Digimon Universe App Monsters staff interviews from Animedia September 2016

A collection of the following interviews with Digimon Universe App Monsters staff, from the September 2016 issue of Animedia:

  • Lead writer Youichi Katou, Toei Animation supervisor Hiromi Seki, and producer Daichi Nagatomi
  • Series director Gou Koga and producer Daichi Nagatomi

Lead writer Youichi Katou, Toei Animation supervisor Hiromi Seki, and producer Daichi Nagatomi

Appmon lead writer1: Youichi Katou
Toei Animation supervisor: Hiromi Seki
Appmon producer: Daichi Nagatomi

Aiming to “de-Digimonify” the series, 17 years after its launch

–Please tell us the details about how the new Digimon series, Appmon, came to be.
Nagatomi: Digimon is a series that had its first TV anime series broadcast in 1999, and since then, has continued on for 17 years with more products such as TV anime, movies, toys, and games. Digimon originally started off as an anime based off a portable LCD toy, and up until the 2001 series Digimon Xros Wars: The Boy Hunters Who Leapt Through Time, the story also had important items that were deeply related to those devices. But now, in the current era of 2016, LCD toys seem to have become a bit outdated. In this era, smartphones are proliferating in this world, and even the number of elementary school children who can operate smartphones is increasing. So, with that in mind, Bandai proposed the idea of making a new item, the “Appmon Chip”. And in order to present this concept that would help build this new premise for Digimon, we asked Youichi Katou-san to be the lead writer for this series.
Katou: Even before the plan to create the Appmon TV anime series had gotten moving, I was involved with setting up the overall direction for the project and coming up with ideas, and had been with Bandai discussing topics like how we could make an anime that worked together well with their toys, and how we could make it modern.
Nagatomi: Katou-san and Bandai came up with a plan that had the word “de-Digital Monster-ify” on it. It’s difficult to say this in front of Seki-san, since she was the one who helped create Digimon in the first place, but I was extremely fascinated by this slogan, and felt that I very much wanted to make Appmon with this concept.
Seki: Personally, I think it’s the most ideal concept for having Digimon travel through the ages. We, as the staff members working on the Digimon series, have had such a hard time freeing ourselves from “the Digivice as a key item” and “the Digital World as part of its premise”, and you’ve just managed to overcome that in an instant, didn’t you? It’s the best!

Seki-san, as one of the originators for the Digimon TV anime series, what kind of concepts did you base the first series, Digimon Adventure, on?
Seki: It started off as an anime meant to work together with the toys, in order to help promote the sales of the LCD “Digivice” toy a bit. But to be honest about it, at first, the Digimon designs looked a little terrifying, and I personally didn’t have a lot of confidence that we could make them likeable. But when we started making the series, I really wanted to make them likeable. So I personally felt we should build the story off a convincing story narrative. I wanted to have children who would represent the audience’s viewpoint, and to depict a story of the bonds between them and their monsters.
Nagatomi: It is an incredibly wonderful series. I only got to see it after I became an adult, but as a story, it was truly fascinating. But I also felt that it was such an outstanding story that the following series had ended up in the curse of trying to imitate it. That’s why Katou-san and I, along with the series director Gou Koga-san, spent a lot of time in thorough discussion about how to “de-Digimonify” the series, and what it was that made Digimon Adventure so fascinating in the first place. The idea we arrived at was that it would be fun to make the series set “a little in the future”. It’s an era where you can truly see the new world of the Internet and computers, and involves a story that ignites interest in those topics and has charming characters, so we really are depicting a whole new world. Also, as per custom, the story will have “keywords” to make it easier to understand. Although they’re words that have now become commonplace, back then, words like “file”, “folder”, and “server” were words used in the digital sphere that felt like words from the future. So we to preserve “the feeling of the future” for those beyond just adults, so that the young children who haven’t had much contact with digital devices can still get to see their appeal.
Seki: At the time, cell phones hadn’t even become all that popular yet, and I personally was still at the stage of “File? Server?”, with all of it being unintelligible jargon to me. So I said to Digimon Adventure‘s series director and story writers, “if you just use digital lingo, you’re not going to strike a chord with the kids. So write the story in a way where it’ll still be understandable for a technologically challenged person like me.” Since we correlated files to an “island” and servers to a “continent”, I was able to understand it in only one attempt.
Nagatomi: Within the series, the digital lingo was linked to elements like continents and islands, so since the concept of them being “adjacent lands” to those of the real world came forth, it might have been a major factor as to how the children were able to accept and understand Digimon so easily.
Seki: In some sense, it was a fantasy story about the near future. But if we had just left it there, it wouldn’t hit close to home in regards to one’s daily life, and there wouldn’t be anyone who could properly empathize with the story. So we sprinkled in a beautiful amount of reality to mix into it. Even if the children didn’t understand all of it, it would allow them to work from those starting points, get absorbed in it, and once they understood, it would immediately draw them in for real. So in order to create media for children, it was important to have those starting points rooted in ordinary life. In that sense, as far as those kinds of starting points go, Katou-san has an incredible talent for creating them.
Katou: In my case, I can’t make a story unless I have those starting points. I’m the type of person who has to start with them and expand my concepts from there.

The starting point for a story that connects AI (artificial intelligence) to reality

–So then, what elements will you be using as starting points that tie Appmon to reality?
Nagatomi: There’s the word “AI” (artificial intelligence), which you hear being brought up in the form of various topics on the news these days. We’ve already gotten consumer electronics that come loaded with AI, and it’s become something deeply entangled with our daily lives. Furthermore, there’s lately been the topic of AI that can think in the same ways that humans do, and you can feel them getting even closer to that point than ever before. So we were thinking about creating the story in such a way that it has AI as its starting point, and I believe Katou-san and Seki-san have embraced that same line of thinking as well.
Katou: Technology has been proceeding so rapidly that artificial intelligence is predicted to overtake human intelligence by 2045, in what’s known as the “2045 problem”. More recently, Microsoft Corporation created an artificial intelligence chat bot named “Tay”, which learned from conversations and was released to the public, and went so wild in learning discriminatory racial remarks before much time had even passed, and such stories have started to come up all over in the news. We’ve been thinking about calling attention to those points, and, since AI is such a hot topic these days, how we can use it as interesting story material.
Seki: A few years ago, there were a lot of books about AI that were just starting to show up, and I was deeply engrossed in them. I thought, if we were to make a new Digimon series, we should definitely make it with AI as a basis. Right when I was thinking that, I was at the Toei Animation main office building when I just happened to run into Katou-san, who told me, “for this new Digimon series, we want to make AI into the main story topic.” So I brought up a ton of movies and TV series and such that had dealt with the topic of AI, thinking, well, in that case, this seems like it’ll be useful for this project. Once I did, Katou-san immediately started looking into those works, which expanded his knowledge of things related to AI even further. That gave me confidence, in thinking “if this person is the one to handle Appmon, it’ll be a huge success.”
Katou: Seki-san would have five-minute chats with me, saying things like “did you watch that movie?” or “that TV show was really interesting, wasn’t it?”, and it ended up having a huge impact on me. I hadn’t been doing prior preparation beforehand, but Seki-san, whom you could say is one of Digimon’s original parents, helped me out by following me in the same direction and refining the project with me.
Seki: I used to be the one who managed Digimon projects in the past, while Katou-san is the one creating this new version of Digimon, and by talking with each other so extensively, we achieved the best possible result to create a Digimon series that incorporates AI. I, myself, started wanting to work with these story writers who were bringing together this kind of concept work and feeling!
Nagatomi: Seki-san, Katou-san, and I all each have our own different thinking processes, but we’re all following the same result of wanting to talk about AI.

–What kind of role does AI play in the story?
Nagatomi: Appmon is a story that’s set in the slight future, where AI has developed ever so slightly further from where it is now. From there, the story starts when an AI named “Leviathan” is born from the Internet and starts taking action in order to control the world.
Katou: AI has been gradually getting closer and closer to becoming able to do what humans can do, and before long, we started having conversations of “what’s the difference between humans and AI in the first place?” And so, our protagonists, Haru and his friends, take notice of and start thinking about our story’s theme, “AI may be overtaking humans, but then what are the good parts about being human? What about being human makes us happy in the first place?”
Seki: When you probe deeply into the difference between AI and humans, you end up arriving at the question of “ultimately, what is a human, anyway?”
Nagatomi: The definition of AI has changed between the old days and now. In the past, artificial intelligence simply referred to a supercomputer that could do math and logic quickly. On the other hand, recent works that involve AI can think and have feelings in the same way that humans do. So then, if an AI were to be like a human, what would they be thinking about? If an AI were to become something that exceeds human in intelligence, what kind of relationship would they have with humans? We ourselves have been thinking about these questions ever since AI-related news has started to catch our eyes. Personally, this is a story topic that I have an incredible amount of interest in, so when Katou-san asked me how we should make Appmon with AI as a motif, I had a lot of fun cooking it up with him.
Katou: When we spoke with Kenji Watanabe-san, who works with character design for the Digimon series, he brought up the question “if an AI refused to stray from its rules of ethics, it wouldn’t truly ever be able to evolve, would it?” It was a truly intriguing opinion, so we felt that we wanted to make the best possible use of this within the story. We didn’t want to depict a story about the same old AI rising above humanity and becoming a terrifying enemy bent on destroying it. It’s not just about scary AI that tries to cause mayhem in society. There are many different aspects to AI, and while you have ones that work alongside humans, you’ll also have ones that love to play pranks on them. In the end, the right way for an AI to be depends on the human that’s using them. We felt that we didn’t want to depict too much of a solid answer to the question of “is this what an AI is supposed to be?”

Digimon Adventure was a series that made its children excited about digital-related words by tying them to its worldbuilding, so for this work, you plan to bring AI closer to its audience, and to use smartphones as a motif to bring them closer and have them manifest.
Nagatomi: Appmon can be said to be the manifestation of smartphone apps, and we feel that they themselves can become attractive presences for the children. Underneath all of the smartphone apps that they use while taking for granted, there might be an Appmon lurking under there…We want them to be able to imagine that easily.

Haru and Gatchmon are “Buddies” who aren’t much like your usual protagonists

–The protagonist for this series, Haru, is a kind person but doesn’t have a very forceful personality, and is rather the kind of person who’s more withdrawn and takes time to consider things, so he’s not much like your usual protagonist…?
Nagatomi: Certainly, many of the protagonists in Digimon up until this point have been the kinds who don’t get good grades but have chivalrous spirit and energy, and yet seem to know less than they actually do. When you have those kinds of elements, they come off as a protagonist, but they inevitably end up becoming part of the category started by the first protagonist, Taichi Yagami. Taichi is certainly a very charming protagonist, but for this work that we’re upholding as “de-Digimonification”, we have to make the protagonist be a type that’s different from Taichi.
Katou: It’s very exhilarating to watch a hot-blooded protagonist. But for Appmon, there’s an assumed theme of “the importance of a human treating others with sympathy and kindness”, and we thought that it would thus be better to have our protagonist be different from the hot-blooded type. Personally, I felt that I wanted to make a protagonist out of a kid who doesn’t settle things by force, but rather by taking in the situation for himself, judging what to do through feelings of kindness, and taking action based on that. But simply being kind in itself won’t change anything. It’s important for him to bear the pain of hardship, grit his teeth, and have the strength to stand up against it. That’s what we want to teach through this story. In the series itself, Haru himself has an admiration for story protagonists, and it’s a story of how he grows into someone who can be like a true protagonist.
Nagatomi: When you watch the first episode, the point is for you to feel that he doesn’t come off as a protagonist. We’re deliberately aiming for you to feel that way.
Seki: The good thing about Haru is that he’s a kid who lives smack in the middle of the modern era, and he stands in a position and viewpoint that hits very close to home. He’s more of the indoor type who enjoys reading books more than physically getting around, and while he admires and wants to be more like his more lively and bright friend, Yuujin, he still hasn’t fully come to grips with himself, so he can’t change anything about himself yet. He really does present the spitting image of a modern middle school student.

–As Haru’s partner, what does Gatchmon mean to him?
Nagatomi: Looking at the past series, when we analyzed what kinds of relationships the Digimon have with their humans, we realized that Digimon are “partners of one’s soul, to the point you could say they’re an incarnation of it”. They’re not simply monsters that came from another dimension, but something that could be said to personify another aspect of oneself.
Katou: Fighting against Appmon doing bad things is one of this series’s story pillars, but even as Haru begins to encounter bad Appmon, he doesn’t fundamentally pin them as “evil” through and through. That aspect of him, in which he takes the time to carefully scrutinize everything, is linked to his partner, Gatchmon, having the special ability to “search”.
Seki: Among the children of today, there are a surprising number of kids who can’t positively reaffirm faith in themselves. For instance, because they keep comparing themselves to others, or because they’re carrying too many burdens on themselves. During those times, an Appmon is the same as a Digimon partner that sticks by you, reaffirms you, and supports you. If an Appmon were to state a differing opinion, it’s because there’s still an alternative option remaining in their partner’s heart. I hope Haru and Gatchmon will become partners who can support each other.

Youichi Katou
Scriptwriter. Has participated on hit series such as Yo-Kai Watch and Aikatsu!. Currently serving as the lead writer for Time Bokan 24, which begins broadcast in October.

Hiromi Seki
Producer at Toei Animation. Has produced a large number of works, such as the Digimon series and Magical DoReMi.

Daichi Nagatomi
Producer at Toei Animation. Most recently in charge of the TV anime series World Trigger as its producer.

Series director Gou Koga and producer Daichi Nagatomi

We want to break through new ground using CG to express things in ways that haven’t been done before

–Koga-san, how did you feel when you were appointed as series director (SD) for Appmon?
I could feel the appeal of creating a new series that was completely different from those that had been made before. When you have a long series, you can find all sorts of different things in there, but the first one is always the one that broke the newest ground. So if we tried to make something that tried to inherit things from all of the series that came after it, we’d still just end up falling back into conformity. We wanted to inherit the spirit of novelty that the first series had, which meant that, instead of being restricted by the prior series, we needed to break through new ground. That was the way we felt Appmon should become a series that inherits the true spirit of Digimon Adventure.
Nagatomi: Actually, when I approached Koga-san asking him to be our SD, he told me “if we’re making this like the older series, I’m not doing it.” So I had to convince him by saying “no, no, we’re aiming to ‘de-Digimonify’ this,” and that’s how he agreed to take on the job.

–In terms of production for this series, what are you putting in the most dedication towards?
Koga: Toei Animation has been very insistent on pushing certain traditional principles that have applied up until now in all of their series. Appmon is also a straightforward series where Haru and Gatchmon will grow thanks to their meeting, so even if it comes off as a bit awkward, we decided to not be shy about it, and made it have a very “conventional sort of straightforwardness”.
Nagatomi: SD Koga is a director who’s particularly fond of making things in-your-face, and unusually skilled in it. Even in the stock footage, which we have in the promotional video on the main website, is something you could say to be the manifestation of SD Koga’s skill. The sequences get you even more fired up, and they’re so cool!
Koga: The PV only shows a little of Gatchmon’s Fusion seequence, but when the Appmon fuse and evolve, their animation sequences are prepared in 3D CGI. We were thinking of having the Appmon, as data-based living beings, have their spirits literally represented as data. In this regard, we didn’t use the cel-based CG that’s currently the mainstream way of making this kind of thing, but we instead wanted to depict the Appmon with full-on 3D CGI that made them seem like they had a tactile sensation. The CG Appmon will likely stick out in front of the animated backgrounds, but we wanted to convey the nuance of them coming across as properly evolved “Super Appmon” to the viewers.

–In recent years, robot anime has frequently been making use of CGI with a tactile sense for its mecha, but it’s surprising to see that kind of CGI tactile sense be maintained to depict “living beings” like Appmon.
Nagatomi: Appmon lurk in the world of the Internet, and are different from living beings that live in the real world. We wanted to make the best use of that tactile sense that only SD Koga could pull off, and we especially wanted to present the evolved Appmon in this way.
Koga: We’re using CGI for this anyway, so we felt that we might as well let it feel like CGI. Of course, as far as series production goes, we could have gotten away with using CGI that imitates cel-shaded animation. But for Appmon, we want to aim for something different. If we’re going to break through new ground in order to make this new incarnation of Digimon, we need to have this kind of “pioneer spirit”.

The story of children in the emotionally sensitive years of their lives, and their bonds with their Appmon

–What kind of pair do Haru and his partner Gatchmon make?
Koga: Haru doesn’t have any preconceived notions and is a kind boy who accepts things as they are, while Gatchmon is a search engine Appmon who loves investigating more than anything else. Between Gatchmon, who has a particular fondness for his searches, and Haru, who’s carried around by his actions, you can feel a bit of a mismatch between them as a pair. When the two of them face off against a giant enemy, they come off as very funny and amusing. But Gatchmon’s search abilities aren’t really the kind of thing you’d normally imagine to be used for fighting, and when we were first planning the project, we in the staff brought up the question “how are you supposed to use search lookups for fighting?” and started exchanging opinions about it.
Nagatomi: In the end, we settled on the answer that Gatchmon would use his searching abilities to locate the enemy’s weak points. SD Koga was the one who came up with Gatchmon’s name. While we were in the middle of the project meeting, we couldn’t come with any good ideas, and SD Koga suddenly came upon the idea of “Gatchmon”. When someone asked “oh, it comes from the phrase ‘〇〇 results found’, doesn’t it?”2 he responded “no, it’s because he gets hold of search results using his claws with a ‘gatch’ kind of noise, so he’s Gatchmon.” As soon as everyone heard that, we all burst into laughter (laughs), but now we can’t think of any name that fits him more perfectly than Gatchmon.

–What kind of pairs are each of the others like?
Koga: Eri and Dokamon are a pairing made up entirely of the idea of “an extremely overbearing partner”. Dokamon adores Eri and is the kind of muscle-brained idiot prone to crying, so since his thoughts don’t really get through to Eri, he’s always making a huge fuss. On the other hand, Eri puts on a front of being confident, but at her core, she’s actually a well-behaved kid, and she sometimes has some kind things to say to Dokamon. Torajirou and Musimon are exactly as they seem at first glance, being the overly in-your-face ones with the important role of bringing in the comedy. Whenever they come in, the story immediately takes a more comical tone, so you could say that they’re the ones responsible for lifting everyone’s spirits3. Finally, there’s Rei and Hackmon, who are the cool-headed and practical-minded rival characters. They don’t involve too many emotions in their partnership, as if it were a business. They’re depicted as the rival characters who stand in the way of Haru and his friends, but Rei just might go through some huge changes thanks to his encounters with Haru.

–What was the intent behind setting the characters at different ages?
Nagatomi: It’s very common for children’s anime to have its protagonists be fifth-graders, but we decided to dodge that theory of writing and made Haru be a first-year in middle school. When you’re in middle school, the range of what you can do suddenly increases quite considerably. Also, in regards to the age range between the other characters, we intended there to be some variety in each character’s own concerns and problems. For children in this age group, even a single year’s difference in school level can completely change your entire way of thinking, or what problems you’re dealing with.
Koga: The lead writer, Youichi Katou-san, has a very strong sense for incorporating what modern children are thinking, so I’m sure Haru and his friends will be depicted in a way that they can empathize with. Also, the character designer is Kenichi Ohnuki-san, who participated on works such as Gundam Build Fighters. Ohnuki-san is the flexible kind of person who can alter his art or designs to fit the times, so for this series, he was able to design some wonderful characters that captured cuteness, warmth, and presence all in one.
Nagatomi: The female characters are extraordinarily cute, too. At first, I was part of the Ai-chan camp, but recently, I’ve started thinking that Eri-chan is also really good (laughs).

–In closing, SD Koga, please leave some words for our readers who are looking forward to the broadcast.
Koga: The main target audience for this series is elementary school children, but we’re making this a series that will entertain and amuse people of any age. We hope you look forward to the broadcast in October.

Gou Koga
Director at Toei Animation. Has served as director for series such as Happy Lucky Bikkuriman and DokiDoki! PreCure.

Translator's notes
  1. In literal terms, the role referred to here is series kousei (シリーズ構成, lit. “series composition”). []
  2. In Japanese, the stock phrase for the number of search results found in a search engine is “kensaku kekka 〇〇 ken ga gacchi shimashita” (検索結果〇〇件が合致しました), more literally meaning “as a result of your search, 〇〇 results matched”, with the “gacchi” (合致) meaning “match”. []
  3. Astra and Musimon are referred to as “mood makers” (ムードメーカー), an idiom that refers to someone who brings good cheer to the atmosphere and keeps everyone’s spirits up. []

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