Class 1: When Culture Merges into a Place –A Case Study of "Machi★Asobi*"

*Lit. "Town - Playing"

Lecturer: Hikaru Kondo, the president of ufotable Inc.; the organizer of "Machi-Asobi★"

Time & Date: 19:00 - 20:30, January 18th, 2013

The class has finished. [ The Archive of the Class ]

"Machi-Asobi"[1] is an animation event, held twice a year in Tokushima City, Japan. In addition to screening of animation pieces, various kinds of animation-related entertainment is offered in the streets and the local shopping districts. Crowds of people come and join in this event not only from within the city but also from all over the country; for instance, there were more than 50,000 participants in the autumn of 2012. "Machi-Asobi" seems to be an attempt to merge animation culture with a certain place and plant it in people's lives and mind to grow.

The Archive of the Class

Okamoto: Probably many of you know Mr. Hikaru Kondo, the president of ufotable Inc. which produced.Kara no Kyoukai (lit. The Boundary of Emptiness) and Fate/Zero. The other day I was surprised to hear that he made a movie theater in his home town of Tokushima. Although being an animation producer, Mr. Kondo has expanded into a variety of areas. Can you introduce ufotable yourself please?

Kondo: It will be 13 years since I registered the company in 2000. Actual activity started around 1998 by gathering friends and acquaintances. Ufotable was first started by bringing in two desks to a 4 and a half mat room in an old apartment that I rented from a friend in Kita-Ikebukuro, Tokyo.

Okamoto: Now you have offices in Tokyo and Tokushima but how is it structured?

Kondo: All sectors of animation are in the Tokyo studio - from directing, creating the originals, inbetweening, finishing, filming, making 3D and backgrounds, and editing. There are even staff that make clay animation and comics. For instance, for the opening of Black★Rockshooter THE GAME, we did the key frames and background from the storyboard, 3D effects, the video and the last finishing all in house. The studio in Tokushima is for creating key animation and I think of it as a place of training and development of artist for the future. Several starting members with high prospects have gone from Tokyo to Tokushima and are working hard there. Some pieces with them taking a central role are moving forward.

Making a Studio in Tokushima

Okamoto: As with Kyoto Animation, finally it seems like productions are rooting themselves in regional areas?

Kondo: I think it is just a coincidence. Generally, there seems to be a growing image that animation studios are doing well in regional areas but it is still difficult to operate an animation studio in regional areas. If you are considering this, I think taking away the regional factor will get you to an answer more readily.
I did not have a clear intention of making a studio in my hometown, Tokushima. My goal was not based on Tokushima but for an environment change. A piece of work is created by people. I wanted those people to see something different because most animation studios are based in the west of Tokyo. If there was a studio with an ocean view in Okinawa and the creators saw the ocean every day at work, I thought a vibrant animation could be made. Therefore, Okinawa was my first choice for location. But there was difficulty in terms of shipping. People tend to think that if the digital environment is accessible that location doesn't matter but most of the work is paper based.

Okamoto: Then how did the Tokushima Studio start?

Kondo: Once I knew that Okinawa was not suitable, I just suddenly thought to take a look at the Tokushima prefecture homepage. Then I gave the Investment Promotion Section a call. I had an image that governments are slow to act but the person in charge came to see me immediately. He explained a variety of things and gave me enough reason to visit Tokushima. During these 20 years, I hardly had any holidays, so although it was my hometown I had only been back for weddings or funerals. I had no idea what the situation in Tokushima was until I made a studio there. When I went to see what Tokushima was like, I met a lot of people and that was a big influence. I met already on this visit a member who started Machi-Asobi with me as well as the one whom I worked together on the Awa Odori (Tokushima's traditional dance festival) poster. What is important is not the place but the people, so I had the feeling things could work and I decided to make a studio in Tokushima.

Machi★Asobi Starts

Okamoto: I will go into the main topic now about the event that ufotable produces called Machi★Asobi [1] . It is widely recognized as local revitalization project but how did it start?

Kondo: There was a long process to get to where we are. At first communication with local government was challenging. I went to see many people as I mentioned, and I actually went to many places. I was introduced through these people to others, and taken around. I must have met about 100 people. I also went to Tokushima City Municipal Office and there was a poster for Awa Odori and I spoke about making an animation version. A person who remembered this conversation retired from the Municipal Office and went to Tokushima-city Tourism Association the next year. Then the project of ufotable making the Awa Odori poster started moving forward rapidly. Now that I look back, making this in animation must have been a huge decision.

Okamoto: Up to then this poster has always been a photograph so it was quite a risk. The Awa Odori is Tokushima's tradition and there is a history.

Kondo: Yes, it is history. Therefore, I'm sure there must have been many opinions about it. But he said he knew nothing of animation and he would leave everything to me. It's something that one can almost do but can't. However, there were things that the Association did ask me to change. That was to adjust the location of the towers on Mt. Bizan and the angle of how people wore the Awa Odori kasa (traditional hat) to reality. It was not about if the animation picture was good or not, it was about what they valued as most important, the nature and culture of Tokushima and they pointed out rightly the mistakes in the picture. I was impressed by this and wholeheartedly made the corrections to what they had pointed out.

Okamoto: The finished product was a topic of conversation all around the country.

Kondo: From this, I was asked if I could do something in animation for an annual festival called Mt. Bizan Sancho Autumn Festival. I had in the past received a lot of inquiries before coming to Tokushima if ufotable could do something with regards to events. That wasn't the only reason but I had been starting to make plans. Then I had this concrete offer and we decided to collaborate and this is how Machi★Asobi began.

Okamoto: What was the plan?

Kondo: I was thinking of something smaller in scale. I made a studio in Tokushima and I thought to put down our roots by working it up gradually. But by collaborating with the Tokushima-city Tourism Association, suddenly the hurdle was raised high.

Local Revitalization through Animation

Okamoto: Since you also had your work for the production company, I imagine it took a lot of resolve to work with the Tourism Association to reinvigorate the regional city. Isn't Mt. Bizan close to Tokushima Station and famous as a tourist site?

Kondo: Yes. But I think for the residents including myself, local tourist spots are "close but far" and you don't venture there much. I don't remember going there aside from school trips. So then I started out by observing the Higashi Shinmachi area of Tokushima and Mt. Bizan. I noticed things afresh, like there is a cable car that is located 10 minute walk from Tokushima Station where the Prefectural Office is and that there is no other way to get to the summit of Mt. Bizan, or that you can make as much noise as you want and no one will complain (laughter). Next I contemplated what specifically to do there. Something that can be only done there which would also please the visitors. One of the ideas was to have a voice actor do the announcements of the cable car. VOL.1 was done by Maaya Sakamoto. We also brought top quality equipment called D1 to the top of Mt. Bizan and showed Kara no Kyoukai in explosively loud sound.

Okamoto: How many came the first time?

Kondo: About 12,000 came.

Okamoto: That is amazing.

Kondo: We also did open air concerts and talk shows which were unusual in animation and it won good reputation. A producer from the industry that came from Tokyo for support asked me what I would have done if it rained. I answered I decided it will not rain and he laughed saying that was very me.

Okamoto: (laughter)

Kondo: I had to brace myself to that degree to pull it off. The environment was not in order and that was totally a new kind of event, so everything was like groping in the dark. Therefore, I had to believe in the goals we set and run with it. As a result, what I thought of the most was that the people who came to Machi★Asobi would leave happy, namely, their satisfaction. The administrative office and reporters frequently asked how many people I expected but I didn't think much of these numbers.

Okamoto: You value visitor satisfaction. You have also set up a variety of things besides Mt. Bizan, around the shopping precinct around the station on Poppo St. When I saw, there were a line of small shops but unfortunately all the shutters were closed.

Kondo: As you can imagine from its nickname Shutter Street, the economic situation is grave. It's not that regions have lost their chance to come alive again, on the contrary there is opportunity but when I speak to people from here, they say that the situation is not so simple. It has been 4, 5 years since I have come back to Tokushima but now I can start to understand those realistic problems.

Okamoto: During the period of Machi★Asobi, you rent these closed shops on Poppo St. and exhibit and sell various animations. During this time, anime fans swoop down on the usually empty Poppo St.?

Kondo: That is true but it is very difficult to open a shop that has closed it shutters. The staff that locally coordinates this does it with the real desire to make Machi★Asobi a success. The shopping precincts are filled with people who experienced the prosperity of the period of rapid growth and they are filled with sentiment from having lived there for decades. To understand this and move on to the next generation is not a small feat.

Opening ufotable CINEMA

Okamoto: Machi★Asobi started in 2009 and the event has been held 9 times. I'm sure there have been changes through each event. In 2012, you opened a movie theater called ufotable CINEMA. Isn't it the first time in Japan that a production studio has opened a movie theater?

Kondo: There aren't very many seats but the facilities, for example the screen has very high specifications even by country standards. The reason I made the cinema was because I felt that events which run only for a short period would not contribute to the daily revitalization of the town. When I thought about how to live with the people in the area, I felt there needed to be something that enables daily interaction. Contemplating this and coupled with the aim of making a place to interact with the fans, I made ufotable CINEMA and ufotable café on the second floor of the Tokushima Studio.

Okamoto: In an age where regional cinemas are closing down, is it ok to open a cinema?

Kondo: The cinema is not profitable so in the basement we have Animate selling products and on the first floor we took the opportunity to open a Fate/Zero shop and Tails Of shop. I think about it as a general entertainment building rather than a movie theater.

Okamoto: Isn't it hard managing a café and cinema aside from your real work?

Kondo: It is hard in terms of my personal time and also physically. But I run the café and the cinema rather than doing only Machi★Asobi because I want to please the customers. If they are pleased we are able to make more films. That is how I feel. When we were making Fate/Zero, there were long lines in front of the Café in Koenji every day. That was a big pressure. And I was truly happy. The people who enjoyed the production that we had created were right in front of us. We made frantic efforts in the production in order not to disappoint them.

Okamoto: So it was a job where all sides, the creators and the viewers were happy.

Kondo: Yes.

Machi★Asobi Charity

Okamoto: The topic changes but what kind of event is Kuko Anime Jack (Airport Anime Jack)?

Kondo: We introduce the pieces of the companies participating in Machi★Asobi in a space in Tokushima Awa Odori Airport located about 30 minutes from Tokushima Railway Station. The aim is to have tourists that are transiting through from other prefectures to see animation on the enormous tapestry and get a feel of everyone being active and merry.

Okamoto: In Machi★Asobi vol.7 (Oct. 2011), you did a Great East Japan Earthquake Charity?

Kondo: You cannot compare with the people who were direct victims of the earthquake but the whole nation was tormented by the feeling of powerlessness. Everyone was filled with the sense that something must be done and that there must be something we can do. There was a decision to be made whether to even hold the spring Machi★Asobi but we decided that it was especially important now to do something and started taking action in April. This Machi★Asobi had the shortest preparation period. While we were getting in touch with people, Tokushima Shinbun offered to allow us to put a full ad on the last page of its newspaper. I was very pleased. We contacted every copyright holder and completed that page. I remember the message "All of us support. Heart of believing, strength to continue." coming out naturally through my body. On this year we incorporated many characters in the Awa Odori poster too and sold them for the first time. We also held a charity auction. Good Smile Company, a famous figurine company which participates every year in Machi★Asobi was holding a Great East Japan Earthquake Recovery Charity Project called Cheerful JAPAN! and we also joined. Through Cheerful JAPAN! we donated 10,000,000 yen. In total Cheerful JAPAN! donated over 200,000,000 yen.

Okamoto: Your stories are all amazing.

Connect to Each and Every Visitor

Okamoto: Personal sponsors for Machi★Asobi is a new concept, isn't it?

Kondo: Personal sponsor in a nutshell is a structure where the visitors become the sponsors. The user themselves can choose what kind of sponsor s/he wants to be by budget. There are some courses like the basic 3,000 yen course, and the 10,000 yen course that includes some goods. I want to create Machi★Asobi together with the visitors, not just for them to buy goods at the event. Then everybody could join the process of creating Machi★Asobi. It would be great if we could cover the operational expenses of the event with this but in reality we are very far from this number.

Okamoto: Aren't there other companies or local governments who see the success of Machi★Asobi and want to run similar events? Although from your story, I feel it may only be possible in Tokushima…

Kondo: I receive a lot of enquiries from many places. It depends what they thought was successful in Machi★Asobi. Ufotable is a studio that is a gathering of people who want to make film productions. And we want as many people to see our creations. We have created a variety of opportunities for this to happen. This may be the café, or the CINEMA, or an event. And we get the energy and utilize this for the next production. The staff naturally start thinking about the viewers and become less timid in their feeling to make something they want the viewers to see. By being true to the feeling of happiness when the viewers are pleased, I believe we move forward.

Okamoto: I guess there are a variety of methods to connect to each viewer. It is a lot of work even to just create the content so I was wondering why ufotable was putting so much effort in to Machi★Asobi. I couldn't understand why you were expanding the business so much managing the café and the cinema but hearing your story today, I understand the goal clearly.

Kondo: I am repeating myself but we make film productions and there are people that get enjoyment from this. We want to continue to make such a relationship. Machi★Asobi is an extension of such feelings. We want the people who come to Machi★Asobi to enjoy. If they enjoy, we can do our best in the next Machi★Asobi and all the staff bringing in each production are filled with vitality and can create another wonderful production. Then another new project is born in Machi★Asobi. I believe that this kind of relationship will make everyone happy.

[ Footnote ]
[1] Machi★Asobi
An animation event produced by ufotable that started in 2009 with the slogan "to enjoy Tokushima to the fullest". It differs from projects that calls in tourists year round with one content such as Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro from Sakaiminato City, Tokushima Prefecture, in that it is an event held for a limited period and gathers various games and anime pieces. The event sites are the stages especially set up at the summit of Mt. Bizan and Shinmachi Board Walk along Shinmachi River. In conjunction with Tokushima City, it is establishing itself as a regional revitalization business. Machi★Asobi Vol.9 held together with the International Animation Film Festival in 2012 drew in 52,000 people. Besides the training of digital creators, with Machi★Asobi as its foundation, they will run overseas PR activities and strive for the creation of an international tourism business for Tokushima, enabling. Machi★Asobi to expand from local to international.