(Lead writer Youichi Katou | Producer Daichi Nagatomi and director Gou Koga)
A translation of this Animate Times interview about Digimon Universe App Monsters, from December 3, 2016, with its producer Daichi Nagatomi and director Gou Koga.
In commemoration of all episodes streaming together! From Digimon to Appmon — Toei Animation’s Producer Nagatomi and Series Director Koga talk about what the series inherited, and what they want to try out
The Digimon series, which started from portable training games, has come to produce a number of animated series. Representing the new incarnation of Digimon, the TV anime Digimon Universe App Monsters is currently airing, having begun broadcast in the fall of 2016.
As nearly 20 years has passed since the very first anime series was broadcast in 1999, this series has significantly changed the nature of a “Digimon” based on how society has changed. By changing from the traditional “Digimon” data life form to the artificial intelligence-equipped app life form “Appmon”, the worldbuilding and the themes have changed significantly in a way that brings it closer to the modern era, but…
The series is a story of Buddies that depicts the friendship and growth between a human, the protagonist Haru Shinkai (voiced by Yumi Uchiyama), and a search engine Appmon named Gatchmon (voiced by Kokoro Kikuchi).
And so, we’ve carried out an interview with the series producer Daichi Nagatomi-san (from Toei Animation) and series director Gou Koga-san (from Toei Animation). We asked about various topics, such as the reason for the title change, the use of AI (artificial intelligence) as a theme, and the characters.
The unexpected theme of the series is “de-Digimonification”
–Firstly, how did you come to be involved with this series?
Daichi Nagatomi-san (hereinafter, Nagatomi): I started getting involved when Bandai gave me the original draft for the project. We talked about all sorts of things, and, as a representative of the animation planning and production end, I exchanged quite a few opinions with them.
After I’d heard them out and as work on the project continued, I naturally started thinking “whom should we get as the director?”, and back when I’d been working on the movie PreCure All Stars New Stage 3: Eternal Friends (2014) as its producer, I’d visited the production site for DokiDoki! PreCure (2013) in order to research, and since Koga-san was its series director, I thought, “I’d like to work together with him sometime,” so that was how I eventually came to invite him for this series.
–Koga-san, what were your impressions when you first heard about this new Digimon project?
Gou Koga-san (hereinafter, Koga): I think Digimon Adventure is an outstanding series. However, it’s so overly outstanding that it created a ton of follower series that were influenced by its version of Digimon. Also, seeing it from the perspective of the early generation, the environment on the audience side has changed so much, so I felt the novelty of the concept of “traveling with monsters in a different world” must have died down.
Because of that, I felt that if I took over that form of Digimon and did the same thing, we’d have no chance at success. When I joined the project, the first thing I did was confirm “what should I do?” The response I got back was “please make something completely different,” so I felt that, in that case, we can make it work, and accepted the job.
Nagatomi: As Koga-san just said, from the beginning, our plan was to “challenge new things!”, and Bandai’s initial planning draft had “de-Digital Monster-ify” on it. I’d personally also worried about the idea of doing the same old Digimon over again, but if we were doing something new, then I wanted to do it together with them. Because of that, from the very beginning, we were all in agreement about focusing on doing something new.
–The fact that it’s a de-Digital Monster-ification seems to be reason for the change in title, but can you give us more details about that?
Nagatomi: Firstly, both Toei Animation and Bandai want to make this a solid part of the Digimon brand. For instance, you have Mobile Suit Gundam or Kamen Rider, and Toei Animation has their own brands like PreCure, so as long as your brand has a firm root to it, you can take on different challenges with your series every time.
To be more specific about it, we want to at least create a little of an environment where those who enjoyed the first generation of Digimon and have become parents can enjoy this with their children. If that happens, the “outline of the media that connects both generations” will become apparent. Since we’re at the right timing for it now, we felt that it would be important for both Digimon fans and for us as creators to create a solid, high quality series, one that you’ll never forget. So with those feelings, we topped the title off with “Digimon Universe”. We thought it’d be nice if that “Universe” part could change for each series from here on out.
–Incidentally, what kind of meaning are you going for with the word “universe”?
Nagatomi: Well, of course, we hated things like just writing “series”, that felt too easy (laughs). So when we were looking for words to use, we suddenly came up with the idea “how about a universe?” It also has the meaning of “variety”, and it sounded good as a word, so we decided that this was the one that fit the best.
Also, while Digimon is a series that’s been supported very strongly by those among the generations who watched it back then, within the animation industry, it also has a good reputation among many as a “series with influence”. I also personally felt the impact of that, so I wanted to create an opening for people to come see it, and thus to keep the name “Digimon” somewhere in it.
However, since it’s a series with such a good reputation, I didn’t want people who like Digimon to think “the new Digimon isn’t much of a big deal,” so it’s a series that makes me feel like I have the double-edged sword of both advantages and heavy responsibilities.
I can’t drop the baton that I was given by those who came before me.
–So was there anything you paid particular mind to once you put “Digimon” into the title?
Koga: We paid close attention to making sure “de-Digimonify” didn’t become “anti-Digimon”. We feel that deliberately dodging what the older series did is inherently “anti-Digimon”, so what we’re doing is taking what the older series had if we think it works, and changing it if we think the times have changed too much for it. It’s actually “de-Digimonification” in the sense that it’s free to do whatever it wants.
–With that kind of series, what kinds of responses did you get after the series broadcast for around one cour?1
Nagatomi: At the beginning, about 70% of our responders were skeptical, saying things like “the hell is Appmon?”, and about 30% of them said things like “since Appmon is our newest incarnation of Digimon, please do your best.”
However, after one cour had finished, we heard a lot of opinions saying things like “at first, I thought Appmon would be a bootleg version of Digimon, but when I actually watched it, it was actually ridiculously much like Digimon.” I was very happy to hear that. We made this as a de-Digimonification, so this wasn’t supposed to be a series that we made with the stance of “this is the new series of Digimon!”, but since you could still feel the sense of Digimon within Appmon, we felt that our choices of what Digimon elements to make use of were the correct ones.
Koga: Digimon fans who watched the series as children certainly each have their own parts that they consider to be responsible for expanding the goodness of Digimon. Each of them has their own version of Digimon, and if you have two fans who get together and talk about it, each of them will have seen different series of Digimon. However, I believe that if you try to take all of those opinions and take the average out of it, you’ll end up with the most boring thing possible.
Also, lately, there have been many things getting remade, and you can hear a lot of criticism in those remakes. From those experiences, we felt that the only thing to do for Appmon was to believe in our goal to “de-Digimonify” it, and continue making Appmon.
Nagatomi: We’re not making this to please the greatest common denominator, or rather, we’re not taking a majority vote on this (laughs).
–Nagatomi-san, you said that “we felt that our choices of what Digimon elements to make use of were the correct ones,” so what kinds of choices did you make?
Nagatomi: One of them was “the relationship between the children and their Digimon”. This has been an important point throughout the series, and when I was watching the older series, the nature of the relationships between the Digimon and the children changed between each series, and I spent a lot of time thinking about it. Hiroyuki Kakudou-san (*2) seems to have said that “in Digimon Adventure, Agumon represents Taichi’s alter ego,” and I felt that aspect had prominently shown in the series itself.
But in Digimon Tamers, the children participate in the fighting by powering up their Digimon for the sake of battle, and in Digimon Frontier, the humans themselves transform into the Digimon. The nature of the relationships between the Digimon and the children is unique to each series, and it’s such an important element that we discussed it quite a lot.
*2: Hiroyuki Kakudou-san served as the series director for Digimon Adventure (1999) and Digimon Adventure 02 (2000). He also served as episode director for later series.
–So this time, you have them in the position of something much like a working buddy.
Nagatomi: For this series, we’re not even calling them Digimon partners in the first place, but rather changing what they’re called to “Buddy Appmon”. Since we’re aming to depict a story where Buddies grow together, I feel that the nature of relationships between Appmon and humans will also change. Or, in other words, the relationship between Gatchmon and Haru as Buddies will change between the first episode and the final one.
Buddy Appmon may not necessarily want to be allies to humans, and they may be the type to say nothing but things that’ll offend you. However, a major point of interest in this series is the changing relationship between Buddies and how they come to grow and trust each other, through clashing against each other, laughing together, and crying together.
–On the other hand, have you included any elements or attempted an approach to appeal to more conventional Digimon fans?
Nagatomi: We’re not particularly thinking about it too hard. We’re aiming to make a work that can be beloved by today’s children. There’s already Digimon Adventure tri. (2015~) (*3).
(*3) A theatrical movie2 series that serves as a sequel to the original Digimon Adventure. The series features Taichi Yagami and his friends as high school students. Three parts have been released so far, and the most recent one, “Part 4: Loss“, is scheduled for release on February 25, 2017.
Koga: However, we have some members of staff who were originally children from the first Digimon generation. So there’s an aspect in which we can ask those people what they thought was interesting and what resonated with them, and take that into account.
–It’s thanks to the fact that this series has gone on for so long.
Nagatomi: We have staff members who watched Digimon and ended up entering the animation industry as a result, so it made me realize that we really are getting involved with an incredible series. Even at the casting audition, we really did receive a lot of comments from them saying “I watched Digimon back then!”
–Have those conversations with staff members brought in any extra motivation?
Nagatomi: Naturally, they’re very absorbed in it, and you can feel their enthusiasm and how much they love this series. However, as a creator, I think we need to keep this fire of passion for Digimon burning. So if this series ends up becoming moss, we can’t keep that fire going. We’re directly focusing on making something good and passing the baton to the next generation.
Aiming to create a series that delves into issues of artificial intelligence, but is also interesting to everyone
–Earlier, we held an interview3 with the lead writer4 Katou-san, who said that he received a lecture about AI from artificial intelligence expert Yoichirou Miyake-san, who participated in production for this series. As the two of you deepened your understanding of AI, have you ever thought about how humans and artificial intelligence should interact with each other going forward?
Koga: Appmon are Buddies, but they’re also AI (artificial intelligence). The theme of this series is that humans and AI can coexist and make up for each other’s deficiencies. However, as we were studying AI, we eventually ended up at the themes of “what is intelligence in the first place?” and “what is a human in the first place?” Personally, I feel that if humans don’t have a proper philosophy of “what is a human in the first place?”, they’ll inevitably end up losing to AI.
Also, it’s said that AI will surpass human intelligence by the time the children watching this series will reach their 40s. So I hope they will continue to think about “what a human being is in the first place” and “what intelligence is in the first place” thanks to this series. If they do, I believe that when human society enters the era of having to confront AI, it will be a huge help in overcoming those issues.
–It’s a very incredible thing when you think about it. What’s the link between this anime and possible future crises?
Nagatomi: The hurdle that we need to overcome in creating this series is that “artificial intelligence is not inherently evil, nor is it inherently good”. We don’t want to have the optimism of “leaving everything to artificial intelligence will create a paradise,” but we also don’t want to make it into something that says “artificial intelligence will create terror, so avoid it.” The important thing is that the audience needs to think “what’s artificial intelligence in the first place?”
Once we’ve incorporated that into the story, the next task is to make it something that’ll be interesting to everyone, so that people who are willing to take it into consideration can think about artificial intelligence, and people who aren’t interested in that kind of thing can still enjoy it.
–Just by listening to this, it’s easy to imagine that this must be a very difficult thing to do…
Koga: But it’s fun to take on the challenge of using a theme like this and making it interesting for children. It’s a new element that’s important to holding up our goal of “de-Digimonification”, so we’re having a lot of fun making it.
–Are there any particular specific devices, or things you pay particular attention to, in the process of depicting a story that mixes together a story of artificial intelligence with the dramatic narrative of a children’s anime?
Nagatomi: When we’re working on the story, one thing we’re taking into consideration is that we don’t want to make this into hard science fiction. We want the viewers to start really feeling “I’ll listen to this story about AI,” so we’re trying to make it a story that explains AI in an easy-to-understand manner.
That said, this is something that’s causing a lot of trouble for Koga-san. He’s the one who has to be deeply involved in actually moving his hands to create the footage, in such a way that we can make these explanations without letting the children get bored of it.
Koga: In terms of footage, I have to figure out how to use my creative abilities and make issues of artificial intelligence look fun and interesting. For instance, in the second episode, since the navigation app had gone haywire, the soba5 shop delivery won’t be able to make it home (laughs). I try to express it in a way that brings it down to the children’s level, so that it’ll make them laugh.
Haru Shinkai is a new type of protagonist
–Next, I would like to talk about the characters. When I first saw the protagonist, Haru Shinkai (voiced by Yumi Uchiyama), I got a very strong impression of him as an androgynous and rather modern child. What did you particularly focus on when you created each character?
Koga: We wanted them to be proper children of the modern era, who weren’t restricted by preconceived ideas. For example, in episode 7, we depicted the relationship between Torajirou, who was raised under the strict expectations of becoming a Grand Master6, and his father, who wants Torajirou to succeed him as the Grand Master but does not force him. If this were a Showa7 anime, I think it probably would end up with a story development where the father would say “you must be my successor!”, and the child would rebel against him.
However, nowadays, I think these kinds of parents would be more likely to respect their children’s intentions, even while also wanting them to be the successor. I think the child would also put thought into the idea “but my parents want me to be the successor,” so even if they really want to do something different, they feel that they don’t want to go against their parents, either. Basically, I think young children these days are more likely to be well-behaved children, and we decided to incorporate that kind of softness in all of the characters, including Haru.
–Were there any characters that you paid particularly close attention to the casting for?
Koga: We were particularly careful about both casting and production for the lead female character, Eri Karan (voiced by Umeka Shouji). We disliked the idea of having her come off as an angry girl who looked down on others and yelled “explosive punch!” We were careful about how to convey the impression that she was actually a well-behaved girl at her core.
–What kind of instructions did you give the voice actors in order to play a character who is a modern child?
Koga: We didn’t want to make it feel like “the protagonist is a hot-blooded one”. What’s really interesting about this is that Haru actually has a bad reputation among the older members of our staff. They all have the impression “we have to have a hot-blooded protagonist as our protagonist,” and when I heard out their opinions, I had to have them realize “Haru is a new type of protagonist.”
Nagatomi: The part about hot-bloodedness was a huge point of argument, wasn’t it? The protagonists of the prior Digimon series were usually within the pattern of being bad at studying, good at athletics, and generally in the soccer club, with a chivalrous attitude and the temperament of a leader.
But I think these are very typical elements of protagonist characters. We started with this question. “Are modern children really like this?” When we put proper thought into it, we started adding elements of not having “bad” grades but rather “average” ones, having average athletic abilities, and a demure attitude of trying to live without attracting too much attention. We wanted it to be a story about that kind of person growing from the beginning to the end.
Koga: We wanted to incorporate the way modern children would feel. It’s something that has to do more with sense than anything, but I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with it, and I think the fact it’s so refreshingly new makes it a good fit for the modern era.
–There was also something very new about having Torajirou Asuka be an AppTuber (*4).
(*4) Within the series, there is a video site called “AppTube”, and a person who uploads popular videos there is called an AppTuber. Torajirou Asuka (voiced by Shiho Kokido), who works alongside the protagonist Haru, is one such AppTuber.
Nagatomi: Appmon is the first series to have this kind of character, isn’t it? (laughs). It’s not like we’re all going out of our way to take on drastic challenges, but we truly felt that we wanted to do something new like that.
Koga: I think it’s very important to not get held back by prejudice, so no matter what, humans will have to change their preconceived notions. However, our protagonist Haru has a hidden strength in that he “sees everything in a very neutral manner”. I’m sure there are people who might make skeptical faces when they hear about a YouTuber character, but we’re devoting ourselves to challenging new things without prejudice.
–In terms of covering a wider variety of topics within entertainment, how do you look for things that children might find interesting?
Nagatomi: We didn’t spend a huge amount of money on doing wide-range research, but we spent a lot of time at our initial meetings to develop the character backgrounds. When we did, everyone there started rambling to the participating staff with things like “let’s share all of the information about artificial intelligence that we gathered up in a week” or “let’s talk about all the information we learned about children.”
At the time, we were talking about things like “‘YouTuber’ ranked among the top 4 occupations that elementary school students wanted to pursue,” and I thought, “not a professional baseball or soccer player?” (laughs)
After that, as we discussed how “we’re now in an era where a ten-year-old boy wants to be a YouTuber,” the conversation turned to “wouldn’t it be interesting to make a character who’s a YouTuber?” Even though he’s from the strict upbringing of a Grand Master, he’s conflicted about whether he also wants to be a YouTuber, so how about that?
–And as the story progresses, he’ll come to resolve that conflict.
Nagatomi: They all have their own problems and concerns, and it’s a story about each of them overcoming them. And we don’t want them to resolve these conflicts alone, but rather by fussing over them and clashing over them with their Buddies.
–I get the impression that the cast for this series has a wide range from newcomers to veterans, so what’s the atmosphere like at the recording site?
Koga: I thought the actors were all rather similar to their own characters.
Nagatomi: They really are. All of the actors playing the monsters have exactly the same atmosphere as their own roles.
Koga: Yumi Uchiyama-san, who plays Haru, stands at the center, but she’s the type who’s very similar to Haru, and thanks to that, there’s a very calm atmosphere at the post-recording site. She also has such a strong Buddy feeling with Gatchmon’s voice actress, Kokoro Kikuchi-san, to the point it’s charming. On the other hand, the pairing of Shiho Kokido-san, who plays Torajirou, and Nao Tamura-san, who plays Musimon, is exactly the same as it is in the story.
Nagatomi: Those two are incredible (laughs). Toei Animation has a deliberate focus on arranging young, mid-career, and veteran cast members in a good balance.
They’re going to be working together for a long time, so they put thought into that.
Koga: In exactly that sense, I hope the younger voice actors can steal acting techniques from the veteran actors and use them to grow as actors.
–Starting from December 3, all of the episodes from the very first one will be broadcast on YouTube. Is there anything you would like people to pay close attention to when they watch the earlier episodes of Appmon?
Koga: It’s the period of time where the characters first appear and are introduced, so I hope you can really get a feel for the fun of the characters, and look forward to what might happen with them from here on out.
Nagatomi: Episode 9 is actually where Rei’s story starts. For us, we consider episodes 1 through 4 to be Haru and Gatchmon’s story, episodes 5 and 6 as Eri’s, episodes 7 and 8 as Torajirou’s, and so episode 9 is the one where Rei and Hackmon come into contact with Haru and his friends for the first time. We’re streaming all of the episodes at once so you can enjoy episode 10 even more, so I hope you can enjoy if you watch it.
[Transcript/Photos: Arata Isobe]
- A “cour” is used in descriptions of Japanese TV shows and anime to refer to a 12-14 episode block (i.e. Appmon is a 4-cour anime).
- Although Adventure tri. is officially classified as an OVA series and not theatrical movie, this article refers to it as such, so I’ve translated it accordingly.
- The interview with Katou referred to can be found here (a translation of it can be found here).
- In literal terms, the role referred to here is series kousei (シリーズ構成, lit. “series composition”.
- Soba = Japanese buckwheat noodles.
- Astra is the son of an iemoto (effectively a Grand Master) for a school of cultural preservation of traditions related to a Japanese art form — in his case, Japanese tea ceremony.
- Showa = Referring to the time period between 1926 and 1989.