Sword Art Online (SAO, hereafter) is an MMORPG. Have you ever played an MMORPG yourself, Director Ito?
I have. I thought about trying to role-play Kirito, so I just stoically leveled on my own, though (smile). There are several hundreds of people connected to it in real time, and I found it mysterious how people you met there would talk to you, even if they never knew you before. Also, there was one time where I found myself in a pinch during battle and this male character slipped me a healing item. I thought that was cool of him, but I have no idea who old or what gender the player actually was. It was fun to find myself trying to imagine what those people were like in their real lives. I'm also glad I was able to experience the descriptions and sensations of an MMORPG that come up in the original work. I'd like to make good use of that in the anime as well.
Then, how do you play to portray the appearance of an MMORPG world in anime?
Fantasy settings go very well with anime in the first place, so I wanted to convey that well first, and then try to add the sense that this is a game. Though I also worried that if we only depicted the virtual world, then it would seem like a regular fantasy anime. If it seems like some distant, unrelated world, it might be hard for viewers to empathize. So I thought that if we depicted it as an extension of the real world, and showed the real lives and troubles of the individual characters, it would give it even more depth.
With that in mind then, what kind of image did you have for the setting of this story, the world of Aincrad?
The first one I had at the beginning was a vague, “how about the ruins of South America?” Medieval Europe is a very common idea when dealing with fantasy, but I thought we could stray from that a bit and give it a different charm. It was less, “We should use South America!” and more, “Let's use a location that others aren't using much.” I've been there before on a personal trip, so I also thought we could make use of the pictures I took then and earn back some of the travel expenses (smile). Obviously that's not the entire image for it, and there are several West European locations that naturally appear as well.
How was the original author, Kawahara-sensei involved with the anime?
First of all, he joined us for nearly every one of our script meetings. There were times he couldn't attend due to a cold, but otherwise he joined us for all of them. He did more than just answer our questions for his opinion, and we were very grateful for the way he joined us as a member of script development. He also decided on a lot of things that hadn't appeared in the original work, like town names, for us, and giving us detailed explanations of Kirito's equipment stats. He even had names for each of the default equipment Kirito wore when he first logged in to the virtual world (smile). We were also happy that Kawahara-san took the initiative to tell us all these things.
Tell us a little bit about the characters. First, what was your impression of Kirito?
I was jealous of Kirito. To be frank, I was jealous that he's strong and popular with women (smile). But, while he knows that he has to escape from the virtual world, Aincrad, he also feels more at home in that virtual world than in reality. I'm sure there are a lot of people who share that feeling in his world, but perhaps Kirito is their representative.
Then what about the heroine, Asuna?
Asuna is a good woman. Even at our stage event during Anime Contents Expo, I said “Asuna is a good woman” in front of (Haruka) Tomatsu-san, who plays her character (smile.) She's basically the perfect woman, isn't she? She's kind, beautiful, she's a good cook, and loved by her peers. It's usually hard to approach such perfect characters, but I grew attached to her as I drew the storyboards. Surprisingly, she has her faults too. When I was convinced that Asuna was cute, I felt that many would enjoy this anime.
What were your impressions of Yoshitsugu Matsuoka-san and Haruka Tomatsu-san, who play the roles of Kirito and Asuna?
While Kirito is introverted and na´ve, he can take charge when he decides to, yet we also wanted to avoid having his voice sound too manly or masculine. Amongst all the people who auditioned for the role, Matsuoka-san fit our image the best. When we heard Tomatsu-san at the audition, not only did fit the character, she was very good. I doubt there are many actresses her age who can match her level of skill. Matsuoka-san and Tomatsu-san both give us nothing to worry about, and I can't wait until off-recording begins.
Speaking of Anime Contents Expo, you all actually made Elucidator (Kirito's sword) and displayed it?
It's convenient to have a sword on hand as reference for the animation, so we originally planned to buy a cheap one. Elucidator is a little long for a one-handed sword, but we wanted to know what it was like to swing such a sword, and how it would move. Then our producer, Kashiwada-san, said, “Then why don't we make the real thing?” And he even talked about making Asuna's Lambentright in addition to Kirito's Elucidator. When we don't have events, all our animation staff uses them to practice their sword skills (smile).
Kawahara-sensei's other original work, Accel World, was animated before SAO. Did you pay any mind to that fact?
Paying it too much mind wouldn't do any good so we just focused all of our efforts on SAO without giving it much attention. Rather than pay it mind, I'd prefer to send them a cheer of “Let's both make them fun together!”
Lastly, would you please tell us what you've felt so far as production made its way to its present state?
We have animators I can trust, a highly skilled action animation director, and I felt really blessed to have the team we do. Especially with our art staff. The anime has several different worlds in its setting, so we had to ask them for a lot of material. But that's something the work demands, and there'd be no point to the anime if we didn't take good care of that. We asked the impossible more than usual, but our art directors from Bamboo answered our expectations and their quality is wonderful. When the art for our PV was done, I could truly feel the progress we'd made. This is a work with people who have been fans since the light novels, and those who became fans when the website went up, so we're under a lot of pressure to try and meet all of their expectations. But we will do our best to respect the original work, so we hope that everyone will watch the animation when it's done, and enjoy our hard work.