Satoshi Nakano, aka Washio, has been getting an increasing amount of recognition in the last few years, first for his work as an action animator and then for his character designs on Pokemon: Sun & Moon. Although controversial in some places, his contributions to the Pokemon series have been huge and helped make the series an animation powerhouse. Since then, he became even more famous thanks to his position as chief animation director on Masaaki Yuasa’s Inu-Oh, undoubtedly one of the best animated features of the last few years.
Following the Niigata International Animation Festival, where he earned the Okawa-Fukiya prize on Inu-Oh, we had the opportunity to sit with Mr. Nakano and talk about his past work, as well as some of his present activities.
This article is available in Japanese. 日本語版はこちらです
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“I realized what this job is all about”
First, can you tell us how you became an animator?
Satoshi Nakano: Actually, I didn’t watch anime that much until I was in college, and I read manga all the time. I had to buy manga on my own, so obviously I was a fan, but anime was something that came on TV on its own, so I didn’t really get hooked on it. Then, when I was in college, I happened to see Masaaki Yuasa’s Mind Game, and that’s how I came to like anime. I had read the manga first, which was reprinted to coincide with the movie adaptation, and it gets even better with the right mix of sophisticated drawings, colors, sounds, dialogue, and how dynamic it is! I started being interested in animation when I realized it had gone even beyond what manga could do.
I also liked games, so at first I was looking for a job in the game industry, but I didn’t get recruited anywhere… But I wanted to make money doing what I liked, and remembering the shock from Mind Game, I thought, “I want to do things like that,” and decided to go to an animation vocational school.
Was it useful?
Satoshi Nakano: Of course it helped me on the technical side but rather than that I feel more like I was blessed with the people I met there. I still have connections with friends I made there. I joined my first company because Mr. Masakatsu Iijima, who gave me a lesson on storyboarding at school, asked me if I didn’t want to join OLM for Pokemon, and that’s how I ended up there. We used to drink together a lot and were good friends, so I guess I caught his eye or something. I am grateful for that!
You mentioned you wanted to work in video games, did you want to join Nintendo to work on Pokemon?
Satoshi Nakano: Of course I applied to Nintendo, but I had never played Pokemon that much, and I didn’t choose OLM because of Pokemon. I also applied to other game companies such as Sega, Capcom, and Atlus, and I think the only company where I got as far as the interview was Sega. I usually failed in the portfolio and written exam. Well, I wanted to be a designer even though I wasn’t very good at drawing, so it was no surprise (laughs).
Did you own a Megadrive?
Satoshi Nakano: That’s sudden (laughs). I didn’t have a Mega Drive, but I did play a Sega Mahjong game called MJ at the arcade. I also had a Dreamcast, so I played games like Sonic, Ikaruga, and Crazy Taxi.
Before Sun & Moon, you did your first character designs on the Volcanion movie. But there are multiple designers credited, what designs were you in charge of?
Satoshi Nakano: The main characters were designed by Kazumi Sato, who was the chief animation director, so I only designed the two subordinates of the main antagonists. I like Kôji Morimoto’s characters, especially how the eyes make them look a bit mean, and I used to make doodles out of those and thought that would be a good fit for an enemy’s design. However, d”irector Yuyama asked me to “make it more cartoonish” or “make it fit more Pokemon’s world” and I adjusted it many times. I guess it didn’t feel like Pokemon enough (laughs).
On Sun & Moon, there were two character designers: you and Shûhei Yasuda. How did you split the design works?
Satoshi Nakano: First, it was the director, Daiki Tomiyasu, who asked me to design the characters. Of course I started with Satoshi, then Musashi and Kojiro. But we had to include the characters from the game like Suiren, Lilie, Kaki, Maamane… and in the end that was a lot of designs to do. So I asked Yasuda’s help early on because I was also working on the Pokemon movie. He’s very good at designing cute girls so I asked him to help out with the designs of Suiren or Lilie, while I focused on the male characters like Kaki and Kukui. That’s how we divided it.
But you were the only one to become chief animation director, right? Why is that?
Satoshi Nakano: I wanted to decide on the base standard of the series by myself. Also, after having been chief animation director on Pokemon movies for about 2 years, I realized what this job is about: bringing drawings which are at a level of 50% or 60% up to 80%. Considering Yasuda’s talent as an animator, I thought it would be better to have him make good episodes as regular animation director. I knew the episodes he’d work on would be good, so I didn’t need to correct them too much and it made things easier for me.
It feels like animators had more freedom on Sun & Moon than on previous Pokemon series. How did you make that possible?
Satoshi Nakano: In the previous series, Satoshi had this pretty cool and tough image. Perhaps because of that, overall he felt a bit stiff. Satoshi is supposed to be 10 years old, and when I thought about how I was at that age, I found it was a bit out of character. The director Tomiyasu agreed and we talked about how we wanted to make him more childlike. I wanted to make the expressions rich and soft, and keep the lines and shadows as simple as possible. We decided on a direction, saying that it would be good if we could create an atmosphere similar to that of Future Boy Conan. Well, that got us a mixed reception (laughs).
But we were allowed to make it completely different, almost as if it were a side story, and animators liked the changes, so I invited some of my friends, lots of people came to help out and it all made me very happy.
Friends, like Mr. Kameda?
Satoshi Nakano: Ah, yes. We became good friends over drinks, and I had helped Mr. Kameda with some of his work, so he did this for me in return! Mr. Kameda worked on the opening and the final battle twice.
Then Hiroshi Masuda did the opening, and for the final battle episode, there were a lot of amazing people who worked on it, such as Chikashi Kubota, Toshiyuki Satô, Keiichirô Saitô, and Daiki Harashina. I’m glad I went drinking so much with them before that (laughs).
As you just said, there are a lot of famous animators on Sun & Moon, but if we’re talking of Pokemon, of course it’s impossible not to mention Masaaki Iwane. Could you tell us a bit about his work?
Satoshi Nakano: Mr. Iwane’s strongest point is how good the timing feels, and then how strong the posing is: even as still pictures, his art is incredibly fun. But it’s not all in the key animation: he knows how to manage the in-betweens. The charm of his character acting also lies in how you have no idea where to put the in-betweens, or if anyone’s even going to be able to in-between his sequences in the first place. Also, he’s incredibly fast. On his own, he’ll do an entire episode’s worth, around 300 cuts, in just 6 or 7 weeks – that’s too strong for our rotation (laughs). Part of what makes him so fast is how he’ll take some effects he’s done previously and reuse them as bank animation somewhere else. So he’s already got the patterns and format for some cuts ready. I don’t think there are many people like Mr. Iwane in the industry, so it was a great experience for me to see his work up close.
Did you learn anything specific from Mr. Iwane’s work?
Satoshi Nakano: Of course, there’s how he animates comedy. For example, how he will take out the in-betweens for some movements just because it feels better. Then how he handles gags and framerates… And then I didn’t just learn about movement, but also about how to draw emotions and make funny pictures. The charm of Satoshi and Kaki’s drawings mainly come from Mr. Iwane’s ideas. Also, really, how to handle in-betweens, because of course it’s impossible to have a cut where it’s all key frames. By learning all that, I could achieve a good balance between where to put effort and where I could cut corners.
Another strong animator was Mr. Aito Ohashi.
Satoshi Nakano: Mr. Ohashi was fun to work with. He puts everything he likes and wants to do in his animation, so I was really looking forward to it, especially how he draws shadows and makes everything so different. Each one of his drawings is so cool.
I believe his first Pokemon was XY, and it’s at that point that director Tetsuo Yajima decided to make him and Yasuji Nishiya core staff members, which helped Pokemon’s animation level get to new weights. That was then carried over to “Sun Moon,” so I was very grateful to have him as an animator!
Director Tomiyasu is quite young as well. Did you get along well?
Satoshi Nakano: We did. On Inazuma Eleven, where I did my first key animation, he was in the production staff, and then on the OLM episode of Pokemon Origin, he debuted as episode director and I was action animation director. It’s probably because of that history that he wanted to have me as character designer. So we got along well, could be casual and exchange opinions without any pressure since we are of the same generation. Because with veteran directors, you don’t have that sense of proximity.
Is Mr. Yuyama that scary?
Satoshi Nakano: He was kind. I almost never saw him get angry. But he’s been in the industry for so long, and it was hard to just give or receive advice. He did let us have a lot of freedom on the TV series, even though he did tell us he wouldn’t let us do dirty jokes (laughs). For what it’s worth, he was kind enough to look out for us on Sun and Moon.
“I always liked drawing action and effects”
Originally, you were more of an action animator, but your designs are, as you said, very round and cute, would you say there’s something of a gap?
Satoshi Nakano: A gap? (laughs) Well, I never did much character design to begin with. It’s just that I ended up doing a lot of stuff for kids.
So could we say it’s the difference between Satoshi Nakano and Washio?
Satoshi Nakano: Ah, you found me out! (laughs)
Is that alright? (laughs)
Satoshi Nakano: It’s ok, it’s ok! Even Kameda talked about it at an Inu-Oh event.
It’s true that a lot of the work I did as Washio was not kids’ stuff. I did that for fun or to acquire some experience, but I always liked drawing action and effects. When I got the offer to become character designer and chief animation director, some of my seniors asked me if I’d rather not remain an animator and create movement, or even said that it’d be a shame for me to stop doing animation. But I thought that if I could create characters with few lines, they’d be fun to move, that even just fixing the movement was enough and that it would enable me to expand the scope of what I could do.
In the first place, the character designs from the Sun & Moon game were incredibly good, so I worked hoping to do something that matched them well. I’ve almost never had to do designs from scratch: there’s always been the games and previous series, so rather than character designer, I’ve always approached things as the chief animation director of Pokemon’s animated adaptation.
Isn’t that precisely what makes your Pokemon so interesting?
Satoshi Nakano: (laughs) Maybe you could say it like that!
What makes Sun & Moon special is probably how many weird faces the characters make over the course of the series. But I went all the way with that, hoping that maybe we could broaden the limits of what’s possible to do in the series. Even if the original picture was good, I’d push it even further. Maybe that’s why the animators liked the series so much?
But didn’t you encounter any resistance? For example from Nintendo or Game Freak?
Satoshi Nakano: I don’t know, but of course big companies feel like there’s always going to be someone conservative putting the brakes on anything before it starts. However, Tomiyasu said it’d be fun and would certainly work out. With the encouragement of the director, I tried to do as much as I wanted, and surprisingly, it was accepted. So I think Nintendo and Game Freak liked it as well.
I also met Yôichi Kotabe once at a Pokemon movie screening, and he told me that he wanted me to continue working on Sun & Moon because he liked how soft and nice the designs were. I was insanely happy, but maybe it was the influence of such a big name… (laughs)
Ok, here’s our last Pokemon-related question: what’s your favorite Pokemon?
Satoshi Nakano: The Pokémon that I liked the most in Sun & Moon is Turtonator. It’s hard to draw, but it comes out in so many good episodes of the show
You’re right, it doesn’t look easy…
Satoshi Nakano: Yes, but I like it a lot because of that relationship between him and Kaki… Before Sun & Moon, I liked Mewtwo. Because I played it all the time in Smash Bros (laughs).
“That’s how I ended up at Bug Films”
Right now, you’re not working in OLM anymore but at Bug Films. Can you tell us how you ended there?
Satoshi Nakano: I spent around 8 years at OLM working on Pokemon. And I must say that at that point I was starting to get tired of it. So I started looking for something that wasn’t Pokemon within OLM, and that’s when producer Hiroaki Kojima and director Kazuki Kawagoe came to see me talking about Summer Time Rendering. I read the manga, and I absolutely wanted to work on it, so I joined Kojima’s production team. Before that, they were busy on Komi-san Can’t Communicate, so I helped out on that, but then, just as I was supposed to transfer on Summer Time Rendering, I got the offer to work on Inu-Oh. So I went to see Kojima, apologizing all the time, asking if I couldn’t transfer to Inu-Oh instead. There was still time before Summer Time Rendering actually started, so he let me do that, given that I’d come back to work on it once I was done. After Inu-Oh was done, I came back to Kojima, but he had already left OLM to create his own thing. I decided to follow him, and that’s how I ended up at Bug Films.
We’ve been told you’re in charge of training the new recruits, right?
Satoshi Nakano: I’m working together with a good animator named Nomura. Since we’re a newly established company, we are short on staff with only a few people from OLM and freelance animators who became employees. I think it’s necessary to train newcomers if we want to keep producing steadily and with a good level of quality. We’ve only just started, but we are trying to increase the number of key animators by having an exam once every six months. The animation industry has always been understaffed, right? I hope that we can improve the skills of our own artists as much as possible so that we can keep producing good things. Teaching is really difficult, but I hope that everybody’s skills, even that of teachers like me, can get better with time.
Did you have someone who taught you all of that?
Satoshi Nakano: At OLM, there was a key animation exam, and I passed it to become a key animator. The system was that the examiners would assign someone to teach you for a year after that. In my case, I worked with Mr. Shôji Yasukazu, who was the character designer and general animation director for the TV series Tamagotchi!. He was very meticulous and detailed in his work, so I learned a lot about how to move objects so that they do not lose their shape. In terms of direction, Mr. Jōji Shimura was a very nice person who let me have a lot of experience in various jobs. I’m very thankful to him for letting me do some work storyboarding endings or animating them all myself. It was extremely fun.
Do you think you’d like to continue doing storyboards, and from there move to direction?
Satoshi Nakano: Storyboarding is very fun. But when I look at directors, I think it’s too much for me (laughs). Creation is always hard, but the director has to be everywhere and meet all kinds of people, from the compositing to the actors to the scriptwriters… At this point, I think I’d rather keep drawing.
“I tried to stick as close as possible to what Mr. Yuasa wanted”
I see, thank you very much. Let’s talk about Inu-Oh now. You told us you were a fan of Masaaki Yuasa, but how was it when you met him for the first time?
Satoshi Nakano: Let’s see, I think the first time was on Ping Pong… But I was pretty stressed out, so I don’t remember anything much besides the basic conversation we’d have during meetings. I got quite friendly with Eunyoung Choi, however. And then one time, for the party we held to celebrate the end of Space Dandy, I saw Mr. Yuasa, and I was completely drunk. So I went to see him and told him, “Mr. Yuasa, I love you, can we take a picture?”, like some fanboy, and I think that’s the first time I actually talked to him. (laughs)
After that, I made connections with the production people, and I participated frequently in various works. Whenever the timing was good, I’d work with Saru on Devilman, Lu, Ride Your Wave, Eizouken… only on a few cuts though.
On Devilman or Lu, did you use Flash? Especially the automatic in-betweening feature.
Satoshi Nakano: I didn’t. I was still only working on paper back then.
When did you switch to digital, then?
Satoshi Nakano: I still do some analog animation, but the first time I worked digitally on key animation was for Yurei Deco. I’m a good friend of the director, Tomohisa Shimoyama, so I thought that I could make my digital debut on his work (laughs). I knew he wouldn’t be too hard on me, so I started there. I also thought the characters would be simple and easy to work with. To tell the truth, when I heard that Inu-Oh would be fully digital, I thought I wouldn’t be able to participate on it… But I got the offer for Yurei Deco before the one for Inu-Oh, so I thought I could get used to it there so that I’d be able to work smoothly on Inu-Oh.
Who joined Inu-Oh first between you and Mr. Kameda?
Satoshi Nakano: I think it was me. The difference was only about a month or so, but at first Kameda was doing key animation while I became animation director first. I also think Kameda started some digital work on Inu-Oh, so I was kinda able to saddle up from the start (laughs).
Going back to Mr. Yuasa, is there any work of his as an animator that strikes you in particular?
Satoshi Nakano: Well, I got into this through Mind Game, but he didn’t do any animation there. I later learned about Mr. Yuasa’s animation by looking at MADs and some of the anime he worked on. I really liked Shin-chan and how he’d use background animation anywhere. It made me want to become someone who can make the viewer enter the world like that as well. Other people can use background animation very well, but the way Yuasa creates the entire image through the power of his own picture and delivers something that’s unique to animation is really amazing. I guess that’s what makes his work special.
Also, the ending of Manmaru The Ninja Penguin always felt soothing to me.
But in Inu-Oh, there’s very little deformations, and I’d say it’s Yuasa’s most realistic work to date, in terms of drawing style. Did that cause you any difficulties?
Satoshi Nakano: Yes, I think we ran into some difficulties. First, one of the instructions I got was about the clothes the background characters wear: they had to feel as thin as possible, so through their shape it had to be like people didn’t even wear clothes, and I had to be careful about their movement. In order to develop the world and atmosphere of the film, I didn’t just have to focus on the characters, but also on the clothes and props. That was the first time. But that may have been easier than drawing everything in Yuasa’s deformed style, because drawing deformations that look good is hard.
Actually, Norio Matsumoto was on the staff before I joined, so his drawings were already completed when I started working. They were incredibly realistic, for instance how the clothes move and feel was great. That’s when I realized what we were going for (laughs).
Could you tell us which scenes Mr. Matsumoto was in charge of?
Satoshi Nakano: The “avant”, so the part before the title where you see Inu-Oh’s father dancing with the mask on, and then a few other things all over the movie. Like when Tomona is executed at the end, when he runs on the street and his master is killed… Also when Inu-Oh runs and eats alongside dogs at the beginning…
Thank you very much. There are a lot of famous animators like Mr. Matsumoto on Inu-Oh, and both the designs and animation are rather rough… How did that affect your work as animation director?
Satoshi Nakano: In the first place, the storyboard was pretty rough, so first I’d see how the key animators interpreted it and how they approached each cut. So in that sense, the hardest stage was the rough key animation. Then the unit director Yamashiro Fûga would give me Yuasa’s instructions, and I’d touch up the animation with that in mind. Most of the animators were really good already, though. However, I had to consider lots of things, so I can’t really say it was simple… As good as the animation could have been, there were lots of drawings, so just correcting the characters’ faces was a lot of work – and then you have to add the props and everything.
But I did have a pretty good guideline for how to go: Atsuko Fukushima and Shûto Enomoto had arrived on the film as animation directors before I did and were extremely good at it, and there were all the extremely good animators who had already completed their layouts… I think both Kameda and I used that as our reference.
Compared to previous production, how was the work with Mr. Yuasa?
Satoshi Nakano: In terms of what to do with the key animation, the instructions he gave were pretty different. But for me, the difference came more from my position in the team than just it being a different work. Since I was chief animation director this time, I tried to stick as close as possible to what Mr. Yuasa wanted, so it was a lot of pressure. But it made me happy to be able to work close to him. He was sitting close to me, so whenever I wasn’t sure about something I could just go ask him, and that made things very different for me as well. Just watching him do corrections or attend meetings made me emotional. (laughs)
As chief animation directors, was the way you and Mr. Kameda approached your work different?
Satoshi Nakano: Of course, we were responsible for different parts, but taking the dance scene at the end, for example, I feel like Kameda really wanted to come up with the basis of the movement himself. In my case, I’d say I was the type to try raising the level of the original animation and keep close to the director’s corrections. Kameda was more the type to apply those and put some of his own sensibility at the same time. In a sense, you could say I was like the weaker seasoning and he was the stronger one.
Maybe I was too nervous about it, but I really tried to do things just as Mr. Yuasa wanted (laughs). On something like Pokemon, I’d do things as I like, but Yuasa is like God for me, so…
I see. Can you tell us about how you met Yoshimichi Kameda?
Satoshi Nakano: I met Mr. Kameda about 13 years ago, right around the time I started working part-time outside OLM. Yoshihiro Osugi was a director at OLM and we became friends. He invited me to participate in the Doraemon special anniversary episode. It was about a conflict between a robot cat and a robot dog. Back then, I didn’t know that Kameda was participating, but we met for the first time at the party celebrating the end of production. I was nervous because it was the first time I went to one of those as an outside staff, but Kameda is pretty much the most approachable person there is, and since we were of the same generation he was very easy to talk to. After that, we started meeting frequently at parties for other projects and at drinking parties where animators got together, so we became good friends. I already liked Kameda’s style and his work on Fullmetal Alchemist so when I said that I’d love to work on one of his productions he offered me a chance! I worked on Space Dandy, One-Punch Man, and a little bit on the Doraemon movie. In return I let him work on Sun Moon.
So you worked on his Dandy episode, #22?
Satoshi Nakano: That’s it. I was also good friends with Mr. Tomohisa Shimoyama, so I participated in some of his Dandy episodes.
Do you remember the scenes you were in charge of ?
Satoshi Nakano: For Mr. Shimoyama’s episodes, it was the conversation scene between Dr. Gel and Bea in the spaceship. I remember Shingo Natsume, the director, asked me to make the smoke coming out of his nose look like the woman’s cigarette in Download. In Kameda’s episode, that’s when Dandy adopts those weird poses, like the comedian Egashira 2:50. There’s leaves growing around and all kinds of strange stuff… I remember it as an incredibly weird episode. (laughs). But it was really fun.
But you couldn’t participate in Yuasa’s episode, right?
Satoshi Nakano: That’s right. Originally, I had no connection with Bones, so I just came from time to time to the meetings for Shioyama’s and Kameda’s episodes. From there I made a connection with Bones and got invited on My Hero Academia, The Dragon Pilot, Blood Blockade Battlefront… At the time of Dandy, I also became good friends with Chikashi Kubota who brought me on to One Punch Man. So thanks to Kameda and him, my prospects really broadened. But from now on, I’d love to work more with Mr. Yuasa!
Talking of Bones, are you a fan of Yutaka Nakamura?
Satoshi Nakano: I love Mr. Nakamura. I haven’t been able to see him recently but once we drank all night long and have been friends ever since. He’s really nice and will always talk to you, even in the bathroom! So you could say I’m a fan of his: I have his key frames collections and a collection of sketches. It’s signed, and it’s one of my treasures.
What are your plans for the future? You’re involved in Zom100, aren’t you ?
Satoshi Nakano: I’m actually on loan right now, working on another production, so I’ll only work on Zom100 on a point-to-point basis, for example the big action scenes and the opening. I also talk a lot with the other animators about their work. And finally, I’m slowly getting ready for our next project after Zom100.
Thank you very much for your time! Good luck with your work, we’re looking forward to it!
Satoshi Nakano: Thank you!
All our thanks go to Mr. Nakano for his time and kindness, as well as to Ms. Mayo Arita and Ms. Fumie Takeuchi for their collaboration.
Interview by Matteo Watzky and Ludovic Joyet.
Transcript by Karin Comrade.
Translation by Matteo Watzky and Antoine Jobard.
Introduction by Matteo Watzky
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