For our fourth and final interview with the creators of Pokémon: Twilight Wings, we ask Director Shingo Yamashita and Assistant Director Yo Watanabe about the thoughts that went into their work—and about secret, behind-the-scenes production stories.
Q: As director and assistant director of Pokémon: Twilight Wings, respectively, can you explain exactly what your work looked like in the context of the production process?
Yamashita: The director lays out guiding principles for the work. In simple terms, my job is to communicate to the staff how things should be made, then make sure work goes accordingly. If I give good directions and things turn out well, there's basically nothing for me to do—so the less work I'm doing, the better it's going. I'm busy pretty much all the time, though, so I guess that means I've still got a lot to learn. (Laughs.)
Watanabe: My duties as assistant director are a little difficult to explain. They tend to change a lot depending on the nature of the work at hand or the style of the director I work with. But I do a range of things—sharing updates on work progress and giving directions to each section, for example. In practice, though, Mr. Yamashita can multitask and do pretty much everything, so I'm mostly trying to learn as much as I can from him.
Q: I've heard you're very particular about the artwork, Mr. Yamashita. Does that stem from your experience working as an animator?
Yamashita: It does. In general, directors don't usually correct artwork or anything like that. But since I've been an animator myself, I end up wanting to get really involved and help out even at the stage of checking the keyframes [important animation frames marking the start or end of a transition].
Q: Can you explain more about checking keyframes?
Yamashita: At most Japanese animation studios these days, the process starts off with making layouts and drawing rough versions of keyframes. That's when we figure out the general compositions of images and make rough plans for movement and placements. Then the animation director will revise the artwork and return it to the animators, and the end result that they produce is a set of keyframes (which can also be called secondary keyframes). Then the directors in charge of production and animation will check those frames and put them into video form, after which the colors start getting applied. Once things reach the video stage, we generally don't go back to any of the prior stages, so it's kind of a point of no return. At that point, people at the director level generally just check to make sure there aren't any mistakes and then give the green light. But in my case, I keep having ideas even at that late stage, so I'll add little things, and just keep giving myself more work to do… (Laughs.)
Q: Is that how things have gone during the first six episodes?
Yamashita: My role has generally been limited to directing the action. There are four other directors working on this series besides me, so I'm having them each handle their own episodes. I've been relatively hands-off with the ones I'm not in charge of—or rather, I've been letting the other directors' styles shine. But I oversaw episodes 1, 4, and 7, so for those I was making all sorts of adjustments until the last minute, like I usually do.
Q: Looking at comments on YouTube and elsewhere, I get the feeling fans are noticing all the care you put into the series.
Yamashita: Well, there's still such a thing as being too finicky. (Laughs.) But I can't help taking extra care with the art, so I often end up deep in it right up until the end. You can see a whole lot of Assistant Director Watanabe's style in Episode 5—both the style of the writing and the artwork have gotten a lot of positive feedback.
Watanabe: I may have experience directing what happens on-screen, but unlike Mr. Yamashita, I don't draw. So I just conveyed my intentions and directions to the animation team, and they brought those to life beautifully. They did such a good job that in the end there wasn't much for me to correct at all. That's all thanks to the animation team.
Q: Were you familiar with Pokémon before this? Do you have any favorite Pokémon, or particularly memorable Pokémon stories?
Yamashita: Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green* came out when I was in first or second grade, so I'm part of that age group that bought and played them at the time and got really, really into them. I still remember the part right after you first beat the Kanto Elite Four and then go on to battle your rival. By that point, the Pidgey he had early on has evolved into Pidgeotto and then Pidgeot, and Pidgeot's pixel artwork looks way bigger, you know? And then you hear Pidgeot's cry on top of the dramatic music for that final battle. I could almost feel the wind blowing my hair back. (Laughs.) I'm sure Pidgeot's not actually that big, but I remember the combination of the music and its cry made it feel huge to me.
I really wanted to channel those pure, childlike feelings into this showdown between Dynamax Pokémon that happens in Twilight Wings Episode 7. I also remember not being able to catch a Tauros in the Safari [Zone]. (Laughs.) All my friends caught one, but I couldn't. I remember crying as I headed home to keep playing, but in the end I never found one. There were some serious tears! (Laughs.) Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green have always stuck with me the most thanks to stories like that.
*Note: In Japan, the original Pokémon games released for Game Boy were Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green, with Pokémon Blue following later, unlike in other regions where Pokémon Red launched as a pair with Pokémon Blue.
Watanabe: I was part of that same age group who started playing from the first generation. I have an older brother who had Pokémon Red, and I had Pokémon Green. Right from the start, it gave me a way to connect with other people. I had to transfer to a new school at one point, and it helped that everyone was talking about Pokémon at my new school, too. Plus, back then you needed a Link Cable, right? I remember it being a big deal to have one.
Yamashita: I remember that, too! I never had one.
Watanabe: After school, I'd go over to a friend's house, their parents would give us some snacks, and we'd hook up the cable and trade Pokémon… At the time, we probably would've been trying to get Alakazam and Machamp.
Yamashita: Wow, that takes me back!
Watanabe: Pokémon definitely made for some late nights, too. (Laughs.)
Q: Let me ask you more about Twilight Wings. Format-wise, it's sort of a compilation of short stories. Does it have an overarching theme or idea?
Yamashita: The basic idea was to have Tommy and John, the young boys in the hospital, serve as the focal point for everything, and then build toward the ending while giving the fascinating Gym Leaders short turns in the spotlight. We wanted to give each episode a different style of direction, and I think each of the first six does indeed have its own distinct flavor.
Take Episode 5, for example. It's harder to get a read on Oleana's emotions compared to what we've seen in previous episodes. She's got a complex backstory, so building a moving but easy-to-follow story around her was extremely tough. But we had a strong vision of making a story that would make fans feel something when they saw it, even while not showing her whole backstory openly. Assistant Director Watanabe brought that idea to life spectacularly, so I think we can count that one as a big success. (Laughs.)
For Hop and Wooloo's story in Episode 3, we chose a deliberately more comical style that I personally don't do much—something a bit closer to the way the Pokémon TV series has usually been directed. I felt a more sunny and pastoral vibe would be perfect for depicting Hop's character, and out of all the episodes we had planned, Episode 3 seemed like a good chance to expand the series' atmosphere with this new, lighter dimension. That way, even when things got serious or you glimpsed how cruel the world could be, there would still be a kind of warm, comforting place around.
We've got these characters John and Tommy, who are sick and can't take part in Pokémon battles, let alone picture what their futures might look like, and my goal was for Episode 3 to make John and Tommy's stories stand out even more strongly by comparison. I wanted the artwork and editing of those episodes to concretely represent the natures, perspectives, and values in these characters' respective stories. Hop is the Champion's younger brother, and that may make his childhood tough from some points of view, but he never seems to question that he'll become a Trainer and go chasing after his big brother. Episode 3 starts with Hop watching TV, just like the boys are in Episode 1, but with lighter background music, a different color palette, and sunlight coming in and brightening the whole room. That type of contrast was at the front of our minds when we were making Episodes 1 and 3.
Q: So I take it you were very conscious of making sure the different parts of the story connected together in some way when viewed as a whole?
Yamashita: Yes, absolutely. That's part of what makes the series format so interesting—you can't tell the overall shape just by seeing one part, or rather, there are elements you won't understand just by viewing each episode separately. So we definitely wanted to make the parts all interconnect.
Q: Each episode focuses on a different character, but Corviknight and the Flying Taxi appear every time. Are their appearances meant to link the series together?
Yamashita: The idea of having Corviknight and the Flying Taxi appear as a way to keep the world of Galar connected came up at the planning stage. We used them as a focal point when we were first writing the plot. Later in script meetings, we built on that idea by deciding on a pattern where the taxi's pilot would ask the episode's star character something like “Where are you headed?” and “What brings you to a place like this?” and the character would answer.
Q: The new characters John and Tommy are very interesting. What was important to you in designing them?
Yamashita: I'm the kind of person who tends to feel pretty disappointed when animated series based on existing works introduce characters that weren't in the original.
It can definitely be jarring for viewers at first when characters who weren't in the base work suddenly appear. And since we're working with roughly five-minute runtimes with Twilight Wings, we sort of gave up on the ways we'd typically develop characters. (Laughs.) Normally, characters only take shape when they've had a chance to speak or had some of their circumstances established. Since we were limited on that front, it was tough to convey everything about John and Tommy, like their natures and their relationship to each other.
So to get around that, we arranged it so that Episode 6 would deliver on things set up in Episode 1, and then Episode 7 would wrap up something from Episode 6, and so on. That's why even at this stage (note: this interview took place before the release of Episode 6), there's still a lot about the characters of John and Tommy that's not yet out in the open. We set it up that way in the hope of creating a degree of mystery, so you'd get the answer and think, “So that's what that was about!” We couldn't take much time between the pre-scripting stage and drafting the initial script, so when it came to figuring out how to refine their characters, we ended up hashing some parts out step by step as we went.
Q: Out of the episodes that have been released so far, are there any directorial tidbits that the audience hasn't noticed or inside stories that you can tell us about?
Watanabe: People seemed to have caught on to just about everything I put in. (Laughs.)
Yamashita: (Laughs.) There are certain aspects of my direction that I myself never put into words, but that the audience's reaction made me aware of, and that's been very interesting. But that kind of thing makes me extremely happy. There are definitely structures that I build up without even realizing it. There are some aspects of the work that I didn't explicitly intend on introducing but just felt natural or obvious. There are times when these instinctive directions fit in great, and I really enjoy moments like that.
Directors envision a lot of ideas at an unconscious level, and those base visions are indispensable even if they never get put into words. I think my favorite moments are when fans pick up on those ideas. Mr. Watanabe, you worked a lot of ideas into Episode 5, didn't you? I get the feeling the way you directed that scene with Mr. Rime went over pretty well, for example.
Watanabe: Yes—although that started from me simply wanting to get Mr. Rime in the episode… (Laughs.) But we got it to perform a tap dance that acted out how Oleana was feeling.
Yamashita: That was great!
Watanabe: I don't want to say too much because that'd spoil the fun, but since the overall length and individual shots are fairly short, we tried to have some Pokémon or some character from the games appear in each shot. Maybe we were being a little playful, but we also wanted to try and get as many of those appearances in as we could to make fans happy. See who you can find!
Q: Looking back over the series with an eye out for stuff like that is part of the fun, isn't it?
Yamashita: The thing is, it's completely fine to talk about stuff like how there's a single Ditto hiding in the school of Wishiwashi in one scene in Episode 4. But I'd rather not discuss parts that connect deeply to the story, since that'd make them feel overdone. (Laughs.)
Q: Would you rather people pick up on those story points themselves through repeated viewings?
Yamashita: Honestly, it's completely fine if people never pick up on them. That's kind of part of the theme of Twilight Wings: We aimed to make it so that you could follow the story even if you missed some things, but you could also see another layer underneath if you did pick up on everything.
Q: Can you tell us about any highlights to look forward to in the last episode?
Yamashita: It's hard to talk about highlights without automatically spoiling things, but here goes. I think exciting Pokémon battles are one major draw of the Pokémon TV series, but Twilight Wings hasn't focused much on battles. Even though John's a big fan of Leon's, we deliberately made the choice of not making battles a central feature. John's certainly interested in those battles and wants to watch them in person, but that wish hasn't been granted. In Episode 7, one highlight might be that John ends up actually getting to see a battle in a stadium up close, and it's a battle with a new level of quality… A very fierce battle.
Q: And how about you, Mr. Watanabe?
Watanabe: Oh, I pretty much agree with Mr. Yamashita. I'd rather everyone just see Episode 7 for themselves. (Laughs.)
Yamashita: I hope everyone can experience John's dream right alongside him in the stadium! Feel the ferocity of Leon's Dynamax battle from right up close!
Watanabe: It feels like a fitting conclusion. I think most of the characters people love make an appearance, too.
Yamashita: True. That's a highlight, too!
Q: And you, Mr. Yamashita?
Yamashita: From the beginning, I've wanted to make Twilight Wings such a strong work that Pokémon-loving fans would be able to read as deeply into it as they want and see things that may not even really be there. I want it to be a series that lands most impactfully for people who love Pokémon.
I hope what we've created lets people who are emotionally invested see all the way to the deepest parts of it and enjoy it on another level. Please enjoy it all the way through to the end.
Remember, all seven episodes of Pokémon: Twilight Wings as well as the new special episode, Pokémon: Twilight Wings—The Gathering of Stars, are available to watch on Pokémon TV—here on Pokemon.com or using the Pokémon TV mobile app—or on the official Pokémon YouTube channel.
Be sure to read all our interviews with the Pokémon: Twilight Wings creative team!