We are always looking for talented people here at honey’s anime. We found ourselves very lucky to be introduced to Sho Akiyama a talented anime director and producer that has garnered film festival honors around the world. We know that creating an anime is hard and that taking on a project, no matter the length, is a herculean task especially if you do it independently. We just had to have Akiyama-san answer some questions about the challenge he faces and what drives him to keep creating.
Interview with Sho Akiyama
What drew you to the animation industry was it something you saw as a child or something that happened later in life?
It actually did happen later in life. I was not allowed to watch Japanese anime when I was a kid so I grew up with Western animation like Looney Tunes, and then moving on the Western Shows like Conan O’Brien and American dad. However, in high school, when online streaming was extremely popular, I started secretly watching Japanese anime, and I simply fell in love with it.
I wanted to do animation at university, but of course, my parents would only allow me to study something that would make money, so I followed them and studied computer science while still doing art-related things like theatre and film. After I graduated, I just figured I can have my own life and rekindle that dream of creating Japanese animation while working as a software engineer, and now here I am in Tokyo. There’s still a lot to be done however, but it feels nice looking back.
Did you try to animate things as a child? For example, creating flipbooks or stop motion?
Back then, yes. Simple notebook animations with stick figures, but I did not enjoy drawing too much at the time, so I simply just drew random comics with my friends.
What inspires the stories you tell? I see one of them come from the line “The Moon is Beautiful” are there any other examples like that.
Haha I’m surprised you even checked out my previous work. I appreciate it! I think it’s mostly being in awe of how my heroes in the anime industry capture human emotion and deep storylines with their movies. I am a huge Naoko Yamada (Kyoto Animation director) fan and have always wanted to present the largest details even with the smallest eye movement or gestures.
At least with the work I’ve created, I mostly get inspired with the stories I cook up in my mind. I loved imagining things as a kid, and realizing that I can actually present it in an artform to people makes me thrilled. Venture for example, is a collection of 5 years’ worth of collected stories about life as a software engineer, and I simply wanted to show it to people for them to learn about this world and about life, and hopefully be entertained with the storyline and comedy.
You have to really want to share your creations if you are producing anime yourself. It really takes drive to do something so difficult. Where does that motivation come from?
I think it’s mostly from just having that desire to entertain/inspire people and make them laugh, cry, and feel emotions they don’t feel every day. When I was a kid, it was always falling off chairs and doing gags and I would always get extremely happy looking at everyone’s reactions. Even when I did a bit of acting at university, it was the same. I think it just happened that the media I liked expressing myself the most is animation, due to it providing the ability to have more control over the universe and how the characters act and move.
What have you found at the biggest challenge in breaking into the animation industry?
Mostly the art itself, actually. I never knew how to draw until I started this dream 4 years ago. Especially with the industry being insanely strict about the quality, it was really hard to get people to watch or even get into studios. After passing (but not entering) a rather large anime studio in Toyama-ken, I figured I would just work on my own series and movies and segue into the industry independently rather than working in the industry directly. This way, I was able to learn a lot of things outside the art, which include the audience, market, and even the application of engineering and AI.
After 3 years of attempting, however, I was able to get into some film festivals and start my own anime series for pitching to broadcasting studios, but it was really the art quality that hindered me, which I still am working on even to this day.
How do you find the funding for your projects?
For my first projects, I would just fund everything from the salary I make as a software engineer. I never hired people back then as well, so the expenses were just for the drawing tablets and electricity.
However, after I spent most of my savings on hiring professional voice actors and BGM composers for Venture’s pilot episode last year, I figured I should try doing crowdfunding for the next and succeeding episodes. Thankfully some people were extremely kind enough to pitch in, so we were able to collect money to pay for the voice actors. It was not enough however, so I still pitched in from my software engineer salary at the time.
How do you balance your day job with the intensive work that it takes to create even a minute or two of an animation?
It was mostly intense scheduling and batching. I used to listen to a lot of motivating podcasts and was a huge fan of Elon Musk, so I would always time-box my day into small increments and always write down KPIs for each quarter of the year so I can easily manage to schedule. Also, I was blessed with working at an international tech company in Tokyo, which valued automation over overtime, which really helped a lot with spending the remaining hours a day awake on weekdays and the bulk of the weekends on animation.
Lastly, it’s scripts and AI which helped a lot. I would be super meticulous with creating a production structure for jumping from director to animator and vice versa when I created productions, which helped a lot especially with the lack of resources.
Where do you think your biggest strength is? Is it in writing, directing, or the drawing?
I would say it’s in writing. At least with directing I still have a long way to go with planning out composition and shots, and for drawing, I didn’t have the experience of being able to draw and study every day due to production and my day job, but with writing it’s mostly just automatic. When I’m on the train or just waiting for someone I’m meeting, I would always think up scenarios, and recently converting them to small animatics to show to friends if it’s entertaining, so I think that helped a lot with my writing ability.
What have you learned about the process that you wish you’d known when you first started to do these high-quality stories?
I wish I did not focus too much on automating the animation process before I got at a decent level with drawing. I would spend way too much time scripting and researching AI back in the day and would neglect my drawing studies. After an 8-month endeavor creating a draft short film based on a research paper, I realized that tech is just there to make things faster, but the foundations of animation and drawing are still the most important thing. Should I be able to go back in time, I would force myself to focus on perfecting figure, shape, and perspective rather than trying to invent ways to convert 3D into 2D.
Do you ever have to change an idea mid-stream because you find something isn’t working out?
I do a lot! Haha. Sometimes I would watch the end product before releasing and would just have to edit something out or add a small joke. Working alone back then made it possible since I can easily change it directly, but after I started working with people, I needed to learn how to plan things out and let go of some things that I can’t change any more.
Have you ever written or created something that surprises you in the final product?
Yes! When I created the pilot episode for Venture, I was extremely disgusted with the quality as I watched the whole thing a few minutes before releasing it. That was the time when I decided I needed to get into studying more. It looked so much better in my mind when I was writing it.
What is your favorite kind of story to tell?
I would say stories that change the audience’s perspective, be it motivational or even educational. As for genre, I normally tend to go with comedy/gag anime and drama, however.
What is your preferred genre of animation? Who do you want to emulate or are you trying to find your own style?
I would say psychological/drama. Something that requires thinking deeply before grasping the story, or having the minute details express that characters’ intentions. As for style, I do reference a lot of directors I look up to, such as Naoko Yamada’s attention to detail with character animation, Shinkai Makoto’s breathtaking backgrounds, Christopher Nolan’s unbelievable depth of story, and Edgar Wright’s visual storytelling.
I think mixing them together with my direction style would let me find my own style in the future.
We know some studios have a signature look like trigger looks like Studio Trigger and Kyoto Animation looks like Kyoani. Do you think you have a signature look?
As of now, I would say no. My drawing skills are not at the professional level yet, but I think since I own a lot of keyframe collections and character design books from KyoAni, my recent drawing style tends to approach that style or try to mimic it.
What is your dream? Do you want to have your own large studio to give places like Kyoani and A-1 a run for their money or do you want to become part of a studio that has a legacy like Ghibli?
This sounds like an impossible dream, but I would want to create an anime studio that does not use the traditional production committee model and use automation and technology to create high-quality 2D animation. I am extremely particular with the art, but as the years went by I realized you can’t make great art long-term without great people, an efficient process, and a sustainable business model.
Of course, as an aspiring director, I would love to focus on the actual creation, so if a studio like this started to exist, I would love to work there as well.
What is your advice for anyone else trying to break into the anime industry?
Don’t listen to naysayers and your inner negative voice. Particularly when you’re starting out, there’s a mountain of reasons people or even yourself will tell you not to do it: lack of skill, lack of money, lack of time, lack of network. However, if you start focusing on the things you can do within the time you have, your mind will automatically find ways to achieve that dream, even if it’s slow. You’ll just automatically start finding what and how to study, how to get to the next level and adjust your expectations as you do that.