Hey there, folks! As you all know, one of my pasttimes is studying Japanese! And another one is shilling Yu-Gi-Oh!. So why not combine the two for a blog article, my third pasttime? Why yes, that’s almost as brilliant as when Kaiba wiped the floor with Siegfried.
As one might be aware of, I’m a huge fan of Takahiro Kagami, one of the many talented animation directors of the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise. Words can’t state how monumental this man was for Yu-Gi-Oh! and his iconic style still lives on in the TV spinoffs to this day through many other talented animation directors. His episodes look utterly amazing, from polished, expressive art work to fascinating posing, trademark hand gestures and sublime layouting. Here’s a good sample.
As it turns out, he has given an interview in the Millennium Memory guidebook celeberating the 20th anniversary of the franchise and since I own the thing and with both furigana and relatively short length, I was able to power through the interview. Sadly, my Japanese skills are limited so take everything written here with a grain of salt. Luckily, I’ve got a magical and also quite illmatic sempai so he’s done some proofreading for me and also corrections.
Before starting the translation segement, let me address two things: First of all, there are two questions wherein Kagami is asked to list a few points he paid attention to and for those, I simply did an enumeration as the reading would get really bad otherwise. It was a big bother during translating as he would jump from one point to another with me still wondering if any of these were connected and given that Japanese is vague and relies on context, that’s not the kind of misunderstanding you want to fall for.
Secondly, I’d also like to mention that at some point, he lists episode 105 as something he has worked on and I just don’t think that’s right so let’s just assume a mistake was made on someone’s part. My best guess is that he’s referring to episode 109.
Also, since this is a mere hobby blog of mine and I’m not a native English speaker to begin with, I just couldn’t be assed to do proper editing to make things sound nice so expect a lot of stilted language. But enough of the pretext, let’s get this thing going.
Question: “Please tell us about the circumstances that led to you partaking in Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters.”
Takahiro Kagami: “It’s an old story so I’m not sure I’ll get the details right… at the time, as I was occupied as a freelancer, I had a fateful encounter with Yumeta Company (nowadays ‘TYO Animations’), so that’s where I put my desk at and began to work. There was a request from Gallop for someone capable of doing character designs for Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters so I happened to get the call from Yumeta Company’s president Yamaguchi Satoshi. That is when I ended up drawing simple model sheets of Yami Yugi, Jounouchi and Pegasus as well as an image sketch of Yami Yugi vs Pegasus. Afterwards, it was decided for Araki Shingo-san to become character designer, whereas I enrolled into the project as an animation director and since Araki-san deemed me his favorite and most-respected animator, ‘let’s both give it our best!’ is what he said brimming with happiness but it was a shame that he didn’t continue to work on the project past the arcs of the original manga.”
Question: “Please tell us about the hardships you experienced and what was particularly memorable about adapting the designs of monsters from the source material to make them applicable for the anime.”
Takahiro Kagami: “I’d basically read the manga and just like that, would draw the pictures of those as model sheets but with dragons and warrior-type monsters, oftentimes rich in ornaments, even just drawing them once proved to be quite the challenge. To put things properly, with consideration to turning something into an anime, you cut corners with accessories and lines but monsters from Yu-Gi-Oh! have a status similar to main characters and carry an important role so without resorting to any simplifications, I couldn’t help but think ‘dearest art of animation, I am terribly sorry but please prepare yourself! After all, this is work…’ as I started to draw. Thereafter, I would suffer through this as both an animation director as well as for doing key animation… Also, since Takahashi-sensei was a man in love with American comics, there were a lot of monsters painted with BL Kage (a process of painting things out through black and kuro beta). If I could capitalize on that it would make for some really cool-looking results or so I thought at least – as the effect proved to greatly differ between the black-and-white of a manga manuscript and an anime’s color visualization. So while I kept wondering how I would integrate it, the production started. Furthermore, had I simply applied highlighting with everything, rather than properly expressing a texture, I would have gotten nasty patterns, which is why, in my very own way, I kept brooding over things like ‘this monster has something to it akin to gritty skin so no highlighting for this one’ and ‘this accessory is kind of like metal so I best use highlighting for it’. With the ‘Blue-Eyes White Dragon’ in particular, the shading, highlighting and insertion of black gave me quite the headache. If those weren’t applied properly, the robust, metallic feeling just as it was done in the source material wouldn’t come across. In the anime, the base color of the body was blue so if someone were to fail in inserting the black and highlighting the right way, we’d end up with a ‘Blue-Eyes Blue Dragon’. Later, on episodes I was the animation director for, I made the basic color for its body white, and added sparse shadows in blue, and when I tried adding BL to the borders of the shadows, it went well. With that kind of process, more cooperation with the other staff would be a necessity, right? But when it all started, there were chaos and many things to be done so we couldn’t handle things to that extent.”
Question: “Among fans, one hot topic of conversation are the AGO scenes but how exactly did said facial expression come to be?”
Takahiro Kagami: “Giving a straight explanation on the AGO gag is a bit embarrassing though (laughs). I had already drawn the AGO gag even back with Houshin Engi and Jigoku Sensei Nube before participating in Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters. Back then, it was simply a matter of AGO coming into existence as a gag from the animation’s side of things but with Yu-Gi-Oh!, it turned into a brain-racking affair. In episodes where I was the animation director or in charge of storyboards, I added acting to characters as I took their personalities and backgrounds from the original work into account, and the circumstances at the given point, among others. My first impression I got from Jounouchi was that of a hot-blooded, frank and cheerful older (and slightly stupid) brother. And so hot-blooded -> loves to engage in scuffling -> loves pro-Wrestling -> is bound to be an Antonio Inoki fan -> at the AGO we arrive (laughs). At the rehearsals for the 7th episode, where AGO appeared for the first time, Takahashi Hiroki-san and Kondou Takayuki-san did the ‘nshaa!’ to match what they saw in the video, but they were corrected by the sound director who said ‘do it naturally’. When I heard the story from a staff member I accidentally ran into, I thought ‘what a waste!’. From then on, I got quite passionate and whenever the opportunity allowed it, would pay the AGO a visit. And just like that, even during longer lines, characters would speak with the AGO still intact and so slowly but surely, everyone would synchronize with the AGO.
Originally, the conversations would be heard only badly with the AGO intact so for the recording sessions it might have been a no-go. ‘The voice actors and sound staff are kindly letting my selfishness pass, huh…’ is what I thought.”
Question: “Episode 128, ‘Jounouchi Dies’, is rich in iconic scenes but I think it featured top-class animation on the visual side of things as well. Please tell us about your memories and other things you experienced during the process of animating.”
Takahiro Kagami: “If you change an anime character’s hairstyle, it sometimes happens that you can’t tell who it is anymore. I’ve had the thought of ‘wouldn’t I be able to express something with people’s hair?’ for a long time and in the case of Jounouchi burned with God Blaze Cannon, to express an intense flow of the flame that hit the floor and bounced off as well as to express him being in a dangerous situation, I made his hair stand up. Also, since the episode didn’t have any flashy duel scenes, with Yami Malik laughing at the start and then him almost throwing up, Jounouchi saying ‘I’ve won, Yugi!’ right before collapsing, Yami Yugi shouting ‘Jounouchi-kun, don’t die!’ and glaring at Yami Malik, Honda, Anzu, Otogi and so forth surrounding the fallen Jounouchi, I feel I was paying attention to the facial expressions of these characters, their everyday-like poses and gestures. With the roundabout cut of Yami Yugi in the Battle Ship as he is thinking of Jounouchi, I made the animation fractured on purpose to express Yugi’s inner turmoil. That was also when work came up for the Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters Calendar, posing the issue of the resolution I would draw at as the calendar would require quite the large paintings, making for a rather troublesome working process. Originally, it was intended for me to pause work as an animation director as I was occupied with the calendar and for Takahashi Kazunori-san and Tsunaki Aki-san to take over but when I read the story for episode 128 in the source material, I came to love it and unreasonably asked ‘I want to do it!’ and got to do it. That turned into quite the mess and I recall bringing a spare set of clothing to the company and staying overnight for who knows how many days.”
Question: “With the Pharaoh’s Memory arc you were in charge of character designs that differed from the previous ones, please tell us about points you paid attention to.”
“- I didn’t really have in mind the idea of changing something, compared to how I had worked until then. I made it by looking at the original work and kind of tracing what I saw.
– However, at the end of the day, my art style would get mixed in and when other people would watch, they would come to notice and after hours passing, just by looking at it, I would see it too and exclaim ‘ahh… this isn’t it…’ – back then, I just tried really hard to imitate the source material’s art. Thank goodness no corrections were made by the director or Takahashi-sensei, that was a relief for me.
– Since Thief King Bakura was the last boss, I inserted additional explanations for his attire and drew a lot for the collection of facial expressions. Bakura is more on the insane side and I love that, so drawing him didn’t pain me at all.
– Also, I drew Mahad glaring at Mana hiding inside a pot on the edge of Mana’s model sheet and also put some jokes into the reference sheet that contrasts the characters’ heights. Even if it’s just model sheets of the characters, I think I was trying to go for a change of pace.”
Question: “During the Pharaoh’s Memory arc, you were in charge of the opening and ending as an animation director. Tell us about points you paid attention to and the likes.”
Takahiro Kagami: “- The monsters that made an appearance during the Pharaoh’s Memory arc had a different kind of atmosphere to them compared to the ones I had previously handled so it was fun.
– The writer of the opening, Kimeru-san, had read the source material and wrote the song and with the ending, the lyrics transitioned from “… shudders my very soul…” to “… a Duel!”, so these two songs were no longer just another opening and ending but had become theme songs and that made me overjoyed.
– Since the characters from the Pharaoh’s Memory arc wore a lot of golden ornaments, not only did I pay close attention to how I would insert the black and highlighting but also with how I applied the gradation brush to the highlighting and how to express the feeling of the golden texture. In doing that, I allowed myself to use Sorayama Hajime-san’s illustration collection as reference.
– Animating the Three Illusionary Beasts was quite burdensome as well but there was also giving instructions through the storyboard and key animation let the beasts roam around like crazy.
– I drew the all of the cuts of the ending but I also wanted to make use of the strength of the drawn lines on the screen so for the stills, I did inbetweening directly myself.
– As the series was being animated, for reasons of schedule, I couldn’t do particularly complicated animation or image processing and so I did stuff I normally couldn’t do and tried a lot of things out. The music, storyboarding, directing, animating, coloring, backgrounds, photography, all of the staff of these positions would kindly do their best and so, good results came out of it, which I believe to be the primary reason that my work turned out good.”
Question: “Among all of the original stories in Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters, please tell us which stuck with you in particular.”
Takahiro Kagami: “That would be the Noa story. It succeeded as an inside story on Kaiba and I had a lot of fun with the episodes I was in charge of both as an animation director and a key animator. Episode 103 was a double feature from me and Takahashi Kazunori-san as animation directors, which was less restricting than usually, episode 109 let me go wild with Blue-Eyes White Dragon in terms of key animation beyond the instructions of the storyboard, with episode 115, I also had to figure out how to draw Noa’s cunning personality and in regards to episode 121, I was mostly kept busy by work on the calendar so I couldn’t contribute much to it but when I got the newbie drawing rough key animation on Mokuba throwing Kaiba to make a clean copy, I did some quite impressive work I think.”
Question: “Of all the characters in Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters, who is your favorite one?”
Takahiro Kagami: “The characters Takahashi-sensei has given birth to are so fascinating, it’s really hard to play favorites, but… the one I like the most is Jounouchi. He’s the bright, cheerful kinda guy, one who doesn’t mind the details and is hot-blooded through and through but his past wasn’t always filled with bliss and he had to endure harsher times as well… that is also a part of him that is very appealing. Sometimes he’s cool, burns with passion and is simply interesting to watch. He can brighten your mood but also utterly smash it. From the perspective of an artist, he’s a character allowing you to draw with a high degree of freedom and that delights me very much so that’s also a strong point… maybe that’s why, during drawing, I overenthusiastically made the AGO a thing. (laughs)
The character whose appeal is the most opposite to Jounouchi’s would be Yami Malik. As two different personalities share the very same body, two different motives clearly lie within it and that makes him different as a character compared to Yami Yugi or Yami Bakura, who are both easy to grasp and since Yami Malik has two personalities, it’s hard to really comprehend his nature, making him all the more dangerous. Also, Iwanaga Tetsuya-san’s fury-infused acting is amazing, so as I was drawing, I kept imagining his expressions and acting as he would speak. Vigor got the better of me as I was drawing so episode 140 had quite the amusing facial expressions. In the second half of the series, imagining the performances of Kazama Shunsuke-san, Tsuda Kenjirou-san and Takahashi Hiroki-san as well as of the many other talented voice actors is what made me bring these characters to life.”
Question: “Among all the monsters in Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters, which one is your favorite one?
Takahiro Kagami: “That’s another tough one to answer. It really boils down to Blue-Eyes White Dragon, Red-Eyes Black Dragon and the Three Illusionary Beasts as they remind me of the kaijuu that would appear in Ultraman, Giant Robo and other tokusatsu shows and I love those. The first generation Blue-Eyes White Dragon in particular charms me as it’s a simple design yet also very distinctive and one with great presence, I think it’s a truly wonderful design. No matter how many times I draw it, it’s a monster that evokes strong emotions from within me whenever I think back to having been in charge of episode 105’s key animation and others. Takahashi-sensei and I are at about the same age, and his childhood dream was to design kaijuus so maybe there’s this kind of tokusatsu-kaijuu-lover DNA that we share. Of course, I also love the Black Magician and Black Magician Girl. With duelists, once a duel begins, there is only really movement when it comes to drawing and deck management but with humanoid monsters, it’s a joy to make them move through flashy action sequences. Moreover, since female characters aren’t a particularly frequent element in Yu-Gi-Oh!, drawing Black Magician Girl made for a fresh experience.”
Question: “If you have any profound memories of episodes and so forth of Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters as they were at the time of broadcasting or particular events, please tell us so.”
Takahiro Kagami: “Back then I had my hands full with work but at any rate, had a lot of trouble to go through, that’s the impression that’s stuck with me. I’ve worked as an animation director, I’ve worked on monster design, I’ve worked on drawing the calendar, all of these were work-related reasons that made me stay at the company overnight and sometimes I couldn’t tell if my work was good or bad anymore… at that time, a junior animator at work told me ‘Kagami-san, your work is amazing! I’ll give my best so I can keep up!’ and I remember that as very uplifting. Back then, we didn’t use the Internet so there was no way for me to look at myself objectively and I was reaching my limit. That is why my junior’s thoughts saved me. At some point, Yumeta Company took it into account to make it possible to alternate as an animation director or on key animation and that kind of consideration is what enabled me to do a proper job on the episodes I worked on as an animation director.”
Question: “Kagami-san, what kind of work is Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters to you?”
Takahiro Kagami: “Even when I became an animator and advanced my career as an animation director rather rapidly, I was still lacking in terms of real skill and composure until back then so from the days onwards when as a key animator and animation director, I merely did my job, I got around to a time when there was something I gradually wanted to work on and that I would also be capable of working on and that is what Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters is to me. And so I was able to work on something I wanted to work on and over at Yumeta Company, I would be having discussions and cooperate directly with key animators, in-betweeners, background artists, those in charge of photography as well as others and that’s how I was able to create things. Just giving it my all wouldn’t have sufficed, so by including times when I caused the troubled staff a headache from my position where I reigned over the animation process, the complications of groupwork, thrill of creating something and difficulty are something I learned. When it got to the point that I oversaw things that were entirely unrelated to animation, whenever trouble arose, I wouldn’t give up on Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters and wonder what I could do to make things work out and I remember not giving up until the very last moment (laughs) and thereafter, as an animator, figured out my own way of doing things, so it’s a work that represents my career quite well.”
With all that said, here is where the interview ends and also the article. I hope you had fun reading about such an important figurehead to a well-known franchise. If you don’t mind diving deeper, I also recommend checking out the other Millennium Memory interview I translated, featuring the writing staff. Or check out my review for the Yu-Gi-Oh! GX manga.
Whatever shall I translate next? Maybe something not Yu-Gi-Oh!-related even? I also can’t wait to find out. Until then, you know how the saying goes: Duel, Standby!