Otaku Soul: An Interview with Yamamoto Yutaka

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Who are these men? What do they represent?

A few days ago, as I was chatting idly with an Australian friend of mine on IRC, he pointed me to an interesting interview with Yamamoto Yutaka, acclaimed director of Kannagi and former member of Kyoto Animation. In the interview, he brings up several intriguing points about the anime industry and trends within the “otaku” community that he finds rather disturbing.

Mr Yamamoto is one of the foremost critics of anime. After graduating from Kyoto University with a BA in Literature (incidentally, his senior thesis was about End of Evangelion and Princess Mononoke), he entered Kyoto Animation. Some of his more notable innovations at Kyoani include both the Lucky Star and Hare Hare Yukai dances, as well as the 12th episode of Haruhi (featuring now well-known musical numbers such as God Knows…). He was fired abruptly after directing four episodes of Lucky Star for being “not good enough.” Kannagi is his first work since being fired from Kyoani.

His interview starts rather abruptly:

Interviewer: We believe that interesting works, be it anime, novels, television dramas or movies, should be presented in the same way.

Yamamoto: Right.

Interviewer: Now that anime has become more popular, it seems people are starting to talk about it in a more conventional, normal fashion.

Yamamoto: I feel like that’s becoming harder and harder to do.

This is his first contention: anime is exclusive, unlike other forms of mass media. He goes on to give an explanation of why this is:

Anime belongs to the Otaku. The “otaku,” by definition, is extremely exclusionary. He wishes to posess everything for himself… the word itself has an exclusive feel to it. Why not “kimi”, “anata” or “omae”, but “otaku?” [As some of you probably know already, all of these aformentioned words are ways to say “you” in Japanese, with “otaku” being near-obsolete and unused.] I feel that it was because they wanted to proclaim, “I am different from everyone else.” I often say that it is the otaku himself who discrimminates against otaku.

I agree with Mr Yamamoto. In my experience, anime fans are rather snobbish. It also seems that there are different “tiers” of fandom; with those who watch dubs and Naruto often at the bottom, and members of the fansubbing community (especially those who actually speak Japanese) at the very top. This self-imposed caste system certainly does not make newcomers to the anime fandom feel welcome. In addition, since anime is viewed worldwide as a counterculture, its fans are perceived as rebels, living on the edge of mainstream culture. The anime fandom reinforces this image of “edgy-ness” and exclusivity quite well. The prevalent sentiment of exclusion is detrimental to the creation of good anime, argues Mr Yamamoto:

In order to express that “I am different from all the rest,” anime has been split into a myriad of subcategories. This contributes to the stifling of anime… as more sub-genres are created.

Agreed again. Recently, it seems that anime have fallen into a few large categories and each anime attempts to vary only just slightly. There hasn’t been a genre-shattering, industry-shaking innovation in quite a while. Each anime attempts to differentiate itself in minute ways. Instead of making an artistic statement, most directors seem more interested in pandering to a very specific niche of a fandom. For example, Strawberry Panic! and Maria-sama ga Miteru can both be lumped generically into the yuri romance genre. Yet, it is clear that the presentation of both shows are extremely different, and cater to different sorts of people. “Well yes,” one might say, “That’s to be expected. After all, were it not for these minute changes in detail, we’d be watching the same damn show over and over again.” True. However, there must be a way for anime to expand to even broader horizons, instead of working repeatedly within the same framework.

Mr Yamamoto goes on to explain that he does not believe in the existence of true “originality:”

What we percieve as originality is simply very deft plagiarism.

Yet, amazingly enough, anime condones this lack of originality. Anime appeals to its viewers often through the use of parody and other forms of non-original humor. Most anime produced last year were adaptations of existing works. This is a problem, argues Mr Yamamoto, since exclusive humor often bores people who do not understand the original reference. (Lucky Star would be an extreme example of this trend.) He goes on to cite Shinbo of Shaft as one of the prime suspects of this type of exclusive humor. Instead of striving to satisfy one particular niche repeatedly, says Yamamoto, anime directors should allow everyone to enjoy their works equally. References and homages to other anime should be inserted in a way that is both subtle and unobstructive, serving as an “Easter egg” for die-hard fans. Allowing references and parodies to become the main vehicle of humor dramatically diminishes the amount of people that are able to watch and enjoy a certain show. Mr Yamamoto claims that he has striven for this standard in Kannagi; the humor is easily understandable to everyone, yet hardcore anime fans will find little goodies left for them by the creators of the show.

The lack of originality is mainly caused by laziness and an unwillingness to taks risks, claims Mr Yamamoto. It is much more difficult to create a storyline from scratch than it is to simply adapt another work, obviously. Yet, the difference between anime and other media genres is that original works often sell very badly and aren’t very critically acclaimed. Yet, at the same time, adaptations have become a dime a piece nowadays, and often serve no real purpose than to promote the original work:

Look at Toradora!. It’s just a ploy to get the light novels to sell better. Then there’s A Certain Magical Index. Both shows serve as the “ultimate weapons” of the light novel industry. Yet, neither was as popular as Kannagi… it’s because neither original work was as popular.

(As a sidenote, this comment of his caused massive shitstorms on the Internet among fans of both shows.)

Yet he cites two prominent examples of anime that are “loose adaptations” of their respective original works: true tears and Ga-rei: Zero. The former was not very popular, even though it received a rather warm reception from critics; the latter was very popular with fans. Both examples blur the line between adaptation and original work. Therefore, the popularity of the original work should not matter when evaluating the success of these series. Mr Yamamoto concludes that “things that sell sell, and things that don’t sell don’t.” I agree. While some (genuinely horrible) series become popular by riding on the popularity of their original work (see: Index), these shows will never be as good as legitimately wonderful works of anime, original or not.

The lack of originality and the desire for exclusivity by the fandom has created a highly transparent industry. Mr Yamamoto affirms that the creators and the fans are “too close.” This is the biggest reason behind the isolation of the anime industry. The creators feel too obligated to please their fans, and the fans naturally expect the creators of anime to cater to them specifically, as opposed to society at large. This negative feedback loop simply exacerbates the problem over time, and now we have an industry that has boxed itself into a dead end.

Even now, there are only a few directors of anime that are known by name to the world at large. Hayao Miyazaki comes immediately to mind. He is known to most as an innovator, someone who shuns the moe conventions of the industry and does his own thing. Yet, Mr Yamamoto says, Miyazaki and his cronies at Ghibli are partially responsible for the mess the industry is in right now. Instead of reaching out to other directors, sharing his success with others and serving as a guiding light for the advancement of the anime industry, he has retreated into an ivory tower, shutting himself off and isolating himself from the rest of the industry. Mr Yamamoto calls Miyazaki “the biggest otaku.” Miyazaki once said that to “produce anime because you like anime is an extremely stupid thing.” “Cowardice,” says Mr Yamamoto, “because Mr Miyazaki loves anime just as much as any of us.” He hides himself behind “art,” not willing to admit to himself that he truly loves what he does. This sort of cowardice prevented him from speaking out against the rapid “moefication” of anime. Had he spoken, it may have been possible to reverse, or at least ameliorate, the growing exclusivity of the anime fandom. Ironically enough, it was Mr Miyazaki’s films that represented an early iteration of moe. (At the time, his biggest competitor in the market was Gundam, a series that is universally agreed to be anything but moe.)

Mr Yamamoto goes on to say that he critiques anime so that he can recieve contercritique. He concludes that the most important way to advance the art of anime is communication. New anime is formed through the communication of ideas, not by boxing oneself into a prefabricated set of values. He does not wish to pander to his fans, rather, he wants to create something that all viewers can understand (in his words, “be enriched by.”). He grieves the formation of a heavily exclusive and uninnovative industry, and he critiques anime as a sort of industry watchdog. He wishes that someday, anime can break free of its exclusive mentality and become something that can be readily discussed and debated by members of society from all walks of life.

As always, I’m highly interested in hearing what all of you have to say on this issue. I feel this is an important discussion to have as fans of anime; I, like Mr Yamamoto, am not too keen on belonging to a fandom where every work is simply a variation on the same theme.

++++++++++++++++++++

An interesting aside:

At the conclusion of the interview, Mr Yamamoto was asked this question: “If you had to pick five anime titles from 2008 to represent each Power Ranger, which anime would be which Ranger?” His list:

Pink Ranger: Clannad ~After Story~

Green Ranger: Macross F

Red Ranger: Gundam 00

Orange Ranger: Code Geass R2

Yellow Ranger: Strike Witches

Addendum: This interview was originally published in Issue 2 of Kaiyu Magazine, published by Lykkelig, originally distributed starting the 18th of March, 2009. There are currently eight copies left up for sale. If you want one, please visit their website here.

25 Responses to “Otaku Soul: An Interview with Yamamoto Yutaka”

  1. Interesting, he’s obviously an intellectual and can do critical thinking unlike most otaku. Being able to reflect and criticise one’s own ingroup is to me, a sign of rationality and intellect.

    This interview has greatly improved my opinion of Yamamoto, and he is right, Kannagi is far superior to any of Akayuki Shinbo’s moe monsters. That said, his point about Miyazaki and Toradora etc may cause much grief in their respective fans, in the ever-polite Japanese society, might this affect his future career?

  2. Also, you dont seem to have linked to the interview.

  3. That was a very interesting read. I agree with tj_han with his reading of Yamamoto and his critique of his own in-group.

    This made me think about myself who may not condone everything that otaku do, but chooses not to speak against those things I disagree with. I really may be idealizing way too much, despite the awareness of NEETs, image board denizens, etc. As much as my personality prefers not to comment negatively, it’s another thing not to acknowledge the issues raised above.

    I really got a lot out of this post.

  4. Definitely an interesting read, I’ll tell you that right away.

    I haven’t seen Kannagi, Index or Toradora! though so I have to more or less extrapolate from what little I do know about them.

    So what do I think? He has a good point in terms of his overall diagnosis but it’s hard to say what would be the cure, if there is actually such a thing, at this stage of the game. Would his proposals work in the current anime market? Commercially, above all…perhaps, perhaps not. I’m uncertain.

    What I also especially like, from an intellectual mindset, is his open desire to receive countercritique. That’s one of the things I do the most online (whether it’s politics or anime I’m talking about) and which hardly seems to be appreciated these days. I often end up with silence, give or take some honorable exceptions who are actually willing to hold a decent debate and communicate their agreement or disagreement. I criticize others in order to receive a response as well.

    Finally, that question about the Power Rangers seems to have come out of nowhere though, but I somehow believe it’s the right answer. Still, don’t ask me to interpret it, if that can even be done fairly.

  5. I’m assuming you translated Japanese interview, so thank you for that.

    I agree with his few points but I also disagree with few.


    “There hasn’t been a genre-shattering, industry-shaking innovation in quite a while.”

    – I would say that in recent years, let’s say last 4 years, we’ve seen quite a good selection of genre-shattering innovation, examples being Gankutsuou, Mushishi, Dennou Coil, Noein (ok I still think it’s overrated but its innovation can not be denied), Mononoke, Kaiba, Kemonozume, Casshern Sins to name a few. And we haven’t even touched on amazing movies that’s being produced, like Sky Crawlers, 5cm/sec, Tekkon Kinkreet. People just aren’t, yet again, looking at the right places and complaining about the way mainstream anime industry is doing their business, which is, surprise surprise, giving otakus what they want and making easy money.

    “He goes on to cite Shinbo of Shaft as one of the prime suspects of this type of exclusive humor. Instead of striving to satisfy one particular niche repeatedly, says Yamamoto, anime directors should allow everyone to enjoy their works equally.”

    This is very idealistic, and I’m not even sure it should be desirable. To satisfy everyone, it’s inevitably going to be “softened” and inoffensive for everyone to swallow and enjoy, which tends to lose any vigor and power it could possess. I mean, I enjoyed Wall-E and I dare say just about everyone can enjoy it, but is that true originality? No, I say Waltz with Bashir has the innovation and originality to break the typical Disney animation mold, and while not everyone is going to enjoy it, many will be affected by it in a way that Wall-E can only dream of.

    By the way, I would argue SZS can be enjoyed by non-otakus, just as Lucky Star can be enjoyed by non-otakus, as they both have something else to offer.

  6. SZS is probably at its best when it is directly referencing/parodying otaku culture, but I guess one of the reasons I prefer it and Suzumiya Haruhi to something like Lucky Star is that those series were prepared to be denigrating at times. I guess all three of those works being “exclusive” is a fair criticism, in that you have to be in the otaku circle to get the most out of them. gaguri’s point is a reasonable one, though, and it does highlight a silver lining in all of this, in that there are still innovative works (depending on how strictly you want to define the term “innovation”) being made outside of the “mainstream” otaku anime. The problem is that most of these titles don’t have wide appeal to any major group, not the hardcore, insular otaku, and not wider society at large. So you have to dig to find them, which in itself also adds to the whole hierarchical nature of anime fandom, with the pretentious elitist anime “connoisseur” (of which I admit I probably am one, gaguri too I’d guess) inserting himself somewhere high in the pecking order, vocally condemning popular works which also creates friction among different groups with different opinions. (But that might not be a bad thing.)

    There hasn’t been a genre-shattering, industry-shaking innovation in quite a while.

    I think the last one was probably Suzumiya Haruhi. It didn’t so much “shatter” genres as it did merge a crapload of them in a way that somehow worked. But I daresay, if we’re looking at comedy anime in particular, that the consequences of Haruhi Suzumiya haven’t been all positive for anime as a whole. I think there’s been a massive emphasis among anime makers to try to make the next Haruhi. We’ve had titles like Manabi Straight, Lucky Star, Nogizaka Haruka, Hayate no Gotoku SZS, Kannagi and the modern day K-On! which all seem to take influence from Suzumiya Haruhi’s otaku-centric sense of humour. You’d probably have a better grasp of this than I would, but I daresay that Suzumiya Haruhi should take a fair amount of responsibility for anime, as an industry consisting of its creators and its consumers, growing more exclusive. Since, as far as I can remember, it was the first otaku-centric comedy that was big. Now all anime comedies need to be somewhat otaku-centric to draw an audience.

    What we percieve as originality is simply very deft plagiarism.

    I tell you what, I don’t completely agree with it, but Yamamoto has got balls for saying it, and I’ll applaud him for that. The thing I really like about what he’s saying in this interview is that he’s essentially challenging anime makers as a whole to be better. And he recognizes that this happens through criticism and counter-criticism and an open exchange of ideas and opinions. Certainly my respect levels for Yamamoto have gone up after reading his thoughts in this article. It’d gone up after Kannagi for his directing (I didn’t much like what I saw of his work in Lucky Star, but I’m willing to write it off as an aberration, since certain conspiracy theories about his work being compromised by Kadokawa Shoten now seem a little more plausible than I originally dismissed them to be), now it’s gone up for his courage to be honest and open with his opinion (something which I understand isn’t always appreciated in Japan, especially among fervent otaku). A fascinating article and a great insight into the opinion of an important person involved in the creative side of anime.

  7. Yutaka saying that there hasn’t been a genre-shattering, industry-shaking innovation in quite a while, is just generalizing it a tad too much because like gaguri said, shows Gankutsuou, Mononoke and Mushishi (shows that pop on top of my head) show that innovation is still there; it’s just not as prevalent as those generic ones mostly catered for the otaku community. Many of the anime are created seemingly for the anime community more than to the general viewers IMHO, so yeah, Sorrow-kun has a point there.

    While I admit that some of the anime that thrives on recycled materials do sicken me occasionally, I can’t say that it would make sense to see something ingenious more often, even if the anime creators want to. I mean, that’s the underlying principle of anything ingenious, isn’t it; that it is not an everyday occurrence. I understand that many of us here want to see something groundbreaking and completely fresh of its material, but I’m just being a little skeptical that a lot more ingenious stuff will pop up, even after Yamamoto’s gutsy “declaration” to the anime industry.

    And yes, Yamamoto deserves my praise, bar none.

  8. Truer words about the anime industry have never been spoken. Yamamoto pretty much hit the mark about the anime industry lacking some well needed integrity. It really is a medium that is pushed around too much by self centered fans. The garbage that some of them spew, as on Gainax founder put it, are “like putting [his] face next to an anus and breathing deeply.”

    I cannot really comment on his views on originality, simply from all the cognitive dissonance it takes to justify my anime niche. But there is a total difference between fanservice (in the non-sexual sense) and basically giving fans a *l**j**. There is one very infamous ’04/’05 sequel series that proves what travesty you get when you sacrifice artistic integrity to appease the viewership. Even worse, anime fans ate it up. But that’s neither here nor there.

    Great article Akira. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to quote the paragraph about the industry’s transparency.

  9. @tj han:

    Thanks for reading my article. As the one-time cameo contributer to RIUVA, I feel honored. I didn’t post up a link to the interview because there is no link; I found it in a book that my friend pointed me to. I don’t think his career will be affected in any way. Excellence is excellence, no matter how controversial one’s statements are. Plus, he’s his own boss now that he runs his own animation company, so he’s got job security for sure.

    @AH:
    Given the way Kannagi went, I would argue that his proposal does work. I think Kannagi represents a show that has broader appeal (I wouldn’t say “universal,” but it’s definitely a good starter anime.) Commercially, it excelled. Let’s not forget the holy war that was fought over Nagi’s virginity. As funny and as pathetic as that is, it takes true fans and a massive amount of character development to invoke such a large-scale protest; it shows that Nagi has true character, and that the fans truly care (quite a bit) about her, something that isn’t seen so often these days.

    gaguri:
    I agree with most of your examples, but seriously, 5 cm/sec isn’t innovative. It’s amazing, yes; it’s my favorite movie of all time. Yet, I feel like Shinkai’s flaw lies in his lack of innovation in storytelling; he can tell one story extremely well, but he seems incapable of expanding beyond that. His art, of course, is unparalleled; there’s no doubt in my mind that he is (one of) the greatest artists in the industry.

    I also think you misinterpret Yamamoto when you say that a show with universal appeal becomes softened; his approach is to “layer” the humor of shows into two different tiers: one tier for the regular viewer and one tier for the hardcore otaku. The layer that appeals to a niche should be unobstructive. His philosophy can be seen in action in Episode 10 of Kannagi; just look at all the little cameos he drops here and there in the kareoke bar and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

    S-K:
    You know, ironically enough, since Yamamoto was the production director for Haruhi and wrote the script for one third of the series, one can argue (reasonably) that he could be the reason why there’s a race to the bottom in the industry right now. Yet, I feel that’s not actually the case; Yamamoto claims that the anime industry has been stagnant (at least, from the production side) since the time of Hideaki Anno and company back in the early 90s. I don’t agree that Haruhi is otaku-centric. In fact, I don’t know why it’s so groundbreaking and I would agree with Yamamoto that it has more universal appeal than, say, Lucky Star. Looking back on the first four episodes of L*S, I definitely feel that it had a different flavor than the rest of the series. It was catered more generally to a broader audience, as opposd to the highly genre-specific humour in the later episodes.

    In addition, I think Kyoto Animation made a fatal mistake in letting Yamamoto go. He’s clearly proven himself one of the most intelligent and able directors in the business. Now they’re left with artists who can draw… but not much else. I also heard that their head music guy left with Yamamoto; that’s also quite a huge loss on their part. I definitely enjoyed the two episodes of Haruhi that he personally directed (episodes 1 and 12) the most. I really look forward to his next work, whatever it may be.

    AC:
    Right, and Yutaka is saying that anime should break free of this “cater to the fans” mentality and take a chance. One can’t innovate when he has no motivation to, and he’s challenging his colleagues to at least attempt innovation. I agree with him. Flop or not, I want to see some new stuff; though I enjoy Strike Witches and the like a lot, I want to see something refreshing.

    KR:
    Sure; go ahead and quote it and link it back here. No problem.

  10. Just found this excellent piece. Thanks for writing it. I am a worshipper of Yamakan’s work, as it turns out, but I’m not sure I see it as innovative so much as just comic brilliance. Kannagi was as moe as any anime. However, I agree that the inside humor in early Lucky Star and Kannagi were funny even when you didn’t know what the reference was.

    I was especially pleased to see him call out that old fake Miyazaki. I have not liked him (as a person) since I saw a feature on his studio from which I inferred that he was a real tyrant who just pretended to be good to his staff.

    Toradora, however, was better than Yamakan suggests. Hard to praise your direct competitor, though, I guess.

    Yamakan will direct a special 90-second OP OVA for v4 of the manga Tonari no 801-chan, to come out on 10 sept. The singer is to be chosen by audition, with public voting on nico.

  11. Do you perchance have a link to the interview?

  12. […] was doing some reading on Yamakan and came across this article, which contains a translation and some paraphrasing of the stuff he said in a print article. In it, […]

  13. Fascinating. A very interesting insider critique.

  14. @Alex Leavitt
    Sorry to answer on Akira’s behalf (I’m just going to assume that I’ll see this before he does), but he said earlier in one of the comments above

    I didn’t post up a link to the interview because there is no link; I found it in a book that my friend pointed me to.

    So, unfortunately, there’s no link.

  15. @Sorrow-kun: Thanks, this is very interesting. Do you have a citation, at least?

  16. @Alexandra
    Now you’ll definitely have to ask Akira for that one. I’ll see to it that he sees this and gets back to you.

  17. […] just happened to stumble upon this story and thought I’d share. Akira, this particular blog entry’s author, has taken a printed […]

  18. Finally found the source, after a LONG time searching… added to the end of the interview article. Here it is again:

    This interview was originally published in Issue 2 of Kaiyu Magazine, published by Lykkelig, originally distributed starting the 18th of March, 2009. There are currently eight copies left up for sale. If you want one, please visit their website here.

  19. […] just happened to stumble upon this story and thought I’d share. Akira, this particular blog entry’s author, has taken a printed […]

  20. […] on February 25, 2010 Akira over at Behind the Nihon Review last year wrote a rather pointed article on what Otakus are like, taking a rather an interesting interview with Yamamoto Yutaka, where the […]

  21. […] Akira: Otaku Soul: An Interview with Yamamoto Yutaka – Akira translates an interview of outspoken director and former KyoAni staffer, Yamamoto Yutaka […]

  22. I know that this is awfully late, but I’m amazed that people here totally missed one of his key points.

    Guys, he said genre-shattering, INDUSTRY-SHAKING, innovation.

    None of the animes that gaguri listed were anywhere close to “Industry-Shaking”.

    Honestly, listing off a bunch of “significantly different than usual” but nonetheless pretty darn obscure animes, is not a good counter-argument to what he was saying there.

    I don’t totally agree with Yamamoto, but he makes some great points, and I think some anime fans are a bit too quick to knee-jerk respond against them.

  23. […] just happened to stumble upon this story and thought I'd share. Akira, this particular blog entry's author, has taken a printed interview […]

  24. This is just the kind of detail I was in search of. I wish I’d have discovered your web site sooner.

  25. […] Yamamoto’s quasi-Miyazakian distaste for otaku culture (his reference to Miyazaki as “the biggest otaku” is clearly a case of protesting too much). Part of why it’s so uncomfortable for me is […]

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