During the 2023 edition of the Annecy International Animation Festival, a peculiar person was browsing the MIFA, the business area of the fest. This young girl, who could have easily been mistaken for a cat, was speaking perfect Japanese with every artist, producer, and government representative from Japan and seemed to know every one of them.
Her name is Giulia Lamperti, although she is better known under her penname Misu Yamenko. She’s Italian, and in addition to being a skillful businesswoman owning her own company, Alunite Inc., she’s a talented young artist who managed to become an episode director and storyboarder for Japanese productions—quite a feat for someone her age and very uncommon for a Western foreigner. She is the first Westerner to have been in charge of a storyboard on a Japanese production.
After talking to her for a few minutes, I knew interviewing her would be quite interesting. Although it has become quite common to see foreigners work on anime productions, most of them today do so from the “comfort” of their home (as comfortable as that may be considering the conditions and schedules) without ever setting foot in Japan, Misu Yamaneko followed a different path and went to study in Japan.
Discover her path to entering the anime industry and how she ended up creating her own anime and video game company in Japan.
If you want to support Misu Yamaneko’s work, she has recently opened a Patreon account where she shares pieces of advice on how to work in the anime industry. Consider supporting her!
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So, when did you start drawing pictures?
Misu Yamaneko: I started drawing pictures when I was very little. I watched a Disney documentary on Italian TV about how Walt Disney Studio created animation, and I found it very interesting, so I started drawing. I started to understand you can draw and make comics and animation at probably 5, but I always liked to sketch since I was little, and I liked cats, so I drew a lot of cats.
When did you know you wanted to be an animator?
Misu Yamaneko: Actually, I never wanted to be an animator. I first wanted to be a mangaka, so I made comics because I like to make my own worlds, stories, and characters. I wanted to do that, but I thought it was very difficult to do that in Japan because I’m a foreigner; it’d be hard to get a visa and stuff like that. Then, I thought I really needed to go to university and get a degree. So, I moved directly to Japan after high school. And I started studying animation in a private school.
Misu Yamaneko: The Digital Hollywood University in Tokyo. It started as a private vocational school, but then it became a university. I actually started studying 3D at first, and then I joined a 2D animation course where I met very skilled veteran Japanese animators. Fukui Tomoko, a veteran animator from Tatsunoko. She worked on almost everything that you see on TV. She’s an in-between artist and supervisor. An ex-Gainax animator, Fumio Iida, whose penname is Suezen. He worked on a lot of stuff like Royal Space Force, Rojin Z, and Yadamon. Royal Space Force is one of my favorite movies, together with Laputa Castle in the Sky. He worked with Mr. Sadamoto, and he was an animation director with Anno Hideaki. Another teacher was Murata [Mitsunori], who animated on Akira, Steamboy, and worked on the Magnetic Rose segment from Memories. He worked a lot with Takashi Nakamura, who is a famous director that I like a lot. For script, I studied with Fujisaku Junichi (Ghost in the Shell, Erin), and for storyboard and direction, I studied with Kuwabara Satoshi from Tezuka Pro.
So you were in a very good vocational school. A lot of animators went to Yoyogi Animation School and said it’s not good.
Misu Yamaneko: I think I was very lucky to have attended my university with good teachers who taught me how to learn the basics of anime and how anime is different from Western animation, stuff like that. I always thought the time we had was not enough because there’s so much to study. You start learning more when you are inside a company, true, but I think this kind of “preparation” at university was very important.
Did you have general lectures, like on art history?
Misu Yamaneko: We had lots of different lectures, and since it was university, you have lectures that are really general, like the history of religions or stuff like copyright law. I think it’s actually really important to study copyright law as an artist. As a creator, you have to know how to protect yourself. Of course, you have to choose one curriculum, but you have different classes at university.
What made you move to Japan? Which manga or which anime?
Misu Yamaneko: I really liked Studio Ghibli stuff. My favorite is Laputa: Castle in the Sky, so I watched it many times and never felt bored by that movie. What I want to do is fantasy that can move children but also adults, like something even my mother would like. Animation like this makes me love the world of anime. This is for movies, but if we look at low-budget TV series, I like an anime called Baccano!, which is probably not very famous but has a pretty cool storyline and characters. It’s by the same director as Natsume’s Book of Friends. I like the way the story is a bit different from the usual stereotypes. Japanese storytelling is very different from the Western mindset. I would say that it moved me and made me go to Japan.
How did you start in the industry? Please tell us all about your career.
Misu Yamaneko: At university, I had the opportunity to do lots of internships because the teachers worked inside the industry. That’s how I got connected in the first place. Then, I did an internship with HAL Laboratory from Nintendo as well, where I learned a lot about character design and got good feedback from them. After I graduated, I already had a job secured in a small anime company. I had the opportunity to work with a veteran director who used to work with Miyazaki on Lupin the 3rd: The Castle of Cagliostro; his name is Saburô Hashimoto. He taught me a lot about storyboards and direction. I was kind of his assistant on many co-productions with China. Actually, most of the things we’ve done aired on TV. Not on Western or Japanese TV. But I learned a lot from him, and he was an ex-Disney animator as well. He worked on a lot of Disney stuff like Gummi Bears, DuckTales, Darkwing Duck, and also on Inspector Gadget as layout artist and storyboard.
With Telecom and Tokyo Movie Shinsha?
Misu Yamaneko: Yeah. Mr. Hashimoto is not well known in the Japanese industry because he works so much with Western companies that he’s been forgotten by the Japanese industry, he told me that. He worked a lot with Tezuka Productions as well. He worked over there on the remake of Astro Boy in 2003. And then my other teacher talked about Astro Boy, my direction teacher. He was from Tezuka Productions; he’s called Satoshi Kuwabara. He did Black Jack, Astro Boy, Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal and Yu-Gi-Oh! : The Dark Side of Dimensions. He taught me a lot about storyboards.
Did you make a graduation movie?
Misu Yamaneko:I made a graduation movie.
Is it on the Internet?
Misu Yamaneko:It is. I’m very ashamed to show it to people now; it’s very low quality when I think about it. It’s called Junk. It’s the story of a robot that just breaks; people throw it away in the garbage, but it wakes up. Still alive, it tries to go to its owner, a little girl, and it meets a cat during its adventure. They cause a lot of misunderstanding with the police and try to escape, and then finally, the robot meets the girl again.
So it’s like Gunnm, without the fights?
Misu Yamaneko: Yeah, and no. It’s just a robot running away from the police. I tried to keep the design of the robot as simple as possible, but it looks a lot like a Laputa robot.
The robot from Laputa is a rip-off from the one in the French movie The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep, already inspired by Fleischer’s Superman movie The Mechanical Monsters. So, you shouldn’t worry about plagiarism.
Misu Yamaneko: I tried not to make it a copy, but after I finished, I looked at it and thought, it looks exactly like Laputa‘s robot.
If you didn’t do it on purpose, it can’t be a rip-off, right? Although Mamoru Oshii stated that everybody is doing rip-offs constantly and that it’s not a problem if done right.
Misu Yamaneko: Yes, everyone has the same problem, I agree.
And so, what did you first do in the industry? Did you start like normal animators, in-between, and then key animation?
Misu Yamaneko: No, it was a bit different, and to tell the truth, I don’t really like the Japanese stoic method of doing in-betweens for a few years without touching the key animation… I’m a bit against that because I think it is important you learn the basics properly, but I know some people have been doing in-betweens for about ten years and still cannot understand how to make key animation, so I don’t think it’s working properly. I started doing a lot of in-between exercises, where I made plenty of mistakes, and the veteran animators who checked my work always told me what they were, so I started to learn how not to deform characters or even that deforming a bit is okay, you just have to know how to divide the drawing to do the in-betweens, because it’s not just this split in-between, and there are many ways to do it. I started learning that when I was doing an internship for more than six months.
Misu Yamaneko: No, it was an internship in another company called Dormouse that is in Asagaya, near A-1 Pictures, and the in-between director there was working for the Evangelion movie at the time, so he gave me a lot of Evangelion stuff as well to exercise. They were just exercises. I think it’s good to do in-between exercises for six months to understand how to split the drawing, and then you can move to the real in-between work. But then, when I entered the company, they let me do a lot of stuff like check and correct the layouts, for example, for the backgrounds. And doing storyboards. When they give you the script in Japanese, you have to read it, imagine the storyboard, and draw it.
So you must be good at Japanese if you can do that.
Misu Yamaneko: There is no time for translation. I don’t think there are many foreigners that can do storyboards. They just draw very well; they have good sense, but they cannot read the script, so they cannot do storyboards. And storyboards aren’t about drawing well; the best storyboard I’ve seen in my life wasn’t drawn very well. Isao Takahata couldn’t draw, but he was a director. It’s not about being good at drawing. For that, you can do layout.
It’s about translating words into pictures.
Misu Yamaneko: You have to connect the cuts to each other properly, making this kind of stuff interesting… It’s actually very difficult. It looks simple because it’s just a draft, very messy, but it’s actually more than that. It’s not a bunch of drawings, but how you connect everything together. I think you spend more time thinking about how to do it than drawing the actual storyboard.
So, what was your first storyboard?
Misu Yamaneko: My first storyboard for a real TV production was on Pokémon. Pokémon Sun and Moon, episode 121, with Meowth. It’s one of my favorite Pokémon! I couldn’t believe I was able to draw him! It was a very small part of the episode, but I’m probably one of the few foreigners who was able to draw a storyboard for Pokémon, together with probably a Chinese and Taiwanese person? I’m not sure because many times, Asians in the industry are not even considered “foreigners” and have a low profile. There are very few foreigners that do that on Pokémon, especially because they are very protective. I had connections with a director at that studio, and he asked me to send him my portfolio to see what kind of storyboards I had. If a director liked it and thought it was good, they might be able to give me some work. So, I was probably at the right place with the right portfolio, with the right connection. I did both storyboard and direction for that part of the episode. With a supervising director, of course. Actually, the script I used for that episode was done by my teacher, Mr. Fujisaku!
And what was your first key animation?
Misu Yamaneko: Natsume’s Book of Friends, one of my favorite series! It wasn’t even key animation; it was secondary key animation. However, some keyframes were completely wrong, so I had to redraw the animation from zero. There was an animation director who was very good and professional. He was not correcting designs but movements. I had to adjust the characters to the character sheet myself, so it was very challenging. I didn’t sleep that night, but I did it because it was for Natsume’s Book of Friends. For layout, the first one was Merc Storia by Encourage Films, a video game adaptation from a small video game with a lot of monsters, like Pokémon. I was introduced to it by a friend as well because he was a production manager and suggested I try it because he liked my style of drawing that’s similar to Pokémon. So he suggested I do that, and it was actually pretty nice, but I discovered that one of my teachers, the one from Gainax, was the director for that episode, and I didn’t know. We didn’t know, but we worked on the same stuff.
Can you tell me a little about your career before you started your company?
Misu Yamaneko: I started at a very small company in Tokyo, but I kind of fought there, quit, and went to another company that was founded by an American guy in Tokyo. I had a lot of good opportunities there and enjoyed myself while learning ToonBoom as well. It’s not used at all in Japan, so it was a good opportunity to learn some new software. And I was working freelance as well on many things, one of them was Natsume’s Book of Friends. Before joining that American company, I worked with them as a freelancer in my free time when I was at the other company. It was on some teaser PV, and that’s why they trusted me and hired me. Working in anime is really hard because of the salaries and everything. I wanted to support young businesses as well, but it was getting difficult. I got an opportunity to go to an IT company that made comics online, on Twitter, so I kind of joined them for half a year and started developing stories. But it didn’t work as expected because even selling comics is very hard nowadays, so I went freelance and worked on Merc Storia, Vinland Saga, and The Promised Neverland, mainly as a second key animator. Merc Storia was key animation. They asked me to do key animation and layout many times but to tell you the truth, I didn’t want to jump straight into layout because I think it takes time to be a good layout artist, so I first wanted to improve.
And that’s what I’m trying to tell to new animators, to foreigners: don’t just accept layout works like this. They think they can do it, but actually, on the other side, the Japanese are correcting everything, the animation director… And that’s not how it should be. So I always say learn from the basics and do in-between animation first. I understand that everyone wants to do layout, and I think companies should give opportunities little by little to animators to do layout so they can improve because by doing only key animation and in-between animation, you won’t improve. But it will make you better. Doing layout from time to time is important as well, but Japanese companies have to change in that regard. In my opinion, their mentality is too old-fashioned. Anyway, after that, I worked on Pokémon as well as storyboarder, a really good opportunity. After a few months like this, I realized the sad truth of being a freelance animator in Japan: it was impossible to survive with that kind of salary. Even if you get better salaries from better anime companies, it means you’ll have to do more difficult tasks, so it means you have to work more. You can get better wages, but that means you never sleep, and your life balance becomes terrible. So I stopped doing that and found a position in a gaming company called KLabGames that makes video games taken from anime, and I worked on the Bleach Brave Souls. I did storyboards and direction for the in-game cutscenes and the motions of the characters. I always liked games as well, so it was a very good opportunity. The amazing team taught me a lot of stuff about motion and direction for the cutscenes. It was a very good opportunity
Game salaries are better. Even better salaries are in pachinko and things like that.
Misu Yamaneko: Actually, one of the companies I was at did pachinko as well. I know it pays better than TV anime.
But it’s not very gratifying.
Misu Yamaneko: Yeah, I had offers to go back to other anime companies, but I was at that game company at the time, and I thought, “No, why do I have to go back to suffer like that for so little money?” After being at a game company, I liked it, and the people were amazing, but I felt like I was losing a bit of creativity because smartphone games are all about gacha and very repetitive content. I was getting a bit bored about that, so in my free time, I started writing a pitch for an original story that I had in mind for many years. I actually had experience writing several pitches in the past as personal exercises. I Joined a seminar in Tokyo sponsored by the Tokyo government to learn more about pitches. I always liked to make more original stuff, but I didn’t know how to make a pitch or try to sell them. Because I thought it was impossible to do that, except in manga. Even nowadays, if you look at anime, there aren’t many originals, except originals by big directors, already established ones. How can young people or people who aren’t famous start making something? So I started making my own pitch, with the help of a Japanese friend and other friends, then sent it to a Tokyo government pitch contest, and I was selected.
Before talking about your pitches, maybe you can tell us more about your career as a young animator.
Misu Yamaneko: Yes, I graduated in 2016. But no, I won’t call myself an animator.
And you have a profile like an old veteran animator because you can draw animals. Young animators can’t draw animals anymore.
Misu Yamaneko: I love animals. I’m not as good as professional veteran animators; for me, their level is unbelievable. Because they used to do it by memory, whereas now we have lots of references, they didn’t have all this good software stuff. They drew it all on paper. So they are monsters compared to us. I made some anime cartoon paper as well. It was a lot of suffering, but I did it anyway.
Misu Yamaneko: Since I always liked video games, I joined a lot of indie events in Tokyo. And in one of them, there was another event called Pikotachi that was at a little café called Pico Pico Cafe in Kichijoji. I really liked the atmosphere, meeting creators, new people. Everyone does it as a passion and not for work. Companies have to do it, but they often push too much to make everything mainstream and stereotyped. But if you are indie, you have more freedom, so I really like that, and I was very impressed at how many people create different stuff, especially from different backgrounds like France, Germany, or even people from Taiwan, China, and other places like that. So I was very surprised, and in my free time, I always try to make manga or indie games. In one such event, I met Christophe Galati. He was working on Tako-San. He was very young and had already finished a game by himself. It was gameboy-inspired and I really liked retro stuff, so I was totally shocked how someone could do something of such quality. So, it inspired me a lot, and that’s how we became friends.
There was a time when he was at Villa Kujoyama.
Misu Yamaneko: He came for the Tokyo Game Show, so I met him at Pikotachi and at the Game Show, and we became friends and kept in contact. It was many years ago; I don’t even remember exactly when it took place. Tako-San had already been released. I talked a lot with him; we have similar tastes in terms of retro games and stuff like that. And that’s how I met him, basically.
Did you translate Tako-San?
Misu Yamaneko: Yes, I helped him translate Tako-San‘s page for Steam and his new project, Tako no Himitsu.
You didn’t do designs for him?
Misu Yamaneko: No. Because I was already working full-time.
You have now started your company?
Misu Yamaneko: Yeah. Because I won that pitch contest with the Tokyo government, I was selected first, and then they had me make a product launch presentation in front of the most important people from the government, so it was very scary.
Was it organized by Kouji Takeuchi?
Misu Yamaneko: No, I think it was organized by the Tokyo government in general because it’s financed by Tokyo, so they are very strict about that. We didn’t even know if you could be financed as a foreigner by the Tokyo government. But then I was selected, and we won people over. They trusted our project, so that’s when I said, let’s make a company because it’s difficult to move a project like that in your free time. That’s why I decided to quit my job. It was a mess during the pandemic, probably not the right time to open a company, but I’m glad we did it because we had many opportunities.
How many people are there?
Misu Yamaneko: We’re like five. It’s not a lot.
It’s not so small!
Misu Yamaneko: A lawyer, a programmer, and numerous freelancers. We do some work on anime. We participated in Ganbare Dôki-chan and Yurei Deco for Science SARU, which was a great project for me, my debut as an episode director.
Do you have any anecdotes about Yurei Deco?
Misu Yamaneko: Yes, I have stories. I had to correct so many things that it was a mess because they sent part of the production to Korea, and the main staff, like the animation director and other good animators, ran away or worked on other projects from Saru (they are producing too much stuff in this industry). But the story was so good, I really liked the project… Do you know NHK-styled anime? It’s kid-friendly but kind of adventure-like. It’s inspired by Tom Sawyer. The main character is called Berry, the other one is called Hack, and another is called Finn. It’s this kind of pop-sci-fi style of animation with very simple lines, without shadows, because it’s Science SARU.
Was it made with Flash?
Misu Yamaneko: No, it was made in Clip Studio. Some parts in Flash, yeah. Ideally, the correction is also in Clip Studio. As a director, I did a lot of meetings with animators, explaining what they should draw. Or, more like, episode director.
As episode director, did you manage the dubbing?
Misu Yamaneko: Not the dubbing with the actors, but I did the dubbing where you put the sound effects. They rent a studio.
I really enjoyed the part where you put the sound, matching the animation. We discussed it a lot, even with the director; we were sitting in front in the middle of the room. I really liked that.
So, how was it to work with Eunyoung Choi?
Misu Yamaneko: I wasn’t working with her. For the director, it was his first time directing as well. Everyone was very young on the staff for this production. That’s also why I decided to join this production. Because it was very young. Shimoyama Tomohisa is a really good animator, with the animator mindset of a director.
I guess it’s the influence of Masaaki Yuasa.
Misu Yamaneko: The thing that made me accept working for this anime was Dai Satou. He is the writer who worked on Cowboy Bebop, Eureka Seven, which is also one of my favorite anime. And Wolf’s Rain…
So, how did you finance your company?
Misu Yamaneko: With my own money, plus the other two people put their money in it as well. We didn’t have any help, funding, or support. It was incredibly hard; no one trusted us, and no one accepted the fact that we wanted to work remotely. But then Corona happened, and everyone moved to remote work. We knew that way before Corona.
Animators buy sports cars, and you start your company.
Misu Yamaneko: I know veteran animators used to buy Fiat 500 when they were drawing Lupin. The same Fiat 500 as in Cagliostro. I never heard about sports cars. But yeah, we are three co-founders at the company. We put money together, and to tell the truth, even our families helped us to start the business because it’s not easy. Then, from there, we moved by taking over jobs and making it move and work as a company. I’ll say it’s very hard, not something everyone can do, but if you want to be independent and if you want to make your own stuff, I think nowadays it’s necessary.
It’s really ballsy because I know French people who started companies but always had a backup from France, like Ankama, for example.
Misu Yamaneko: It’d be great to do that, but it’s very hard to find funding as a small company. The tough challenge is not really finding jobs and moving on, but more like finding someone who trusts you, wants to help you and puts effort into it is the most difficult thing. For young companies, no one trusts them. You’re not famous.
The problem is, as a company, you have to get money every month, so you have to work for other studios, and, in the end, you don’t have time to do your own projects.
Misu Yamaneko: Yeah, that is called a service company, and most studios just want to do that. For me, it is like a no go… unless the pay is very high, you will always be poor. When we did the original pitch for the Tokyo government, I was actually working full-time in a game company, so I did that pitch at night, during my free time. I was younger and full of passion, so I was able to do it.
And right now, you have three project overviews.
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