Home Interview: Kazuya Nakanishi and Kazufumi Kikushima on The Eminence in Shadow's Incredible Reception

Interview: Kazuya Nakanishi and Kazufumi Kikushima on The Eminence in Shadow's Incredible Reception

The Eminence in Shadow has a unique place among the seemingly endless amount of new isekai anime each season. Not only does much of it center on a very unique, delusional, almost narcissistic main character, but many of its scenes parody some of the more quintessential elements of other isekai. At once it pokes fun at the often generic or lazy attempts of other works to make something strong for the genre and improves upon them, giving the watcher a special blend of comedy and the best elements of an action series.

At this year’s Anime NYC, we got the chance to speak with Kazuya Nakanishi and Kazufumi Kikushima, director and producer, respectively, of The Eminence in Shadow. The two met with members of the press and answered questions from multiple outlets about the show’s popularity, their own perspective on the industry, and some advice to those who want to enter it.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Both of you have been involved in anime based on manga, novels, and a variety of sources – do you tend to find that one medium vs others is more satisfying to adapt?

Nakanishi: In my position, it’s quite hard to answer that question. Whether it’s adapting from mediums like novels or manga doesn’t directly connect to satisfaction. The satisfaction comes from how well the staff worked. Are they satisfied with what they did? Are we satisfied with what we brought to the table? It’s something that we feel, so it is not based on the work we adapt from. When the work is well received by fans that doesn’t mean that we were satisfied. On the contrary, there are some parts of the work that I’m really satisfied with even if they’re not well-received, because we were able to make something interesting on set. It’s all about whether we’re proud of what we did.

Kikushima: We have different approaches for different mediums. When we were adapting from manga, we have certain ways to do it. And if we are adapting from novels, we have a different approach. So we have various approaches in order to make anime series happen. And that’s what we were trying to be aware of. But more importantly, I, as a producer, am more focused on what this story is trying to tell. And that’s something that I’m focusing on and that needs to come across to the audience. The Eminence in Shadow is based on the original novel material. And just because we are creating anime, we have more possibility to express what this story is trying to tell, what kind of message it has, and what the core story that is very important is trying to say. There is definitely a unique way that animation can present it. So we’re focusing on that.

The Eminence in Shadow blends comedy and seriousness and often uses seriousness as a point of comedy. How do you approach this to ensure that the jokes don’t lose their essence or impact?

Nakanishi: I try to be outside of the story to get various perspectives, not into one character per se. And all the reactions that the audiences have, I’m just going to leave it to them. Like when watching certain scenes whether they get angry or happy about it. That’s not my territory to decide. So I leave everything to the audience, how they take it, how they feel about it. And so if it’s funny to them, then it’s funny. In terms of the show itself, basically, none of the characters are trying to make people laugh. They’re very serious about what they do. We’re trying not to forget about that; we’re not really going to make someone laugh. They’re just basically doing a silly thing in a very serious way.

Kikushima: This is my personal perspective: yes, we have certain points that are going to be laughable moments, But also, the characters themselves are very serious. But the seriousness comes across as very ironic in a silly way. So we’re sometimes going for that direction too. For example in real life, imagine you’re at a cafe and some couple that you don’t know is having an argument about nothing and it’s kind of silly. But they’re dead serious. From an outside perspective, that’s very funny. It’s like that; that’s the image we have.

What lessons did you have during the production cycle of season 1 going into season 2?

Kikushima: When we were working on creating the first season it was a brand new series that we were trying to work on to bring that anime to the audience. But at the moment, creating the second season, after all those huge positive reactions, we have more confidence in making it. It’s something that we are gradually growing our confidence in. When the season started there were a lot of isekai novels and anime. The genre is quite huge. When The Eminence in Shadow started people thought “Oh it’s just another isekai series.” But when we’re starting Season 2, people are starting to really watch The Eminence in Shadow. They recognize it’s something different. So they’re more watching what is really going on in the story, without comparing it to other isekai. We present these anime series with very high-quality techniques and expressions. To deliver this anime series to as many audiences as possible, that’s what we’re going for at the moment.

What advice do you have for readers who are hoping to work in the anime industry?

Nakanishi: As a person working in this industry, I have so many painful stories to tell…not so many happy stories. I’ll say painful things first. If you don’t have the resolve to hate what you love, it’s better to just enjoy what you love. And if you don’t have that resolve, then you can just enjoy it as a hobby instead of as a career. Then you can stay enjoying what you love.
Nakanishi [to Kikushima]: Say something very positive, and optimistic (laughter).

Kikushima: Yes, there are many hardships. That’s very true. But at the same time, I really enjoy the hardship. I have a job that I really love from the bottom of my heart. What I love…I would love to share this love with as many people as possible. But if you are deciding to do this as a job, and decide to do what you love for a job, then you would have to definitely think about different perspectives. Not just a producer’s perspective. What’s the fans’ perspective? What’s the overseas culture like? Lots of perspectives are needed. And be excited about what you do. I want people who want to work in the anime industry to not only focus on themselves but also their fans. I want to work with people like that.
Nakanishi: I think so too.

How do you feel about the name some posts call you online, “The One Man Army?”

Nakanishi: (laughs) Of course I don’t make everything all by myself, to be clear.
Kikushima: Well, he says that. But really, he does a lot of things that you cannot imagine. Like how much work that he has to get done. But One Man Army, the title, very much suits him.

Nakanishi: I personally think that this name is not quite positive; I don’t have positive feelings about it. The reason is that I’m the person who does what he wants. And then everything else, just leave it to all the other staff members. Do this, and do that, and get it done. That’s how I do things usually. Then the final product comes out, and when I watch the end roll I see my name everywhere and think, “Hmm, I wonder how this happened.” My expression of a director’s role is not something that I imagined. It’s very different.

How did it feel having your directorial debut for one of your favorite series?

Nakanishi: It’s hard to tell, but I don’t know why this is happening. I’d been in the industry for quite a long time, and I’ve been thinking about what to do next. And there were people who told me “You can be a director,” and I was fortunate enough to get an offer as a director for one of my favorite stories. I was so lucky. I don’t know why I was so lucky; it was a strange feeling. I can only say I’m thankful, I guess that’s the way to say it.

Have there been any surprises about the audience reception to The Eminence and Shadow?

Nakanishi: There have been quite a few. Some people were concerned about the parts we didn’t care about at all, and some people were concerned about the parts we were concerned about. We try not to give too many specific examples, though.

Kikushima: As a producer, I’d love to say that everything went as planned. For fans overseas and fans in Japan, Cid was their favorite character and that was kind of surprising. I thought everyone liked cute girls. Cid as a hero character is a bit too quirky and very selfish at the same time. So it’s quite unexpected that people love the uniqueness that he brought to the table. For Cid’s sake, I’m going to put this out there: a lot of people are very attracted to his passion, his philosophy, and his goals. Maybe that’s why people like him.

Cid walks a fine line where the audience could find him ridiculous but instead, they’re charmed by him. Do you find this challenging when adapting his character?

Nakanishi: To be honest, it’s very difficult. There are so many things that we want to tell people but its quite hard. We thought we did our best to communicate the message but sometimes people just don’t get it. Its a balance between how much you can push for and how much you can’t. For works I did in the past, there were times that we had to change the ending for various reasons, and that changed the message. It’s very stressful. The message doesn’t just come across the way we imagined. For example, for Cid’s lines, all the script writing meetings, and all the storyboard meetings, we make sure to double-check, and triple-check what he’s saying, when he’s saying it, and how he’s saying it. We are trying so hard to get the important message to come across as we imagine, as much as possible.

Kikushima: As you already mentioned, this is quite an interesting character who isn’t quite like anyone else. We as human beings are all complex. But Cid, he’s quite simple. The essence that the human being has is quite light in Cid’s character. Every single time, as the team directing the scenes, we are trying to make sure of what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.

What do you attribute to the The Eminence in Shadows‘ success in the West?

Nakanishi: I wonder why. Everyone asks the same question, but I do not have the answer, because I don’t know why. We are trying our best. Nowadays, with all the devices and culture, so many people are starting to watch anime and get into the anime world. Yes, I’m a little bit aware of trying not to do too much that overseas fans don’t really prefer. But really, this whole thing was very unexpected. It’s not like we’re going for what overseas fans are seeking for. We’re not solely concentrating on that, because I myself am a big fan of the original novel, a story that I’m really in love with. So, I just don’t have the answer.

Kikushima: This anime series has a very chunibyo [this is often translated into English as “8th grader syndrome”—think of it as the kind of person who will talk like an anime character and use “special moves” in real life] essence, and it’s something quite popular in Japan, but I was wondering if that was a thing in the United States as well? (some nod yes, some nod no). Maybe its because some people have been through a chunibyo era in their life, or some people are in that era right now. But I guess there are so many things that people can relate to. So maybe that’s why we had a huge hit with this anime series.

Did you expect The Eminence in Shadow to be this popular?

Kikushima: I’m extremely surprised, because these past two days at Anime NYC, I had all these interviews and meetings with fans, and their reactions and their passions are nothing like we imagined. So, yes, that’s quite unexpected. The isekai genre is getting very popular in the United States as well. And I’ve worked on so many other Isekai works as well in my past career. But The Eminence in Shadow is quite a special one for me. It’s like my baby because of all of my experiences and knowledge that I put into it. And if people are starting to get into this Isekai world through The Eminence in Shadow that’s a great prize for me. And I really appreciate this opportunity.

What sets The Eminence in Shadow apart from other Isekai?

Kikushima: Isekai is just a concept, where an anime takes place location-wise. It’s not really what the anime is all about. I guess my opinion. The same is true for The Eminence in Shadow; isekai is the concept, but what differentiates this story from others is that it’s the story of the protagonist Cid. He took action to pursue what he wanted. The result made people happy or put them into unfortunate circumstances. A lot of things happen without him knowing that they’re happening. We have all these different perspectives in the show from people in the village, characters from the team, and characters wherever to entertain and to create this huge magical world.

We’d like to thank Kazuya Nakanishi and Kazufumi Kikushima for taking the time to speak with members of the press. As the series concludes its second season, be on the lookout for The Eminence in Shadow on our seasonal and yearly rankings. Following the season finale, a movie titled The Eminence in Shadow: Lost Echoes was announced and released a teaser visual. You can watch the second season here on HIDIVE.

©Daisuke Aizawa, KADOKAWA/Shadow Garden

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