Key/Sekai Project Interview @ Japan Expo USA 2014
For fans of Japanese visual novel-style games, the name Key evokes a lot of fond memories, magical storylines and endearing characters that often culminate into an cathartic bliss that I personally like to describe as "tear nirvana." Known as the company behind the scripts for tearjerker anime such as Kanon, Air and most recently Little Busters!, VisualArt's, Key's parent company, has finally begun to localize these timeless visual novels into English as part of a collaboration with the localization company Sekai Project.
With the recent release of the kinetic novel Planetarian already under their belt, the next big project for the two companies will be the upcoming Kickstarter campaign for Clannad; the title that is often arguably seen as the company's magnum opus. Take a trip with us as we interview Genki Tenkumo, one of the scenario writers for Clannad, and Yoshikuni Toyoizumi, one of VisualArt's PR representatives, at Japan Expo USA 2014 to discuss the company's plans and their hopes for the English market.
T-ONO: First off, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions for us. Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role within Key/VisualArt's?
Tenkumo: Just for clarification, Tenkumo is basically a pen name that I use. My actual last name is Okano and I am a director and scenario writer for VisualArt's. Since Sekai Project is currently leading an effort to get a release of Clannad on Steam, I am here to help support their effort.
Toyoizumi: I am an editor and I also do some PR as well for a monthly magazine called "Visual Style." I also help coordinate the in house illustrators such as Hinoue Itaru and Na-Ga. Additionally, I reach out to contractors outside for help as well.
T-ONO: The release of Planetarian on Steam seems to be VisualArt's first major step into the western market; however, it is not the first time one of the company's games has been officially released in the U.S. An iTunes version of the game was released two years ago. Would you say that the success of that version had an influence on whether or not to release Planetarian on Steam?
Toyoizumi: When we released Planetarian for the iPhone and Android roughly two years ago, it was a relatively popular app in America; however, the reason we are releasing this title on Steam is to reach a wider audience and bring the visual novel to them.
T-ONO: In addition to Planetarian there has also been a release of Key's sound labels on the American iTunes store. Do you think there will be a time when it would be possible to release physical editions of the label at conventions?
Tenkumo: Actually, I have a question about that. Can non-Japanese iTunes users purchase the music?
Toyoizumi: To be honest, we tried doing this five years ago, but I guess the process to get music out onto iTunes was very difficult so things have only begun to move along now. In Japan, CDs are often more expensive than in the US, it would be kind of difficult to move ahead with that, especially if you have to reverse import. So rather than do direct sales of our music, maybe we can do a package release with a limited edition.
T-ONO: Obviously this is the first time VisualArt's/Key been in America and yet you guys had a pretty significant attendance at the panel last night. What has been your overall impressions of the American fan based so far?
Tenkumo: I feel that the fans reaction is actually the same as the fans in Japan, so I was able to feel comfortable and relaxed when dealing with them and interacting during the panel. I really enjoy that there is such a similarity between the two.
Toyoizumi: This is the first time I've exhibited at a foreign event, and if Sekai Project is a success hopefully I will be able to do more of these in the future.
T-ONO: In a related question, last night [at your Japan Expo panel] Sekai Project announced that Clannad will be released in English. What kind of reaction are you hoping to have once Planetarian and Clannad are both officially localized in English?
Toyoizumi: For me, as a PR representative (otona-no sendenteki), I want the audience to enjoy stories, such as Clannad, that are widely popular in Japan while hopefully reaching a much broader audience.
Tenkumo: Since Clannad has many variations and retelling in various media, most people do not know the origins of the story, which is the game. So for us, being able to publish the original work is very satisfying.
T-ONO: For fans in the West most of the exposure to Key has been through anime adaptations of its IPs like Kanon, Clannad and Little Busters!. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of adapting a visual novel into an anime?
Toyoizumi: According to President Baba, animation studios would often come to us and approach us with the possibility of doing animation. We're not really the ones who say "let's do an animation." We typically wait until we're approached, and ultimately if we don't hear anything from the studios or from the fans then we usually don't know if there is a need or an interest in adapting one of our games into an animation.
It is also a fact that the studios that approach us are mostly Key fans, and their passion is transcribed into the making of the animated series. Their ability to pour their passion into their work is the reason, why I think, the animation has received such praise.
T-ONO: Tenkumo-san, can you explain to us a little bit of the process you went through to create Clannad's Sunohara storyline?
Tenkumo: Originally the main scenario writer and director, Jun Maeda, approached me since he knew that I'm good at writing scenarios that involves siblings. He told me to go ahead and write the story, but try not to break how everything is established since Clannad's world had already been created. So I started to conceptualize ideas about the climax, or the major points of the story, before I filled in the details, such as light comedy, coming of age, and friendships. With Clannad, there needed to be many of these aspects that needed to tie into the everyday school life, and I recall that gave me a bit of trouble.
T-ONO: As for the animation for Clannad, how do you personally feel the arc came out?
Tenkumo: At first I wasn't sure if they were going to do it. So after the first season was done and the second season was given a green light, we weren't sure how much the story would encompass. So when a character arc came out in the very beginning of the second season, Clannad: After Story, I was impressed by what he saw.
T-ONO: [At your panel] you said that the majority of the sales in Japan are going digital but you said there might be a chance that there might be a physical release for Clannad. What kind of numbers or reaction are you two personally looking through the Kickstarter program in order for that to happen?
Sekai Project: They are basically leaving it up to us to figure out if there is a necessity, in addition to how we are going to promote the campaign. I personally believe that there should be a packaged version since there are collectors out there that would really enjoy that.
Toyoizumi: I am hoping that there is a plan from Sekai Project to release a packaged version with limited edition goods, if possible. As I mentioned earlier, I am hoping that it would be possible to include music CDs in there in addition to other goods.
Tenkumo: In terms of estimated sales for a packaged version, I'm not very sure. However, based off the reaction of the fans such as last night's panel, I think that the sales figure will be very strong so I am not worried about that.
T-ONO: If Clannad and Planetarian are a success, where would you two ideally like the collaboration with Sekai Project go next?
Toyoizumi: Although it is ultimately up to Sekai Project to spearhead releases, for us, we hope that we can expand our games, as well as continue a steady stream of Japanese visual novel titles to the audience.
Tenkumo: Rather than releasing specific titles, we would like to take into consideration the audience's needs of releasing perhaps recent titles to the international market. By having our fans show their support and their passion, it is something that is really important to us and gives us a reason to go further. We are also looking forward to what comes after Clannad and Planetarian.
T-ONO: Lastly, do you guys have a message for Key fans in America?
Tenkumo: I am really hoping that everyone can also enjoy the emotional attachment that the Japanese fans had for these games when both Planetarian and Clannad first came out.
Toyoizumi: Originally, I did want to come out to a US event because I believed that this was a good chance to spread Key's titles so that more people can get into them and enjoy them. I am also interested in seeing what will come from here on out. Of course if there is an interest to bring any other staff members from VisualArt's and Key we are definitely looking forward to that as well!
Special thanks to Sekai Project
Transcription edits by Yusuke Osada