This year at Otakon, Manga Mavericks staff members LumRanmaYasha and Varun Gupta had the pleasure of interviewing Hiromi Wakabayashi and Yoh Yoshinari from Studio Trigger.

Studio Trigger has produced beloved anime such as Kill la Kill, Little Witch Academia, and Promare, and their newest series Cyberpunk: Edgerunners has now been released on Netflix.

Hiromi Wakabayashi has been involved with numerous productions at Studio Trigger and previously at Gainax. Wakabayashi was a co-creator, episode director, and scriptwriter on Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, art director and creative producer on Promare, and art director and scriptwriter on Star Wars VIsions “The Twins”. Most recently, he was the creative director for Cyberpunk: Edgerunners.

Yoh Yoshinari has an equally storied history at both Studio Trigger and Gainax. He was a key animator on prolific shows such as Neon Genesis Evangelion and FLCL, a mechanical designer on Gurren Lagann, and the director of both BNA: Brand New Animal and Little Witch Academia. Yoshinari served as the character designer and chief animation director for Cyberpunk: Edgerunners.

Note, this conversation was conducted as a group interview alongside several different members of the press. As such, we have indicated which questions in the interview were specially asked by the Manga Mavericks team.

With that in mind, enjoy our interview with Hiromi Wakabayashi and Yoh Yoshinari!

What is the process of working with American companies on projects like Star Wars: Visions as well as Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, and what are some of the most unique things you learned from it?

Wakabayashi: So it’s quite different between Star Wars: Visions and Cyberpunk. For Star Wars, it was an in-house competition and we had several pitches, and we presented these to Lucasflim and saw which ones were received best. Now with it being non-canon, we were told by Lucasfilm that we have fairly free reign on the creative process. For Cyberpunk, we were approached by CDPR (CD Projekt Red), given that CDPR had seen our animation and shows previously. Within their options, they chose us specifically. They knew what they wanted from the get go. So what was most unique about Cyberpunk is that usually in Japanese animation the distributors will approach us, like Netflix or other distributors that have their own mediums such as Blu-ray or streaming service platforms. CDPR obviously does not have any of those, so the incentive was quite rare.

Manga Mavericks (LumRanmaYasha): Along the lines of the previous question, I really enjoyed your screening of the first episode [at Otakon]. As someone unfamiliar with the game and the franchise, I really enjoyed it and I understood the world easily, so I was wondering how you balanced making the show accessible to newcomers of the franchise, while making sure that it still felt familiar to established fans and fit CDPR’s vision of the show as well?

Yoshinari: The main request that we were told by CDPR was to make an entertaining anime foremost. They do obviously want us to value the original IP, but if it gets in the way of creating entertaining entertainment, then a little bit of leeway can be expected as well.

Cyberpunk was a very influential genre in the 1980s and 1990s in anime. At the screening, you mentioned Ghost in the Shell, but other than Ghost in the Shell, were there other cyberpunk movies or series that were influential on you?

Yoshinari: As we said in our panel, Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner are such iconic titles, but it’s a little bit more potent than just referring to it as our preference at that point. If we had to name others, it would be Kawajiri Yoshiaki (director of Wicked City and Ninja Scroll) and Akira.

Wakabayashi: Adding on to what you referred to from our panel, again Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell are such iconic titles. We basically grew up with those titles. It would be important to note though that we tried to not make it too identical.

Manga Mavericks (Varun): How long did it take to finalize the character designs for David and Lucy in Edgerunners?

Yoshinari: So it’s difficult to provide an accurate answer. This applies to almost every Trigger title, but we generally work on character designs with everything else going on, and what generally happens is that we finalize the designs at the point where we start working on our storyboarding process. So again, it’s a difficult call, but we’re estimating about half a year.

Wakabayashi: One thing we’d like to note is that this was a first experience for us as well. We usually work with original IPs. Cyberpunk is obviously CDPR’s IP, and we couldn’t finalize the designs just within Trigger. We had to present them to CDPR and have their approval and permission. It was a challenge and an entertaining new aspect that we weren’t aware of before.

What are some cartoons here in America that you enjoy?

Yoshinari: Genndy Tartakovsky’s work. I’m more inclined towards showing respect to the creative staff more than the titles themselves, since a lot of these creative staff are around the same age as me, and I’m able to more easily relate with them. Craig McCracken and Lauren Faust, who worked on The Powerpuff Girls, are another example.

Wakabayashi: Star vs. the Forces of Evil and Gravity Falls. Those are probably the two most recent for me. I’m more of a Disney worshiper, and Yoshinari is more inclined towards Cartoon Network’s creators. [laughs] However, I guess the longest series I’ve been watching is South Park and I really like Drawn Together. I don’t know if it’s considered a cartoon, but there’s also this animated Eminem series that I enjoy called The Slim Shady Show.

What are some of the favorite creations that you’ve seen from fans of your works, and are you sometimes surprised at the innovation of fans to create things that you’ve created such as through cosplay? Some of the things that we’ve seen from Kill La Kill look almost impossible to cosplay and yet it’s done. Has this always surprised you?

Wakabayashi: I’m not too sure if this answers your question directly, but it’s always nice to see these fan community works like cosplay. We understand how much effort goes into creating this stuff, so it’s always a pleasant experience to see affection I guess. This isn’t one of the main creative processes for us, but when we design our characters we at least put a thought into how fans would cosplay our characters. When we were creating Kill la Kill, it was almost like a challenge. We were kind of questioning if fans would actually cosplay as the characters, but once we finished the project, we were quite surprised with how many people were willing to take on the challenge.

Manga Mavericks (LumRanmaYasha): Yoshinari-san, you mentioned previously that before BNA, you had been developing plans for a sequel to Little Witch Academia, and you worked on it for about a year but it really never materialized. I was wondering if you could tell us a little more about your plans for that project and whether you’re still interested in returning to the series one day.

Yoshinari: Well, we still haven’t thrown the idea out yet, so in the instant we are able to make a sequel, we would like to keep it disclosed. [laughs]

Manga Mavericks (LumRanmaYasha): I’d definitely love to see more!

When were you approached by CDPR to work on Edgerunners?

Wakabayashi: It’s a very broad answer, since we don’t have an exact date, but it’s probably around 2016 to 2017. It was still a pitch at that point.

Manga Mavericks (Varun): In recent years, many of the younger staff members of Studio Trigger have been working on the Gridman franchise. I was wondering, what other tactics or strategies has Trigger been using to bring in and foster new talent, be it animators or other members of production?

Wakabayashi: So myself, Yoshinari, and Imaishi (Hiroyuki Imaishi) would periodically hold a cram lecture session and give out a little project to work on. That wasn’t the case before, but the newer generation of animators have to be approached differently. Going back several years ago, we didn’t really have to teach them. It was expected that the younger animators would learn on their own. That they would kind of “steal” their superior’s skills and take the initiative. The newer generation has better learning methods, so we’re trying to adapt to the modern needs.

What is your favorite album that you like to listen to when you’re doing your work?

Yoshinari: I don’t listen to music. [laughs] I listen to the radio. I’ve been listening to TBS lately because the radio frequencies are pretty strong. It’s one of the more mainstream radio stations in Japan.

Wakabayashi: Recently, I’ve been listening to Apple Music’s Top 100 global charts. I’ve been trying to stay relevant and trendy I guess. It’s important for me since I play a big role in deciding the music and soundtracks for a lot of our works as well. So, I’m less so listening to what I like. I like to find out what the crowd is enjoying.

The game Cyberpunk 2077 came with its share of controversy. Are you guys ready to make the anime more popular than the actual video game itself?

Wakabayashi: I don’t think we’ve ever made anything with the intention of competing with something else. Rather, we hope that it deepens the lore for Cyberpunk. Aside from that, we kind of think that the crowd that enjoys games and anime is a little similar but also different, so it might not have too much of an overlapping audience.

What do you see in the future of anime, especially with some of the tools that are coming out and things that are happening like Live2D and VTubers. How do you think anime will evolve?

Yoshinari: Live2D and VTubers use motion capture, so they’re not animations. It’s a completely different platform, so it’s probably not going to intervene too much. Hopefully, the Live2D and VTuber communities continue to grow though.

Wakabayashi: It’s probably not going to affect the process of animation. We do understand that the VTuber and Live2D communities are growing at an insane level but that’s about it. I guess we’re trying to learn what’s engaging or entertaining with their audience.

Manga Mavericks (LumRanmaYasha): You mentioned during your panel that you found it challenging to modernize the aesthetics of the cyberpunk genre for Edgerunners, and many of your influences are 30 to 40 years old at this point and their view of the future may now be a little retro or antiquated. How do you feel cyberpunk can remain a relevant genre without losing the quintessential qualities of its identity? What do you see as the future of the cyberpunk genre? 

Yoshinari: The genre of cyberpunk worked for Cyberpunk 2077 because it’s a game. You enter this 3D world where you’re able to go on an adventure. It worked because it’s a new presentation. The genre of cyberpunk is itself 30 or 40 years old, at least in Japan, and when we are told to make an anime about a genre that old, it’s kind of like regressing in design and qualities of anime for us. So, it’s very difficult to present that in a modern aesthetic. For us, cyberpunk is the definition of retro. I’m not sure if you’ve seen our other work called Ninja Slayer, but that too is cyberpunk, and if we were to modernize cyberpunk, that is also a way of depicting this genre.

Cyberpunk: Edgerunners is the first time in a while that Yoshinari and Imaishi have worked together in key roles where neither is the original creator, and they usually work on things where they have complete creative control. Was there a reason for their roles in this project? What attracted them to it?

Wakabayashi: It’s a little bit of a bland answer, but it’s because that’s what CDPR asked us to do. CDPR was intrigued by Yoshinari’s designs and we basically just complied with the offer. Cyberpunk is a genre that both Imaishi and Yoshinari enjoy, and given the current industry standards in Japan, no sponsors will usually fund a cyberpunk title in this state. So for us, we were able to work on a genre that we probably would have never gotten the chance to do.

Manga Mavericks (Varun): As of this July, Studio Trigger has been on Patreon for 4 years. Has the studio found the platform beneficial for them and do you think other smaller studios should find a direct channel of support to fans?

Wakabayashi: The intentions of Patreon, Discord, and all these other outlets that we use, like Kickstarter, is because we like communicating with our fan base. We basically use it as a pipeline to our fan base outside of these conventions, and that’s because Trigger enjoys communicating with the fans. I can’t say anything about any other studios, but if that particular studio does not really care or enjoy communicating with their fans, then I don’t think it really works.

What convinced Studio Trigger to open an online shop and give away production frames?

Wakabayashi: This applies to probably every studio that still practices old fashioned paper on pencil production, but each episode of anime takes thousands of papers and space is limited. Once we start storing these papers, the storage gets packed extremely fast. Most studios would just dispose of them generally, but as a fan, I thought that’s really painful to watch. So, I thought it would be good to sell them. It’s like a win-win situation, where both the studio can make a little bit of money and fans can get a really one of a kind collectible, and that’s how it started. What makes it easier for us to do this is because we generally animate original IPs rather than adaptations.

Are there other things that you may be looking to create as well, such as a Trigger archive exhibition or museum piece, and have that travel around to different conventions?

Wakabayashi: We’ve done exhibits a few times in the past, but it’s mostly been in Japan unfortunately because it requires a lot of manpower. Our most recent one was The World of Hiroyuki Imaishi and we also had our 10 year anniversary exhibit. The outlet was probably not too strong for those because of the COVID situation. But yeah, we’ve done it a few times in the past, and I guess we would like to do it in the future as well.

Manga Mavericks (LumRanmaYasha): One of the things that I think makes cyberpunk as a genre and Trigger go so well together is that both your works and the genre have taken a deep look at the oppression of marginalized groups. It’s a recurring theme in a lot of Imaishi’s works and Nakashima’s scripts (Kazuki Nakashima), and I know Nakashima is not writing Edgerunners, but it definitely came across to me very well in the first episode of the show just how horribly David was mistreated and taken advantage of just because he was poor. What inspired you to use Cyberpunk’s setting to explore those themes in the way you have?

Yoshinari: Actually, the plot was presented to us by CDPR, so at least for David’s situation, there wasn’t too much involving us. Though that typical plot you explained is pretty frequent in Japanese animation, for example Galaxy Express 999. It’s something that not just Imaishi does, so I wouldn’t say that it’s just our go-to.

Cyberpunk was originally a tabletop RPG and there’s a strong TTRPG scene in Japan. Are the members of Trigger that are working on Edgerunners familiar with the original tabletop game or have any familiarity with TTRPGs and did that have any impact on their work?

Wakabayashi: Unfortunately, none of the staff members in Studio Trigger played tabletop RPGs. However, we did buy an original player’s book, and Imaishi did read and reference that quite heavily.

Manga Mavericks (Varun): What have been your favorite projects to work on, be it at Trigger or somewhere else?

Wakabayashi: I’m always having fun with every project! [laughs]

Manga Mavericks (Varun): So there’s no single favorite then?

Yoshinari: I tend to forget about past projects and try to enjoy the current project.

What genre do you consider Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt to be?

Wakabayashi: What do you think the genre is as a viewer?

It kinda has a post-apocalyptic feel to it?

Wakabayashi: When I was making it initially years ago, I was aiming it to be neo-animation, because there weren’t any other similar types of anime to it back in the day. I think that still holds true. I guess there’s no other anime that even remotely resembles PSG.

Is there a Studio Trigger cheer?

Wakabayashi: We don’t have one, but now that you mention it, we kinda want one.

Yoshinari: “Pledge your heart to Imaishi!” But I’m pretty sure that Imaishi wants none of this. [laughs]

Manga Mavericks (LumRanmaYasha): Yoshinari-san, since mentioned that you are a fan of Genndy Tartakovsky’s work, I was wondering if you had seen his newer show Primal, or if you had heard of the leak of the canceled Popeye film that he was making for Sony, where the full feature-length animatic was spread online?

Yoshinari: Yes, I’m enjoying Primal. I haven’t seen the Popeye leak though.

Manga Mavericks (LumRanmaYasha): It is very good if you hunt it down on Internet Archive!

Yoshinari: Ah… [laughs]

Is there any kind of genre or setting that you haven’t done yet but would like to do?

Wakabayashi: I guess we’d want to do a musical. [laughs]

Yoshinari: Our president likes sports so maybe that?

Wakabayashi: Perhaps something around youth school life or romance? Maybe a sitcom as well?

Yoshinari: We could also do a road movie like an adventure? But it’s probably unrealistic since we’d have to create a lot of assets.

Wakabayashi: There’s many kinds of stuff that we haven’t worked on.

Manga Mavericks (Varun): Wakabayashi-san, since you mentioned South Park earlier, I was wondering who is your favorite South Park character?

Wakabayashi: It’s Randy.

Manga Mavericks (Varun): Yes, Randy!

Wakabayashi: I liked Cartman more when I was younger, but I like Randy right now.

Manga Mavericks (LumRanmaYasha): Tegridy! (Reference to Randy’s Tegridy Farms from South Park)

Thanks again to Hiromi Wakabayashi, Yoh Yoshinari, interpreter Tatsuru Tatemoto from Studio Trigger Public Relations/International Marketing, interpreter George Endo, and Otakon for making this interview possible. For more coverage of Studio Trigger at Otakon, listen to our Otakon 2022 podcast!

 

About The Author Varun Gupta

Varun Gupta is an analyst residing in Minnesota. While his professional interests have led him on the path to the business world, he has always had an immense love of animation and comics. An obsessive manga collector, he spends his free time attempting to read through his massive backlog of series, hoping to one day finish them all. Will he succeed in his perilous quest? Probably not, but at least he’s having fun doing it!

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