originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/640311...
AHOY THERE friends! We are on Animation Night no. 6^2! Tonight we’re gonna check out another of those former Madhouse directors with a ton of style - Sayo Yamamoto, best known for her gay figure-skating series Yuri!! on Ice - yet as we’ll see, she has a ton of range…
(yeah, Madhouse again! between Takeshi Koike, Masaaki Yuasa, Mamoru Hosoda and of course Satoshi Kon, not to mention the various OVAs we’ve seen along the way, this might as well be (ex-)Madhouse Night at this point lmao)
We’ve briefly seen Yamamoto’s work before, back at the start of Animation Night in the Japan Animator Expo, where she directed the incredible animated figure-skating sequence “ENDLESS NIGHT” (which, don’t worry, I’ll make sure to run tonight!). But as a quick icebreaker (😏), let’s take a look at her career…
Yamamoto got pretty much the dream start to working in anime: fresh out of university, her samurai-themed student film caught the attention of Satoshi Kon, who liked her work so much that he invited her to work on Millenium Actress - though sadly, it didn’t go so well on the production. In her own words (from this interview):
Yamamoto: In my earlier years I created an animation that had to do with samurai, so yes. I used Toshiro Mifune’s pieces, his films, as an inspiration, and I animated it all by myself.
Sato: The same Mifune from all those Kurosawa Akira films?
Sato: So you made that film when you were a student?
Yamamoto: Yes, all by myself, when I was university student.
Sato: Were you going to a special animation school?
Yamamoto: No, just a design school and it had nothing to do with anime, but I didn’t like the other stuff they were teaching so I did my own thing.
Sato: And they let you graduate?
Yamamoto: Actually, yeah. Doing animation at a non-animation school!
Sato: By the way, did you ever show that film to Watanabe?
Yamamoto: No way! At that point I was looking for a job after I graduated. I knew I wanted to be a director. I was fortunate enough to be able to show that work to Mr. Satoshi Kon. I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time.
Sato: What were his thoughts?
Yamamoto: He clapped his hands laughing! But he had such a kind heart. Because of that he helped me gain some assistant type jobs, and it was my first entry into non-production management type work. The name of the project was Millennium Actress. However, a lot of stuff went on politically, and I ended up stepping down partway through, but that was my first step into the industry.
Despite these internal politics, Yamamoto remained working at Madhouse - working closely with Takeshi Koike (Animation Night 19) on Trava: Fist Planet, World Record and later Redline. At Madhouse, she worked on a few other projects and began directing episodes from a really young age, notably including work on Texhnolyze (kind of a sister show to Lain).
Not very long after, she learned of an opening for episode directors ‘with an interest in samurai’ from someone working on the Bebop movie. This turned out to be, well, Shinichiro Watanabe’s series Samurai Champloo at the sadly rather short-lived Studio Manglobe. Apparently she hit it off really well with Watanabe, very much appreciating the creative freedom she was given.
(Looking at her credits on Champloo, we have: the early one with the ukiyo-e painter, the one where Jin gets fixated on a sex worker and tries to rescue her, the one where Mugen participates in a graffiti competition… and the absolutely bananas, seemingly total non-sequitur late episode where the gang eat mushrooms and spend the rest of the episode working for zombies in a mine, before getting destroyed by an asteroid, which may be ‘canonically’ a hallucination but is definitely one of the strangest episodes of the show. As much as I roll my eyes at Jin’s ‘gallant’ rescue narrative, in terms of direction these are all extremely memorable episodes which do very creative stylistic things… a theme as we’ll see!)
(not 100% sure that’s from her episode… but fairly sure!)
Yamamoto would continue to work with Watanabe on future projects, like Space Dandy, but in the meantime, she finally got the chance to direct a fully original series of her own. After a visit to Brazil, she decided to set her series in a semi-fictionalised version of it, leading to Michiko & Hatchin (2008), a drama about a young girl Hatchin from an extremely abusive foster family. Her rescue unexpectedly comes in the form of Michiko, an endlessly cool, sexy escaped convict who declares she’s Hatchin’s mother and runs away with her on a moped. The two set off to find Hatchin’s real father, and from there we have the classic arc of two people from very different backgrounds building a meaningful relationship while being pursued by gangs, cops etc….
Beyond being a pretty unusual premise, the series is notable for sadly being one of the only anime I can think of to depict dark skin tones for the majority of its cast. I really wish that weren’t so unusual, although hopefully times will change with studios like D’art Shtajio getting more work…
I have at this point only seen one episode of Michiko, and I will say, the first episode does not pull its punches with a really extended sequence of sibling abuse that can be a bit hard to watch! From there, though, it sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun: there’s a ton of energy and character to the way Michiko herself is animated that shines in every cut from this show.
I’m not sure how far Michiko goes into it beyond well, the character design lol, but a certain degree of explicit sexuality is something Yamamoto would return to again later with Fujiko Mine. But first, well, it’s time for Yuri!!!
Following Michiko & Hatchin, Yamamoto spent the next few years mainly directing OPs and EDs for other shows - among them, a Psycho-Pass OP, an Attack on Titan ED, and the Space Dandy ED.
OP/ED direction is basically music video direction, albeit with an extra goal of introducing the themes and characters of the show - and it means the director gets to indulge in more abstract imagery and create meaning through cuts, as well as having a very high animation budget to call on for unusual, complex shots. A good place for a creative director like Yamamoto to experiment!
Her next big project would head over to the Lupin III franchise. Lupin’s not got a huge profile in the west (outside of Hayao Miyazaki’s pre-Ghibli Castle of Cagliostro), but it’s an incredibly long-running movie/TV franchise about a scoundrel/gentleman thief lightly based on the literary character Arsène Lupin. The precise characterisation of Lupin himself has varied - in Miyazaki’s hands, he’s doing the thief with a heart of gold thing, while most other movies paint him as a total asshole! - but that is kind of what makes it interesting: each director who deals with the character has quite a lot of freedom to define their own version of Lupin.
Yamamoto especially wanted to do something different, centring the series on Fujiko Mine, who’s typically a secondary character in Lupin works. She remarks:
Q. What is your personal opinion of Fujiko Mine?
Do you mean, as a character? It’s a good question, and one I get asked all of the time as director. When I was growing up watching Fujiko in the original series of Lupin, I always watched her with anticipation of when she was going to take off her clothes.
Her series positions itself as a prequel to the first Lupin TV series, and draws on the character designs of the original Lupin III mangaka, Kazuhiko Katō better known by his pen name Monkey Punch. In the same interview, Yamamoto and screenwriter Dai Sato have a great deal of praise for other staff on the anime, like composer Naruyoshi Kikuchi:
Yamamoto: One of the main reasons is that I wanted to find someone who was not so serious, maybe kind of a delinquent, a rebel, and not someone who was very familiar with anime. He lives in a famous area of Tokyo called Kabuki-cho. The people who live there are kind of known as yakuza, strippers, host club workers, and that type of crowd. When I met him, my first impression was “you fit right into that district!”
Sato: So did that kind of rebel actually work hard for you?
Yamamoto: He was a rebel in everything but his work. In doing his job he was amazing.
Sato: As a matter of fact, during a pre-meeting, when I heard rumor that Kikuchi was going to do the music, I shouted “YEAH!” causing the rest of the staff to jump. I almost added to my contract that I was to be the first person to get the soundtrack. I made a special request to production staff, so that actually did happen. So actually I listened to the music as I wrote the scripts. Many people know that Mr. Ono Yuji’s music is the traditional music for a Lupin series.
…and prolific screenwriter Mari Okada:
Sato: When you worked with her, did you feel your dreams or wishes had come true having to work with her?
Yamamoto: Yes, she’s a very interesting person. It’s not always the case that an interesting scriptwriter can write interesting scripts. But I was really pleased with how amazing the script ended up being, which far exceeded how interesting Ms. Okada is, the script was even more so. She has an amazing reputation for memorable punch lines and memorable quotes that characters say. We felt that we needed to be able to execute good punchy lines, which is critical to a Lupin piece. And I think that we’ve been able to add so many of those punch lines inside the show is really just thanks to Miss Okada.
And of course, it has the work of Takeshi Koike, fresh off his six-year passion project Redline. Yamamoto describes springing the request on him right after the first screening of Redline:
Yamamoto: Mr. Koike is a very talented guy. I met him at Madhouse on the Trava project; which was my first real opportunity to do storyboarding. When I first decided to approach Mr. Koike about the Lupin project, it was right when we were premiering Redline for the first time. So, Mr. Koike spent 6 years working on the Redline project, and that’s a long time to be working on one project; so I figured it was now or maybe never to ask him. Maybe it’s a breach of etiquette to ask such a thing at a debut screening, but I did approach him and he did agree. He always said he admired Castle of Cagliostro. I thought maybe if I approached him to do a Lupin film he might accept, and he did. There was a little luck involved because just about that time Koike was ready to quit Madhouse and make some changes in his career, and things just fell into place.
The result was an immensely visually stylish series, with an unusual approach to rough linework and cross-hatched shading aiming to evoke the style of the manga, and the distinctive desaturated-but-varied colour palette typical of Koike’s work. It received a little controversy for, along with its dark tone, a lot of explicit sexuality, to a pretty unusual degree for the franchise. But it seems to have been a success, praised for its innovation and spawning three movies directed by Koike!
Next for Yamamoto, meanwhile, came Hideaki Anno’s Japan Animator Expo project in 2014, and this is where she started animating figure skating!
Her short portrays a routine choreographed by real figure skating choreographer Kenji Miyamoto, and remarkably elegant animation that does a great job of capturing and slightly stylising the motion of skaters. Figure-skating is interesting to animate, because it is so much about physics: a skater has to have immense control over where they place their weight and their moment of inertia, and know how to redirect their momentum into elegant arcs, which means it’s also a very satisfying kind of motion to animate! Yamamoto’s direction accentuates the movement with a lot of camerawork which I can only imagine was a big challenge to shoot, but the result is pretty great.
I don’t know whether this short was explicitly conceived of as a prototype for Yuri!!!, or if Yuri!!! came about because of its success, but in any case, a couple years later Yamamoto would be directing a full one-cour anime about figure skaters at MAPPA, a studio that’s had a fascinating but somewhat troubled history of overcommitment… in part, awkwardly, on the back of the immense success of Yuri!! on Ice.
The story concerns two young skaters coincidentally both named Yuri, one Japanese and one Russian. Yuri Katsuki suffers a crisis of confidence and retires from skating, but an impromptu performance accidentally makes its way to his idol, Victor Nikiforov. Nikiforov is so struck by it travels to Japan and offers to tutor Yuri… forgetting that he has already made a similar promise to the other Yuri, the Russian Yuri Plisetsky. The two end up as rivals, both for Nikiforov’s training and in competition at the coming Grand Prix series… and meanwhile, a romance starts developing between Katsuki and Nikiforov.
The series was a massive hit, praised as a gay anime that sidesteps some of the standard yaoi conventions but also a little controversial on that front because of the amount of censorship it faced. Despite being forced to e.g. obscure a crucial kiss scene, the message reached its fandom pretty clearly, attracting a vast body of fanwork - not to mention affection from real figure skaters, some of whom even produced routines based on scenes from the show. A lot of that has to do with the show’s subtleties of character animation (as discussed by animation director Tadashi Hiramatsu here) - as befits a skating anime, a great deal of attention is paid to what is communicated by posture and gaze. The figure skating sequences also received a great deal of praise at first, although apparently towards the end, Yamamoto’s ambition outstripped the budget so people groused about the later ones… but we’ll see!
With such a hit on their hands, a movie would naturally follow, a prequel titled Yuri on Ice!!! - Ice Adolescence… but it’s still yet to be released, and plot details are scarce! Presumably Yamamoto’s been working hard on that, but in the meantime, she produced a very impressive intro sequence for the game Persona 5, which also makes use of figure-skating movements…
Since then, well, it’s been pretty much radio silence, though we can expect the Yuri!!! film sometime this year… probably.
This night’s a bit tricky to schedule, because, well, Yamamoto’s work is mostly in TV so I have to show you samplings of episodes rather than full films with a narrative arc. I understand if that’s a bit too much of a tease but hey, I would love for more people to check out her work! Tonight I’m going to show a sampling of episodes from Michiko, Fujiko Mine and Yuri!!!, as well as some of Yamamoto’s shorter work on OP/EDs and the Animator Expo short.
We’ll be starting in about 40 minutes at 7pm UK time as usual, at twitch.tv/canmom - hope to see you there! ^^