Gakuen Handsome is the story of a high school boy who returns to his childhood home to go to a prestigious private high school. There, he finds himself surrounded by surrounded by handsome classmates and teachers. If you’ve seen it, the series looks very amateurish. And that’s kind of the point.
Yuki Babazono is the producer of Gakuen Handsome and a board member of the company that developed the Gakuen Handsome smartphone video games, TOHOKU PENET K.K. Anime now! had a chance to sit down with Babazono to talk about the new anime series.
Gakuen Handsome was initially a project by a few students in the Tōhoku University of Art & Design. Together, in 2008, the group created an opening video for a video game. The trailer was entered into the Nico Nico Movie Festival where not only did it not win, it was completely ignored. The trailer wasn’t even listed in the losing entries.
The founder and creator of Gakuen Handsome, Toneso Kiashi, subsequently posted the video on the Nico Nico Douga site where it became a smash hit–so much so that Kiashi went ahead and created the actual game independently in 2010. It was shortly after when Kiashi and Babazono crossed paths and Gakuen Handsome began its life as a commercial product.
Recalled Babazono, “About five years ago, after [Toneso Kiashi] released his game independently, he hadn’t been doing anything and was going through a period where he was having trouble finding work. My company, Tohoku Penet, has its main offices in Sendai (in the Japanese northeast) where we produce unique media and social games. Toneso Kiashi also lives in Sendai and happened to apply for a job at my company.
“I was told that we’d received a portfolio from an applicant and when I took a look at it, it was full of very distinctive artwork which I recognized.” Babazono remarked. “I’d seen Gakuen Handsome on Nico Nico Douga, and for me, I thought it was a piece of work that had been created by someone with amazing artistic sense. As a fan, I used to wonder what [Kiashi] would do next. So to have him send in an application–and at this point, he hadn’t said he was the creator of Gakuen Handsome and had intentionally omitted that fact. Apparently, he didn’t want to be judged by that and wanted to be hired on his artistic talent alone. Unfortunately, I recognized his touch. I knew that he was the only person who could have created [Gakuen Handsome].”
Recognizing Kiashi’s talent, Babazono convinced him to capitalize on his abilities, rather than work on other people’s properties. “I said that if he was the creator of Gakuen Handsome, he shouldn’t be working in the background, but should work on something of his own–it didn’t have to be Gakuen Handsome-related.” Babazono said. “So I used the company as a foundation for him. To be honest, I just wanted to see what he’d make next. “
From there, they went on to release multiple video games for smartphones and PC, an OVA, and the currently airing Gakuen Handsome TV anime series.
Babazono himself has become part of the franchise as more than just a producer. He currently voices the long purple-haired delinquent, Sakuya Mitsurugi (under a pseudonym). Apparently, this was less a casting of vanity than an issue of necessity. “The voice cast of the original game had all quit.” Babazono explained. “It was because they felt they had done their best but had been laughed at as a result. They tried to do the best job they could, but on places like Nico Nico Douga, people were telling them that they were terrible.”
But Babazono felt that the amateurish audio was one of the core aspects of Gakuen Handsome. When the original cast refused to get involved, Babazono was faced with the daunting task of finding voice actors who could sound like amateurs. “Finding professionals is easy.” Babazono explained. “But there aren’t many amateur voice actors. Obviously, there isn’t really a demand for amateurs. So when we went around asking for bad voice actors, most people would give us blank stares.”
“Even novice voice actors are kind of good. The fact that they’re aiming to be professionals means they practice at home and stuff and are already pretty good, so we had no choice but to give up there.”
“We figured we just grab random people, but it turns out that when you ask a normal person who’s never thought of doing voice acting before, they do it reluctantly. They do it because they were asked and don’t have a choice which ends up being reflected in their acting. So we finally broke down and decided to cast employees of the company.”
Perhaps the greatest appeal of Gakuen Handsome is not just that it looks and sounds amateurish, but that despite its amateurish aesthetic, it remains honest. It never tried to look or sound cheap. That’s just how it ended up looking and sounding. It’s like some of the classic Hollywood B movies that ended up with cheap and lousy special effects, not because the creators were cutting corners, but because that was how far their meager budget could afford. They do the best with what they can and audiences can recognize that sincerity.
“Even if you’re bad–and this is something I learned doing it for myself–it’s not necessarily funny because you’re bad. There’s funny bad and unfunny bad.” Babazono explained. “At first, I thought I really didn’t have to put that much effort into it. But it turns out the results weren’t interesting to listen to at all… The sort of acting that was done with the attitude of, ‘Gakuen Handsome is like this, so I should act like this,’ is no good. On the other hand, even though the acting is bad, if the actor is told to try their hardest and they give it their all, the result is still bad, but it becomes interesting.”
It’s this sincerity and trust that, if the creators give it their all–regardless of the quality–it will be entertaining and enjoyed that has allowed Babazono to replicate the atmosphere of the original. Logistically, it’s a seemingly impossible task, and yet the limitations–sometimes self-imposed–manage to produce brilliant moments of entertainment that don’t seem like the sort of thing one could pull off intentionally.
Even the anime’s ending animation is a recreation of what was originally the result of limitations. For those who’ve seen it, the ending animation features the male characters moving and dancing around like stick figures manipulated in a Flash animation where they eventually get twisted and warped impossibly. It’s insane and one can’t help but laugh at it.
“The outline [of the ending theme] comes from the OVA.” Babazono explained. “The OVA’s ending is like that. And how that came about is–well, actually, we ran out of time. It was a situation where we didn’t have time to make an ending animation and were debating what we should do. And I suggested, why not make it like a picture-story show, because I don’t really have good artistic sense. So [Toneso Kiashi] said, ‘if we’re going to do that, I can use a bone tool and move the characters around a bit.’ So I gave the OK and what came back was a masterpiece.” (see below)
The Gakuen Handsome anime series garnered much attention in the news when it was announced that it would be crowd-funded. The decision to resort to crowdfunding was very much in the spirit of Gakuen Handsome‘s blunt honesty: The creators asked for the money because they didn’t have it. There was no motive of any sort grand social experiment to see if it could be done or to test the potential of crowdfunding; it was done because airing an anime series costs a lot of money.
After the idea to make a TV anime series arose, Babazono did a little research to find out what it would cost. “We’d never done anything like airing a series on TV, and we didn’t really have an idea of how much it would cost,” Babazono recalled. “So I called up a customer service desk and asked, ‘How do I air an anime?’ and after an hour or so of being bumped from department to department, I finally got to the right department. So we got our answer, and it turned out to be really expensive, and we didn’t have that sort of money.”
It’s this transparent and almost brutal honesty that has made Gakuen Handsome almost invulnerable to criticism in Japan.
“In places online like 2ch, there are threads pretty much dedicated to tearing things and people down. I get the feeling that everything gets bashed there. But, Gakuen Handsome is a unique beast in that the more people bash it, the more Gakuen Handsome benefits. For example, you might say the artwork is bad, but that’s true. You might say the voice acting sounds amateurish and laugh at it, but we actually appreciate people laughing like that. So over time, the number of people who bash it has decreased. It’s essentially become immune to bashing.”
For Babazono, Gakuen Handsome is not just a property that he himself enjoys. He also hopes that it can serve as a reminder to the anime and game industry that people can make such things and that they can be successful. Hopefully others will be motivated to try.
In closing, Babazono had this to say to those watching overseas:
“In Japan, there’s a genre called ‘boys’ love.’ It’s essentially romance stories between men. Gakuen Handsome is of that genre, so please enjoy it. I hope that it can serve as a representative of the genre.”
© TOHOKU PENET K.K.