Throwback: Talking sound with Iwanami Yoshikazu

Iwanami Yoshikazu is another one of the top sound directors in the business right now, working on not just anime but also dubbed works/dramas and even occasionally directing and writing scripts himself. He’s known for his fondness for ad-libs and inventive BGM usage and having trained & worked as a sound engineer, Iwanami is more interested than most of his peers in the technical side of sound directing works, often talking about those aspects on his Twitter account. That technical proficiency enables him to get involved in interesting projects like overseeing the acoustic design of a theatre catering to the visually impaired. He’s also keen on injecting fresh ideas into sound in anime and is part of the recently released Blame! film’s sound team that is bringing Dolby Atmos to Japanese theatrical anime for the first time.

Iwanami’s range of anime work is diverse; from the Rakkyo & Fate series (from Zero onwards) to the Girls und Panzer, BASARA, Jewelpet, Marimite and Sword Art Online franchises. With his castings, he doesn’t seem to be particularly fussed or biased with no strong preferences on hiring any one seiyuu, but I do notice his tendency to work on Aniplex [Sony] shows which means he’ll get saddled with seiyuu that may not necessarily be of his own choice – just think of SAO, Punch Line & Bokumachi, amongst others.

This is an interview with Iwanami where he talks briefly about sound in anime, Sidonia no Kishi (Knights of Sidonia) and JoJo no Kimyō na Bōken (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure). It’s always interesting to learn about how different sound directors operate and what areas they focus or don’t focus on – Kimura Eriko doesn’t like dealing with the music/soundtrack selection process, Mima Masafumi likes talking about seiyuu & voice acting, etc etc. And Iwanami is obviously, a technical guy who’s not really into discussing individual actors.

Q: Interviewer [Musubi]
A: Iwanami, unless stated otherwise

The sound director, who holds responsibility for sound in anime

Q: So, what kind of job is sound directing?

A: Unlike in live-action film production, anime production features a director responsible for everything related to sound – in other words, a sound director. Working in partnership with various other people, the sound director is ultimately, responsible for the ‘sound’ within the work. Narrowing it down specifically – during recording sessions, they work with seiyuu. For [post-processing] dubbing work there are 3 elements of sound (dialogue, sound effects, music) that have to be matched to the visuals, and we collaborate with the mixer(s) and the sound effects team to produce the sound for the work in question.

Q: When it comes to working with seiyuu, what elements are involved? For example, when it comes to directing seiyuu, what specific kind of work is involved?

A: Everybody who’s there has already studied to become a professional, so I feel that there is no directing needed on the basics. It is more about ‘picking up’ the image [of the characters] that the seiyuu have brought to the table. As the [animation] visuals may not have been completed yet by the time of recording, it is important to continue fine-tuning those performances in anticipation of the finished product.

Knights of Sidonia

Q: Iwanami-san, your latest work Knights of Sidonia is a powerful one in many ways, including the amount of effort put into the sound aspects.

A: It’s a title that will potentially be watched by 40 million people across 40 or more countries, so we worked on it with the intention of making all 12 episodes of motion-picture quality. The base was 2-stereo channels (for normal TV broadcast) and on top of that, we produced 5.1 surround sound with powerful, deep bass (for the Bluray version). The cinematography of the Knights of Sidonia’s visuals was done to allow 5.1 surround sound to shine. For example, a scene where ‘something flies to the forefront of the screen and then continues to fly behind’. Having 5.1 channels to work with makes things freer and more flexible, as well as being compatible with SF works.

Q: So the stereo audio made for TV broadcast is produced with 5.1 surround sound in mind.

A: People used to watch most of their TV on CRT TVs in the past but nowadays you’ve got many methods of viewing content, from flat-screen TVs to streaming distribution on PCs, smartphones.. and so on. Now that we’re moving into a ‘one-source, multi-use era’, it becomes necessary for sound too, to innovate. The main premise may be to produce uncompressed sound that is up to par for Blu-ray purposes, but it is also necessary to produce sound that is satisfactory to everyone and packs enough power when played on various devices or for TV audio. I believe it’s common for people to notice that the powerful sound you hear when you first watch a SF movie at the cinema, is lost when you watch it on TV – that’s because what you were watching is the ‘source’ of a movie. Making the human voice easily audible is the priority of sound produced for TV so even if you input the same source (audio signal), the strength and pitch of the sound will be compressed. The increase in viewing patterns has imposed upon us a mission to ‘make sound that is dynamic no matter the environment’.

Q: On top of that, you’ve had to ensure that Knights of Sidonia complies with global standards… that must’ve been tough.

A: From the outset, the requirement was that the sound must be of ‘film-quality’.

Q: Were the dubs based on the Japanese audio?

A: We dubbed it in three languages – English, Portugese and Spanish.

Q: How conscious are you of overseas viewers [when it comes to your works]?

A: Hmm, this is a different show, but Kill la Kill was distributed online globally at the same time as the broadcast in Osaka which meant overseas viewers got to watch the show before someone like me who’s in Tokyo…yeah, something like that happened. That makes you realize that what you’re doing is increasing its reach worldwide, so you do become a bit more conscious of it.

Q: Sound-wise, what are the highlights of Knights of Sidonia?

A: Are you referring to the sound effects handled by Koyama-san* over there? (at this point, Iwanami-san turns to speak to Koyama-san)

Koyama: The SF genre is unique in that it possesses a lot of variety in sound when compared to other genres – it’s all an attack (heavy bass) game though.

*Koyama Yasumasa is a freelance sound effects producer. He worked on sound effects for Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Stardust Crusaders and Knights of Sidonia

Q: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of SF?

Koyama: I’ve always liked SF action movies like Transformers and Star Trek so you could say I was influenced by those titles. Though Japanese technology is still nowhere near to catching up, I am aiming to produce sound of Hollywood-level quality.

A: Even though sound heard in Hollywood works seems powerful, they actually end up sounding the same. The reason is because there are hundreds of staff members working on sound alone. When it comes to sound, the more and more people you have working on something, the less chance for any individual’s touch to show. I think that is something which remains a feature of Japanese animation – you can hear the personality of Mr Sound Effects Man coming through. He’s doing work on his own that you’d have dozens of people in America working on; that’s why you can hear his authority stamped all over [the sound].

Q: I see. I’d like to hear more background stories about the sound effects work! For example, was there anything special you did to create the Gauna’s (mysterious life forms that the protagonists are battling against) cries?

Koyama: We played around with the cries of organic things, living things and so on. After Yamano Eiko (a trainee pilot on the same team as Tanikaze Nagate etc) was swallowed by the Gauna in episode 2, I used a couple of tricks from horror movies like mixing up girls’ voices and playing them in reverse. I pummelled the sound into shape (laughs)

Q: Knights of Sidonia is based on a manga serialized in the Afternoon magazine. Is there anything you’re particularly conscious about when working on something that has original source material?

A: I try not to read too much into the source material. The more you read, the more confused you become. When you know too much, you’ll falter on important points. For adaptations of existing material, there is this problem that arises – ‘do we simply ignore the parts of the source that we choose not to adapt?’. After all, it is irrelevant information to people who are accessing the title for the first time via the anime. For me, film is everything. It’s important to think of how we can get first-time viewers to enjoy themselves [when watching].

Q: Does that mean you will not read the chapters that weren’t chosen to be adapted?

A: I read them once, and then I intentionally try to forget them. It is imperative to create something that satisfies people who are seeing the title for the first time ever, so I choose not to know too much. The first audience is the most important.

Q: I see. So in considering facing first-time viewers, what would recording sessions be like?

A: As it’s the final piece of work to balance things out, it is better not to be biased. What one should do in order to be able to naturally guide the audience….is not to have prejudices or strange preconceptions; it’s important, & that is what we value in the creative process.

Director Mizushima Tsutomu x Sound Director Iwanami Yoshikazu

Q: Actually, I love the combination of Director Mizushima and Iwanami-san. I like being assured that we will get something that surpasses expectations; anime works that are unpretentious yet surprising, such as Bokusatsu Tenshi Dokuro-chan and Joshiraku. Dokuro-chan’s endless wise guy jokes alongside Sakura-kun who is forever playing the straight man – the speed-talking and tempo made it a golden balance for gag moe anime!

A: Director Mizushima is the kind of director who prioritizes ‘tempo’. Since I myself am someone who also places high regard on the ‘tempo of sound’ during the animation process, it is enjoyable and rewarding [working with him]. We can produce sound that is accurate based on the visuals, precisely because he is knowledgeable about the production of sound.
Comprehending the composition of the visuals and the sound, and thinking about sound when creating visuals. A director who doesn’t just pursue cool-looking visuals, but one who also thinks and directs with sound in mind. I have no troubles at all when working with such a director.

About JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure

Q: This is a work that is famous for its many popular lines – how do you go about deciding on intonation and things like that?

A: Myself asides, the staff members who work on the show are all the same – for them, ‘JoJo represents youth’. Is it read stand ↑ or stand ↓ ?….it must surely be stand ↓! The arguments go something like that. Objectively speaking, it is always possible to get these maniacs who feel too passionate about something and go rushing headfirst [into decisions] when you’re working in a sound studio. I’m okay with where I’m standing (laughs).

How to build trust with seiyuu

Q: How do you build trust between yourself and seiyuu?

A: During recording sessions, whenever seiyuu think ‘I’ve slipped up here’, I will definitely ask for retakes. Mostly I’ll be watching from behind, but I can always tell just by looking at their back, the exact point at where they’ve ‘slipped up’. Of course I do judge based on the audio as well but as we build up our awareness of each other, we will come to a point where we can have this relationship of mutual trust and think, ‘it’ll be okay if I just leave it up to him or her’.

Q: ‘I’d like to meet this kind of seiyuu!’ Have you ever thought about such things?

A: I’ve worked with a lot of different people but I do particularly enjoy working with actors who can bring in various ideas regarding acting. People who’ll make you think, ‘Ah, that’s how it is!!’. For example, on something like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, you have to consider how to interpret dialogue that is already widely known by people. It’s fun to hear them and think, ‘Oh, so you could say it that way too’. It’s a joy to see this type of creative work involving people that can never be replaced by technology.

Q: Are roles determined by auditions?

A: Most of them are.

Q: What kind of atmosphere is there? Does it ever get like ‘At last, we’ve got ‘The One’ here’?

A: You can get ‘Ah, he/she’s the one!’ or you could get ‘Ah, we can’t decide who to pick…’.

Q: Were there any auditions that were memorable for you?

A: In terms of recent ones, I’d say the role of Speedwagon in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. We had 2 rounds of auditions but still couldn’t decide so I consulted the director and I called in Ueda Yōji for an audition on his own. And the director finally thought ‘He’s our guy!’ and that made me glad as well. Having this kind of thing happen makes auditions worthwhile, I thought.

Q: You’ve directed live-action movies and worked as a sound director [on anime] – what is the difference in terms of the demands of sound between the too?

A: The presence of air in live-action shoots. Anime is a visual medium, so this is where you get to showcase your talent – by showing how you can achieve the aerial sensation and sense of depth of air through sound. For live-action you can get by with one type of sound but for anime you might need 3 types of sounds… When you’re hitting a wall, is it iron or metal or plastic? Is it pounding? Is it rapping? You have to consider things like that. In movies you see the visuals and you’ll understand, but for sound in anime you have to emphasize, exaggerate and complement.

Interview: 2014.3.13

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