Fans of the currently airing TV adaptation of Hunter x Hunter had a huge surprise in store for them this past year when Takahiko Abiru, one of the main animation directors on the show, started uploading scans of some of the more than 18,000 frames he’s drawn for the show to Twitter.
That’s a heck of a heartfelt gesture from an up-and-coming animator who’s put in time on a number of important and popular productions, including Death Note, Redline, Kaiji Season 2, and Trigun: Badlands Rumble.
We talked with Abiru at Denver’s NDK about his work on Paprika, Hunter x Hunter, and the ways in which Twitter has made interacting with fans easier than ever before.
Jason Moses: Something I wanted to clarify before going any further… are you staff at Studio Madhouse, or freelance?
Takahiko Abiru: I’m pretty freelance. I have a desk at Madhouse, but I’m essentially a freelancer.
JM: Ah, okay. I was wondering about that after I saw you mention on Twitter that you knew Satoshi Kon and considered him something of your mentor, and I know you had the opportunity to work as an in-between checker on Paprika… what did you take away from having the chance to work on a huge movie like that?
TA: They had some of the best animators in Japan all under one roof working on that movie, so just having the chance to be there was an incredibly valuable experience. Being able to talk to Satoshi Kon in person was particularly important to me. Having everybody all in one place like that is the kind of thing that’s only achievable at Madhouse.
Satoshi Kon was the kind of person who took care of the people who worked for him. He took people out to eat, and he’d go over and talk to people at their desks in person whenever possible. Hard to imagine it just looking at that scary face of his, but… (laughs)
JM: Let’s talk Hunter x Hunter. You’ve been working on that show for the past 3 years, and you recently started uploading animation cuts to Twitter in the big lead-up to the end of the show’s current run on TV. Can you talk a little bit about your reasons for doing that? What’s the response been like?
TA: It started when I noticed that the animators working on Kill La Kill were uploading stuff to Twitter, and I thought that was great, just was a really cool way to reach out to the fans. Nobody else on the Hunter x Hunter team was doing anything like that, so I decided to give it a shot, and the response so far from the fans has been wonderful. It’s been really inspiring, and it’s given me a motivational boost while working on the show.
JM: Have you gotten any fan responses from outside Japan? Anything that’s surprised you?
TA: I’ve had a bunch of responses from fans who saw my art and tried to redraw what I did in their own style. That’s something I’d never experienced before, so I was really happy to get that kind of reaction. Beyond that, I can’t really speak English, so it was a good educational experience to see English-speaking fans respond by telling me the stuff I’d posted was “Amazing” or “Epic!” (laughs)
JM: Do you plan to keep doing this kind of thing for the rest of the show up until the end? Or on to whatever the next show you’re working on happens to be?
TA: Episode 148 — the final episode of Hunter x Hunter — is coming up soon, so I’ll probably tweet something to commemorate the occasion the same way I did for episode 135 (the end of the Chimera Ant arc). As for what’s coming up after that… the next project I’m working on is based on something that’s not widely recognized in the international market. At least not yet, anyway. I’m going to try to use Twitter to reach out to existing fans and get them to spread the word about it.
JM: Before the currently airing TV adaptation of Hunter x Hunter, there was another adaptation of the property that aired back in the late 90s. Did you look at that at all when beginning work on the currently airing version of the show? What was your philosophy as an animation director when approaching the current adaptation of the show, and how do you think it compares to what they did for the previous version?
TA: I watched the previous adaptation, and something I kept in mind when working on the new version was doing everything I could to make it look superb while also giving it a more modern, current look to it. The previous version came out over a decade ago, and a lot’s changed in that time, so I’m trying to make sure it meets expectations for modern viewers.
JM: For those who don’t know, what does your work on the show as an animation director entail on a day to day basis? Have there been any changes in the process since you started working on the show 3 years ago?
TA: The quality of our work’s definitely changed over the past few years. We’ve gotten better, and a lot of that’s the result of our having 7 animation directors who are all competing against each other to do the best work possible and increase our skills. Of course, the longer I’ve worked on the series, the more I’ve fallen in love with the characters, too.
As for the work itself, there are 7 unit directors, who basically oversee 7 teams. Each team has 30 key animators working for one animation director, whose job is basically to maintain quality control for the entire team. That means both ensuring consistent quality across the team and working to bring up the overall quality of the team’s work.
We don’t usually have direct contact with the animators on our team. Most of that communication is done through the key animation produced for each scene and cut, where we’ll go in and leave notes or adjust their work directly.
JM: Going back to your earlier comment on how you’ve grown attached to the characters in Hunter x Hunter, are there any characters or story arcs from the show that you feel particularly attached to?
TA: My favorite character in the show is Youpi. He works for the King during the Chimera Ant arc, but what I really like about him is that even though he’s a Chimera Ant, as the story progresses he slowly starts to develop human emotions and ends up becoming this really interesting and well-realized character. I also like him for personal reasons. Since I got to do his character design for the current version of the show, I ended up growing really attached to him. (laughs)
JM: Did you have the opportunity to do a lot of character designs for the show this time around? Any you’d like to talk about in particular?
TA: Takahiro Yoshimatsu was in charge of main character design, but since there are so many characters in Hunter x Hunter, he can’t handle it all himself. That means a lot of the other character designs got taken care of by other animator directors, and I jumped at the opportunity whenever it presented itself. All told, I think I did about 30 to 40 character designs. Including sub-characters, of course.
JM: Ah, gotcha. I actually noticed you character designed and submitted a LINE sticker set a few months back. What inspired you to make those?
TA: So there’s a creator stamp section in LINE where people can submit their own sticker sets, and at the time I was thinking about making one, I’d already had an offer from NDK to attend as a guest. I really liked the name “Denver,” which is why I decided to name the characters “Colora” and “Denber.” (laughs)
I think the sticker set should be on sale pretty soon.
JM: Anything you’d like to convey to fans of Hunter x Hunter? Any final thoughts on this show you’ve worked on for the past 3 years?
TA: I’d personally like to keep working on the show, but due to circumstances beyond our control (the original comic is on hiatus) we don’t really have a choice in the matter right now. I was able to achieve so many things through Hunter x Hunter, and it was the interaction and communication with fans that kept me going for the whole run. I’d really like to thank all the fans for their support.
I believe they’re going to make more episodes of the show once the original comic starts up again, and I definitely want to be involved with that, particularly if I had the opportunity to do main character design for it. (laughs)
JM: Thank you so much for your time.
TA: Thank you for having me!