Crunchyroll speaks to the director, series composition writer, and character designer of the series!
The team behind JORAN: THE PRINCESS OF SNOW AND BLOOD is no stranger to making magic for anime fans. Director Susumu Kudo has worked on famous titles ranging from Ghost in the Shell ARISE border: 4 Ghost Stands Alone and Mardock Scramble. Writer Rika Nezu has done some work in the realm of anime, but actually comes equipped with television and film experience. Then, on the other hand, this was Funo Komiyama’s very first credit as a character designer, and it goes without saying that she crushed it.
JORAN finally concluded its run in the summer season, and to celebrate the end of the show’s run, Crunchyroll had an opportunity to speak with the staff behind the series. Read on to see how the series came together with insight from the head staff!
JORAN has many parallels to Lady Snowblood, a manga from the ’70s. Did that series inspire any elements in JORAN? If so, how?
Yutaka Omatsu, Lead Producer: One of the first things that was in my head when conceptualizing this project was Meiko Kaji-san. She's a legendary actress in Japan, and though she wasn't big in my generation, I still find her to be amazing. The idea for the anime came from seeing if we could take the beauty, strength, and charm that Kaji-san represented, and bring it into the present with animation.
Now, of course, Lady Snowblood is an iconic work of hers, and rewatching those movies, I was struck by the unique charm she has in it, that characters in modern film generally don't have, which became the inspiration for JORAN's protagonist. I believe that there is a link between individuals and the times that they live in that is inseparable. And when thinking about what kind of setting would be the best stage for someone like Meiko Kaji to perform on, I came to the conclusion that, like in Lady Snowblood, a period of unrest or possibly the collapse of a nation would be the best background, which played a big role in establishing the setting.
Looking back, one of the biggest themes of JORAN ended up being how to take the image and atmosphere around Kaji-san in those roles and best represent it in animated form, which really says a lot about just how amazing she is, that she was able to inspire an entire anime like this.
Now we have some questions for Director Susumu Kudo. What is the most challenging part about directing an original anime?
Kudo: When you're not adapting source material, there's the upside of getting to determine everything about the story, setting, and visuals yourself, and the downside of not having a built-in hook with the audience, and I think that managing that balance can be pretty difficult.
I feel that JORAN’s dramatic structure is very similar to a theatrical play. Was this your goal? Do you enjoy live performances?
Kudo: We were very intentionally creating a structure where every four episodes would cover a single "chapter," with three chapters in total, and an exciting climax at the end of each, with a story that really moves along quickly. I attended theater performances as a student for class, but after graduating, it's been all movies for me.
What do you feel is most unique about JORAN as a series?
Kudo: The story being based on a fictionalized version of actual Japanese history, and it providing a unique background where a dramatic story unfolds is its biggest charm.
Now we have some questions for series composition writer Rika Nezu. How long have you and Kudo-san been working on JORAN’s universe? Tell us about the process!
Nezu: From the process of writing the script until broadcast, it was a period of three years. I was in charge of the overall series composition, in addition to some of the individual scripts. I started after hearing from the producer, Omatsu, in fall 2018, and then continued to attend meetings while working until the draft of the final episode was ready near the end of 2019, so the writing process itself took about a year overall.
Upon accepting this project, I had three goals:
One, I wanted the protagonist to be an incredibly powerful fighter, burdened with the "flaw" of compassion.
Two, I wanted to approach the story like a game of Othello, where certain pieces would flip as it goes on.
And three, I wanted the emotional core to be a depiction of the kind of drama that comes from the cycle of destruction and creation.
For the first three months, I met with the director Kudo-san, the other writer Omatsu-san, Okada-san, and Inage-san who worked intermittently as a producer, and we all discussed the type of setting, the direction of the plot, and the characters who would work well with the core concept of, "The story of a beautiful, strong woman's quest for revenge." That was the basis for a project outline that we used internally, drafted by Okada-san, after which I made a more detailed outline for the characters and story. The part where it features a trio of secret assassins, their handler being a man, the protagonist having an animal partner, a little girl who lives with her, those sort of things were decided upon fairly early on.
We all came to an understanding that there would be three arcs to the story, and three climaxes to go with them. The idea was to use our limited amount of run time to put a fast-paced story on display, where you can't blink or risk missing something, and I remember being particularly conscientious about what elements to write about. There are ways to deliver details, like monologues and narration and on-screen text, but we intentionally avoided using a lot of them in order to leave certain things to the imagination, which is a lot of fun for certain viewers.
Another request from Omatsu-san was to "really depict the drama in detail."
Nezu: There are a lot of stories that are themed around revenge, and it's my belief that even when you achieve revenge, all that happens is that the score goes from being a negative to a null. So, regardless of whether or not you get revenge, it won't provide the kind of pluses that lead to a happy ending. So I put a lot of care into considering how to add a positive element to the story. What we came up with was Asahi, the girl who would be living with her, to represent hope for the future. There were also people who wanted there to be tension with her presence, instead of her simply being a ray of sunshine, so we made it so that her relationship with Sawa wasn't a simple one. That resulted in Asahi becoming a new point of conflict for Sawa, so much so that she would go on to shake things up for the remainder of the cast: Makoto Tsukishiro, Elena Hanakaze, Jin Kuzuhara, and Rinko Takemichi.
I think that the most interesting problems that prevent people from achieving their goals aren't physical ones, but struggles inside of them, irrational desires, and emotions that they have trouble managing. By getting a glimpse of these feelings, despite the story being set in a different time, with a different culture, and other special elements, I think viewers are able to feel what the characters are going through. I like to think that the entire cast has that human touch to them that is interesting.
As for the relationship between the overall series outline and the plot of individual episodes, during the screenwriting process, the outline really just served as a rough guide instead of a definitive structure. We wanted to respect the way that the characters would evolve, along with making sure we used our allotted run time in the best way possible, and to do that we made sure to be flexible in what would be included, along with sharing opinions among ourselves.
Nezu: With original concepts, there can be a tendency to drift off from the core ideas, and I think the reason that never happened with this project is thanks to a few things: Director Kudo was gracious enough to listen to everyone's ideas, Omatsu-san's clarity of vision, the skill Okada-san showed when digging into the characters, and the good impartial feedback that Inage-san would provide. Also, the look and feel of the world really brought Yamaguchi-san's design ideas to life. It really was a collaborative effort, centered around our director.
This was actually my first time working on a project with Kudo-san, and I really enjoyed how he was flexible enough to have an open mind about all kinds of suggestions. Plus, his positive attitude made meetings something to look forward to. The way that everything was depicted in animation, based on what was written in the script, exceeded my expectations, and I was looking forward to seeing every finished episode.
Sawa Yukimura is a complex protagonist with a dark history. Are there more to her ambitions besides revenge?
Nezu: Out of all our cast, Sawa is the only one who is familiar with familial love. Since she spent her childhood in a warm and loving environment, it's easy to picture her living a gentle life, without even a hint of violence. But because she is the only survivor when her family is unjustly taken from her, she adopts "revenge" as a goal and tries to survive in pursuit of it. She goes from this girl who loves nature and animals to becoming an assassin for Nue, and even though it's for revenge, it's incredibly painful for her. Sawa struggles with doubts revolving around what she is doing, so she tries to put a lid on all of her emotions, whether good or bad. She doubts she deserves it, but if she were allowed to, she would want to spend her life living quietly alongside Asahi. Watching the colors of the season change, having casual conversation around the dinner table, and speculating about a bright future. She would love a peaceful life like that. You could say that is her other ambition.
What inspired you to pursue working in anime?
Nezu: I had a chance meeting with the producer, Omatsu-san, ten years ago, and that became my gateway into working on anime. I've generally worked on live-action projects in the past, but I love anime and manga, too. My parents operated a cafeteria when I was younger, and we had lots of manga magazines available for the customers to read, like Shonen Jump, Shonen Magazine, and Champion. My parents would read them to me instead of children's books.
Since they both worked, and there was no one in the neighborhood who was my age, I spent a lot of time watching anime on TV with my siblings. Transforming witches, combining robots, sports, school romances, battle action series ... I'm going to keep things vague in order to obscure my age. I think we watched a little bit of everything. As I got older, I picked up an interest in live-action television and movies, but the enjoyment I had as a child from manga and anime never went away, and I carry it with me to this day. So I've always wanted to write an anime that people would remember, the same way those shows from my youth were so influential for me.
That was when Omatsu-san, who was looking for a live-action writer, contacted me. At first, there weren't a lot of details about what kind of project it would be, but I ultimately ended up contributing the series composition. This was my first time handling composition for an original series, and while I was happy about it, I was really nervous, too. But Omatsu-san said, "This is the kind of thing that only you can write right now, and I'm looking forward to it," which helped me really pour everything I had into writing the series.
Now we have some questions for character designer Funo Komiyama. Whose characters and art style do you particularly admire?
Komiyama: I'm a big fan of the art styles of Satoshi Kon-san, Tetsuro Ueyama-san, and Kazuo Kamimura-san.
How did you design characters to fit the alternate history aspect of the series?
Komiyama: I took into consideration the psychology of the characters, and the way they would have to live when surviving in an era where an oppressive authority is in total control. There was also a desire to include designs that reflected Japanese manga from the '70s and '80s, so that helped me establish a lot of the atmosphere.
What did you do to approach your first role as a Character Designer credit?
Komiyama: This was my first time as both character designer and chief animation director, so the first thing I did was gather material my predecessors had worked on to use for reference. I also looked to the work of other artists who debuted around the same time as me, who had already worked as character designers earlier than me. I always took a look at the works of other chief animation directors and animators inside the studio who were working on other projects and asked them for advice.
Finally, is there a message that you’d like to share with worldwide fans of JORAN THE PRINCESS OF SNOW AND BLOOD?
Kudo: For Episode 11 and the climax, despite having worked on the show as its director, I can't help myself from tearing up at what happens. But that's only because it's the climax of the drama that has been building since the first episode. I hope viewers will experience the saga of these characters not just the one time, but with repeat viewings.
Nezu: Thank you so much for your interest in my work. This is really a story that demands your attention when watching it. And once you've seen every episode through to the finale, if you go back and rewatch from the beginning, you'll get a very different impression of the characters and the things they say. I think that's one of the best things about this project. While there will be painful moments that might make you want to look away, I hope you watch to the end to see how things turn out for our cast.
Komiyama: This is a story where the characters do their best to survive while going through some very interesting experiences, in an era of social upheaval and chaos. I hope you see their story through to the very end.
Alex Poehlman is a Features Writer for Crunchyroll. Follow him on Twitter!
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