Yamamoto Sayo, director and storyboard artist, chats about Yuri on Ice and creating “raw” female characters

By: Caitlin Moore February 14, 20180 Comments
To young brown-skinned women in casual summer tops sit at a bar with drinks in front of them, looking at a girl sitting next to them with juice in front of her, scowling angrily.

Yamamoto Sayo became a household name in anime fandom in 2017 after Yuri!!! on ICE became an international phenomenon. However, even before that, she had an impressive career with series such as Michiko and Hatchin and The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, earning her a cult following for their stories about complicated, sexy women and feminist themes.

She has also directed numerous individual episodes of many series, including Samurai Champloo and Space Dandy, as well as a number of memorable opening and ending themes. Figure skating has become a recognizable motif in her work, such as The Japan Animator Expo short “Endless Night” and the opening animation for Persona 5, and she considers herself a figure skating otaku. AniFem staffer Caitlin Moore sat down with her at AnimeFest 2017 to talk about Yuri on Ice, her themes, and her career.

CM: How has the popularity of Yuri on Ice affected your career?

SY: Since Yuri, I’ve been getting offers for new work, including the ability to make the Yuri on Ice movie.

CM: Has the fan reaction to Yuri on Ice surprised you?

SY: During the broadcast, I could only concentrate on production. I heard some secondhand accounts but there was no actual feel for fan reaction. It was only this year, when I started receiving invitations to various anime events that I got a direct feel for the fan reaction. The first one was when I went to a fan even in Guadalajara, Mexico and when the opening was played, and the entire audience started singing in unison. That’s when I felt the fan love.

A crowd of people sitting in stands in some sort of arena, all cheering, many holding US flags.

CM: Kubo has said that you cooked together while planning for Yuri on Ice. What was your favorite recipe that you made?

SY: The most revolutionary recipe was oven-baking. I got this from a Italian friend who told me how to cook without ever using the cutting board. The original recipe was for chicken and potatoes baked in an oven. I realized the convenience of this and tried other recipes with the same method, and a steady evolution took place with all the baking discoveries.

CM: Any vegetable baked in the oven is delicious…

SY: *laughs* Yes, exactly.

CM: Many fans with anxiety disorders really connected to Yuuri. Was that something you had in mind when creating him?

SY: This was not intentional. I did receive a lot of letters thanking me, and saying that they or their families were affected by anxiety disorders and they were encouraged by watching a role model on TV. I was glad to hear that, but it was not the original intention.

A close-up of a young man holding his head in his hands, looking nervous.

CM: Similarly, your work is popular with women in the US for its complex female characters. Is it a specific goal for you to include that kind of characters in your work?

SY: In the case of Yuri on Ice, there are a lot of male characters, but before that, I did get a lot of offers to direct female-oriented shows just because I was a young woman myself. The result was that because I am a woman myself, there are themes that I’m more familiar with in terms of what a female character would do that would not be so obvious to a male director.

A lot of that’s reflected in saying that I come up with “raw” female characters that sometimes are uncomfortable for men to watch. For me, it wasn’t really something that was intentional, but I ended up doing because others wouldn’t have been capable of doing it. So, I approached it by breaking the framework of the original character and going for something that would be more realistic.

CM: Even in Yuri on Ice many of the female characters feel more realistic in many other anime, like Anya and Sara. I like their… frustration.

SY: *laughs* Thank you.

CM: You said in an interview about Michiko and Hatchin, you wanted to depict the “rawness of women”. Is that still something you aim for, and how?

SY: This would overlap with your previous question, but when I was offered the job that this would be a story about female characters in an action road movie. The one originality that I could put into the story would be something that only would be obvious to someone like me, and that would be the rawness of women. But in retrospect, back when it was put in, that was not the primary aim.

I do recall how I was feeling back then, and I’ll be blunt in saying that I did not like the molded female types that were for male consumption in anime. So, when I was looking for something different, I wanted to destroy something that was just offered as the molded archetypes, and I think my frustration was answered in the form of Michiko and Hatchin.

To young brown-skinned women in casual summer tops sit at a bar with drinks in front of them, looking at a girl sitting next to them with juice in front of her, scowling angrily.

CM: We’re very grateful. *laughs*

SY: *laughs* Thank you.

CM: What makes the mature sexiness of your work different from fan service anime?

SY: When you look at conventional fan service, there’s something that’s so childish and simplistic, and they’re all molded from pre-existing molds that come from prior fan service anime. What I know is if you can apply what you’re really feeling, then you’ll come up with something that’s much more relatable and realistic in being sexy. So instead of retracing what’s been around, if you actually experience these feelings, you can reflect something that’s more realistic.

CM: What is your process for directing openings and endings?

SY: You have music, so you want to have an image that matches the music for the anime, so it tends to be different from the actual content of the show in that. It’s like working on the cover of a graphic novel versus what’s inside the pages. So, it’s not the content, but the general impression of the anime that you want to convey in the opening.

A young man in a school uniform figure skating in an ice rink surrounded by cold, boxy-looking buildings.
The Persona 5 opening displays many of Yamamoto’s signature elements, including a stark color scheme and figure skating moves

CM: How was the art style for The Woman Called Fujiko Mine developed?

SY: We wanted to go back to the style of Monkey Punch that predates volume 1 of the original Lupin graphic novel. When you look at the art style of the animated Lupin that’s common, a lot of that is adapted to be suitable for children. Takeshi Koike’s movie is an exception, but a lot of Lupin, especially the TV specials, are general audience. If you look at the original Monkey Punch graphic novels, they really are drawn for mature readers. I wanted to go back to the original 60’s aesthetic. I collected a lot of issues of Vogue and Elle from the 60’s as references for fashion from back then.

CM: What’s next?

SY: The Yuri on Ice movie. I’m working on that right now.

CM: Do you think you’ll be able to make more shows about things you want to make after Yuri on Ice?

SY: That really depends on the success of the Yuri on Ice movie. I do have my love for figure skating, so if I can continue to work on shows about figure skating, I would be very happy. I really hope that the Yuri on Ice movie will be released in the states.

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