Despite having both led the way as pioneers of the anime industry for many years, this series is surprisingly the first time for Maaya Sakamoto and Director Akiyuki Shinbō to work together. Read on to discover the charm of “Arakawa Under the Bridge” in their words, as well as the “chemical reaction” made possible by this series!
Surprisingly, “Arakawa Under the Bridge” is your first time to work alongside each other. Was your first meeting during the auditions?
Shinbō “No, I don’t go the auditions; at most I’ll listen to the tapes. If I see the actual recording, see them as they’re told what to say, I always end up with a different perspective. I make it a point to always listen to the tapes, and I hardly ever go to the auditions myself. For a role like Nino, I kind of don’t quite understand her myself…she had this kind of airy, translucent feeling, so I was wondering what kind of auditions we got. And then, you know, Ms. Sakamoto fit the role just perfectly.”
Sakamoto “I’m happy to hear that (laugh).”
Shinbō “Probably…I felt like she maybe had that exact aura you find in the original version. That’s why I never gave her any direction—I didn’t have anything to say to her. I really didn’t say anything, did I?”
Sakamoto “Not a word (laugh). So even after we started [recording]…I was thinking my role was hard to pin down, so I guessed I’d probably have to get all sorts of advice from you and use that to create the character…but right from episode one of season one, I hardly heard anything from you.”
Is that so? (laugh)
Sakamoto “I started to worry that maybe they had given up on me (laugh). A few episodes in, I found the courage to bring it up and went [to Director Shinbō] to check, like ‘Am I doing OK?’ ”
Shinbō “Which I was not expecting to hear (laugh).”
Shinbō “How do I put it? Nino is certainly hard to grasp, but I knew without a doubt that Ms. Sakamoto’s Nino was Nino. That’s why you can’t get close to her. That’s one part of the best interpretation. You watch the first episode, and you can already see from the very beginning the situation in “Arakawa…” where you have Nino, and then [Kamiya] Hiroshi shows up. It’s set up so you can see it and think, ‘Ah, I bet this is the kind of setting it’ll have.’ Nino is the very first character you get the right interpretation for. So you can ask me ‘Is this OK?’, but I can only say, ‘Huh?’ ”
Sakamoto “Yeah, but I was kind of wanting you to say something.”
Shinbō “It’s like you can tell she’s there just by her breathing. And there aren’t all that many people who can do that. That’s what makes it really fascinating. Since I’m thinking of her as a character who’s just ‘there’. So I look up and notice, ‘Wait, she doesn’t have many lines’—‘I guess we’ll have to have her say something in the last scene.’ ”
She certainly has few lines.
Sakamoto “Right. There are a lot of scenes where you don’t know if she’s there to play the fool or to poke fun at someone, where she just shows up in the middle of things. Also, since her friends’ have sharply defined personalities, they each have their own abrupt twists to their stories…I felt like wherever you go, Nino probably had her own sort of baseline that she kept. At first, I would try hard not to get carried along with everyone else’s energy, and I paid attention to a kind of sense of emotional balance. Of course everyone looked like they were having fun and it made me want to join in, but I felt like it might be nice if by not joining in we could have a sort of time set aside for Nino.”
I see. Between you, I suppose you could say, it seems to me like there’s something close to an instinctive sense to it.
Sakamoto “Yeah, I’m typically not, you know, someone who’s full of energy. There are times when Nino’s energy level really meshes with mine (laugh).”
Shinbō “That’s it right there, I’m sure. I think that worked out really well.”
Except, aren’t there moments when Nino loses a little of that calm, when her emotions well up a bit? That’s the sense I get from watching. How did you interpret those scenes when you acted them out? Or what kind of direction did you receive?
Sakamoto “Something always happens at the critical points in the story. When there’s a scene where I have to deal head-on with those feelings of wanting to stay in that place forever, my voice gets louder than even I thought it would, which was sometimes kind of embarrassing (laugh). But I’d think about it and realize that Nino probably would’ve felt the same. Also—and I don’t know if this is the right interpretation—Nino is serious about everything. In a way she’s always passionate about everything, at least how I see her. She just looks like she’s nonchalant, but I think she’s true to her feelings, to that happiness from living there, so I’m constantly thinking about how to put that in my acting.”
Shinbō “Yeah, recently you’ve been right on the mark, I think. There are still those places when she just shows up in the middle of things. But I think there’s probably nothing wrong with that. It’s just that you could say her character’s way of expressing emotions isn’t like anyone else’s.”
Sakamoto “Definitely, hahahahaha.”
Shinbō “So in my eyes, I suppose it’s like I realize, ‘Ah, so that’s how she is,’ and I can accept it. ‘So this is what Nino’s like’—it feels like the right interpretation comes back to me.”
You’re sort of shown a new rendition of Nino from Maaya’s acting.
Shinbō “Right, it does feel that way.”
Taking the quirky reality in the original work and converting it for a different medium is a tremendously difficult task, but that being said, it was clear to me that instead of setting down a concept beforehand, you’re creating a lot of it as the recording is going on. Is that how it actually is?
Sakamoto “It is—everyone in the cast has their own individual ideas of who they think their character is. So during recording, those ideas all come out on the count of three, and that’s where you find the world of ‘Arakawa Under the Bridge’. Being in the middle of that, for me too there are ‘Aha!’ moments when I grasp Nino’s feelings, and things like ‘If she heard this from someone I bet she’d think this’ keep changing as we go. I guess I want to have a feel for the atmosphere in that place. We finished #1 and started #2, and as we added more and more episodes, the idea of Nino in my mind kind of went from ‘Something like this’ to ‘She has to be like this!’ For the rest I pretty much leave it up to everyone else.”
You mentioned that the recording sessions are like a space for presentations.
Sakamoto “Right, that’s why it’s fun. It’s like…it’s a little like a contest. A contest where everyone’s pulling out their best tricks…kind of like an all-star contest.”
Sakamoto “…It’s something I really haven’t seen much anywhere else (laugh).”
Shinbō “It’s really amusing, isn’t it? Of course the best thing would be to put that atmosphere directly into the show. That’s not the easiest thing to do.”
Sakamoto “But to be honest, I watch the show when I’m at home by myself, and I burst out laughing. I saw those scenes over and over during recording, but even so, with the music and the dialogue added in, seeing the completed film makes me laugh again. There’s something fulfilling about that, being able to laugh at a show you’ve worked in. Although I do sometimes watch it while reflecting on my own acting, still, being able to watch it like a normal viewer makes me happy.”
Shinbō “That’s because of how strong this group of actors is. During recording part of it is that they’re putting everything they have into removing those gaps.”
Sakamoto “Ah, so that’s what it is.”
Shinbō “When you have gaps, it’s not funny anymore. If I had to describe [my work], it’s something along the lines of filling in the gaps to be safe, and the rest I put in everyone else’s hands. When it comes to how they get through that, if there’s a weird gap in there, it becomes my responsibility, and it kills everything.”
Having viewed the recording sessions, it’s clear there’s a chemical reaction going on between the castmembers. As director, you’re of course trusting in that as you’re working, right?
Shinbō “Rather than trusting, it’s more like, ‘You guys do something about it.’ For this series there are all kinds of strange roles and actors who are all saying they want to try this or that, so I figure everyone’ll probably manage something on their own (laugh).”
Sakamoto “It’s like whatever people think is good gets used, so there are times when you feel you have to push yourself further (laugh). But really, no one has any hesitation. That’s pretty spectacular. That feeling you get from having all these veteran actors go at it without hesitation works out very well.”
It seemed as though everyone on the cast was working rather freely, but as far as your standards for directing, Mr. Shinbō, what rules do you employ to judge which lines get an OK?
Shinbō “Anything goes, as long as it’s entertaining. I can tell everyone shows up having read the script thoroughly, so there aren’t any misses. The acting I get in that moment gets the OK. Besides, that sort of acting makes it convincing to the viewer…although it makes me wonder if maybe taking this amusing vibe and putting it just like that into an anime won’t work out. We do episode after episode, and it doesn’t get better. It’s not released straight from recording, but there is a sense of capturing it while it’s fresh.”
Sakamoto “Right, the recording really finishes quickly. More quickly than I’ve ever seen, maybe (laugh). It’s just that if you don’t put up your best in the final cut, whatever you did makes it into the show. That sense of tension like a live broadcast is really nice. Recording feels like a live performance.”