Otakon 2018 Panel: Kawamori Shoji’s History of Macross

In my estimation, the biggest guest of Otakon 2018 was Kawamori Shoji, creator of Macross, Aquarion, AKB0048, Escaflowne, and even early Transformers designs such as Optimus Prime and Starscream.

Unlike other guests whose panels are generally moderated Q&A sessions, Kawamori actually gave two presentations at Otakon. The first was based on his TEDx Talk on originality and design, though I unfortunately wasn’t able to attend it. The second was a history of the Macross franchise from the perspective of its own father, which I’ll be detailing in this post. For more Kawamori content, check out my interview with him!

From Megaload to Macross

Kawamori spoke of his early days competing with his senpai Miyatake Kazutaka (of Space Battleship Yamato fame) on who could design a non-humanoid hero mecha first, only to get rejected by the toy company because humanoid robots were what sold. He told us the origin of Macross (originally Battle City Megaload in the early design phases) and how it was actually meant to be a joke on the sponsors—a bait-and-switch tactic for Kawamori and his friends to do what they really wanted—only for those same sponsors to get so onboard with the concept that it became a reality. Suddenly, all of the ridiculous things they threw in to mess with the concept of humanoid mecha (being the size of a city, transforming from a carrier, having a literal town inside, facing a giant enemy so that a robot that ridiculously big would be practical) were to be an actual part of the show. Naturally, he and his friends/fellow staff concluded the following: if you have a city, you need a singer. Thus, Lynn Mynmay.

While the combination of pop music and mecha is practically taken for granted today, Kawamori described how back when Super Dimensional Fortress Macross first aired, the fans were divided between those who loved Mynmay’s songs during combat, and those who thought the whole idea was nonsense. However, Kawamori embraced the idea of having music, not weapons, win the war. He mentioned how Director Ishiguro, despite liking the concept, thought it would be too unrealistic, but Kawamori pushed through with it anyway out of a sense of youthful bravado.

The story of Battle City Megaload was already somewhat familiar to me, so it surprised me that there was an even earlier prototype of sorts for Macross: a manga he made in high school along with his friends called Saishuu Senshi (“The Last Warrior”). This amateur manga featured a world where war had become so expensive that opposing sides would each send out one representative warrior in a powered suit to engage in a duel that would determine victory and failure. The enemy side’s scheme was that they started using unmanned weapons, going against the deal. His friends at the time would end up in college with him, and would become part of the staff for Macross, including defining 1980s character designer Mikimoto Haruhiko.

Designing the Valkyrie

Kawamori also elaborated on another major part of Macross: the VF-1 Valkyrie. According to him, that famous design actually came out of a long struggle with trying to make a transforming plane robot that didn’t have issues with maintaining good proportions in both robot and plane forms. The key breakthrough was when Kawamori looked at the F-14 Tomcat, and how the jet engines could become the arms (he previously thought the nose of the plane would have to be the arms).

From there, other aesthetic decisions, like having a simple and functional-looking head (unlike the popular designs of the past) as well as “feet” for the robot that each came in two sections, completed the look. Once he had the inspiration thanks to the F-14, actually designing the Valkyrie took about a week. Kawamori then pulled out not just an original-style Takatoku VF-1 Valkyrie toy to demonstrate its transformation, but also a pre-final prototype for a new 1:48 scale version of the same design due later this year, demonstrating its improved flexibility.

The Success of Macross Leads to New Perspectives

Macross was a hit, which led to Kawamori having his directorial debut at age 24 for the film Macross: Do You Remember Love? Kawamori mentioned how he came up with a lot of ideas for the film, like holograms during concerts, a vacuum-cleaning miniature robot, and clothes that change color. He expressed his surprise over the years seeing these farfetched concepts come to life.

Another result of Macross’s success was that Kawamori got to travel abroad, and the resulting trips actually dramatically changed his views on technology and culture. First, he spent time in the United States, where he more or less experienced the extremes of Macross’s aesthetic themes. He visited military bases and NASA space centers to watch shuttles launch, and he would go to Broadway musicals, sometimes even seeing as many as three plays in one day. He would often be up from 6am to 3am.

However, he started to feel the need to get away from that environment, which led to him traveling to China. With modern technology being sparse in areas such as Inner Mongolia, Kawamori recounted how he would see the children’s eyes light up whenever the television stopped working, and how their expressions while playing outside were like none he had ever seen. He then visited Nepal, where he encountered people who literally saw differently from him. Kawamori prides himself on having 20/10 vision, but even he could not see what his Nepalese guides could. They would wave at each other from enormous distances, holding conversations with each other while recognizing facial expressions that to him looked like mere specks.

While he still loves technology today, these experiences made him rethink his stance on technological progress being inherently good.

Macross 7, Macross Plus

Kawamori emphasized his desire to never do the same thing over and over, which is why 1987’s Macross: Flashback 2012 was an OVA, and not a TV series or a film. He kept getting requests to make another TV Macross, but he would refuse. The person who convinced him was a college underclassman who had got into the industry, the late producer Takanashi Minoru. Takanashi told him, “It’s been 10 years. You can go back to TV,” a reference to the statute of limitations for crimes in Japan.

Kawamori had one week to come up with a concept, and so he first thought of a singing pilot. But in order to add an extra twist, he turned the main character into a singing, non-fighting pilot. Thus, Nekki Basara was born.

Basara is a favorite character of Kawamori’s, but he thought that the old Macross fans would hate him for it, and he still had a love for mecha and planes himself. To appease his fans, he made Macross Plus. (It should be noted that according to Macross expert Renato, Kawamori refused to make Macross Plus if he couldn’t make Macross 7 as well).

As part of his research for Macross Plus, Kawamori and Itano Ichiro (of the famed “Itano circus”) flew real jets (with guidance) and had a dogfight with each other. The instructors sat next to them, but they got to use the controls. Itano is a rebel, so he ended up Itano doing everything the instructor told him not to, and kept blacking out from the g-forces. Itano said that every time he blacked out, he would hear voices from the distance saying his name. Kawamori asked him to recreate his blackout scene for Isamu’s.

Sharon Apple, the virtual idol from Macross Plus, is based on idea that making an anime is to some extent about emotional manipulation. The funniest thing was that, at the time, the staff said no one would go crazy for a virtual idol. Kawamori expressed that he never thought the concept would be embraced this quickly. It was also during this time that he was introduced to Yoko Kanno.

Macross, CG Graphics, and the Future

One of the dramas of real-life planes is when jet fuel runs out, but in the world of Macross, reaction engines means infinite power. That’s why Macross Zero is set in a time before that technology came to be. More generally, Macross Zero was about combining technology with the things he saw in China.

This was the start of his use of 3DCG in animation, which he started to use because he felt that 2D animation was limited in its ability to capture the proper camera angles for flying scenes. Macross Zero had a mix of 2D and 3D for action, and it was in Genesis of Aquarion that he tested out full 3DCG for combat. From there, Macross Frontier was to prove that the workload of a show could be divided between 3D for battles and 2D for characters. The Macross Frontier movies were where Kawamori finally figured out the ideal way to blend 3D and 2D together for scenes. Kawamori overall gave the impression that he sees new shows as opportunities to experiment.

One of the big changes in Macross Frontier was the use of two idols instead of one. Another decision was to make a male hero who’s even more beautiful than the idols. The Macross Frontier two-idol setup was popular and successful, but when the sponsors asked him to repeat the formula, he doubled down and made Walküre a team of idols as a separate division from the Windermere forces and the Delta Platoon.

Toward the end of the panel, Kawamori showed a lego prototype model for a transforming robot. Instead of two jet engines forming the legs, as has been the case with Valkyries, this robot has a single jet engine that turns into two legs. For Kawamori, it was the first new transformation system in quite a while. He then ended the panel by showing a trailer for Pandora, which comes out on Netflix this year.

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Otakon 2018 Interview: Kawamori Shoji

This interview was conducted at Otakon 2018 in Washington, DC.

In your anime, you often visit the theme of love as power, or the power of love, even in your mecha and science fiction settings such as Macross, Escaflowne, and Aquarion. What draws you to this subject?

I always wanted to be original, and not like others. In previous science fiction anime, having love in the main theme was unheard of. You’d have love among the sub-characters, but not with the principle ones. So it’s something I always wanted to incorporate.

My next question is about Macross 7. I find the characters of Basara and Sivil have a unique relationship or a special connection. How would you describe their relationship in the story?

If you look at the character of Nekki Basara himself, he is unique in all of the Macross series. I thought it would not be fitting for him to be engaged in just a normal love affair, and he should have something that transcends love—like a resonance or clash of souls. The director of Macross 7, Amino Tetsurou, is someone who values the idea of passion, over any sort of details. It would just be a story of souls clashing.

I noticed in your credits that you worked on Toushou Daimos as a mechanical designer. Did you have an opportunity to work with Director Nagahama directly, and if so, do you have any memories of him?

I didn’t have much opportunity to speak to Director Nagahama on Daimos. Of course, I met him, but most of the interaction was through reading and looking at the storyboards that he draw. I did the designs through that. I really got to talk to him more on Ulysses 31. He was quite the gentleman, and he had a real passion for incorporating and valuing drama in his stories.

You’ve designed many mecha for decades—for toy lines, for kids, for adults, and even for video games. What changes in your design process and thought process according to the type of project?

This is something I value so much that I would take an hour or two to talk about it in detail. I look at the worldview of the work, the setting, and the target audience—for example, if it’s a toy, what would be the age range? Those are all the important considerations: market, target, theme, and the worldview. Those are the principle elements that go into the design, and after I have that down, the rest comes more easily.

To pick a specific example, I really enjoy your designs in Eureka Seven. What particular concerns did you take into account for that project?

When I first received the order for Eureka Seven mecha design, the initial order was to have a transforming mecha from automobile form to humanoid. But since that was something I’ve done so many times, I didn’t think I could do anything new.

I held the world-building meeting with Director Kyoda and the principle writer, Sato Dai, and they told me that in the Eureka Seven world, they’re in a world saturated by trapar particles that allow ships to float, and that’s how travel is done. And I thought, if these particles allow large ships to float, I can easily envision them as waves, so you can have mecha that use the waves to float. Director Kyoda liked the idea, and once the concept of surfing was in, the actual design was easy.

While you’re better known for your accomplishments in science fiction and mecha, you also worked on a show called Anyamaru Tantei Kiruminzoo. It’s quite outside of your usual genres or wheelhouse. How did you come around to being on this project?

For me, since I’m known as a mecha designer, most clients tend to bring me that kind of work. But I always want to try out something new, and communication with animals is something I’ve always been interested in. So, in Anyamaru Tantei Kiruminzoo, we have a girl who would transform and communicate with animals. But in normal magical girl series, when you have a girl transform into a magical girl, she would become invincible. I didn’t want that. I wanted someone who would be more different from a human with human abilities. So I pitched the idea and fortunately, that’s how we got the show.

This is my last question. Traditionally, it hasn’t been common for non-Japanese artists to work on anime aside from the outsourcing done in South Korea, but Satelight has hired artists such as Thomas Romain and Stanislas Brunet. How did Satelight bring them aboard, and what is it like working with foreign artists?

That goes back to me and Macross with the concept of “deculture.” I’m very fond of the differences in cultures, because we all grew up in different backgrounds. We might be fond of the same things, but we might have different ideas and concepts about those same things. That’s great inspiration for myself, and it’s very enjoyable working with foreign artists at Satelight.

Satelight’s parent company is an IT company. As such, it’s always had a corporate culture that’s open to working with foreign employees. So, our current president, Sato Michiaki, never had any issues employing non-Japanese artists.

Thank you!

Love Live! Sunshine!! and the Complexities of Anime Tourism

Love Live! Sunshine!! Real Escape Game in Numazu

Love Live! Sunshine!! is a media-mix property whose purpose, apart from pushing its stars and profiting from a match of anime fandom and idol fandom, is to promote tourism to the region around the city of Numazu in Japan. What I find fascinating about its approach, however, is that it not only encourages people to visit Numazu, but also reflects and tries to address many of the problems facing Japan in terms of the link between sustaining population, community, and business.

There are three main issues brought up in terms of population in Japan in recent years. First, and the one that gets the most attention, is declining birth rates. Whether it’s “herbivore males” or the difficult choice many women have to make between starting a family and having a career, theories abound as to why fewer Japanese people are having children. Second is the post-3.11 decline in tourism; a nuclear meltdown scares off not just international visitors, but those from within Japan as well. Third, and perhaps the most familiar to people around the world, is people moving out of rural areas into urban ones, leaving the old towns a shadow of their former selves with little new blood coming in.

Flying Witch

The ways in which anime have been used in response to these problems are myriad. Famously, the popularity of the anime Lucky Star led to people visiting the very shrine featured in the show, Washinomiya Shrine. The first Love Live! School Idol Project anime had a similar effect on Kanda Myoujin Shrine in Akihabara, where the character Nozomi works. But there are also anime which try to show the splendor of Japan whether directly or not. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Flying Witch was made into an anime a few years after 3.11 when Japan was trying to revive tourism to the affected Tohoku region. Taking place in Aomori (a prefecture in Tokyo), Flying Witch features lovingly crafted shots of picturesque landscapes as if to say, “This area is lush with life.” The studio P.A. Works used the series Hanasaku Iroha to create the fictional “Bonbori Festival” and then bring it into the real world. Their more recent work, Sakura Quest, is an anime explicitly about trying to deal with a declining population in a small town through tourism and promotion.

Official Love Live! Wish Board from Kanda Myoujin Shrine

Love Live! Sunshine!! takes place in the small town of Uchiura, near Numazu. Much like the first franchise, the main characters’ school is threatened with closure due to declining attendance rates. The girls, inspired by the group known as μ’s (from the original Love Live!) attempt to replicate the latter group’s success in saving their own school, and form their own idol group called “Aqours.” Already, it’s clear how Love Live! Sunshine!! touches upon issues of population movement and tourism, but it’s especially notable when comparing the series to its predecessor.

Consider where the two properties take place. The μ’s girls of the original Love Live! are centered around Akihabara, which is both the spiritual center of otaku in Japan and, as a result, already a popular tourist destination. The Aqours girls of Love Live! Sunshine!!, on the other hand, are situated near Numazu, which has a population of under 200,000 as well as a recent history of absorbing nearby towns—a major plot point in Sakura Quest and a potential future for Uchiura. Unlike Akihabara, Numazu is hardly world-famous. And yet, if Love Live! had started differently—if it had decided to go with Numazu from the start—then I don’t think it would’ve reached its original success. Much like AKB48, it relied on the notoriety of Akihabara to build itself up, and is now paying it forward, in a certain sense. Love Live! used tourism, and now tourism is using Love Live!

Love Live! Sunshine!! can be seen as another arm of the “Cool Japan” concept, which uses Japan’s fame as a symbol of cultures both traditional and popular to promote itself at home and abroad. It appears to be succeeding, at least in the short term. In fact, over at Apartment 507 where I also write, one of the most popular posts is a guide to visiting Numazu. But as Gundam director and Anime Tourism Association chairperson Tomino Yoshiyuki has warned, short term success is not enough; permanent change is necessary, even if it’s to come from anime. The fact that Love Live! went from being supported by pop culture to being a pop cultural influence that can potentially make a change is a big deal, and I’m curious to see if this experiment has any long-term impact that goes beyond the cute idols of Aqours.

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[APT507] School Idols vs. Pro Idols: The Hints of Sobering Reality in Love Live!

Something that’s stuck with me for a long time is the distinction that Love Live! makes between idols and school idols. I find that it hints at the harshness of the idol industry, though in a very, very indirect way. I wrote a short article on it over at Apartment 507, if you’re curious.

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Trinity Tempo: The Idol Franchise Where Money Literally Equals Success

tritem_index_3Anime-style idols (and of course idols in general) have been of the most enduring trends in current Japanese pop culture. Between franchises like The iDOLM@STER, Love Live!Ensemble Stars, and King of Prism by Rhythm, more and more pop up seemingly every week. Trinity Tempo is one such franchise, but what makes it unique is the degree to which it takes the AKB48 “vote with your money” concept to the next level. That’s because Trinity Tempo exists almost purely in terms of merchandise, with nothing else to anchor it.

Ever since AKB48 and their annual elections, the idea of idols competing against each other with fan support has been prominent within that world. Fans vote by getting CDs because one purchase equals one ballot, and the idea is that the more you love your favorite idol the more you will buy buy buy. Currently a little over a year old, Trinity Tempo‘s premise is that different schools compete against each other in idol competitions, and you get to determine who wins by buying merchandise for your favorite team. You literally get to influence how the overall story progresses by spending cash on character-specific goods, with certain items giving you more “votes” than others.

“Where does Trinity Tempo come from?” you might be asking. The iDOLM@STER began as a game with visual novel elements. Love Live! got its start as a series of songs. All of these properties aim for the media mix, with anime and manga adaptations, coverage in magazines, and more, but they tend to have at least one or two initial starting points. After all, how would you know who your favorite characters or what your favorite songs are?

The answer is… there is nothing. No CDs. No anime or manga or games. Trinity Tempo exists almost purely in “merch space,” where potential fans are supposed to be drawn into it based primarily on their attraction to the concept and the characters themselves. Since release there has been at least one Drama CD, but that’s about it.

I think this speaks to the idea presented by Azuma Hiroki that fans take bits and pieces of characters, worlds, and stories and merge them together in what are known as “database narratives.” I’m oversimplifying the idea, but I think it can be argued that Trinity Tempo aims to commercialize the otaku desire to gather these fragments together on a level even beyond something like Kantai Collection. Whether or not they’ll succeed in the end remains to be seen.

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The Long Arm of Anime History

Anime: A History by Jonathan Clements is a good book that tries its best to call out the rewriting of past events by both the victors and the defeated. While this can detract from the magical aura that surrounds anime and the joy of experiencing anime as more than just a struggle between industry, profit, and glory, it does highlight one recurring trend that shouldn’t be forgotten—many times, when we think of some trend or change as emerging fully formed during a given period of interest, its threads can be traced back much earlier.

One thing that always comes to mind is something that Gundam director Tomino Yoshiyuki mentioned back at New York Anime Festival 2009, which was that while Gundam started courting female fans much more actively in later years (notably with Gundam Wing), it was the girls who were the biggest fans of the original 1970s work. While things have certainly changed since then, Gundam Wing also did not emerge as some kind of “sudden” targeting of a female audience.

Similarly, when it comes to Clements’ book, one example he gives has to do with the idea that the video game industry is a significant contributor of “brain drain,” that is to say a unidirectional flow of talent from anime to games. While this is often viewed as a symptom of the last decade or so, a product of the mainstream lucrativeness of the contemporary video game industry, Clements points out (on page 194) that this was already occurring in 1992, which would be during the age of the Sega Mega Drive and the Super Famicom. Thus, the battle to keep newer and more rapidly expanding entertainment sectors from drawing away the best of the best is not a relatively new phenomenon, but an ongoing quest.

One last thing I’d like mention is the fact that this brain drain is partially attributed not just to video games’ international mainstream success, but the fact that Tezuka Osamu himself undercut the cost of animation in Japan decades prior in order to get it onto Japanese television. This undervaluing of anime, known as the “Curse of Tezuka,” is what necessitates projects such as the Animator Dormitory Project, an annual fund to provide housing for animators in an industry that pays very little (by the way, that Indiegogo ends today!). To see anime change in the future is perhaps to understand the long reach of past decisions.

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The Open-Ended Nature of Aikatsu’s “Idol Activities”

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to sponsor Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.

aikatsu-group

There have been many attempts over the years to dethrone the Japanese children’s entertainment juggernaut that is Precure, but while Precure is squarely in the realm of the “fighting magical girl,” most of its challengers are themed around mahou shoujo’s sister genre: pop idols. This includes Pretty Rhythm, PriPara, Lil Pri, and the subject of today’s post, Aikatsu!

Aikatsu! began in 2012 as a multimedia franchise consisting of games, manga, and anime. The animated television series, created by Sunrise (of Gundam fame), follows Hoshimiya Ichigo, a girl who enters the idol training school Starlight Academy after being inspired by its top star, Kanzaki Mizuki. Together with her best friend and idol fan, Kiriya Aoi, and others she meets along the way, they engage in idol katsudou, or “idol activities.”

aikatsu-obaripose

Sunrise at this point is well known for another popular idol anime, Love Live!, and despite the fact that they don’t share that much staff, the two shows are similar in feel. Both have an overall lighthearted sense of fun and engaging character interactions combined with learning and personal development. Both feature bizarrely comedic moments (the episode where Ichigo gets into an “Obari Pose” and chops down a christmas tree is famous). Both series are also so entertaining in these respects that the actual “idol performance” moments are comparatively less interesting.

aikatsu-helpmeobiwan

However, one curious aspect of Aikatsu! that differentiates it from Love Live! (and many other anime) in terms of narrative is that Ichigo and the other idols don’t seem to have a concrete goal to aim for. The girls in Love Live! want to save their school and then win the Love Live. Naruto wants to become Hokage. Ichigo’s motivation is this vague sense of “becoming an idol,” but by the first few episodes she already is one more or less, and there just seems to be this general sense of forward progress. This is also what differentiates it from other more episodic works, or series such as Hidamari Sketch.

Aikatsu! has just enough on-going threads in the background and pays attention to its characters’ growth that the series carries a nice sense of continuity. Aoi becomes the mascot for a crepe company in an early episode, and after that you can always see a copy of the advertisement poster featuring her in Aoi and Ichigo’s room. The show also drops hints that Ichigo’s mom is a former idol, and as I continue to watch the series I’m just anticipating that moment where Ichigo discovers the truth. Every time her mom appears on screen, I think, “Will this be it?!” That desire to see Ichigo’s realization is actually one of my main motivations for continuing to watch.

dokidokiprecure-phones

There’s one last element of Aikatsu! I want to discuss. More specifically, it’s a theory pertaining to Aikatsu!‘s relationship with Precure. When watching Aikatsu!‘s core cast, I could not help but be reminded of the cast of Doki Doki Precure!, which came out in 2013. While the characters are different enough to not feel like copies of each other, Mana’s blonde hair and pink color scheme in her transformed state resembles Ichigo’s, Rikka (blue) plays the role of the more level-headed and smarter best friend just like Aoi, Alice resembles Arisugawa Otome (orange) not only in name but also in appearance, and Makoto’s occupation as an idol (as well as her serious personality) feels akin to Mizuki. I suspect that Doki Doki Precure! may have taken some inspiration from Aikatsu! but I can’t be certain of this. That said, I recently checked out some of the character design notes for Doki Doki Precure! and noticed that Cure Sword (Makoto)’s design originally had longer hair, which would make her more stylistically similar to Mizuki from Aikatsu!

Aikatsu! has been a series on my radar for a while, that I had only briefly engaged with, but given just how entertained I’ve been by it I definitely want to watch more and talk more about it. Expect future posts, maybe?