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P.A. Works President and Art Director Discuss Digital Anime Production

Kenji Horikawa and Kazuki Higashiji explain the studio's unique location and digital infrastructure.

Higashiji shows off a background he created live on stage at Otakon 2016, and tops it off with a character from A Lull in the Sea.

Most anime studios are located in the Western outskirts of Tokyo, along the east-west Chuo commuter rail line. But P.A. Works is different. Tucked away in Toyama, a five-hour drive northeast of Tokyo, they face some location-specific challenges that are relatively uncommon in the anime industry. You may know them for their series, which cover a variety of subjects, from Japanese spirits (The Eccentric Family) to the afterlife (Angel Beats!) to anime production (Shirobako), but very often take place in picturesque real-life Japanese locations.

We sat down with studio President Kenji Horikawa and background artist Kazuki Higashiji last year at Otakon in Baltimore, Maryland to talk about some of their projects and the unique challenges of working so far from the epicenter of the industry. Horikawa worked at Production I.G and Tatsunoko Productions before founding P.A. Works in 2000. Higashiji has been an art director on a number of series both with P.A. Works and other studios, including A Lull in the Sea and Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does P.A. Works balance its production assets and communication between its Tokyo and Toyama locations? Do you have some sort of digital infrastructure set up?

Horikawa: We send over a lot of data, but since the animators draw on paper, we also send physical packages between the two offices many times a day.

There are both positives and negatives to that. Physical packages are only collected once a day, so if we just did that, our staff would have to stay on schedule. The staff in Toyama would only have until 6 PM to submit it in order for it to arrive at 10 AM the next day in Tokyo. But we have a lot of people who want to spend as much time as possible and wait until the very last moment to perfect their work, and sending things over the Internet gives them that time. So the scheduling does take a hit later in the project, especially because some people have the talent to allow them to stay on schedule, but some people don’t.

Background artist Kazuki Higashiji (left) and P.A. Works President Kenji Horikawa (right).

When a studio outsources the background art to multiple background art studios, what’s the process for maintaining consistency between all the artists?

Higashiji: As an art director, what I mainly do is get the outsourced pictures and I look them over one at a time. While I’m doing that, I add some details or blur some details out so that all the art is consistent. I ask lots of people to assist in that process, and by doing that we’re able to maintain a consistent art style over the course of the story.

Higashiji’s live background art partway through the process at the P.A. Works panel at Otakon 2016.

So there’s one art director who manages the art over multiple studios?

Higashiji: (laughs) Yes.

The job of art director is kind of like a connecting pipe. All of the individual pipes are a little different, but for the water to flow, there needs to be a connecting pipe … like an aqueduct.

I know you work digitally, so do you often have to do those corrections for artists that are working with traditional background art? Do they send you paintings and you modify them with Photoshop?

Higashiji: Recently there’s been almost no hand-drawn background art in the anime industry, so that doesn’t happen often, but one time on Angel Beats, that did happen, and when the pictures painted on paper came in, I would fix them digitally.

It seems like P.A. Works series often focus on particular real-world locations. How intentional is that? Is it a deliberate attempt to promote tourism in the form of so-called “otaku pilgrimages”?

Horikawa: Well, if it affects tourism, that’s great, but it’s not like we actually mean for these things to affect tourism. The story comes first, and then we go location hunting. I really like the process of location hunting. Anyway, we get a story and then we search for a place that fits the image of the story, so it’s not like we’re actively trying to promote these locations.

Mr. Higashiji, you’re credited for background art for a doujin based on Raita’s Mahou Shoujo doujinshi series. It’s not uncommon for pros to produce doujins, but what drew you to justify the time and effort to work on it?

I was a friend of the producer, and he actually asked for my assistance in the backgrounds. But he also asked a lot of industry professionals to take part in this project. I think that was the whole intention of the project: anime industry professionals creating something and selling it at Comiket. He probably thought that this would provide us a lot more creative freedom.

Check out more of our Otakon 2016 coverage here.

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