INTERVIEW: Chihayafuru Producer on Overcoming Odds and Uncertainty

We spoke with producer Toshio Nakatani about the growth of the Chihayafuru characters and staff through three seasons!

Chihayafuru is an anime that’s difficult to define within typical genres. The series weaves together the intense competition and battles of shonen or sports manga with the subtle emotionality of a shojo story. Despite centering around karuta, a competitive card game that seems pretty impenetrable to Western audiences with its references to Japanese literature, the series has found a very dedicated fan community outside of Japan. We were lucky enough to have the chance to talk to Toshio Nakatani, a producer who has worked on the anime adaptation of Chihayafuru, including the third season! 

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. Are you enjoying San Jose so far?

Nakatani: Yeah. It’s my first time but it’s very comfortable. 

How do you like the weather? How does it compare to Japan this time of year? 

Nakatani: It’s less humid. It’s much more comfortable.

Could you tell us a little bit about your career and how you ended up becoming a producer in anime?

Nakatani: When I graduated college, I had no real inclination that I would become an anime producer at that point. I knew I wanted to do filmmaking and storytelling. I wanted to work up to the content put out at National Geographic, but then I was assigned to animation.

Did you have any sort of affection for anime before starting as producer?

Nakatani: I certainly consumed anime, but definitely not to the extent of imagining that I would be contributing in the capacity that I do. So, it was a surprise.

Producing is often a very work-heavy role in the sense that they have to manage so many different aspects–like scheduling, recording, making sure that scripts are coming along and keeping up with the animation process. What draws you to this role as opposed to any other role in the anime industry?

Nakatani: I personally think that anime is one of the most attractive genres, as far as TV producing goes. I say this because, as a producer, I get to touch on all aspects of production including directing and the animation is handled, and that isn’t necessarily possible for other TV productions. For example, with other genres of TV like variety shows or documentaries, the roles are very much defined and it’s more about managing the parts that you’re expected to within your role, but as a producer you may not have control of the entire scope of the project. With animation, from the beginning of the project to the end, the producer is able to drive the process. He’s obviously not the one who’s going to be drawing the animation or actually working on the music or the voice acting. But I do have a part in driving the entire process, realistically. In that way, anime is a bit special.

Would you say that producers in anime have a bit more of a creative influence than in other sorts of TV shows?

Nakatani: It’s not necessarily the case that in other genres you can’t express creativity. It’s more the case that the roles are inherently defined from the beginning. From the budgeting, to the organization, to who the staff might be. It’s very defined. Anime requires that producers manage most aspects of production themselves. I find that kind of freedom refreshing and attractive.

Chihayafuru is a show that is beloved amongst fans, and you’ve been a producer for the series ever since its debut. Could you tell us a bit more about how the Chihayafuru manga was originally selected for adaptation?

Nakatani: The manga itself has been very popular so there was a lot of interest in making it into an anime. But, because it doesn’t belong to a typical genre, Chihayafuru was not easy to execute as an anime–all of the moments of intensity kind of unfold on a tatami mat. It’s more of a mental game, the stories being told. Which is not the best–or the easiest–to express through drawing and animation.  As in media like Western movies, Cool Runnings, Major League–ragtag teams coming together and kind of overcoming the odds–Chihayafuru takes the action and excitement of a shonen manga as well as the emotional depth of shojo and combines them. So I find it rewarding overcoming the challenge of having to tackle that.

Are there any examples–either within or outside of anime–of movies or shows that combine such disparate elements that you could work off of as a model? Or was this sort of like treading new ground for you?

Nakatani: An example of something like Chihayafuru might be a shonen judo manga called Yawara! by Naoki Urasawa. I feel that the action and the character moments combined in a similar fashion. But, in particular, the director for the Yawara! anime, Morio Asaka, worked on other series like NANA, which belongs to the shojo genre. So he has worked on both kinds of mediums, so I felt that Asaka-san would be a very good fit for this. I approached him and that was that. 

How closely have you and your team worked with the original manga creator Yuki Suetsugu on adaptations over the years?

Nakatani: We had a relationship with the author from the very beginning. Obviously, we had tons of questions, so we got the producers, the director, and the animation director for a bunch of meetings, and this continues to this day.

(c)Yuki Suetsugu/Kodansha

Could you tell us about how much the creative staff researched karuta for the series?

Nakatani: Karuta is very culturally significant in Japan, obviously, but it’s actually not a very prevalent game. It isn’t commonly played by everyone. So we did, indeed, research and we did contact a Japanese karuta association. We also attended competitions, including high school competitions, to get a feel for the game.

We’re finally getting to a continuation of the anime in a third season. Can you tell us how it feels to come back to this very special show?

Nakatani: Technically, it’s been six years since season 2, and we’ve changed quite a bit. The actors have grown in their careers, as well as the staff. Also, feelings toward the IP itself are a bit more removed. So, all of these aspects are a bit of a challenge. Presently, the voice actors and the staff have become popular so it was a bit difficult to bring them all back together for this season. Also challenging was the discussion of where to start the story and where to end the story. This was kind of an elaborate process that was tough to approach. In particular, the lead voice actor’s growth in her career–she’s become far more skilled in her acting. So, in order to recreate the more pure, innocent type of acting from the earlier seasons was a challenge since that had changed.

Have there been many changes in anime production, in terms of new technology, that have affected the newer season coming out?

Nakatani: No particular advancements in terms of technology, but animation is something the staff really needed to work on together, as a team. It’s not really possible to work on solo. So, it’s most important to create and maintain the best environment for collaboration. And so, that’s something that we always pay attention to. To make sure it’s the best environment for the team to work together.

What are some of the measures that you take to make sure that the environment is the best for that sort of collaboration?

Nakatani: The biggest thing might be maintaining motivation. The fan payback is obviously a big help in this. However, the media and the production environment itself is becoming more business oriented. It is becoming more sophisticated, and there are more elements I have to juggle. So, I find myself putting more effort into facilitating these aspects and insulating the team from having to deal with that. So, that’s my answer rather than more distinctly putting measures in place.

As someone who has to deal with a lot of the business side, it’s very good to have someone protecting the creative team from that. So, thank you for your hard work in that regard.

Nakatani: Relative to eight years ago, on the production side, the environment and the reality has changed quite a bit in terms of how busy and how many projects we work on at one time. So it’s just a lot more hectic. This is where I’m coming from when I say I’ve put a lot of effort into trying to keep calm and manage everything accordingly. Eight years ago there was no Netflix or Amazon so it’s a different landscape. 

How does it feel to be working with Morio Asaka as a director and Yuko Kakihara for the script once again?

Nakatani: When they adapt the original work, they don’t just try to retell the story frame for frame. It’s far more important to remain true to the emotional storytelling–to the sentiment of the story arc itself. It’s very important for the director and the writer to really communicate and play ball, and make sure that they are really balancing these elements correctly to tell the story that they want. I feel that it really wouldn’t have been possible without Morio Asaka and Yuko Kakihara together. I think it’s a great thing that they’re coming back for a third season. As proof of that, I feel the anime itself is true to the emotional storytelling of the original and so we’re very proud of that.

So, one of the stand-out aspects of Chihayafuru that a lot of Western fans really enjoy is how poetic and beautiful the music is. It can be romantic and also elevate the karuta performances. Kousuke Yamashita is returning for season 3. Could you tell us a little bit about how the music will be handled for the third season?

Nakatani: I’m very happy to receive this question because we pay a lot of respect and attention to this facet of the series. The music is an element that doesn’t exist in the manga. It’s really important for the subtle ups and downs of the drama. We place a lot of emphasis on the range of different musical instruments used, like the piano, drums, the strings, and the way they come together to culminate in this product that actually conveys the emotional beats and the atmosphere of the story.

I think that really does shine through–a lot of the fans comment on how perfectly the interplay of the visuals and the music works.

Nakatani: One of the things we pay most attention to is establishing quietness. Even if there is no actual sound in a scene itself, how do you express that through the production of the music?

What is the most important aspect of Chihayafuru as a whole that you want fans to get out of the anime adaptation?

Nakatani: In the story, the main characters try hard but sometimes they encounter difficulties. It’s a high schooler’s story and at that stage, in adolescence, they don’t necessarily understand themselves, they are still developing. In the story, characters are spending time with friends and there’s growth through experience. You’re not sure exactly where it’s going to end up because it’s a time of uncertainty in a person’s life. We want the fans relate to and feel the experience of the main character on a personal level and take away what Chihaya and Taichi take away through the story. In Season 3, in particular, the uncertainty within the main character is about to give way to some direction and I’m looking forward to fans connecting to the character in that moment, as well.

I have another question that’s a little bit broad. How does anime tell stories differently than any other media like film, novels, or manga?

Nakatani: A movie is limited to maybe two hours. Anime, and in Chihayafuru, in particular, is made of building blocks of emotions, relationships, events, all built slowly on top of each other and woven together. And that’s kind of difficult to accomplish in the short span of a movie. The live-action Chihayafuru film was great, in my opinion, but it also made me wonder what I could do uniquely as an anime. Like the perspective, for example, from underneath the tatami. That’s something you can accomplish easier with anime. Or trying to explore the inner workings of the characters might lend itself more to anime, as well.

Are there any last words you’d like to send to the Chihayafuru fans in the West?

Nakatani: Even in Japan, karuta may be well known culturally, but it isn’t, like I said, actually very prevalent. So, I’m very touched that the West has taken a liking to this, regardless. But the actual storytelling isn’t necessarily limited to the karuta itself–it’s more about the struggle and the experiences and growth of the characters. So, I hope for fans to be able to continue to relate to these characters and their sometimes subtle but really quite meaningful coming-of-age moments. I hope that the fans can glean some motivation, happiness, or positivity from the anime and that’s the message I’d like to impart.




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