Being that Vinland Saga is one of the most beloved long-run seinen mangas from the Afternoon magazine, fans eagerly awaited for the day their favorite manga would be adapted into animation. WIT Studio took that huge responsibility and brought the historical revenge story of Thorfinn from the great era of the Vikings to life.
Shūhei Yabuta (籔田 修平) formerly a 3DCG director under the same WIT Studio on titles like Attack on Titan (2013), Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress (2016) that led him to his general directing debut on Mappa’s Inuyashiki. Yabuta wasn’t all that familiar in directing and writing roles until “The Ambition of Oda Nobuna” in which he directed and boarded the opening sequence in 2012, show that he also shared the role of 3DCG director, as well the hugely praised “Parasyte -the maxim-” opening in 2014. After that, he also made his episode directional debut on “Alderamin on the Sky” just before his work on Inuyashiki.
- How the opportunity arose to direct Vinland Saga? Did you expect to be in charge of such a big project so soon after your debut as a general director?
I first met Nakatake-san, Co-Founder and Company Director at WIT STUDIO, working as a 3DCG director in titles such as “Attack on Titan (AoT)” and “Kanbaneri of Iron Fortress”. These led to more opportunities to work with Nakatake-san, where he has given me opportunities to get involved in directing and scenario-writing, and we developed a good relationship. Later, he introduced me to Hasegawa-san, the producer of anime Vinland Saga. I decided to accept the offer because his thoughts and direction resonated with me.
To be honest, I did not expect that an opportunity to direct such a big title would come so soon, and it was deeply emotive because Vinland Saga was a special manga for me, which I started reading from the very beginning of the series. It was a great honor and I felt the joy much more than the pressure from such a big project. I felt it was a very good opportunity for me where I can focus on making stories around the characters which is very important for me when directing, and I can use my skills to create spectacular visuals.
- What were the aspects that you mostly focused on the adaptation of the manga of Vinland Saga? And what were the biggest difficulties in adapting such a historical long-run manga with many fans all over the world?
As you would expect, I needed to learn a lot about the Nordic history and culture, and about Vikings, but at the same time, I felt I needed to revisit the appeal of the original manga. The biggest appeal of Yukimura-san’s work is the characters. While dealing with a very serious theme and view of the world, it’s widely popular because the personalities of the characters immerse the readers into the story and naturally draw them to the underlining theme.
Of course, attractive characters are important for any story, but Yukimura-san’s characters appear to be honest and sincere to readers and have substantial power to bring them closer to the characters. I wanted to focus on this in directing this story so that this appeal of the original manga is conveyed to the audience.
The toughest job in doing so was to manage the timing. One of the charms of Yukimura-san’s characters is the impressive lines. I believe that allowing enough “Ma(間)”, or intervals between lines, is critical to accurately and deeply instill the intention and appeal of the lines to the viewers.
I had always been dissatisfied with how this “Ma” is managed in many anime titles, so I wanted to focus on this when I direct a work myself. Because Vinland Saga is a title with many excellent lines, the most difficult task was to effectively place the lines in the limited length and format.
- Abiru-san designs are so detailed, I imagine that adapting them to animation has been difficult. On the other hand, fans can fully appreciate art that comes superior to the manga.
The original manga has very detailed visual, and controlling such design is one of the most difficult aspects of animation. Abiru-san really likes the expression with more detailed visuals than I do, and he designed as high-detailed as possible in anime title according to his experience. Maintaining the amount of information still remains a difficult task, but it has been overcome by sharing ideas on how effectively we can express details with fewer lines, and by the efforts from the Composite team.
My first request to Takeda-san, as Art Director was a background art with the same presence as the characters. I feel it is natural that there is a person at the center of the story, but I do not agree that people are at the center of the world. The world, in this case, is the whole environment including nature. I wanted to leave it to the expression of nature to express the largeness and heaviness of the fate laid on characters.
We couldn’t visit Nordic countries and collect local materials, but Takeda-san collected many book materials for this job. He and the Art team drew the world more beautiful and persuasive than I requested. So, I am happy if you liked the visual.
— 阿比留隆彦 (@mountful) October 9, 2019
- How different was to direct Vinland Saga compared to Inuyashiki? What was it like going from a futuristic Inuyashiki to a work in a very past time like Vinland saga.
As I mentioned earlier, when directing, I put the highest priority on making the story attractive, thus I do not feel a big difference. There are many similarities in the way of directing these two titles, how to use “Ma” between the lines and how to use music. The two titles differ significantly in how they view the worlds and the design but both titles were attractive and interesting to me so I was able to work eagerly on both titles.
- What advantages do you think that you gained from being a 3DCG director on your present experience as a general director?
In most of the work I was involved in as a 3DCG director, including “AoT” and “Kabaneri” I mentioned earlier, what was expected was visual magnificence and exciting. The fact that I had many opportunities to be involved in high level works in this genre has given me great confidence in working on Vinland Saga.
Also, as I have sought many methodologies for using 3DCG effectively in traditional 2D drawing animation, I was able to use 3DCG without wasting time and resources even in a tight schedule.
- There was already a draft of the story structure but Seko-san though that a different approach would fit the anime better, was it here that you and Seko-san decided to change the beginning of the story for people who watch the anime understand it better?
The beginning of the story of the original manga is very appealing and skillful in drawing the readers into its world. Seko-san is a passionate fan of original manga too so he felt the same way as I did.
However, when we started discussing “Where should we divide the story to create the anime series?”, finally the scenario structure was decided as it is now. For the reasons mentioned earlier, I requested that we do not create a scenario structure that forces much information contained in the original into it. Also, when thinking about the number of episodes for two seasons (cours), we emphasized instilling enough expectations in viewers’ minds at the end of each episode.
Next, we exchanged opinions on whether or not we should take this anime series only as one chapter of the original work. There is a sequel to the story in the original manga when you read it, you understand that the meaning of this series is planned and intended.
However, at least at the time when we were building the scenario, there was no guarantee that we would make the next series, and even if we were to work on the next series we had no idea when. Considering the situation we were in, I wanted to keep the meaning of the original manga and to make this series satisfying to the viewers as an independent content. I also wanted to emphasize that the story begins with Thors, Thorfinn’s father.
We came up with an idea to make up for the risk of losing the fascinating opening scene of the original manga with the spectacle “Battle of Hjörungavágr’’ scene which would be a great attraction to viewers. We decided to rearrange the story in chronological order, which would make the story easier to understand.
- Did you already have in mind what elements would be better to portrait with 3DCG or in traditional 2D?
The very first thing that came to my mind was the expression of the sea and waves. As I mentioned before, I wanted the background to have a strong presence. To do this, I needed the Art team to focus on the depiction of nature, but at the same time, it was essential to express a gentle and powerful sea.
Of course, there are many excellent wave expressions by traditional 2D drawings, but it is a very advanced technique that only a few animators have. In order to express slow movements, it is necessary to create a large number of images by drawing, so 3DCG was effective for expressing waves steadily throughout the series.
The Viking ships with a unique sense of scale was another that I considered 3DCG expression from the beginning. If it is a large ship from the big sailing era in the 15th century, it can also be expressed with artwork, but it is difficult to achieve it in the scale that receives interferences from waves. When we thought about clearly depicting the navigation with oars, including the crew, a 2D expression is not likely to produce results that are worth the cost.
- Yabuta-san and the staff had the complete trust of Yukimura-san that showed now worries in WIT Studio’s work. How did it feel to have the total trust of the original author?
I am very pleased and honored to have earned the trust of Yukimura-san, a creator I look up to. As this anime series took a long time from the beginning of the project to its release, we were able to feel the trust developed further as the project progressed, which was a great support to me and my staff, and gave us confidence.
Manga and anime seem to have a lot in common, but they are a completely different medium of contents. For adapting manga to anime without compromising the appeal of the original manga, a great deal of reexamination and restructuring are necessary. Without an understanding partner like Yukimura-san, this is not possible.
Of course, the original author’s attitude to protect his work is natural, but without understanding and trusting each other’s work, it will not be a satisfactory adaptation for viewers. Having such a relationship of trust was the biggest boost for the project.
- The plot seems to be going at his own pace very different from other animes that are airing right now, was it all deliberate?
As I mentioned earlier, I do not believe in work where the original content is squeezed into, which is not taken into consideration in may anime titles. And telling the story at a pace that I believe it should be is a better way to convey the appeal of the original manga to viewers. Although it is difficult to express them in a limited number of episodes and at a set length, it is one of the most enjoyable work for me.
The power of music was also indispensable to achieve expression at the intended pace. I selected songs for all episodes myself and did rough arrangements too according to the scenes. All the music from Yamada-san did not only skillfully express the world of the work, but also surprisingly matched with the pace that I had intended. This encounter was one of the biggest harvests I got from this work.
- How do you “soften” the violence without taking the rawness of the original work? Did you want to focus on a more mature audience or do you want the younger ones to understand it too?
I did not pay conscious attention to soften the rawness of violence, and I did not give such an instruction at my discretion. Not only for violence but for all visuals, the goal is to be as close as possible to the original expression.
We may follow instructions from broadcasters and the team that make decisions based on broadcast ethics, but in the case of Vinland Saga, extreme violence may represent its view of the world or personalities of the characters, and softening the expression can be risky in many cases. If it is perceived to be softened, our work may not have achieved the same level of detail as the original.
I am of course opposed to violence, and I feel negative about using the expression of violence itself as a stimulus to make the work attractive. Also both continuously showing extreme violence expressions and softening expressions to make it difficult to picture the image could equally paralyze viewers’ awareness of violence.
While I acknowledge the appeal of actions, violence should be condemned and hurting people should not be taken as something cool. We are committed to express violence with the intent to make viewers perceive violence as negative and terrifying.
Not only violent expressions, I make it covey various messages in mind, but I do not target any specific generation. One of the reasons is that Vinland Saga is a long-term series, but it is also a great pleasure for me to see more people watching the anime and to see the reaction from various viewers.
- Did you find any similarities between the Vikings age and the Japanese culture?
One of the great spirits Vikings had, I think, is its power of togetherness and strength of relationships, which I feel most tied to. I think that these spirits are easy to accept for many Japanese people who value the community.
It is difficult to find specific commonalities based on lifestyles, but you can feel a familiarity with the usage of colors, typical patterns, and wooden architecture, taken from nature. Of course, these largely depend on the background of the eras, but they appear as a very attractive culture to the Japanese.
- Which characters do you like and dislike the most?
It is difficult to choose one but if I need to, it would be Asgeir. He is intelligent, skillful, brave and graceful. Also, he has a position as a good supporter of Torlkel and he shows his charm when he is swayed by Torlkel. There is no character I dislike.
I don’t like the typographical nature and visuals that were created just to fill in the story, so I want to make sure that every character has some sort of charm.
- What do you most look forward to in the future of the series?
Currently, there are 5 episodes left to be aired, and the work is reaching the arduous phase. There will be some adjustments from the original in the remaining episodes, but as mentioned earlier, all decisions are made with the satisfaction of viewers in mind.
It is probably more accurate to call it a supplement than an adjustment. It is the result of adding our own perspective so that you can enjoy this series as an independent content. We have done the same in all the episodes so far, and if you accept them, you will enjoy them. There will be minor alterations to the timing of the events, but the original story and the ending will not change.
My words may cause anxiety for those who love the original, but I’m not telling this for a conservative reason. I am confident in my decision and I am blessed with excellent, motivated staff. If you accept me as one of the enthusiastic original fans, I would be happy if you could wait for the upcoming episodes with hope, not anxiety.
- I saw from the episode’s credits that many foreigner animators and staff worked on the show, what are the biggest difficulties facing the communication afar and working with some less experient staff?
Apart from language barriers, there is no major obstacle to work with staff overseas. Rather I feel I’m blessed to have met so many motivated staff. I got acquainted with some of the staff members through personal Twitter connections, which was also a very meaningful experience.
Working with staff members who have a different level of experience is common in all work, so I don’t see it as an issue. By proposing various ideas and providing technical advices, I can enjoy the growth on both sides.
— Zayd🍊 (@zeido__) October 6, 2019
- What’s a trait you think animators should value the most?
When drawing a person, understanding the character and directing of the cut (shot) are the most important. From there, work your imagination to balance with persuasiveness. I believe what distinguishes a good drawing from a bad one is completely different from technical levels. I can understand the desire to improve your drawing skills as an animator, but the first thing you need to think about is to draw in line with the intention of direction and cutting.
- Even to this day, people seem very apprehensive about 3DCG in anime, although that isn’t the case for Viland Saga, what do you think that is needed to anime fans fully embrace 3DCG and the advantages that it brings when is well integrated with traditional animation?
It depends on how we define the content of the genre of “animation”, but if you define it as a genre expressed by the traditional technique of 2D drawing, it will be difficult to accept it completely.
However, from my point of view as a director, animation is a medium that expresses stories like any other video content, so honestly, I have no obsession with specific techniques. Rather I want to select a method in which my intention of direction and the cut(shot) is expressed more efficiently and effectively.
Likewise, there is a lot of talk around the affinity (match) with 2D drawing expression, and every studio is aiming for 3DCG expression that matches the work of 2D drawing. However, if you see it from a different angle, I doubt the value of “3DCG which is indistinguishable from a 2D drawing.” Achieving affinity with traditional 2D drawing is important, but we should not spend too much cost on it and do not forget the original purpose of expanding the range of expression.
Although there are major challenges in the expression of human faces, expressions of hair and cloth, 3DCG makes it easy to control complex and delicate movements using the body. In addition, the degree of freedom of camera work is high, and it is easy to cope with difficult angles and perspectives, so the possibilities of screen production will surely expand.
Currently, the best way to incorporate 3DCG is to use it in places where it fits, but what I want you to understand is that 3DCG is indispensable in order to meet the growing need for better 2D drawing expression. This is because if 3DCG increases, the burden on the 2D drawing staff will be greatly reduced, and it will be possible to focus on cuts that require higher levels of 2D drawing.
Besides, what I would like to tell you from my experience as a 3DCG creator in the 2D drawing animation industry for many years is that “the work process to enhance the affinity with 2D drawing” is a process that is not in animation works composed only of 3DCG. It should be noted that even when it looks insufficient, a lot of effort and attention are paid in the process. 3DCG is never used to reduce the efforts.
I like the expression of 2D drawing, but in the future, when richer expressions become possible, I would like to work also on a piece with 3DCG character in the center.
- About the future, do you wish to do more directive roles as a general director?
The main reason I wanted to work as a director is to deliver the story to viewers at a pace that I believe is the best. I have only worked on two titles as a director, but I feel a certain level of confidence in this regard, and I want to continue working as a director for many more titles.
As well, I want to gain experience in scenario writing, and my current goal is to present an original story in some medium in the future.
Notes: The word “lines” is used for two meanings. One is the dialogue words, and the other one is drawn lines.
The expression “Ma”(間), means the intervals between the lines and/also the music.