossing around ideas and thought “How about something with esper girls?”


So how did we get from there to Antarctica?


It’s a long story, do you want to hear it?


Please!


First of all, it would be difficult coming up with an intriguing drama involving an esper girl. So we thought about a time leaper like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, but we also faced a wall there because it would be difficult to come up with a motivation. I had a personal interest in Antarctica so I tossed that out. The writer (Jukki) Hanada liked the idea and, after two or three more meetings, that’s what we settled on.


 

Where does your personal interest in Antarctica come from?


The general image of Antarctica is a vast land full of mystery and unordinary, even a little occult. People speculate that there may be hidden UFOs there, but if you actually do some research, you find it’s mostly international expeditions that travel there. So in fact, it’s actually a mixture of a place that’s in the middle of nowhere, but also in the center.


Also, penguins are cute.


Have you been to Antarctica yet?


I wish I could, but I haven’t been there yet. It’s at the end of the Earth, so it is something the general population doesn’t have an easy time accessing — so I thought it would be something the main characters could explore.


Do you plan on ever going there?


If Kadokawa would be willing to fund the trip (laughs). Or Crunchyroll would be a suitable sponsor (laughs again).


I can’t speak for the company, but I would love nothing more than to support that.


Let’s go!



Something I thought was interesting about the show was that all four characters had different reasons for going to Antarctica — but do you think there is a common theme between them?


Starting off with having no common motivation among the four was a very hard handicap for the story, but if they could come to a common goal I thought that would be a good… of the story.


I cried almost every episode. Was this something you were intentionally pursuing?


Very intentional. Every episode is meant to be seen like the final episode.


That’s a very interesting concept.


Yes, every episode is intended to end with either tears or laughter.


Then it was a great success! What was the motivation for wanting every episode to end with finality rather than having subplots thread through multiple episodes?


This is something Hanada and myself wanted to do. Nothing that was tossed out during a production meeting, but it was a common goal that we had and something we pursued as a team.



Do you plan to make more productions together as a team?


I certainly want to continue working with the team and hope everyone’s thinking the same.


Did either of you go onto boats to get into the right mindset for the ship? The way the characters reacted felt very true to life.


We’ve gotten inside a ship and as far as cruising Tokyo Bay, but we haven’t gone to Australia, so the rest had to be done with interviews with Japanese expedition team members.


Speaking with them, did anything stand out during your conversations? What was an element of their story you wanted to share?


The general impression I had going in was that an expedition is a great adventure to risk your life undertaking, but in talking to the expedition members, I found that it was something they very much enjoyed. They had become a close knit family working together, eating together, sleeping together, and that’s something I wanted to convey through my story.


In real life, the male members of the expedition were very eager to undress and go out into the cold — but unfortunately, it was from the perspective of young anime girls, so that was something we decided not to feature. Apologies to anyone that would have liked to see them in such a state.


Did you watch any specific films or documentaries for inspiration about Antarctica that stood out to you?


When it comes to Japanese film, I watched Antarctica, but that’s different because it’s the story of the relationship between sleigh dogs and humans. When I talked to expedition members, their experience was far different than the desperation of that movie so I decided to work away from that direction.



Hinata was something of a fan favorite, and my favorite character too. What went into developing her personality, and why do you think she resonated with fans?


She’s my favorite character too! Normally in anime, when you take a high school girl character, the cuteness is something you have to push to the front — but I wanted someone who was more true to real life. So someone dropping out of high school and wanting to join the expedition…


Why is she your favorite character?


As a character that’s more representative of a real life as a high school girl, she has a darker background — that’s something that the audience can sympathize with. It’s something that’s not normally done, but with that kind of painful background, reaching a resolution is made more rewarding.


Hinata is always wearing shirts with food on them. Whose idea was that?


It started with a discussion between character designer (Takahiro) Yoshimatsu-san and myself. We wanted her to be wearing something dorky all the time so we started tossing out ideas. One of us came up with the idea for onigiri and it progressed from there.


Hinata tends to be mature for her age, so we wanted an element that would betray that kind of maturity. As a result, we had her wear something that a high school girl normally wouldn’t be wearing.



What one element of the show, whether a storyline or character trait, do you feel is the most Ishizuka-esque?


In order to bring excitement to the audience, we can’t just have a story with cute girls, there has to be something shown within them that they strive for, and that’s something I always insist on keeping.


Were you able to follow fan response from overseas while the show was airing?


I almost never have the time to follow fan reactions because I’m too busy myself, but for this show, Yoshimatsu was so fond of the anime that he spent the time to look at the fan reaction, and I found out from him that we were getting a lot of positive response from fans overseas — although I believe Yoshimatsu is still the greatest fan.


It’s very encouraging to have a staff member like that, so it’s been a huge support.


Has there been any fan reaction that frustrates you or you disagree with?


I didn’t find anything in particular. I think it’s always up to the audience to decide what the show means to them, so I feel like it’s also up to them to make up their own mind.


What would you like the audience to take away from A Place Further Than the Universe?


I think that the friends that you make when you’re on a team, especially if you’re working toward a single accomplishment, become like family. So I hope there are audience members who have found those kinds of friends and, if you are already grown up, you value those friends that you’ve made.



The anime also seems to be about the romance of youth. For me personally, it’s becoming harder to recapture the feelings I had from that age. How did you manage to bring forth those ephemeral feelings of younger years?


Even the grown ups are still struggling to achieve the goals and overcome their weaknesses. If a character is struggling with those issues I think it’s something worth exploring — grownups can still experience that aspect of youth.


When Shirase first steps onto Antarctica, rather than reflecting upon her mother or the struggles she’s undergone to reach where she is now, she instead shouts in defiance to those who had doubted her, which I found very cathartic. Can you tell me how you came to the decision to portray the scene in that manner?


First, in the anime, all those heading toward Antarctica are considered “losers”…and now it’s all these people who have managed to make it to Antarctica and overcome their struggles.


The second reason: the idea that her mother has died hasn’t sunk in yet, so it would not be realistic for the character to have the death of her mother on her mind when her sense of accomplishment is so high — she must still confront the death of her mother further down the line.



What would you like to say to people who haven’t had the opportunity to spend this time with you?


As a a creator of a show there is nothing more motivating than hearing love about your work. We’re very happy to receive fan letters at Madhouse.


Editor’s Note: You can send fan letter to Madhouse at the following address:

MADHOUSE Inc.
Shin Nakano AM1 Bld. 3F
3-23-3 Honcho, Nakano-ku
Tokyo 164-0012, Japan


I hear you birthday is coming up!


Yes!


Are you excited to spend part of it in America?


Very excited! I think this is going to be a very special birthday party.


Do you have any final messages for your fans?


We really thank you for your support. It’s very encouraging and I’m very glad there are so many fans!



Thank you for reading - please make sure to send your fan letters to Madhouse and, as always, enjoy A Place Further Than the Universe on Crunchyroll!




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