After a few complications along the way, the Under the Dog anime project is finally on track and in production. Originally conceived as a collaboration between Creative Intelligence Arts and anime studio Kinema Citrus, it hit Kickstarter in August 2014, seeking $580,000 in funding to help it get started.
The goal was to create a ‘90s-style animated sci-fi thriller penned by Jiro Ishii that would “explore what it means to live and die well, testing the limits of all we hold dear”. Unfortunately, once Under the Dog had been fully-funded, creative differences led to a split between Creative Intelligence Arts and Kinema Citrus, with the latter deciding to carry the project on by themselves.
Now that the reins of Under the Dog are in the hands of Kinema Citrus, Siliconera got in touch with producer Koji Morimoto and studio CEO Muneki Ogasawara to figure out where Under the Dog is at, how Kickstarter changes things, and what to expect from the completed project.
[To Morimoto] You were appointed to be Under the Dog’s new producer after Creative Intelligence Arts stepped away from the project. What was the first thing you had to do in your new role?
Koji Morimoto, Producer: What I had to do first was to grasp the financial situation of the project. I needed to make estimates on all the production costs for anime making and physical rewards, as well as grasp how much is needed to run the project as operational expenses. Before I took on the role and responsibility to help produce the specifics of the project, I examined the budget distribution that was already announced during the Kickstarter campaign.
I found out: 1) there is a high possibility of rewards costing more than the initial estimates (since there were expensive rewards such as figurines, etc. being included), and 2) there was practically no budget set aside for the operational costs—probably based on an assumption to rely on works by volunteers. Those were the major concerns for me and that’s why I needed to check the financial aspect of the project first.
You’ve said on the official website that you feel Under the Dog isn’t something that would appeal to mainstream anime distributors because of its tragic storyline. Can you tell us a little more about the tragic aspect of the story?
KM: What Under The Dog is aiming to depict is the internal struggles of teenage boys and girls who are forced to face with their own deaths or of their precious ones. Of course, the action sequences should give you surging adrenaline rush—a feel of exuberance and vigour. Meanwhile, the essential core of this work is to depict the extremely introverted theme, so how the story progresses or ends up becoming will naturally be tragic. As for the specifics of the story, please give us some time before we can really talk about it.
Muneki Ogasawara, Kinema Citrus CEO: Since it will be a spoiler, it’s hard for me to tell you in detail about the story at this point. However, it’s a lot of gratification for me, if the audience can feel the Japanese sensibilities such as “longing heartache” and “sweet sorrows” after watching the episode. Though I’m a little bit afraid that it’s difficult to sense that since what we are making is just one episode based on a concept of 26-episode TV series. It only provides an introduction to the whole story, so…
There’s a tagline that reads “our enemy is the light of humanity”. What does this mean?
MO: It signifies a contradiction contained within the organization where Anthea and others belong. This pertains to how the story is set up, so it’s hard to give explanations at this point.
KM: Under the Dog’s ironic premise is reflected in the tagline: something that was created initially as a hope for humanity became the enemy. As in AKIRA, it’s actually very much a common and universal theme, appearing a lot in films and such ever since 1960s and ‘70s.
It sounds as if Under the Dog touches upon the idea of neutralizing threats before they’re allowed to happen. That topic has been covered before, but we usually see a more idealistic approach to the subject, where we’re explicitly told it’s wrong to take measures before an actual felony takes place.
MO: The OVA currently being produced is much closer to the initial intention proposed by the original storywriter [Jiro Ishii]. So the concept that you are referring to here would not be focused as the theme.
KM: Well, I’m not quite sure what led you to think that would be our central theme, but Under the Dog is not centred around such themes as seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Minority Report, or Psycho-Pass. I’d like people to know and understand that beforehand.
The theme of preventing a crime before it happens actually came from the film’s description on the Kickstarter page.
Romy, PR Staff: The important thing to note here is that the passage doesn’t necessarily reflect the underlying theme of Under the Dog but merely a backdrop to give you some ideas as to when and where the story takes place and why. This is just me speaking, but in AKIRA, the year is before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and you see people demonstrating, etc., but that’s just used as the backdrop. The same happens in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. You get hints through out the series that there had been a big devastating war, but it’s not the central theme of the series. So… you get what I mean by using this only as a "backdrop" or premise.
Ghost in the Shell has been cited as one of the influences behind Under the Dog. What aspects of that movie are you primarily looking at? From an animation standpoint, too, I know Kinema Citrus staff worked on Stand Alone Complex, so how does that influence things?
MO: There’s probably no one in in the Japanese film making industry who was not influenced by Ghost in the Shell. However, I don’t think Under The Dog was conceived as a direct influence from the Ghost in the Shell franchise.
KM: As far as I can tell from reading the script for Under the Dog, there is no influence from Ghost in the Shell in its theme or how the world (story’s universe) is set up. When it comes to how to actually show things in animation, then you might find some similarities, but since I haven’t talked with Director Ando about such creative aspect of Under the Dog, I won’t be able to answer your question without having all the storyboards being completed. Rather than “being influenced”, I’d say UTD’s taste is similar to AKIRA in the setup of the world, and its tone is close to that of KITE.
[To Ogasawara] Kinema Citrus was formed in 2008, and was created by former Production I.G staff. Why did you choose to part ways with I.G. and form a new studio?
MO: To be more precise, I have previously worked at Production IG, then at Bones, and then at Khara. In anime making, your opinion will not be accepted unless you take the risks yourself, and I also thought I could make some contributions to make better work environment for the staff who join the anime industry in the future. Those things motivated me to set up my own studio.
[To Ogasawara] Do you have any goals in terms of the kind of projects you’d like the studio to work on, or what you would like Kinema Citrus to be known for?
MO: My goal is to create works that will remain on someone’s mind for a decade or two, not just things that can be consumed and then be forgotten. I’m satisfied if Kinema Citrus becomes a known production house as a result of making titles with quality that appeal to a wide range of audience. Otherwise, I’m least interested in making our studio famous.
Fans that pledge $50 or more will be able to vote for the voice-over actors for the main characters. Are you worried about leaving such a major creative decision up to a fan vote? When a director chooses a voice-actor, it’s because they know the kind of feel they want for a particular character, and also because they recognize the strengths and weaknesses of their actors as well. With a fan vote, the director doesn’t have that level of fine creative control.
KM: As you’ve pointed out, this polling method doesn’t allow much room for creative control. I do not believe at all in fan votes casted to decide on voice actors would contribute positive effects to our creativity. My personal opinion is that it is nothing but 120% harmful. However, the role given to me here is to suggest the best available option there is, based on what has been already decided as the base rules. In this case, therefore, I’m searching for the best possible method that will not damage our creativity.
MO: We’re now carefully discussing with Director Ando for deciding the voice cast for the characters selected by backer polls. We will never ever ignore creator’s opinions to create something with commercial purposes. However, Director Ando also is considering that it is 120% important to keep the promise with our backers, and he’s doing the best he can in incorporating the reward concept. So I can reassure you that there’s nothing for you to worry about!
I’m a little concerned about the length of the first film. You’ve said it’s 24 minutes in length, which is just a little longer than your average anime episode. How much of a complete story can you really fit into just 24 minutes?
KM: Under the Dog was originally planned for a 26-episode long series. So it’s simply impossible to cram everything into just one episode. The current work is being produced as an entry point or Episode 0, with an intention to convey to our audience, “This is what the narrative of Under the Dog is like”. I feel we were able to realize our intention for this one-shot episode to be standalone and self-contained.
MO: The running time for this episode is not yet determined. It’ll be probably less than 30 minutes though. We’re structuring the script and storyboards to tell a story fitting in that timeframe, keeping in mind how long the film is. If you make analogies in track and field, this would be like a 100m footrace. There may be some parts that remain as mysteries or left unexplained. However, since anime production is very much a living thing, we won’t be able to tell even ourselves until the production is complete how it’s going to turn out.
Something that’s striking about Under the Dog is that it’s “cool with consequences,” which is the way a lot of anime used to be. These days, though, it feels as if there’s more of an effort to be “cool without consequences” in a lot of anime. Why do you think that is?
KM: I don’t know if I fully understand the intention of your question, but I think it basically comes down to whether or not you hire a writer who is highly equipped with unique and distinctive style as his/her characteristics. If you consider older anime titles have more serious themes, then I would have to personally disagree with that opinion.
MO: This is a difficult question to answer. UTD is such an exception, where the anime is made with direct contributions from the fans/viewers. Normally, we are involved in the production of commercial animation, so we study the elements in customer preferences, such as what’s in as a trend and what’s become satiated or blasé, as well as select the theme suitable for the media (a TV series, OVA, movie, etc.). We analyze these things very thoroughly. As a result, however, perhaps we’ve reached an impasse of some kind from both the production and vendor perspectives.
There’ve been a lot of debates about the current state of the anime market, and how it has become increasingly reliant on a small niche of fans that are willing to splurge on merchandise. As producers, I’m curious about your thoughts on the state of the Japanese animation industry, because a very similar conversation is taking place around Japanese videogames as well. The argument is that, with a few exceptions, they’re becoming more niche, and are no longer able to sufficiently capture the interest of mainstream audiences or even children. This is something Keiji Inafune in particular has talked about a lot. Do you feel there are similarities between the two, and is there a solution for the anime industry?
KM: I think it can be explained in very simple terms of “supply and demand”. Back in time, there were far more demands than supply. It was extremely difficult to find high-quality contents being supplied. Also, it was innovative to see a storytelling in anime at the time. Therefore, the audience of the anime comprised of various clusters of people.
However, now that anime holds a firm position or status as a business category, we have a situation of overwhelming supply in the market. If you take a look back in history, you’d know clearly what would happen next. In any kind of product—be it something like cars or music, whatever the product is, fragmentation occurs within the target customer or audience. You’ll see series of products aiming at particular demography coming out in the market. That’s the general understanding from a historical perspective. So I simply think that anime or game is no exception.
MO: All the producers around me are very passionate and they work on the anime they produce with everything they’ve got. Majority of the Japanese populace is serious-minded with strong sense of responsibility. As a result, we may be facing the deadlock now. Perhaps it’s only once in a decade someone extremely eccentric comes along and makes an innovation. I’m a man of mediocrity, so I’d wait for that person to appear one day, while constantly checking how things are changing.
The Kickstarter page is now listed as owned by Mentat Studios LLC. What is Mentat Studios, and how does this affect Under the Dog?
MO: Since we are nothing but a small anime studio in Japan, we don’t have the know-how on an international-scale anime project targeting global audience such as Under the Dog. Mentat was formed so that we can focus on the actual anime production and complete the UTD project without failure.
As you might be all aware of, we’ve faced some rough times. However, with the help of talented and veteran producers such as Mr. Morimoto and Mr. [Yoshiro] Kataoka from Contra (who is also helping us now), as well as the newly established Mentat, we make sure to deliver the anime work as we promised to our backers!