Interview: Anime Director Naoko Yamada on Science SARU and LGBTQ+ Inclusion

In recent years, the medium of anime fans has witnessed the emergence of a new generation of directors who, after years of celebrated acclaim from us hyper-focused fans, have broken out to have their names recognised by the wider world of film. A turning point for this new era was undoubtedly 2016-2017, which was sparked by the release of Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name and followed soon after by Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice. Those two top most peoples’ list of great modern anime films, but while Shinkai has remained in the spotlight with follow-ups Weathering with You and the upcoming Suzume no Tojimari, some may suggest that Yamada faded back into comparative obscurity. However, the truth is that Yamada is embarking on an exciting new stage of her career. Ahead of this year’s Scotland Loves Anime Festival, where her short film The Garden of Remembrance had its World Premiere, I had the opportunity to talk with Yamada about this next step, and why she chose this surprising new direction.

For most fans, Naoko Yamada’s name will be synonymous with Kyoto Animation, the anime studio where she worked since graduating from college. However, Yamada admitted that there was a time where she didn’t know whether it was animation or live action that she was interested in. “I just really love the moving image.” she told me. However, discovering the work of Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer, who is known for combining stop-motion animation with live-action cinema, had a profound effect on Yamada: “I realised, maybe it wasn’t one or the other. I was impressed by the animated technology and the live-action feel.” That inspiration can be seen in Yamada’s work today, which although animated, takes inspiration from live-action cinema by utilising shot composition such as low angle shots and dynamic camera movements uncommon in anime. Despite admitting to me that she never tried to make a live-action film, outside of filming her friends and scenery with a video camera at home, Yamada’s animated work certainly carries a “real” feel that a lot of anime don’t.

Yamada made her series directorial debut with 2009’s slice-of-life anime K-On! at a young age – albeit not at 23, as had been widely reported elsewhere. “The 23 thing isn’t true. I need to correct that at some point,” Yamada admitted to being embarrassed about correcting me, but I reassured her that this was an opportunity to set the record straight. She wanted to keep her age at her debut a secret but noted that it was about four years after she started working at Kyoto Animation. “I guess I was relatively young,” Yamada admitted, reflecting on the reputation often attributed to her.

Artwork from K-On showing all of the primary cast posing together with their musical instruments.
Naoko Yamada’s series directorial debut was K-On!, a slice-of-life show about the members of a high school band.

After its record-breaking success, the comfy music series K-On! expanded into a franchise, and Yamada continued to cement her reputation for character-focused “slice-of-life” stories with Tamako Market (2013), a series about the residents of a small shopping district, as well as a story about a different kind of high school band with Sound! Euphonium (2015, with Tatsuya Ishihara). Like K-On! before them, they both grew into franchises that Yamada would weave in and out of over the years, on both big and small screens.

Naoko Yamada made her feature film debut in 2011 with K-On! The Movie, a farewell to her first series that saw its cast taking one last holiday: a graduation trip to London. The romantic thread of Tamako Market also saw a cinematic confession with Tamako Love Story (2014). Yamada would finally make her original feature directorial debut two years later with A Silent Voice, an adaptation of a manga series about a teenage boy trying to make amends with the deaf girl he bullied as a child. It was applauded by critics worldwide, but you might be wondering what Yamada has been doing since then. Well, she kind-of both went back to franchise films, and didn’t.

Liz and the Bluebird (2018) is technically a spin-off to Sound! Euphonium, but it also stands on its own as a superbly directed tale of the relationship between two high school girls on the cusp of graduation. Although not specified as such through dialogue or direct action, the film makes no secret of the romantic connotations of Mizore Yoroizuka and Nozomi Kasaki’s relationship. This wouldn’t be the first instance of LGBTQ+ themes or readings in Yamada’s works, with one such prominent example being Midori Tokiwa’s gradual realisation of her feelings towards the lead character of Tamako Market.

Mizore Yoroizuka and Nozomi Kasaki, two high school girls, tightly hugging each other in a classroom at dusk.
In “Liz and the Blue Bird”, Mizore and Nozomi must confront their feelings as they face both their impending graduation, and a duet music performance.

“I don’t set out to specifically feature LGBTQ+ themes,” Yamada admitted. However, including characters who identify as such is an extension of Yamada’s goal of connecting with her characters. “It’s natural that if I’m trying to show characters’ thoughts and feelings [that] I want that to be a natural part of it,” she elaborated. “So, I don’t want to avoid these things or give them special treatment – but [depict LGBTQ+ characters] as a natural course.”

At time of writing, Liz and the Bluebird has yet to be released in the UK and Ireland outside of one-off festival showings, so it’s unfortunate but understandable why it wouldn’t be on many peoples’ radars. Yamada continued with the Sound! Euphonium franchise until her departure from Kyoto Animation in 2020. Yamada hasn’t commented publicly on the reason for her departure but given the events surrounding the studio at the time, it would be insensitive to speculate.

In late 2021, the historical fantasy series The Heike Story was announced by Science SARU, the anime studio co-founded by director Masaaki Yuasa (DEVILMAN crybaby) and producer Eunyoung Choi, with Naoko Yamada named as director.

This announcement came as a surprise to people who had followed Yamada’s career, given that a lot of her prior works fit into a general cute, relaxed image cultivated by Kyoto Animation, whereas Science SARU has more of an experimental and wacky image. It turns out, however, that this is exactly what attracted Yamada, who was drawn in by “the feeling of freedom around the projects.” She elaborated, “I don’t want to be restricted, and this is a group of people who let their imagination take flight. It’s an exciting place that will give birth to lots of good things”. However, a historical series was certainly a departure from her filmography up to that point. Set in the 10th century, The Heike Story tells of the rise and fall of Japan’s Taira clan from the perspective of Biwa, a young orphan who can see into the future.

“I never imagined that I would end up directing it [The Heike Story],” Yamada admitted. “In Japan, everyone studies it [the Heike] at school,” she noted, while acknowledging that it made the subject a double-edged sword, especially for people like her who weren’t particularly good at the subject. “I always thought of it as old-fashioned. As a Japanese person, unless you’re a real fan of the Heike story, that’s the impression a lot of people have of it.” So, what drew Yamada to a series about a subject she freely admitted to finding old-fashioned, and not being good at? Perhaps she saw it as a challenge: “I thought if I, who was not good at this at school, could make it [the Heike story] more understandable, [I could] correct my misunderstandings about it.”

Interestingly, The Heike Story wouldn’t be the only project Science SARU was developing about this particular time period. Yamada’s series premiered in January 2021, eight months before Masaaki Yuasa’s historical rock musical Inu-Oh!, about a disfigured Noh performer who upsets the societal status quo by singing of the truth behind the Heike.

The key artwork for The Heike Story, showing a silhouette of the protagonist Biwa against a red background.
Unlike the slice of life shows that most associate with Naoko Yamada, The Heike Story is a historical fantasy.

Although The Heike Story and Inu-Oh! are wholly independent stories that just happen to be about the same period of history, it might be a surprise to learn that Yamada and Yuasa didn’t consult with each other at all or share research notes. “When Eunyoung [Choi] approached me, she told me that Yuasa was already making Inu-Oh!. I assumed they would be connected, but they were different teams, and we had no idea what each other were doing. It was only Eunyoung and the producers who could see what was going on in both projects.” So, if you’re wondering when Yamada and Yuasa first watched each other’s projects: it was when they released, like the rest of us. “It was good fun,” Yamada said, looking back on the experience.

The Heike Story was broadcast between January-March 2021, which was Yamada’s most recent work until The Garden of Remembrance, a short film about a young woman in her apartment. The short has no dialogue but uses the characters’ surroundings to tell a story about love and loss. Our protagonist may not speak, but we see the empty beer cans on her floor, and a repeating morning routine that only ever starts because of the body’s need to pee. We also see glimpses of a woman in what appears to be a mourning dress, and of course Yamada’s trademark of flower language throughout. Mesmerising both visually and thematically, The Garden of Remembrance handles its sensitive subject matter by leaving itself open to interpretation, yet it still feels like an incredibly personal film.

With Yamada being an experienced director about to start a new chapter in her career, I asked if there was anything that she wished she had known back in those earlier days and would tell new filmmakers. After some thought, the answer Yamada came to was: “Do what you want to do.” Now, that may sound like little more than a simple platitude to not dash the hopes of a fledgling creative, but as with every question I asked during our twenty-five-minute interview, Yamada’s response was carefully considered, and carried with it the wisdom of a director who truly knows their craft. “Animation should be a genre where you have the freedom to use your imagination, but it seems like a lot of people are being required to make something real or correct, and I say, don’t let yourself be restricted in that way. Be free, have fun, try different things, make lots of mistakes, get hurt, grow, and don’t be scared.”

Perhaps it was following her own advice that led Yamada, who had become known for cute slice-of-life shows about high school girls, to join a studio known for the expressive eccentricities of Masaaki Yuasa’s Night is Short, Walk on Girl and Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken. As for what Yamada wants to create next, although she currently isn’t attached to any announced projects, she did tell me that she’s interested in exploring yet another genre fans may not associate her with: “I think I’d like to try a really complicated Sci-Fi that needs a lot of mathematical knowledge and research.” Well, if she gets her wish, let’s hope it has a protagonist a bit more technically minded than K-On!’s Yui Hirasawa!

Disclosure: As well as a seasoned Anime UK News writer, Josh A. Stevens is also an employee of Fetch Publicity, who facilitated this interview. All thoughts and opinions are his own, and the contents of this feature adhere to Anime UK News’ journalistic independence.

Josh A. Stevens

Reviewing anime by moonlight, working in film by daylight, never running out of things to write, he is the one named Josh A. Stevens.

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