Like every year, Anime Expo hosted all kinds of talent in Los Angeles at the biggest anime convention on the West Coast, Anime Expo. Among of the most exciting names was the creator of Soul Eater and the new summer firefighter anime, Fire Force (Enen no Shouboutai in Japanese), Atsushi Ookubo.
Ten years after the end of Soul Eater, Ookubo-sensei visited the US for the first time to promote the anime adaptation of his most recent manga in a live drawing panel at Anime Expo thanks to the awesome people at Funimation. The panel consisted of an interview with Ookubo-sensei followed by a live drawing portion in which Ookubo-sensei drew some of his characters while his editor, Megumu Tsuchiya, answered questions about Fire Force, working with Ookubo-sensei, and the artistic process behind both the manga and anime. It was definitely a treat!
Fire Force Panel and Live Drawing with Atsushi Ookubo - Anime Expo 2019
Atsushi Hey yo! What’s up? My name is Atsushi Ookubo. Thank you for coming today. I’m so excited.
Megumu Thank you for inviting us. My name is Megumu Tsuchiya. Please enjoy.
Is this your first time in America?
Yes, it's actually my first time in the US. I was actually about 2 years old when I first came to Los Angeles and I have this vague memory of watching people fishing. That's all I remember.
Thank you so much Ookubo-sensei and Tsuchiya-san for joining us here all the way from Tokyo. The first thing we want to ask is, what have you been up to during your break between Soul Eater and Fire Force?
Playing videogames. [audience laughs]
I was reading Soul Eater as I was working. I don't know which comes first.
A really big question that the fans want to ask is, what inspired Fire Force?
As you're walking down the street, you see different people in uniform. Firefighters are probably the closest figures to heroes in our daily lives. But even with that, I've never seen a story that is based on firefighters or what they do to save people's lives or fantasy stories about it so that's why I wanted to feature them in my story.
There are shows about firefighters in a realistic setting but I actually have never seen another series that has firefighters in a fictional or fantasy setting so I wanted to give it a shot.
Of course, there are a lot of similarities we see between Soul Eater and Fire Force. First of all, there are a lot of supernatural overtones in terms of the genre. What is it that you love about the supernatural world or genre?
One of the major things is that I'm making manga which is quite a different medium from live action or acting so there are a lot of things that I can do as an expression [of art] that are unique to the manga format.
Is there anything from your real life that made it into or inspired Fire Force?
I’ve simply liked firefighters ever since I was little. You know? I mean, I see them in matching uniforms and those cool helmets, working as a unit, making noise in their machines with their sirens and stuff. I really think they're kind of awesome people in real life so ever since I was a child, I have been inspired by their existence.
Also, kind of bringing it back to real life, my perspective is that in the US there was 9/11 and in Japan we had 3/11 which was the major earthquake and in every situation like that, firefighters are the ones who are actually there to help out the people so I was very inspired by them.
That’s very touching. [applause] Some fans here have always been interested in starting their own manga. What is your advice to them?
You know... You should just do whatever you want and put it on paper and then show it to your friends, let's say to ten people. If you show it to ten people and each one says “this part here is weird” or “I don't understand”, there's something wrong with that so you can rework that. So my trick is always... don't be shy about showing your work to people around you and getting feedback from as many people as possible.
Does Tsuchiya-san have any advice?
A lot of times when you aspire to become a mangaka and want to try your first manga, you start to realize how difficult it is and a lot of people get discouraged at that stage which is really unfortunate because it doesn't have to be your greatest piece ever but by continuing to work and also completing one story, it'll get you to the next stage so don't be too overly ambitious and try to finish one work. It's the most important thing.
Great advice. Now, for Ookubo sensei; is there any overlap or similarities between Soul Eater and Fire Force?
If you read both of the works, you will notice some crossover of the motifs. That's because I was doing my best when working on Soul Eater and that means that if some of those elements or aspects worked out then I would get to actually carry them over to the next work and make them work in this new piece.
[Live drawing begins, Tsuchiya-san answers questions from here on]
Please tell us about the process of developing Fire Force with Ookubo-sensei. What was it like in the beginning?
I was a big fan of Soul Eater when he was serializing it and so I was reading it and I knew the series was coming to an end so I actually just contacted him via his blog, I emailed him saying “how are you?” and we had dinner together and talked about it and he already had a new project in mind so we pretty much just moved into starting this project which is Fire Force very quickly after that discussion.
What do you see as the biggest appeal of Fire Force for fans? and, do you think that changes between the US and the Japanese audience?
To me, the greatest thing about this series is that the characters and the action are just awesome [laughs] so there shouldn’t really be a difference between the audience in Japan or the US. So it is something to look forward to if you’re reading or watching this new series.
Tsuchiya-san, as you have been working on Fire Force, do you have a favorite character and why?
I think it’s just a matter of my taste, really, but there’s this character named Maki and I just really think she’s a very attractive person… as a person. [laughs]
What about Ookubo-sensei? Do you have a favorite character?
[As he continues to draw] Yes. There’s a character called Haumea that will appear a little bit later down the line.
That’s something we’ll have to keep an eye out for! Tsuchiya-san, what is the process like for producing the manga each week?
In Japanese magazines, when you are serializing weekly manga, you’re turning out 19 pages of manga each week. That’s a lot of manga. So while Ookubo-sensei is working on finishing a whole chapter each week, we also get together once a week to discuss the story and where it’s going so we talk out the ideas together to set the direction of the upcoming chapters.
That sounds like a lot of pressure!
That’s a lot of pressure but we owe it to Ookubo-sensei.
Is there a chapter or arc that was difficult when you guys worked parts of it?
It’s actually not a particular scene or a chapter but this whole story of Fire Force has this element of mystery solving to find out all the mysteries of this world so when we are developing how to roll out all these new pieces of information, we have to make sure all the pieces are straight and not contradicting each other. So we discuss quite a bit about that, but once we get going and Ookubo-san gets going, he writes it out. He’s very serious about this process as well.
What is your favorite part of working with Ookubo-sensei?
We work pretty seriously during the meetings but at the same time we also talk about music and video games and stuff. Things that are not directly relevant to the actual work of the manga we are doing. I really enjoy those times.
[Pause to look at the sketch. It’s Shinra from Fire Force!]
In the manga, in the afterword, Tsuchiya-san is killed. How did it feel when you saw that Ookubo-sensei killed you in the afterword in the manga?
Among Japanese editors, when a creator offers to make a portrait of you, you have to say “Oh no, you’re too busy. How could I possibly deserve this?”, but that’s just a façade. [laughs] It actually makes me quite happy when artists like Ookubo-sensei draw portraits of me. But when I saw the piece in the afterword where I was treated not-so-nicely… [laughs] I tried to speak a little bit more poetically… just making sure… [crowd laughs with him].
How did that story come about in the afterword?
[Drawing is finished, people cheer. Ookubo-sensei starts a second one]
The afterword is completely freestyle. I actually never know what it’s going to be until I see it. It’s kind of scary. [laughs with crowd]
What parts of the Fire Force manga are Tsuchiya-san and Ookubo-sensei excited to see animated?
How many of you are reading the manga so far? [about a quarter of the audience raises their hands] Every action scene in the story is really awesome so we’re really looking forward to seeing how those battle scenes are going to come about in the form of animation. It’s something both of us are looking forward to. Please watch and enjoy.
Tsuchiya-san, have you become more inspired by firefighters since working on Fire Force?
Walking down the street in Japan, I come across real-life firefighters training or having events to teach civilians how to take care of themselves in case of a fire and stuff like that. Whenever those things are happening, they always catch my attention. Not just because they’re having an activity for the community but something really changed my perspective. Also, when I come across these awesome machines they use, I can’t stop myself from going and taking a picture.
There are a lot of really cool mecha in this series. We were wondering, are they based on real-life machines?
Ookubo-sensei does a lot of research looking into the different eras of machines and landscapes, scenery, and stuff so there are some elements in there that are based on real machines, they’re somewhat based on historical elements.
What was the inspiration for the design of the Matchbox, the firetruck in Fire Force?
[To Ookubo-sensei] Can I tell them? I think it was actually a German tank that it was based on.
[Audience realizes the new drawing is Maka Albarn in a Fire Force uniform and cheering ensues]
There are a lot of really attractive characters in this series and they’re very different from each other so we’re wondering how does Ookubo-sensei come up with so many types of characters?
That’s actually part of Ookubo-magic. He has this incredible ability to come up with really fresh character designs and sometimes I have some input like I kind of want to see what Shinra does on his weekends and days off and stuff like that. But besides those other questions that I have, it’s usually….
[Audience interrupts with applause when the Maka crossover sketch is finished]