Shinsuke Sato is a Japanese director and writer who has worked on a large number of shows such as Gantz, I Am a Hero and Bleach. He talks to us today about the challenge of adapting the manga Alice in Borderland into a series for Netflix.
You can watch Alice in Borderland on Netflix now!
How did you get involved in this show?
I was interested in the business model of Netflix since it was initially a company of postal rental service. It was a natural progression for them to go into streaming and producing original contents. I’ve been wishing one day I might work together with Netflix. So, I was very surprised with how quickly Netflix landed in Japan and, before I knew it, my wish has come true. I enjoyed a great deal of freedom in making this series because it targets a global audience. What shakes humans to the core? Because I love films, I watched movies from across the globe and returned to what I felt was the root of interesting storytelling. I wanted to reflect the depth and richness of the world of films in this eight-episode series, and was asked to maintain the same tone throughout, so I decided that I would direct every episode. This may have been the first time that I was able to create a visual work that has a sense of spectacle more common in feature movies and a depth characteristic of complex human drama that the series allows to depict, all the while feeling the same freedom that I felt when making my independent films.
How did you discover Haro Aso’s manga?
It was not only me who had an eye on the manga of Alice in Borderland. According to the producer, back then when Netflix had just started in Japan they were discussing what content they could jointly create in Japan. Alice in Borderland was already suggested as quite innovative and unique to Japan and so they were keen on it.
What are the main differences between the manga and your show?
My primary aim was to turn the manga into a movie. I consider this series as movies, as I am essentially a filmmaker. I built the story world by interpreting and arranging the original manga and infusing it with the excitement of cinematic movement, thrill, and cathartic release. Creating filmic excitement and fascination has been my main aim. I have developed the script by reading the original story closely and examining its visual style carefully as if it’s my Bible, pondering on how to effectively rearrange them in the movie to achieve the maximum level of excitement. I added new elements to maximize the filmic experience even in the series. I feel that I am able to create unique moving images that cannot be expressed in any other medium.
How did you approach the many action sequences?
I have numerous experiences in making action scenes and I have worked with Action Director Yuji Shimomura and his team in many films. So, I took my own usual style to create action scenes. Action scenes won’t be stand-alone, but instead, appear in a sequence of scenes interweaving factors such as dramatic flow and emotions of the characters. So, what I usually do is to design and arrange all of those factors and create a trial moving image out of them. I examine the trial run and then decide how I should do it for the actual shoot. I do all sorts of try and error in the process of making such sequences until I finally fix the idea.
Sometimes I initially create a video storyboard and then draw a picture storyboard based on it. Depending on scenes, a picture storyboard is sufficient. I prepare tons of such drafts so that I can examine thoroughly each scene from different points of views. That is because even a casual scene needs quite an amount of elements to be considered. Then we will find out how we should prepare or secure how much budget we need. Having said that, instead of paying extra energy and attention to a certain scene, I want to focus on the whole visual flow. Instead of conceiving one massive scene, I would rather express what I want to create in the form of a trial image loosely, then examine and decide how to treat each scene. I prefer it that way. Actions, VFX and various other detailed elements are all connected and intertwined, which a solid story line will run through. The waves of emotions of the characters and the flow of filmic motion should be the core of the film production. With that in mind, I often create a trial moving image without too much deep thought. That’s a video storyboard I make. Of course a conventional picture storyboard can explain a lot, but a camera is essentially about movement. Whether using a moving camera or one that is stationary, it’s the fastest way to show fully how I want to create a certain sequence, by using a moving image even if it’s a trial one. I feel drawing a picture storyboard is a bit troublesome, although I can and I do. Picture storyboards are sufficient for some scenes and at times I don’t even prepare anything and just create on the spot. As for Alice in Borderland, I prepared many video storyboards.
What was the biggest challenge in adapting the manga?
It was such a big challenge for me to have directed the entire 8 episodes, which is equivalent to 3 feature films. I decided to direct all the episodes by myself since I wanted to unify the whole dramatic universe, which I guess was the right decision. Whenever I start creating the film, I consider what’s the challenge this time. For Gantz, which I made 10 years ago, the biggest challenge was to actualize realistic visuals of imaginary creatures, which happened to appear in the life action of the film, by CG or models. It was quite a big challenge for the standard of CG technology at that time in Japan. I employed visual tricks, special effects and CG technology as much as possible to aim for maximum realism. For Alice in Borderland, likewise, Doi, who was the VFX supervisor, and I, cleared one challenge after another, so that we could maximize the quality.
One thing I have never done before I Am A Hero was to create an “alternate world in 360 degree” in the film world. Although I did more or less on virtual world with certain limitations, I have never created an entire alternate world. In terms of techniques and the scale of it, at first I didn’t think it was possible to do it for Japanese film. I later changed my mind that I might be able to do it and tried to create an alternate world in 360 degree for I Am A Hero, in which zombies appeared all over Japan. The newest challenge was, apart from creating the zombies, was to create the surrounding world invaded by the zombies. Learning from that experience, again I was challenged to create a world of B.C.200 in Kingdom, which was also to create an alternate world in 360 degree. It also required CG and other technology. And it was even more challenging to make Alice in Borderland, as I needed to create an alternate world referencing the real world. After experiencing I Am A Hero and Kingdom, I faced a new challenge in creating an alternate world. The scene shouldn’t have any people and cars in it. There is familiar scenery except it’s empty and completely dark in the night without electricity. It seems quite simple as a visual expression, but required so much effort. We spent so much energy for that, and in a sense, this was the biggest challenge ever.
Can you tell us about the choice of your actors?
Unlike Shin in Kingdom, who burns with passion, Arisu doesn’t have any real goal. There is a modern realism to this. How do people who feel such apathy survive in the most extreme of situations? It was really interesting to explore that question with Yamazaki-san. In contrast, Usagi is physically and mentally strong. While she pushes Arisu away at times, she supports him when he wavers. After we decided on her external appearance, I spoke with Tsuchiya-san about the character’s personality. We created a character in Usagi who possesses both strength and a unique type of gentleness.
What is your best memory during this film?
I used to live in Shibuya for around 15 years. It was such a memorable experience that I managed to shoot with Yamazaki-san and the crew in my familiar neighborhood roads and back streets as if we were making an independent film. I quite enjoyed the feeling that we were sneakily doing guerrilla shooting. Since Shibuya is one of the most difficult locations to get approvals for shooting, we only could shoot in a few areas that have been approved for shooting. While passers-by were walking around only a few meters away from the camera, the extra people surrounded Yamazaki-san and we secretly shot so that people won’t notice. It was really like an indie movie production but at a larger scale.
Once we reached the area in front of Shibuya station, we were actually on a gigantic film set. It’s absolutely impossible to get an approval to shoot around Shibuya station area. In any case, it’s out of the question to shoot such a scene in the busiest place in Japan. Thus, we had no choice but to build the set of Shibuya in a vacant lot somewhere outside of Tokyo with enormous effort and budget. I felt as if I was standing in the middle of the Shibuya area where I lived, but it’s artificially built far away from the actual Shibuya. Furthermore, a massive amount of CG was added and, in total, we spent an unimaginable amount of time until the last minute of post-production, and finally created our own familiar Shibuya. Actually, I also made a video storyboard of the scenes of Shibuya in advance by shooting by myself like indie film production while my assistant director filled in the roles of the actors. After all, it was very hilarious for us to know that we eventually aimed for something like what’s in the video storyboard, by spending lots of effort and budget. Eventually, the audience might not be impressed with the scenes in Shibuya that were painstakingly put together, or won’t even notice the difference at all. That’s exactly what we assume to be amazing. It was very good to reminisce in the whole production, as Shibuya is the place I feel at home. I am deeply moved to see the completed film.