Translator's Note: These interviews with three of Gundam's main creators first appeared in the laser disc Mobile Suit Gundam Memorial Box released in 1998, and were republished in the "Memorial Album" included with the 2013 Blu-ray Memorial Box.
"As a creator, it's really painful to make a story only for commercial reasons. Or at least, I hate that way of working."
Tomino: I don't really remember any specific conversations anymore. But at one point, I recall a sunny day when Mr. Yasuhiko first brought in character sheets for Kycilia and Char. They were wearing masks! He'd turned them into manga characters! I remember thinking that was unacceptable. I suppose I'd been imagining a fairly serious war story. So, judging by that recollection... But there aren't any memos that say what I was thinking before that, so it's all beyond my memory now.
However, given the way that projects were launched back then, we wouldn't have created it entirely from scratch. First they'd find sponsors—usually these would be toy companies—and they'd discuss things to a certain extent with Mr. Yamaura, the head of the planning department at the time. Then they'd talk to us. That was the usual method. But the sponsors understood that this was purely a springboard, and the construction of the work would begin in earnest when they'd brought in those of us who would actually be involved in the production. My earliest recorded memory is from a meeting around that time.
From the stage of the proposal that Mr. Yamaura initially presented to the toy companies, he indicated that he didn't want to use the red, blue, and yellow robot tricolors that had already been established at that point. Nonetheless, we couldn't completely refuse to use the tricolors. By the way, some people would call this way of working "accommodation," but I don't think of it that way. Rather, I try to do the design work while faithfully accepting these sorts of requests. That said, I wanted to differentiate this from the kind of multicolored 100-meter-tall giant robots that were flourishing at the time. So at this point, Mr. Yasuhiko suggested that we go ahead and try making the hero mecha a uniform white, while I made a proposal that it should be it about 20 meters high.
Tomino: When we actually presented a sample of the white Gundam to the sponsors, it was decided that we had to include the tricolors after all. Mr. Yasuhiko was angry, but that being the case, he said it might be good to incorporate them at some eye-catching points and he did his own color scheme. For some reason, all I remember from back then is his rear view. At that point he took one shot at painting it, and that's what we finally ended up using. I thought Mr. Yasuhiko was pretty skillful. The red and blue are certainly conspicuous in the bust shots we frequently use, but as we all know today, it gives a wonderful white impression when you show the whole body.
Meanwhile, when it came to my proposed height of 20 meters, it was Mr. Yamaura rather than the sponsor side who asked whether we really needed to do this. Surely if it were bigger it would seem more impressive, and thus be easier to merchandise. I remember an extended exchange of views in which we were asked to make it a little bigger. To make it easier for Mr. Yamaura to explain this to the sponsors, I prepared a comparison chart to a human being to show how big it would be if it were 20 meters.
Tomino: But the white body and the 20-meter height account for a considerable portion of the creators' original aspirations. And if we'd created it purely according to our own side's ideas, Gundam wouldn't have been able to capture the market for 20 years. That's why, as I said before, I don't think that accepting requests from the sponsors should be considered "accommodation." In other words, that because we have lofty ideas and aspirations, we can't create a compromise plan by accepting commercial demands. Particularly in the case of a TV series, since it's broadcast using the public medium of radio waves, commercial success has to be a prerequisite. I think that's a different thing from compromise.
Talking like this, you might think it's perfectly obvious. But when you're actually in the position of being a creator or author, it's surprisingly difficult to stick with it. We need to understand that making something purely to satisfy the creator is acceptable only in a dōjinshi. (1)
Tomino: No, if you won't accept it, then you'll have a hard time making people appreciate your originality. Getting them interested opens the way to understanding. If an author makes a work that doesn't become popular, then talks about their own artistry and says that people who don't get the work are idiots, then they're the idiot. That's why I reject that level of artistry. It's purely self-satisfaction, not the act of releasing a work. It's like an environmental group driven by idealism.
By this kind of analysis, however, the only thing that I myself could call a "work" right now is Gundam. That's frustrating.
Tomino: The setting of 20-meter-tall mobile suits was my aspiration as an author, but I felt it was problematic from the standpoint of the toys and impressiveness on the screen. It was certainly revolutionary in those times when giant robots over 100 meters tall were flourishing, and was very helpful in shaping the work. But at the very least, separating and combining was an absolute requirement to get it on the air. Given the technical capabilities of the time, giving that combination some advantage and meaning was difficult in terms of mecha design as well as dramatization, and I couldn't dispel the sense that it was an unfinished product.
Even if I myself was satisfied with the positioning of the Core Fighter as little more than an escape capsule, it's unsatisfactory from the standpoint of a toy. After all, if you're selling toys, then a powerful fighter plane would be preferable. Children who are at the toy-buying age want the same thing, too.
Even now, I still feel I should apologize to the sponsors about these things. From now on, in producing Gundam or similar works, I think I should consider this from the outset as a matter of design policy.
Tomino: Based on the premise that it's humanoid, I still don't know whether it's possible to make a breakthrough. I'm still in a process of trial and error, because you have to get into the realm of materials theory... If it were permissible to use materials such as shape memory alloys that can freely change their shape, these issues could certainly be overcome. But considering that it's mecha, I think that option may be unacceptable.
That's particularly evident when it comes to Gundam design work, isn't it? Because the mobile suit is depicted as something that feels very much like a "tool," along the lines of actual weapons. That's the shortcoming of the mobile suit, but the fact we created something like that enabled its popularity to continue to the present day, so it's certainly not a bad thing. Still, it means that it has to feel intuitively mechanical. The people of any generation have a fairly conservative image of machines as tools, so they aren't going to accept something like liquid metal.
When I bring in innovative elements that go beyond the conventional sensibilities of the audience, I feel it's probably impossible for that to become popular.
Tomino: It's only because I'm currently making Brain Powerd, a work comparable to Gundam, that I can express that thought. (2) In Brain Powerd, humanoids called antibodies appear from disk-shaped objects called plates. But I'm sensing a possibility that this spectacle might inspire visceral revulsion in the audience, making it hard for them to accept the existence of the antibodies themselves.
Real tools were chosen as a regulatory condition for mobile suits. So, even though it's a constraint, they're built on a foundation that's easier to gather support for.
Tomino: That's definitely where the real difficulty lies. If you base everything on what the general public already knows, then it's absolutely impossible to create something new. As the 20-year history of Gundam indicates, that will only be a rehash. Creating a work that balances both these factors is an extremely delicate task, but you can't produce a hit work without accomplishing it.
Tomino: I couldn't have that kind of attitude, because it's impossible to be heretical if you're placing yourself in the mainstream. But after the Gundam market took shape and I'd gone mainstream, even when I intended to do something different, it didn't end up looking like heresy to those around me. Since robot anime wasn't recognized by society, I was able to keep on calling myself a heretic. But if I'd just rested on my laurels at the point when Gundam was accepted, I'd have become an ordinary old man whose heresies were trivial.
What's more important than my own problems is that the people who enter this world because they like Gundam and other real robot shows, even when they intend to make something new, don't realize they're placing themselves in the mainstream from the very beginning. That's why none of them will create anything unless they're certain of it. It's hopeless trying to create something new under those conditions. I wish they'd realize that they're only spreading imitations.
By the way, I feel the same is true in the worlds of games and theater, not just animation.
Tomino: That's the most basic difference. Why discuss tools first and foremost? Recently, various digital devices have been introduced in animation as well. As a result, during production they now ask what can we do with this machine, or say that we can't create those images. Such things have nothing to do with making a story, and these tools should exist only for creation, so the pros and cons of their performance are secondary.
Tomino: That was certainly heretical. It was a declaration that, this time, I had no intention of making a story just to show off a robot. I'm not a mecha otaku in the truest sense, so I had no interest in depicting that, and I didn't want to end up making a stereotypical robot show. Wouldn't a story about people who had no choice but to enter the battlefield be more interesting? In film and drama, nothing is ever based on mecha from the very beginning, so I wanted to try incorporating that stance... in other words, to prioritize the mindset of a filmmaker.
It wasn't truly heresy. I just wanted to try depicting mixed martial arts in a robot show, which would be perfectly obvious in filmmaking. (3) There was no hint of that in the robot shows, and other anime and special effects programs, of the time. The team-show genre had already been established by things like Thunderbirds, but the drama they depicted among the team members was entirely due to the situations, and there was no drama generated from the members themselves. And they were still in cramped bases...
Tomino: And if I did that, I thought I could raise the robot show to the point where it was recognized by society. If you look back on the last 20 years, you can see the results, right? Of course when I talk like this, it might seem as if I feel things are going in a purely positive direction, and that's not the case. Good and bad are always intermingled.
Tomino: I'm basically not an idea man. That's not modesty at all, and I always aspired to be one. I felt that way at the time, but back then I just happened to get lucky, and I was very fortunate when it came to the characters. In that sense, since I was inspired by Mr. Yasuhiko's creation of those characters, it's Mr. Yasuhiko who should be praised.
Tomino: No, that's not an idea. Since I was trying to make a story like a film or drama, there was never any other choice, so I'm lucky that Mr. Yasuhiko did such a great job of turning him into a character. In other words, if I wanted to depict a person being thrown into a battlefield realistically... no, let's say a little more plausibly, then a character like that was simply better. From the very first, I thought such a character would be good, so it wasn't really a decision.
Anyway, if I were an idea man, I'd be making a bit more money. (laughs) Simply giving something a try, whether it will work or not, is the best thing about being young, isn't it? The rest of the staff must have thought I was out of my mind when they saw me dancing with joy at being given such a platform, and gasping at the unexpected difficulties. (4) And actually, I was.
Tomino: That's now more than 20 years in the past, so I could brag about it as much as I like, but I guess I really did do all that. But for myself, all I can say is that I'm very grateful I was able to make a story that was logically coherent. (5) For all my quibbles, that's a chance that comes along very rarely.
Tomino: I have the same energy now that I had during Gundam. After I came on site for Brain Powerd and thought the staff and I were going to die together, I could feel for the first time that my own scent was attached to the film. Nowadays I feel I was burned out after Gundam, and I think that's because I was arrogant about becoming a manager with the title of "chief director." After Gundam I had the mistaken idea that I could create a work just by drawing the storyboards... but that's not really true.
Tomino: I think that's part of it, but it was also hard for me to accept the way that Mr. Kitazume's generation make anime. I just couldn't feel a sense of personality embedded in their drawings.
But the warmth of Evangelion (henceforth Eva) is a completely different thing from that of Gundam. It's based on an illusion born from a different place than the making of animation, so it's decidedly different. That's why Eva isn't a successor to Gundam. Too many people misunderstand this... By which I don't mean the creators, much less the fans. I'm talking about the adults who tried to make money from Eva by producing books. They don't think about Eva at all. They just skimmed the surface so they'd have something to sell, and systematized it because there are similar aspects. (6) But that's unforgivable behaviour. Their books have gone on to create a lot of sick people.
Tomino: I don't regret it myself, but there are aspects that are very dangerous for children who only like anime, and who have a strong tendency to be mentally absorbed by the story. That's why I thought Amuro might have been dangerous, and said those kinds of things at the time. It was just starting to become apparent at that point, and you only have to recall the Aum incident to see what kind of results it led to. (7) So to me, the Aum incident isn't an abstract case or somebody else's problem, but something for which I feel partly responsible.
The adults, however, don't have even the slightest sense of danger, and simply keep expanding the business because anime is profitable. Although they're doing it to earn a living, I hate the way they ignore the future consequences. But the situation has progressed to the point where it's become an irreversible fact. I'd like to explain that's why I'm making Brain Powerd in this way, so at least I can give people a slightly different understanding. That's why I can characterize the work called Brain Powerd as my big turning point after Gundam.
Tomino: I'm aware that those of from the pre-baby boom generation have corrupted the minds and bodies of the youngsters who've followed us. The recent Ministry of Finance entertainment scandal is a good example. (8) All the people involved were people of my own generation. What did you think, looking at that incident? I think everyone has realized how pathetic the people currently at the top of this country are. In particular, it's only natural for the teenagers who are about to go out into society to feel despair about the future, when they see these people trying to use others to satisfy their own desires.
It's really painful to make a story only for commercial reasons. Or at least, I hate that way of working. And besides, shouldn't there be at least one adult who's worried about the future? As the person who made Gundam, I think it's good for me to say these words.
(May 1998, at Sunrise)
(1) Dōjinshi are self-published works such as fanzines.
(2) The TV series Brain Powerd debuted in April 1998, about a month before this interview was recorded, and so Tomino would be in the middle of production at this point.
(3) I assume Tomino is using the term 異種格闘技戦 (ishukakutōgisen, "mixed martial arts") in a metaphorical sense here.
(4) The Japanese term Tomino uses here means something like "ecstatic," "intoxicated," or "carried away." I was tempted to translate this as "they must have thought I was high."
(5) Literally, "a story that could be followed rationally."
(6) I don't know which books Tomino is referring to here, but the mention of "similar aspects" suggests they're comparing Evangelion to Gundam.
(7) The activities of the Aum Shinrikyo cult culminated in a deadly chemical weapon attack on March 20, 1995.
(8) This bribery scandal was exposed in January 1998, about four months before this interview was recorded.
"The task of giving form to the humanity of Amuro and the others, never seen in previous animation, was truly enjoyable work."
I was handling both character design and animation direction, but the role of animation director tends to be one of balancing the books. In the work known as Gundam, I think I was able to play the role more or less as it was originally intended. I was able to work in good coordination with both the rest of the staff, including the director, and also the audience. In that sense, I think it was a very happy work. It's my personal regret that I collapsed in the middle of the TV series production and couldn't continue to the end, but since I was given another chance in the form of the movie versions, I don't really have anything to regret.
When did I first hear about it? Gundam wasn't something that was brought to me, but something launched from scratch with Mr. Tomino and Mr. Yamaura, who was the planning division manager at the time. It was the result of us all lounging around in the planning office—so it was called, but it was more like a six-mat room in an apartment—and sharing various ideas as we attempted to make an animation like nothing that had come before. But when you're having discussions in that kind of situation, even if interesting ideas are shared, it's often impossible to put together a summary of them. And as usual, in this case we could see some kind of direction, but...
At that point Mr. Tomino, who had been laying around, said, "I'll see if I can put something together." And after that came one of Mr. Tomino's long memos. (laughs) When we all read it together, there were still some parts we didn't understand, but it seemed interesting and we thought it would work, so we got started. (1) That's why, though we launched the plan together, I think Gundam ultimately belongs to Mr. Tomino. As for the characters, my own ideas were also incorporated into the things I had to prepare when we started. With Amuro, for instance, my ideas matched what Mr. Tomino was thinking of, and the design was created in virtually one pass. But when it came to Lalah, I drew her as a simple cleanup of Mr. Tomino's sketch.
I never imagined, though, that the content would end up being so serious. That just goes to show how far removed Gundam was from the conventions of animation at the time, but as a result, I didn't draw the characters with designs that could live up to that seriousness. Of course I had the desire to make such a work, but at the outset, I didn't think it would ever happen. I regret that a little.
There was also the fact that, at the time, the requirement to push the elements that sold toys was stronger than it is now, and so when the program started we had to give that special emphasis. Otherwise, Mr. Tomino would have included the seriousness of the second half in the first half as well, and there would have been no need for the Gundam to separate and combine. I think you'll understand this when you watch, but we put a lot of effort into explaining the Gundam's functions, and the design of Char and the other characters was a little overdone. (2) Well, such were the times.
For us, however, the goal was to make a TV animation unlike any that had come before. So, given those prerequisites, we tried a variety of things. In terms of character design, from the planning stage onward we were determined to show clearly that both ally and enemy alike were human beings, so I did my best to avoid giving them stereotypical looks. Likewise, we were just discussing Amuro. Given the image of a protagonist at the time, it was pretty risky to establish him as an introverted nerd with red hair, and his design conveyed a sense of gentleness as well.
The sub-characters also tend to fall into patterns, but I'd always hated that. This time I was taking pains to show their humanity in their appearance, so I tried to give them all faces that showed they had names and a sense of reality. Even the guest characters had appearances that made you feel they were this or that kind of person.
As for Char, I joked that when he took off the mask he'd be a pretty boy. But while I laughed about it, I didn't expect he'd show his actual face for the time being, so I didn't give it any thought. Then we saw it right away in the second episode... It was like the director was plotting against me. (laughs)
For all of us, it was our first time doing animation that demanded such delicate performances, so it was really rewarding. Personally, I don't like flashy dramatizations anyway, but with the exception of Lalah the characters really came to life... It sounds like a problem when I say that, but she really can't come to life.
When we were initially discussing the story, although it was serious, there were no such things as Newtypes. At any rate, I have no recollection of that. It may have been the right balance for the story, but if I'd heard that at the start, I might have stopped participating. That's because I believe human beings never change. That's why such a thing as drama exists. It's a difference between me and Mr. Tomino, and so I can't follow his sequels.
(1) According to Yasuhiko's "My Back Pages," these meetings took place in August 1978, and Tomino's first plan was drafted under the early title Freedom Fighter. It was after this that the sponsors requested the addition of robots and the title was changed to Gunboy.
(2) Literally あざとい (azatoi), which can mean anything from "clever and cunning" to "pushy and aggressive." Perhaps "overly calculated" is the implication here.
"When I saw the first episode, I just felt that this was a work I wanted to see, even if it didn't sell any toys."
It's already been 20 years since then. I still don't have much free time, but back then I'd only just become a freelancer, and I was working frantically. It was a time when I didn't know whether or not the profession of mecha design would become established, and above all I had to earn a living, so I felt truly fearless. Even though there was the constraint that they had to be turned into toys, I feel I could design things like robots with more freedom than I do nowadays. Of course, I was trying to draw things that would interest children as much as possible.
What should I say... Since the creators of my generation had no experience with OVAs aimed at a limited audience, and knew nothing but works broadcast on TV, we wondered what we should do to gain wider acceptance. Of course this was still at the dawn of so-called robot anime, so there weren't many similar works on the air, and whatever we did would be fairly novel.
When I was a child, however, there wasn't really such a thing as animation yet. So in some respects, I wasn't sure how much I could put myself in the children's shoes. Of course there were exceptions, and then sometimes I was resigned to missing the mark...
To be honest, when I saw the first episode of Gundam, personally I just felt that this was a work I wanted to see, even if it didn't sell any toys. When we were planning Gundam, Director Tomino told me to do thorough SF research for this work, and try to depict everything from clothing to food to housing. Thinking about it now, that was a premeditated crime on Mr. Tomino's part, wasn't it? (laughs) Otherwise we couldn't have created a work that deviated so much from the conventions of the robot anime of the time.
But when it was over, even though I'd had the opportunity to participate in such a work, my honest impression was that my own abilities had fallen short. Certainly there had also been time constraints, but I still had a ways to go...
Nonetheless, Mr. Tomino was on a roll back then. He gave me mountains of sketches, as if ideas were bubbling up one after another. So I feel truly apologetic that I couldn't realize all of them. If I were a designer who really loved mecha design, I'd have submitted counterproposals and improved versions when I received these memos. But since I'm not that kind of designer (laughs), I just accepted them and drew them as is. Of course, as I mentioned above, I was also under a lot of pressure at the time. But that's just an excuse.
When they first sent me the idea of the mobile suit, the overall height of 18 meters was a figure I didn't have much experience with, and I was worried about how to distinguish it from previous giant robots. Whether 100 meters or 18 meters, from a human's viewpoint they're both huge, but in fact it's more than a fivefold difference. Of course, the animators are ultimately the ones dealing with that challenge, but even at the design stage I couldn't disregard the issue of scale. Somehow I managed to arrive at a design, but how well did I do? Even if I ask that now, there's nothing to be done about it.
The things I'd imagined during the planning stage went about as far as the Dom. By the way, people often praise the Zeon mobile suits, especially the Zaku, and I'm delighted about that too. But given the sponsor situation, during the broadcast there were no plans at all to release toys of the enemies, and we only had to consider the so-called Chōgōkins of the Gundam and the rest of the main three. So please remember that I had a lot of freedom with the designs. That's why it was possible to build them mostly with curves, contrasting with the angular lines of the hero side's mecha...
The actual work was completed in two or three drafts. But after the Dom, Mr. Tomino began sending a large quantity of detailed sketches. It was probably around that time that the image of the mobile suit and mobile armor became fixed in his mind. I recall that he drew pretty detailed roughs for the Gelgoog, Zock, and so on. But I think that was good. Mecha like mobile armors aren't really one of my specialties, so if the design had been completely entrusted to me, they'd never have appeared at all. It's because of Mr. Tomino and his detailed sketches that we could construct such a vast world of mecha.
Since I was still a beginner at the time, I was really thankful for this. It wasn't just helpful in terms of time, but it also let me see a lot of different things, and was very useful in many ways during my later work. In particular, with the MSV series I could concentrate on the three-dimensional aspects I really love, without thinking about their appearance onscreen.
That's why I think the work called Gundam is surely my greatest turning point. But if possible, I'd like to move on to the next step soon. Even now, robots in animation still haven't escaped from Gundam's influence. I suppose that's not a task for me, but for a younger designer. As I get older, I have more fun drawing gag-type things... But that's really still in the future. (laughs)
Mobile Suit Gundam is copyright © Sotsu • Sunrise. Everything else on this site, and all original text and pictures, are copyright Mark Simmons.