INTERVIEW: SAKUGAN Staff

After being delayed from its original 2020 release date, the Satelight-produced sci-fi series SAKUGAN premieres today on October 7, 2021. A few weeks ago, Anime Trending received the opportunity to learn more about the anime and its production from director Junichi Wada (Caligula, WorldEnd), kaiju concept designer Shōji Kawamori (Eureka Seven Hi-Evolution 3: Eureka main mechanical designer; Macross Delta chief director, co-creator, Valkyrie designer et al.), mecha designer Stanislas Brunet (Macross Delta, AKB0048), and voice actress Kanon Amane.


Shōji Kawamori (Kaiju Concept Designs)

Anime Trending: You’ve done a lot of mechanical design work throughout your career, with credits on shows like The Super Dimension Macross, Patlabor: The Movie, the Eureka Seven series, and many more, but you were also involved with the creature designs for Chikyū Bōei Kazoku (The Daichis – Earth Defence Family). It’s been 20 years since that show aired; how has your approach to designing creatures/monsters changed, and how does it compare to your approach in designing mecha?

Shōji Kawamori: The biggest change in my approach comes from the shift from hand-drawn images to CGI. Fifteen years ago, CG had a lot of problems compared to hand-drawn, like movements seeming weightless, inexpressive faces, and dead eyes. While the move to digital allows for more lines and details, I’ve had the experience that increasing them recklessly will dilute a character’s impact. Since then I’ve started fine-tuning the amount of detail I use and how I form the silhouette.

Regarding the difference in approach between mecha and creature design, unless the mecha is made from some special materials, it doesn’t stretch and compress. You prepare the shape as a mass, and you consider how you can change the impression it gives off or the sense of movement you give it by changing the angle of view. By contrast, a creature’s body can twist and stretch, so the way you think of deforming it differs.

What aspects did you bear in mind when designing the kaiju concepts?

While it excuses you from having to worry about differentiating mecha fighting other mecha, kaiju do have a function of helping to define the word setting. They have to appear savage at a glance, while also having a certain appeal. Director Wada and I also talked a lot about what their weak points should be. If they’re just strong without a weak point you can’t kill them, for instance, so we came up with a lot of plans about how we could incorporate those weak points, like that they die if their mucus dries up, into their design. In addition, making their heads and eyes large gives them a more intimidating appearance, but also creates problems like making them look less huge, so we had a lot of debate about the proportions. I also thought up some gimmicks about how they open their mouths, so you can look forward to seeing how that applies in the show proper.

Kaiju are large, terrifying enemies, but they’re also living things. Are the kaiju in Sakugan simply scary monsters that terrorize humans, or are they more like giant animals with reasons behind their behaviour?

You’ll just have to watch the show to find out!

Episode 1’s kaiju is a four-limbed, reptilian-like beast with a rocky exterior. What other sorts of kaiju forms and appearances can audiences expect from the show?

I hope you’ll wait and see for that one too!

You’ve worked with Stanislas Brunet multiple times in the past. Although your roles for SAKUGAN (Kaiju concept design and mecha design respectively) are opposites in a way, were there any discussions/interactions between the two of you when working on the project?

We didn’t talk a whole lot this time around. I was the director of Aquarion EVOL and AKB0048, so we talked face to face a lot then, but this time I mainly went through Director Wada and we didn’t talk a lot directly. And regarding the designs, Mr. Brunet’s Big Tony design came first, so I was able to think about the kaiju from a perspective of what would be most interesting for Big Tony to fight. Mr. Brunet knows the ins and outs of Japanese animation, but he also has a distinct sensibility and ideas about characters that Japanese people might never come up with, so I really enjoy working with him. He also has a great personality.

You’ve a long history with sci-fi anime. What stands out to you about SAKUGAN, especially compared to previous works that you directed or were involved with?

That it’s a story about parent and child, that the child is a genius, and the vivacious, fast-talking, fast-moving nature of it really struck me. It’s got themes you don’t usually see in late-night anime these days, and that’s part of what makes me glad it was the contest winner. I think Director Wada’s good instincts as a director are also on full display, and that both the hand-drawn animation and the CG are very well done.

Junichi Wada (Director)

Anime Trending: How closely does SAKUGAN stick to the original novel written by Nekotarō Inui?

Junichi Wada: We wanted this to be as original an anime as we could make, rather than a faithful recreation. Mr. Inui was present when we were first laying out the plot, and we discussed a lot of ideas about how we could make the story even cooler for the screen. I hope it has that “Sakugan feel” on par with the fantastic original story.

What stood out to you about the story?

I just found all the characters, starting with Gagumber and Memempu, very appealing. I just wanted to go on an adventure with them.

What aspect of the Labyrinth world did you find most important in portraying in the series?

The background art. More specifically, the placement of colors to make the darkness stand out more. This entire world is inside of a cave, so it’s very dark, but if dark was all it was, it would be really boring to look at. Achieving a balance here was difficult, but Koda-san, our concept designer, and Bic Studio, who were in charge of our background art boards, managed to figure it out. Please look forward to the changes in background colors every episode.

What sort of mood/atmosphere did you want the show to have?

I wanted it to have a contrast between the lightness of the look and the heaviness of the story, and just how cool an old man can be. I worked hard to make this a story that adults could enjoy.

What did you take into account regarding the portrayal of Gagumber and Memenpu’s father-daughter relationship?

I wanted to avoid relying on typical anime platitudes and moralistic ideas about familial relationships. I feel like the troubles Gagumber goes through as a parent, and his true feelings, are fully present in the script of the first episode.

This is Kanon Amane’s first main role. How was she chosen for the role of Memenpu, and what was it like working with her?

Ms. Amane’s voice best carried the sense of “bratty but charming.” What was really memorable about her first performance was that she was crying during recording. When Memempu had to cry, she started crying with her nose running, with no concern for her personal image. The greatest challenge for me was making sure the animation could keep up with her full-body performance.

There is a sudden and bloody turn of events towards the end of the first episode. Will the rest of the show have similarly unexpected and brutal developments?

Good question! You’ll just have to watch to the end!!

Who is your favorite character in the show and why?

Gagumber. He has a kind of coolness I don’t possess.

What would you tell audiences to look forward to/what is the appeal of the series? 

It’s cool yet charming, set in a serious world that also has a lightness to it… the world is full of characters and robots that embody such contradictory elements. We hope you won’t be intimidated by the disparity, and keep watching!

Kanon Amane (voice actress of Memenpu)

Anime Trending: This is your first major role in anime. How has your experience been so far?

Kanon Amane: Everything’s so new. It’s just a dizzying experience. I was in the drama club in middle and high school, but in plays, you get the audience reaction immediately. Here, people don’t get to see your performance until you’ve finished it. That’s very new, and very nerve-wracking.

Memenpu is a young child who is also a genius. What was the most important element in portraying a character that is both mature and immature at the same time?

It may go without saying, but the hardest part was not forgetting that she’s physically nine years old. Her mind is very mature, so you end up making her voice sound mature, and acting like you’re physically looking down on people. I struggled a lot at the start to remember that her vocal cords and her physical stature were both those of a nine-year-old.

Memenpu’s relationship with her father, Gagumber, is incredibly important to the story. How do you interpret their relationship, and did you pull from personal experiences in portraying this element in the series?

At first glance she looks like a prodigy supporting her layabout dad, but the way Memempu pursues the path she believes in and Gagumber tries to stop her out of fatherly concern is a bit like a parent dealing with a child in her “terrible twos.” I think Memempu can act out the way she does because she trusts Gagumber as her father to always give her a place to come home to. I feel like they’ve established a perfect balance. My own mother always made it clear that I could always come home and be safe with her, and that meant I could pursue the things I wanted without fear. I think our relationship is fairly similar.

What was working with Tōchi Hiroki (Gagumber’s VA) like?

At first, it was just overwhelming. At the same time, I remember feeling enthusiastic that I got to play Memempu, a girl raised by a man like him! I hope I can get across the feeling that Memempu is really her father’s daughter.

What was the most interesting aspect of the character for you?

Definitely the discrepancies of a girl who’s nine years old but has already graduated from college. She simultaneously has childish and mature thought processes, and I find that very interesting. I think that lopsided personality is part of her appeal, but also part of what was so hard for me.

What can viewers look forward to in the show?

I’d like to say “everything!” so it’s hard to narrow things down to just one! Since people from overseas will be reading this article… the various colonies that appear in the show are intended to preserve nature and culture, so you’ll see a lot of locations that will remind you of popular tourist spots. Since we can’t really travel right now, I hope you’ll all watch Memempu and her father’s journey, feeling like you’re going on a world tour with them.

Stanislas Brunet [from Studio No Border] (Mecha Designer)

Anime Trending: How did you settle on the industrial-yet-exaggerated look for SAKUGAN’s mecha?

Stanislas Brunet: From the first meeting with Mr Wada, we discussed the idea of giving the mecha a raw, functional aspect where the mechanics should be a little apparent.

He also wanted Big Tony to have a face on his chest, which naturally induced slightly more SD (super deformed) proportions. Keeping these things in mind, I decided to make the robot look rounder and cuter, without removing his working functions, and adding massive arms and swift legs. After retouching some elements to allow the transformation into a tank, along with some aesthetic touch-ups, Big Tony’s design was done!

That’s how; from this first design, the “exaggerated industrial” style of the series was decided.

You’ve previously done mecha/mechanical designs for many other shows like Macross Delta, Aquarion Logos, Nobunaga the Fool, and AKB0048. How has your approach to the craft evolved?

For all these projects, my intellectual approach to create the designs has remained the same. First, I try to have as much information as possible about the project itself. Then I need to judge what the director’s expectations are regarding my work. Either way, I try to get as close as possible to his vision. Sometimes they don’t have specific ideas and I am expected to come up with something.

I immerse myself in the universe of the project and I try to determine the functionalities of my designs, their aesthetic aspect, and their originality.

What has changed in my approach is the technique of drawing. Before Macross Delta, I did all my digital drawings on a graphics tablet, with a few trials of 3D designs for cockpits. Now I use 3D from the design stage. It was on the Carol and Tuesday project that I changed my method.

Usually, I start by making a very quick paper sketch to clear up my ideas, and then I create my design in CGI. When I’m satisfied, I render it and use photoshop to add details, color, and prepare my drawing boards.

Tell us more about Gagumber and Memenpu’s mech, Big Tony.

Big Tony was the very first design I worked on for Sakugan.

Mr. Wada already had very specific ideas of what elements he needed for the setting. The robot has to be both a construction machine and an exploration vehicle capable of making long journeys, with all the equipment you need to survive in a hostile environment.

At first, he was not intended to turn into a tank, but he absolutely had to be able to roll with his feet on the road. I had in mind that maybe he could use his legs in an intermediate mode. I did some quick CGI tests to see what it could look like, but I was not happy with the result. Besides, it was an idea already seen elsewhere. I finally decided to be more radical and turn it completely into a vehicle, and in a few hours with my 3D software I managed to find the right balance. Big Tony’s first draft had no foot and only one eye / headlight. After some corrections the final shape of the robot appeared.

Then I focused on the cockpit. We needed to be able to see Gagumber and Memempu chatting inside, and right from the start we decided to make a helicopter-like cockpit with Memempu’s seat a little higher, so it was possible to see their two faces in the same shot. At first, I wanted the cockpit to be a mess, with rolls of route maps (like sailors) and a whole bunch of measuring instruments to calculate routes. But that was too complicated, so we kept the dials and simplified them a bit.

You’ve been involved in a variety of sci-fi anime, not just in mechanical design roles but also in background design roles and world design. What stands out to you about SAKUGAN, especially compared to previous projects you’ve worked on?

On Sakugan I’m not working on decor design, but I find the idea of an underground and mineral universe very original. You can play more with the notions of depth, and you have to be clever to create the light. It’s probably more restrictive to imagine, but it’s the kind of creative challenge that I like

You’ve worked with Shōji Kawamori multiple times in the past. Although your roles for SAKUGAN (mecha and Kaiju concept designs respectively) are opposites in a way, were there any discussions/interactions between the two of you when working on the project?

Yes, I worked with Shoji Kawamori many times when I was at Satelight. Since my return to France, Kawamori-san asked me sometimes for illustrations or design concepts on his projects in development. I didn’t know he designed the creatures in Sakugan.

Speaking of Kawamori, what influence has he left on you?

I love working with Shoji Kawamori, he is a very curious person who has a gift for transmitting his passion. From him, I learned to be more demanding with my designs and to constantly seek originality. My current working method is inspired a bit by his. When he creates transformable robots, he makes a prototype in Lego to validate his concept. Now, I am doing the same in CGI.

What’s your favorite mecha in the show and why?

Overall, I am very satisfied with all the designs of the series, but I have to admit my favorite is Big Tony. It is strong and endearing. Its round headlights give it a sympathetic expression and its general silhouette is very legible. It’s a mecha that really transforms. This is one of my most accomplished designs.


Special thanks to Crunchyroll and the interviewees for their time and opportunity. SAKUGAN is now streaming on Crunchyroll (and Bilibili) and is described as:

One day in the distant future. Humans live shoulder to shoulder in “colonies” separated by rock.

Outside the colonies, a dangerous undeveloped area called “the Labyrinth” is expanding. Those who risk their lives to develop “the Labyrinth”, who mark out the undeveloped areas, are known as “Markers”.

A young girl, Memempu, who wants to be a Marker one day, and a man, Gagumber, who used to be one.

This mismatched father and daughter now take on the Labyrinth!

“If there’s no path, dig one!”

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