Source: Kai-You (May 21, 2021)
Interview by Ichishi Iida
To celebrate the Pretty Boy Detective Club anime’s premiere in April 2021, we invited two guests over for a chat: Maaya Sakamoto, who voiced Shinobu Oshino (Kissshot Acerolaorion Heartunderblade) in the Monogatari series and now stars as Mayumi Dojima in Pretty Boy Detective Club, and NISIOISIN, who created both titles.
“Why cast me as a middle schooler?” Sakamoto opened the conversation with this simple question about her new role. We then dug into the unique inner workings of animation studio Shaft, similarities and differences between Monogatari and Pretty Boy Detective Club, as well as NISIOISIN’s obsession with mysteries.
The First Actor to Be In Two NISIOISIN x Shaft Anime(?)
Nisio: You know, it’s been almost 10 years since I first worked with Sakamoto-san on the Nisemonogatari anime.
Sakamoto: Nisio-san would always stop by our recording sessions and bring us tasty food.
Nisio-san, how did you feel when Sakamoto-san was cast as Mayumi in Pretty Boy Detective Club?
Nisio: Back in the early days of Bakemonogatari, the production committee had this grand notion that if Shaft were to animate Monogatari, Zaregoto, and any other of my series, none of their casts should overlap.
But as the number of characters increased, that policy eventually hit its limit and Sakamoto-san was back on the docket. So when the anime production team told me they were thinking of asking her to play Mayumi, I immediately replied, “Go for it!”
To begin with, should Kissshot and Shinobu in Monogatari even be counted as the same role? Taking into account the various ages and forms, I feel like Sakamoto-san had already played five different characters of mine before Mayumi. And considering Mayumi’s male persona, she’s another dual role.
Sakamoto: What’s interesting about Mayumi is that she doesn’t act like a boy even when she’s dressed like one. Since her appearance is the only thing that changes, I don’t treat her as two separate roles. Though I must say, Mayumi does grow as a person after each episode.
At first, I had to constantly remind myself to act like a middle schooler… But now, it’s all subconscious. [laughs] The more Mayumi’s true colors show, the less effort it takes for me to play her well—I’m oddly a good fit for her.
Nisio: How do you distinguish the roles of Shinobu and Mayumi in your mind?
Sakamoto: Shinobu and Mayumi are so different in terms of voice and age that I can distinguish them with ease. They occupy totally separate parts of my brain.
How exactly were you offered the role of Mayumi?
Sakamoto: Their pitch was, “We think you’d be perfect for the high school heroine in this series.” I hadn’t read the source material yet, so I thought to myself, “I haven’t played a high schooler in a while. Will I be okay?” But since it was one of Nisio-sensei’s series, I figured they must’ve approached me for a reason and accepted the role.
Then I read the novel and shouted, “Wait, she’s a middle schooler!” in a dramatic outburst. [laughs] It’s funny, I rarely get cast as girls that age. The five actors they hired for the other Pretty Boy Detectives were relatively young, so I took the job without fully understanding why they asked me of all people to play a middle schooler.
Prior to recording Episode 1, I even told those actors, “Sorry if I take up your time, I’m feeling lost today.” I was so anxious that I had to ask Nisio-san, who came to visit, if I was playing Mayumi correctly. Each time the director and the sound director approved my test recordings, I only became more confused. [laughs]
But as the story progressed and Mayumi’s personality came out, I found her to be very relatable from a woman’s perspective. She’s not the type of girl that boys dream about; she’s the type of girl whose modesty makes you go, “Ah, I was probably just like her in middle school.” Thus, I decided it’d be better to portray her realistically.
What Differentiates Pretty Boy Detective Club from Monogatari
What are some similarities and differences between the Monogatari series and Pretty Boy Detective Club?
Sakamoto: One similarity is…they’re both wordy. [laughs] Even though I knew what to expect because Shinobu had a lot of dialogue-heavy scenes in Monogatari, I also remembered how stressful it was for (Hiroshi) Kamiya-san to play the main character, Koyomi Araragi. And in this series, Nagahiro’s voice actor (Ban) Taito-san had a monologue that went on for six pages straight—he might have it worse than I do.
Nisio: Monogatari and Pretty Boy Detective Club both warp your standards for how much dialogue there should be in anime.
Sakamoto: As for differences, well, the protagonists are of opposite sexes. But when push comes to shove, I think Koyomi is someone who displays a deep sense of acceptance. Can’t say the same about Mayumi quite yet.
Nisio: Originally, Mayumi wasn’t supposed to join the Pretty Boy Detective Club. It was only after I realized she had the kanji for “beauty” (美) in her name (眉美) that I decided to make her a member.
Sakamoto: Huh? [laughs]
Nisio: Nah, I’m just messing with you. [laughs] In the process of writing, I noticed Mayumi was easily roped into doing weird things, so I had her join the club. As a result, she became an excellent foil to the rest of the Pretty Boy Detective Club.
Sakamoto: I wonder if Mayumi used to act as normal as possible at school and at home. She only felt more free to express herself after meeting the five Pretty Boy Detectives.
It’s similar to how Koyomi changed after meeting all those people over the course of Monogatari. As an adult myself, it’s amazing and dazzling to see both of them maturing by building the kinds of relationships that are exclusive to teenagers. They’re the very image of youth.
Nisio: The Pretty Boy Detective Club anime makes my heart ache. As in, it makes me feel old.
I started working on the novels more than five years ago, so I watch the show while thinking to myself, “Hey, I wrote that line! But would I write the same thing today?” I can detect traces of my younger self in the writing.
Although I’ve had several of my works animated, it’s been a while since the last one aired, so I feel the same initial glee and embarrassment I felt when Bakemonogatari got the anime treatment.
Sakamoto-san mentioned the word “youth,” but my goal with Pretty Boy Detective Club was to depict middle schoolers—kids even younger than Araragi and his friends in Monogatari—gathering in the art room after class to hang out. I tried to keep the mood light.
As reflected in the anime, the Monogatari series gets incredibly dark at times. I did my best to avoid a repeat of that situation, and yet…”youth” is a tricky topic. Did I do it justice?
Sakamoto: [laughs] I interpreted Pretty Boy Detective Club as a story about the joys of making and having friends. Although the plot involves one girl in a sea of attractive guys, it doesn’t follow the cliché of things getting frisky between them.
Nisio: It won’t ever be a romantic comedy, and I consider that a win.
Monogatari wasn’t meant to be a rom-com either; Araragi and Senjogahara originally weren’t supposed to date each other. Araragi should’ve been this stud who had abandoned his earthly desires and lost the propensity for puppy love…but that fell apart in two arcs. [laughs] The rest is history.
In contrast, Pretty Boy Detective Club sticks to its guns. That’s why Mayumi gets scummier over time.
Sakamoto: Every time Mayumi calls someone “scum,” I question whether they deserve that insult. Am I the scummy one? [laughs]
Nisio: She grows haughtier as the story progresses, which is unusual among my characters.
Araragi, for example, finds his calling and ultimately achieves inner peace. Meanwhile, Mayumi acts more and more aggressive. I’d nearly forgotten that she started off as a humble client until I watched the anime and saw her initial appearance for the first time in a long time.
Sakamoto: She did indeed.
Nisio: …Perhaps it was harsh of me to label her as “scummy.”
Sakamoto: [laughs] It’s refreshing to see her be teased and tormented, though.
Nisio: It’s fun to write her clubmates acknowledging her as a great addition to the team. Mayumi once toyed with the idea of being an intermediary between the Detective Club and its clients, but she changed her mind. Thanks to her decision, I had plenty of stories left to tell.
Shinobu subverted the audience’s expectations in a similar fashion. In Bakemonogatari, she was a shell of a vampire who always sat in silence. Then in Nisemonogatari, she started talking and turned into Araragi’s sidekick—all of her own accord.
Sakamoto: Ahh, I also sensed that Mayumi tends to have a mind of her own. Some of the phrases I said and noises I made in the studio were things that had never come out of my mouth before.
I’ve never been the type to mull over recording sessions beforehand, so there are moments at work when I react spontaneously in character during back-and-forths with other actors. It would’ve been a shame if the COVID pandemic put a stop to those miracles by preventing us from gathering in person. Fortunately, the whole Pretty Boy Detective Club cast is able to record together, albeit in two separate rooms.
We have to talk through the curtains dividing us in the recording studio, [laughs] but I still get the feeling that we’re creating miracles by acting in the same place at the same time.
Did Pretty Boy Detective Club‘s recording sessions have a different atmosphere than those of Monogatari?
Sakamoto: What’s special about Pretty Boy Detective Club is that our camaraderie, group identity, and teamwork grow stronger with each passing episode.
Monogatari, on the other hand, focused more on the individual strengths of its characters. The cast was filled with one-of-a-kind actors who gave incredible performances, and the way we egged each other on without having to say a word made for an exciting workplace. Obviously we were like family after spending so much time together, but there weren’t many interactions or equal relationships among the female characters. It was the opposite of Pretty Boy Detective Club.
Nisio: With the Monogatari series, I’ve been delving into one character per arc by writing their one-on-one conversations with Araragi. But with Pretty Boy Detective Club, I sought to depict characters who always operate as a team. Although I only had the chance to attend the first episode’s recording session this time around, I was so inspired that I drafted a new book promptly afterward.
Sakamoto: When the cast heard about that, we went, “The fact he picked up his pen means we did well, right?” and breathed a sigh of relief.
Nisio: It felt as if you all were showing me how the characters ought to sound through your performances. I didn’t consider that these stories might someday be animated when I wrote them, so I included stuff like “Nagahiro the Orator has the skill of a voice actor” without a specific voice for him in mind.
Sakamoto: Reading the novels made me think, “Whoever gets cast as Nagahiro has high standards to live up to!” [laughs]
Nisio: Prior to Pretty Boy Detective Club, Shaft and you voice actors had brought to life other novels of mine that contained absurdities which were only supposed to make sense on paper. But I’m happy to say my expectations have been blown away once again.
The beauty of a starry sky—a key aspect of the premise—comes across in both the opening and ending sequences; the same spectacle that appeared toward the end of Bakemonogatari now appears in the very first episode. I’m sure you realize how much I love starry skies after watching these anime.
Sakamoto: The storybook animation for Mayumi’s speech about dreams was absolutely gorgeous. Whenever I have a lengthy monologue, I worry that it’ll be hard to follow or that I’ll sound too monotonous. Thankfully, the numerous cuts of lovely art by Shaft allowed the artistic flavor to change at a rapid pace.
Even if I don’t manage to express everything with my voice, I can count on the visuals to convey expressions and movements that I hadn’t taken into consideration. We sadly didn’t have a ton of footage to work with at the time of recording, so the director just told us, “Do whatever feels right—we can always tweak the animation later.” That’s what enabled me to take a more flexible approach.
Unreasonable Requests Born Out of Indescribable Visuals
Sakamoto-san, what instructions did the sound director give you regarding your acting?
Sakamoto: He said, “I want your portrayal of Mayumi to be as unconventional as possible.” In addition to the scripted dialogue, this show features ad-libs, screams, heavy panting… There are a lot of moving parts.
Take, for example, the scene when Mayumi walks while whistling to hide her unrest, and her whistles get weaker and weaker until they barely make a peep. Or the scene when she takes baritone voice lessons from Nagahiro, and he tells her to use the lowest voice she can possibly sing with. It was fun yet challenging to figure out how I could act those out in an unconventional way.
I’d normally get detailed instructions like, “Please take gasping breaths.” Instead, I was repeatedly asked to make weird noises you’d never hear from another anime’s female lead. We’re usually not allowed to alter our performances between the rehearsal and the real deal, but I’d deliberately try a different approach for each take since there were no rules, and the sound director used some of those test takes in the final cut.
Nisio: Were such unreasonable requests made of the other cast members?
Sakamoto: They were. It wasn’t written in the scripts we got beforehand, but we were asked to improvise the clips of us frolicking at the beach once we were in the studio. Mayumi and Hyota in particular moved around a lot in the background while other characters were talking.
Nisio: Monogatari didn’t really have any background chatter—there were seldom more than three people on screen at a time. Meanwhile, Pretty Boy Detective Club thrives on group dynamics.
Sakamoto: Sosaku is the only one Mayumi rarely interacts with, since he doesn’t talk much. There’s a big disparity in the amount of lines each character has.
Nisio: Sosaku was intended to be someone who’d only talk once per book. In the Pretty Boy Detective Club, polar opposites like a gang leader and a student council president complement each other to balance out the team—I created a silent character in the same vein. That’s why Sosaku only talks once every two to three episodes in the anime.
Speaking of which, the staff asked me if they could at least make Sosaku giggle in the first episode so that everyone’s names could be in the ending credits, and I gave them the go-ahead.
Hence there’s an anime-original scene in Episode 1 when Sosaku snickers, which allowed “Sosaku Yubiwa: Gen Sato” to show up in the credits. Yet another tidbit that gives you a glimpse of the production team’s solidarity.
Encounters with Ranpo
Pretty Boy Detective Club is full of homages to Edogawa Ranpo. What’s your history with Ranpo, Nisio-san? (TN: Edogawa Ranpo is an acclaimed mystery author who lived from 1894 to 1965.)
Nisio: My introduction to him was probably Strange Tale of Panorama Island. When I was studying the history of modern literature, the works of Ranpo and Seishi Yokomizo’s generation were required reading.
I had consumed a lot of his stuff before I knew who he was, though I don’t think I read the Boy Detectives Club series until later. Plenty of Ranpo’s stories have been adapted into TV dramas, movies, and manga, so I felt like I had already read some of them when I really hadn’t. They were frequently referenced in other mystery novels too, so I knew what most of them were about long before reading them.
By the way, wouldn’t it be controversial if I was writing Pretty Boy Detective Club without having read Boy Detectives Club? [laughs] That’s why I made sure to reread all of Ranpo’s works while working on this series. As an adult, I found The Fiend with Twenty Faces to be a more compelling villain. Sakamoto-san, have you read any Ranpo?
Sakamoto: I read the entire Boy Detectives Club collection in my elementary school’s library. Kobayashi was my favorite character.
Back then, people would call my tastes “refined” whenever I said my favorite author was Edogawa Ranpo. Since I thought he mostly wrote fun adventure novels, I was like, “Refined? How?” It was after I grew up and read The Human Chair and The Caterpillar that I finally learned what kind of author he was. [laughs] Nisio-san, did you always want to write something Ranpo-esque?
Nisio: Nope, that wasn’t necessarily the case. I was actually trying to come up with a detective squad to rival Kyoko Okitegami in the Forgetful Detective series, but the name “Pretty Boy Detective Club” was so alluring that I had to make a standalone series for it.
Even though I wrote about pretty boys with the purest of intentions, I can’t help but wonder how others like Sakamoto-san—who love reading thanks to their elementary school’s library—view this series. Watching the anime has reaffirmed my fears.
Sakamoto: There’s nothing to fear. I almost forgot that I used to be obsessed with the Boy Detectives Club until I heard about Pretty Boy Detective Club and went, “Hmm, that sounds familiar.” I had a big “Eureka!” moment when I realized the title of every book and episode was a reference to Ranpo’s works.
Nisio: I came up with this series’ titles by combining the the titles of my favorite Ranpo stories, such as Strange Tale of Panorama Island and The Case of the Murder on D. Hill, with “Pretty Boy” or “Beautiful.”
However, the more volumes I put out, the tougher it became to tie them all together. I usually pick a title first, then write content that matches it. My master plan was to parody every last story in Ranpo’s repertoire.
Sakamoto: That clarifies things.
Do you indulge in mystery novels, Sakamoto-san?
Sakamoto: I dabble in suspense novels, but I haven’t read many mysteries besides Sherlock Holmes. It might be because I’m impatient and I can’t stand not knowing the truth. I’m always like, “Tell me who the culprit is already!” [laughs]
Here’s a question for you, Nisio-san. Whenever I read a mystery, I can never correctly predict how the plot will unfold or who the true culprit is. Which makes me wonder, “What goes on in the minds of mystery novelists? Where do they come up with these tricks?” Do you have any answers?
Nisio: I come up with them as I write. As long as my hands keep typing, the ideas keep flowing.
Sakamoto: So you don’t plan out the endings in advance? Fascinating.
Nisio: To be precise, it depends whether the focus is on the characters or the plot. If it’s on the plot, then I do plan ahead. It’s more fun to give the characters free rein, but if I did that for a short story, I’d hit the page limit before the plot could progress. For a full-length novel, however, I prefer to keep the plot open-ended and focus on the characters. The more they improvise and the less I control them, the faster the book writes itself.
A Peek Into NISIOISIN’s Mystery Obsession
Nisio: I had no idea you read Boy Detectives Club back in elementary school…
Sakamoto: Well, it completely slipped my mind until you brought it up earlier. [laughs]
Nisio: When I was at that age, I wanted to be a pro baseball player. I never made an honest effort to achieve that goal—the idea just popped into my head one day, out of the blue.
That experience may have been the basis for Mayumi’s ambiguous dream of becoming an astronaut.
Nisio-san, you once said in another interview that you “enjoy all forms of entertainment as though they’re mysteries.”
Nisio: That’s one of the few things I’ve said in past interviews that still holds true today. Whether it’s manga or TV dramas or movies, I tend to analyze all stories through the lens of a mystery. My own writings follow the tried-and-true mystery formula—an incident occurs, a perpetrator and a victim are born, and conflict ensues. Part of the reason why mysteries are so ingrained in my mind is because I only read mysteries for a while after becoming an avid reader. Now I can’t unsee those story beats.
Once I expanded beyond the mystery genre, I came across more stories that didn’t follow a neat formula. Some had no incidents or conflicts to resolve; others had no perpetrators or victims present. Notably, the earlier entries in the Monogatari series revolved around victim-perpetrator relationships. If you think about it, they were structurally similar to mystery novels even though it became harder to differentiate between victims and perpetrators as time went on. But since Monogatari started out that way, it merely dug deeper and deeper into those themes with each sequel.
To me, there’s nothing more engaging than a good mystery.
Novels That Make You Want to Travel vs. Novels That You Want to Read While Traveling
As a mystery connoisseur, which novel would you recommend to Sakamoto-san, who’s not too familiar with the genre?
Nisio: Of the ones I’ve read recently, I’d suggest The Rainaldi Quartet by Paul Adam. The main character’s an elderly violin maker living in Italy. There are two types of books—those that make you want to travel and those that you want to read while traveling—and this series is undoubtedly the former. I read it on a trip, and it made me want to travel somewhere else.
Sakamoto: Thank you, I’ll check it out. I love getting book recommendations from people.
Sakamoto-san once wrote an essay-novel titled “from everywhere” about her 36-day Europe trip, which included stops in Venice and Rome. In fact, Italy was where she wrote her first original song, “everywhere”—quite fitting, don’t you think?
Sakamoto: So you like to travel too, Nisio-san? Have you ever gone to see an aurora?
Nisio: No, I haven’t seen one in person yet. Even though I keep saying I will someday… I also hope to go stargazing in New Zealand—allegedly the most beautiful place in the world—and read a book under the stars, but I won’t be able to do that for another three years or so.
Sakamoto: Isn’t it a bad idea at the moment to read books that give you wanderlust? [laughs]
Nisio: You just have to keep your desires in check. I’m actually in the process of adding more destinations to my list. There’s a surprising number of books that can only be read at a time like this, so I’m also being more conscious of whether I want to write novels for people to read on travels or ones that inspire people to travel.
Pretty Boy Detective Club Encourages Viewers to Live Their Truth
In closing, please send a short message to everybody watching the anime.
Nisio: The source material held back when it came to visual descriptions of beauty. However, the anime features dazzling images of starry skies, aesthetic opening and ending sequences, and other eye candy that can’t be captured in words.
I hope the audience enjoys not only the scenes that were taken straight from the books, but also the original and improvised elements that are unique to the anime.
Sakamoto: It’d be nice if everyone could tune in without assuming that it’s all about a gaudy world filled with handsome men. While each pretty boy has his merits, I’m sure there are folks who empathized with Mayumi when she said, “I hate beautiful people” in Episode 1. Yet even Mayumi, who coldly observed that “beautiful people can get away with saying anything,” gradually discards her prejudices.
Over time, the characters unveil how their definitions of beauty are at odds with society, and how they stick together because they need each other. The more we learn about them, the less we see them as just a couple of pretty faces. I know some viewers were touched when Michiru told Mayumi, “Aren’t you the one who’s looking down on your dreams the most?”
As the story continues, our preconceived notion that the Pretty Boy Detectives are fundamentally different from us will be shattered, and we’ll be able to bare our true selves to them the way Mayumi did. The series was designed with all this in mind, so please give it a chance.