The Kickstarter that Seeks Better Pay for Japanese Animators

A common question among anime and manga fans is “How do I support the creators in these industries?” The simplest answer is to subscribe to legitimate anime streaming sites and purchase manga from publishers (whether they’re the Japanese companies or licensors in your country), but it’s undeniable that there are still issues with people in these fields not getting paid enough. 

Back in August, I wrote about different ways I found to support creators more directly, and the most ambitious idea was Sugawara Jun’s New Anime Making System Project—a method of production that involves having animators work directly with musicians to create music videos. Recently, they launched their new Kickstarter, and it runs until November 22, 2020. They’ve gotten a number of musicians to provide music for them already, including Donna Burke, the voice of Raising Heart from Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha

As of this post, they’ve actually hit their target goal of 5 million yen (about $48,000 USD). Actually, I’d been planning this blog post for a while, but by the time I got around to it, they’d already been funded! That being said, it’s still possible to contribute and make the project even bigger. As for myself, I’ve already supported them through their gogetfunding page, which still hasn’t reached its goal, but unlike Kickstarter, is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

I’m not savvy enough to predict how successful this whole endeavor will be, but I like that Sugawara is trying to innovate. I’ve also been a long-time supporter of his other project—the Animator Dormitory—and the fact that they’re trying to tackle the problem from both ends (housing and salary) gives me hope. Maybe something can truly change.

Success and Failure in the Ongoing Attempt to Bring Kids Back to Giant Robots

Giant robot anime began very squarely in the domain of children. Loud, boldly colored robots appeared on TV (at least, once color TV became common), and the toys based on them came full of fun gimmicks and gizmos. Over time, there was a maturing of the genre in many ways, both in terms of themes presented and the aging of fans, so by the time we got into the 2000s, things changed. Between Pokemon, card games, and more, giant robots have just not been the ticket to big toy sales among kids. Thus, most giant robot anime of the last fifteen years rely more on adult tastes and nostalgia, or at the very least have been aimed at young adults. However, every so often, you’ll see moves to try to reclaim giant robots for kids, and they communicate a reality that mecha alone tend not to capture kids’ hearts in this day and age.

Gundam AGE

One of the more significant attempts to capture that younger audience was 2011’s Gundam AGE, because of how Gundam is what arguably kicked off the move toward mature audiences all those years ago and because it’s traditionally been such a sales juggernaut. Although keeping the traditional “robots in war” staples, Gundam AGE was a concerted effort to target kids, right down to more toyetic robot and weapon designs. Unfortunately, the series pleased pretty much no one, including me, despite my initially high hopes. The story was a mess, and the model kits failed to attract older and younger customers alike, to the extent that a kitbash of Madoka from Madoka Magica with beefy Gundam arms became more of a sales point than the actual merch. Later Gundam overtures towards kid audiences were more successful via the Gundam Build Fighters and Gundam Build Divers spin-offs, but both treat the mecha as collectible items utilized in virtual environments—closer to the popular style of Japanese kids’ shows.

Chousoku Henkei Gyrozetter

Another instance is 2012’s Chousoku Henkei Gyrozetter, though this one is odd in that what it ultimately tried to promote was not toys or model kits, though some did come out. Rather, like Aikatsu! and Pripara, the bread and butter of Gyrozetter was the card-based arcade game. Ultimately, it was called a major mistake on the part of Square-Enix. Personally, I think the show is very enjoyable, but it’s also arguably better known for its attractive older characters than anything else—so not exactly kid’s stuff. 

While hitting the mark seems difficult, there is one company that seems intent on making giant robot anime work for kids: toy maker Takara Tomy, the originator of Transformers. In addition to that long-standing international cultural staple (whose success has so many external factors that it’s hard to gauge in terms of success as “anime”), it’s Takara Tomy that keeps taking swings, down to even pushing the ZOIDS franchise as their “third pillar” along with Transformers and Beyblade. 

2018’s ZOIDS Wild anime is a continuation of the ZOIDS franchise, which has been receiving animated adaptations since 1999’s ZOIDS: Chaotic Century. Given its longevity, it would be easy to assume that they’re doing something right with their use and portrayal of giant robots, but I think there’s a key factor that keeps ZOIDS relatively popular: the use of animal-shaped robots as opposed to humanoid ones. The more universal appeal of dinosaurs and cool beasts does a lot of the heavy lifting. 

Tomica Kizuna Gattai Earth Granner

Along this vein, Tomica Hyper Rescue Drive Head (2017) and Tomica Kizuna Gattai Earth Granner (2020) both involve motor vehicles that can transform into robots—and, unlike Gyrozetter, have the many toys to show. The Tomica line is primarily more about cars than mechs, and the toys have enormous success in Asia. Again, the robots are not the main popularity factor, acting instead as an additional flourish to push it over the edge. Transformers, in a sense, combines both ZOIDS and Tomica’s appeals together, while also banking on brand recognition. Moreover, while giant robots are still a staple of tokusatsu, they’re more a secondary component to the color-coded-hero fantasy that defines these live-action series. The previous Tomica tokusatsu series use cars in a similar manner. 

Shinkansen Henkei Robo Shinkalion

The strangest case might very well be 2018’s Shinkansen Henkei Robo Shinkalion THE ANIMATION is a series about bullet train (“Shinkansen”) robots sponsored by the East Japan Railway Company. Somewhat like Gyrozetter, there’s an unconventional ultimate goal—promoting Japan’s high-speed rail system—but unlike Gyrozetter, the toy and merchandise line is definitely there. In addition, while ZOIDS Wild, Drive Head, and Earth Granner all target boys ages 10-12, I can’t help but notice how aggressively kid-friendly Shinkalion’s aesthetics are, from the character designs to the story. What really makes Shinkalion an oddity, however, is that its success isn’t measured solely in toy sales, but also the degree to which it creates good PR for Japan’s public transportation.

It does sadden me that mecha don’t appear to carry an inherent appeal for kids these days, but I do think that sprinkling in robots can potentially push these franchises into becoming more memorable and enjoyable. Also, I’d like to think that Takara Tomy is laying down a foundation for it to happen in the future, and much like how adults who grew up with super robots in the 1970s grew attached to them, perhaps in a couple of decades we’ll see nostalgia for the Shinkalions and Earth Granners of the world.

Want to “Support the Creators?” Here Are Actual Ways to Do It

Among online anime and manga fandom, there’s been an ongoing narrative about “supporting creators, not companies.” Often presented as a noble justification for piracy, where the companies that own the rights to either creating or translating the works are greedy exploiters of the artists, authors, and other contributors, the idea is that it’s better to buy merchandise instead. This is, in short, a very faulty understanding of how the anime and manga industries work. 

However, if we’re to take at least some of these sentiments as genuine and merely misguided, there are actually outlets to support anime and manga creators more directly.

One cause worth contributing to is the Animator Dormitory Project, which began in 2014 and aims to provide affordable housing to young animators for the first three years of their careers. Animation is grueling work, and a lot of young animators fall out of the industry after three years because the salaries are abysmal—sometimes less than $300 USD a month.

Related to the Animator Dormitory Project is founder Sugawara Jun’s other idea: the New Anime Making System Project. The basic gist is that it’s hard for animators to unionize both because of historical reasons, and that the animation studios themselves often don’t have enough money to sustain unions even if they wanted to do so. Sugawara’s idea is to have animators work on short music video projects for musicians from all around the world, and pay them more—eventually two to four times what they’d make otherwise, if all goes well. Compared to the Dormitory Project, I believe this one could be even more attractive fans who are skeptical of the production committees and companies who oversee anime production. It holds the potential to transform the industry as a whole for the better.

But maybe someone is really in love with the idea of supporting a creator directly. In that case, it’s not wholly out of the question. Some artists, both professional and amateur, have turned to Patreon-esque sites such as Pixiv fanbox and Fantia, which allow fans to directly donate to the authors either in general or for specific projects. You might just be able to find one of your favorite creators on those sites.

For example, I discovered that manga artist Matsui Katsunori (artist on La Sommelière) is currently trying to restart his Mixed Martial Arts-themed fighting manga, Hana Kaku: The Last Girl Standing. I learned a couple years ago that the manga had ended rather abruptly, so I’m glad to see him try to continue this series. I really love what I’ve read of it, and I think sites like fanbox and Fantia give a platform for passion projects that might not have been deemed as mainstream-viable.

Buying manga and anime legally and signing up for legitimate digital services will still, of course help creators out and contribute to their financial success, even as structural issues in these industries still exist. That said, if anyone feels sincerely passionate about “wanting to support the creators,” in a more direct fashion, I hope you’ll take one of the options listed above, or perhaps even try to find other possibilities.

A Farewell to Arms, the Studio Behind Genshiken 2

Last week, the Japanese animation studio Arms declared bankruptcy. Their legacy is primarily that of sex and fanservice, with titles like Mezzo Forte, Queen’s Blade, Another Lady Innocent, and Ikkitousen from Dragon Destiny on under their belts. But for me, Arms is first and foremost the studio behind the anime Genshiken 2. 

Ogiue Maniax started right around when Genshiken 2 first began airing in 2007, and its DVDs were the second anime I ever imported from Japan. In the photo above, there’s also a CD of Genchoken, a Genshiken 2-related radio show starring voice actors Mizuhashi Kaori (Ogiue) and Hiyama Nobuyuki (Madarame). 

One unique feature of Genshiken 2 compared to all other adaptations of the manga is that Arms treated it like the other works in their library and brought their, er, considerable talents to fore. Not only was artist Urushihara Satoshi (of Langrisser, Plastic Little, and Another Lady Innocent fame) the animation director on the opening, but there were more than a few scenes depicting extremely vivid nerd fantasies. The most famous might just be Ogiue’s fully animated fujoshi imagination regarding Sasahara and Madarame.

In that sense, Arms’s approach felt like an attempt to give Genshiken a more late-night anime appeal, for better or worse, and the DVDs did indeed uncensor the really racy stuff. However, while Arms certainly went places the manga never did (and thus potentially could have turned away fans of the original), I think that their execution of Genshiken 2 in some ways anticipates the sexually charged alternate Genshiken that is Spotted Flower. In fact, Arms probably would have been the right studio to animate that series if it were possible.

So thanks, Arms. Very rarely do my favorite characters get this much love, and you gave fans of the Genshiken boys and girls something unforgettable.

That all said, bankruptcy isn’t always the end. Who knows? Maybe that Spotted Flower adaptation isn’t completely out of the question.

Kyoto Animation One-Year Memorial

The coronavirus has made days feel like weeks and weeks like months. It’s been one year since the Kyoto Animation arson tragedy, and yet I could swear it was eternity ago. While COVID-19’s effects are far greater in scope, the tragedy of what happened to KyoAni still hits hard. It was a shining beacon of the anime industry in so many ways, from the quality of its output to the way it treated its workers. 

Those who follow me on Twitter may have noticed that my icon since last summer has been Hazuki from Sound! Euphonium. She’s my favorite character in that series, to be sure, but the other reason I’ve left it unchanged is as a quiet memorial to Kyoto Animation. “Twitter identifier” is so insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but regardless of what anyone else thought or how they’d interpret my icon, I wanted to remember what happened.

There is going to be a memorial livestreamed on YouTube by Kyoto Animation on 7/18 at 10:30am JST. That would be 7/17 9:30pm EST/6:30pm PST, which you can find below.

2010–2019 Part 1: Prediction Results

Ten years ago, I made a blog post titled 2000-2009 Part 2: Looking Forward, where I tried to foresee where anime would go over the next ten-plus years. Now that we’re in 2019, it’s time to see how it turned out!

The First Digital Generation

In about 20 years or so we are going to see an entire generation of adults in Japan (and around the world) who have grown up primarily on digital animation…. Over time, I think that the peculiarities of digital animation, such as the computer-based shortcuts, will become part of the style itself, but less direct about it than, say, Studio SHAFT’s current output…. But if there are any, they will be making in-jokes and references about the early, nostalgic days of digital animation and not light boxes and such.

For better or worse, as a new range of ideas and techniques emerge, parts of animation technique and philosophy born out of cel-based anime will fade away, perhaps forever. After all, Miyazaki can’t live forever.

Digital animation has been embraced in full, with the last cel-based series, Sazae-san, switching over to digital in 2013. The style of early-2000s anime is understood, but the nostalgia for anime is still somewhere in the 1990s, so we haven’t reached the point where those early digital animation works and their aesthetic are a part of the cultural lexicon.

While digital animation is the industry default now, it’s not as if the more daring uses of digital animation have become standard. At the same time, I would argue that integrating 2D and 3D animation has been much more successful—something that is made easier by the transition to digital. Two works that stand out to me in this regard are Girls und Panzer and Kids on the Slope.

As for Miyazaki, he’s still around, and he’s coming out of retirement for what may be the 500th time. He also used this decade to make one of his most daring films ever, The Wind Rises.

Flash Animation

In light of the anime industry’s history of low budgets, I think that more companies, be they animation studios, broadcasters, or otherwise, will start to look at Flash as a viable method to keep things low-cost and at-home. Now I don’t think it will eliminate today’s more “traditional” animation, especially when it comes to bigger-name, bigger-budget works, but it will be an appealing tool for those middle-of-the-road shows, and shows for kids.

Nothing dates a prediction post quite like hyping up outdated technology and programs, huh! The world, including the anime industry, has moved away from Flash animation, but the simple, flat style can still be seen in the many short anime (as in 13 minutes or less) that have come out since, such as Inferno Cop and Ai-Mai-Mi.

Looking away from Flash specifically, many tools have emerged that facilitate creating anime with limited resources. Most notable among these is the 3D animation program Miku Miku Dance—itself an extension of Vocaloid as an artistic tool for creators both professional and amateur—and the bizarre yet endearing shows that have been made using MMD. Most of the time, that meant oddities like gdgd Fairies and Tesagure Bukatsumono, but also the surprise smash hit that was Kemono Friends.

Changing Views on Hikikomori and NEETs

The chronic shut-in known as the “hikikomori” is a topic that Japan for the past decade has been in debate over….

But the reality of the economy is such that not having a good job (or a job at all), living at home, and having your parents’ support will be an increasingly common sight. Some will become hikikomori and try to close themselves off from the world, but there may be a sizable group that is only partially hikikomori, who will not completely lose their ability to interact with others or to engage in meaningful activity, and they will have a cultural and social “pulling” effect on the full-blown hikikomori….

The result may be that Japan’s view on the hikikomori and the NEET, especially in the face of having these groups increase in size, will be a mixture of greater panic and greater relief as they will fret once again that this is potentially very dangerous for Japan, while the internet will provide this larger hikikomori population with the group setting in line with Japanese ideas of “group….”

In many ways, the image of hikikomori and NEETs hasn’t changed that much, with the same criticisms about them being a drain on society still persisting. I think one thing that is becoming clearer and clearer to the younger generations both in Japan and around the world is that the blame cannot be laid squarely at the feet of the shut-ins. The adults of the world have failed the youth on some level, and the kids are only starting to fight their parents in the street to find out who’s right and who’s wrong.

There’s also been a rise in a kind of “NEET pride” that permeates anime, most notably in the ascendancy of light novel isekai—series that often have hikikomori heroes who possess powers tied to their previously less than stellar lives. In a good work (e.g. My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong, As I Expected), these characters, and their struggles and growth, tell stories about being human.

Perhaps no example is bigger than the transformation seen in No Matter How I Look At It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Unpopular, aka Watamote, started off in the early 2010s as the story of an utterly hopeless otaku girl whose personal vices made her a relatable character to the self-proclaimed losers of 4chan. Despite Tomoko’s seeming fate as a perennial failure of a human being, even she has begun to change in the series.

Thematic Responses to the Economy

In about three to five years, I predict that we will begin to see both anime and manga which address the idea of global recession itself and incorporate it into the themes and settings in these works, to have it become a concept that is to be explored, whether directly or indirectly. Evangelion and other shows were responses to the recession that befell Japan starting in the early 90s, and I don’t think it would be unusual for an international economic downturn to have a similar effect.

With the global recession on everyone’s minds 10 years ago, it’s no wonder that I thought it would become a bigger subject. There have been anime that touch upon money and politics, but it’s not as if there was a huge influx. Back in 2009, Japan was already in the middle of a decades-long recession, so it didn’t affect them quite in the same way it did the United States. Instead, it would be tragedies like the Fukishima Triple Disaster that would highlight the real cost of greed and neglect.

While there were few anime made in response to the global recession, there were series that tried to highlight the challenges of political participation and governance ethics in the second decade of the 21st century, such as Psycho-Pass and Gatchaman Crowds.

The New Escapes

There are two basic forms to “escapism.” The first is a type of introverted escapism, that is, to become increasingly insular. The second is an extroverted escapism, where you want to project outwards, to go beyond yourself….

In that sense, I think that in the near future the escapism for anime and manga will be increasingly introverted, but will soon give way to a more extroverted form as a response to the desires of more and more fans who want to be released into other worlds…. I think we will see a lot of stories about worlds with wide scope focused through the lens of personal characterization, and in a way in which the former affects the latter significantly and vice versa.

One of the big genres of the 2010s has been isekai, i.e. being transported or reborn in a different world, and I think that it is a prime example of mixing both internal and external escapism. There is literally another world to explore, and the protagonist is often simultaneously special and unspecial, allowing readers to indulge in both dominant power fantasy and being the underdog. But there is often a lingering awareness of who the protagonist was in their previous life, and in a sense, their fears and doubts are still akin to the more introspective and flawed heroes of the past.

It’s also this decade that Madoka Magica took fandom by storm, and while that series isn’t exactly lighthearted, it too feels like a work responding to the desire for stories to be both more internal and more external. And when it comes to looking inward but going beyond, My Hero Academia is a series where that’s a central theme. You can even extend this to series such as A Place Further Than the Universe, where instead of going to another world, the characters find themselves through a journey to Antarctica.

Increased International Integration in Collaborative Efforts

…I predict that over the next decade and beyond, we will be seeing collaborations on animation and comics where the staff producing these works will be much more closely integrated. International collaboration isn’t new to manga and especially not to anime, but the work is usually cleanly divided between the countries involved. So it’ll be less Gurihiru drawing for Marvel’s Power Pack and more Oban Star Racers.

This decade saw more and more international artists working in anime and manga. Thomas Romain, who worked on Oban Star Racers, is a staple of Studio Satelight shows. Animators such as Bahi JD from France contribute the world over, whether that’s Toei Animation’s Philippines division, or freelance animators outside of Japan working on key frames/genga on a variety of shows.

But one other big development has been foreign funding for anime, especially through Netflix, which solidified itself as perhaps the go-to streaming services and has been expanding into anime ever since. In some cases, such as with Devilman Crybaby, the production team and creative is still mainly Japanese. In others, such as LeSean’s Cannon Busters, they’re developed cooperatively with artists and creators abroad.

Another important note is the success of Studio Trigger (Little Witch Academia, Kill la Kill, Promare) in their desire to appeal internationally. Many studios attempt this, but I think it’s Trigger that has best understood the international market, especially the Western market.

Age Demographics in Japan vs Age Demographics Abroad

…I believe that in time the manga audience in the US will slowly mature and eventually reach a point where they want something that is more in-line with how they feel about entertainment, their lives, and the world at large.

The key however will be whether or not Japan realizes that age demographics do not map one-to-one between Japan and the US … and they will have to somehow find a way to understand just what this slightly more matured manga-seeking audience is looking for, possibly through the greater international collaboration.

I think the overall maturing of the anime fandom abroad has happened in a big way, and it’s clear from the kinds of series that have found better success over the past ten years, and it’s not just because people got older. While shounen fighting and other popular genres stay evergreen, I believe that stranger-looking series such as Land of the Lustrous and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure needed the non-Japanese fandom to develop to the point that they could be better appreciated. There’s also the increasing popularity of sports series, which were once a death sentence in the United States.

As for Japan understanding that age demographics don’t line up, I think it’s happening because they themselves are aware of it happening in Japan.

Multimedia Customization

I think that starting in the next few years this is all going to start changing until we reach a point of personal customization in our anime and manga: You will be able to make exactly the purchase you want with exactly the things that you want, on-demand.

This definitely did not happen. In fact, we’ve seen some companies release even more deluxe editions that only hardcore fans willing to shell out $400 or more can ever obtain. At the very least, many of these expensive series are available streaming, thus giving access to those who can’t afford to own them.

New Paths for New Talent to Appear

I think anime is heading in a direction where people won’t have to be skilled at every aspect of animation production to be considered a Big Deal. One possibility I’ve thought of is “anime festivals” for amateur creators, be they industry-sponsored or independent, with competitions and awards for categories such as storyboarding and writing in addition to full-on animations. More importantly however, these anime festivals could take place entirely online.

Manga too will start to have online festivals…. It’s not so much specialization as it is realizing again that not everyone talented is multi-talented.

While there’s nothing quite like an online-only Comic Market, there have been projects to encourage new artists.

On the anime side, three main examples have emerged as opportunities for young animators to show their skills. First is the Young Animators Training Project, which has less experienced Animators animators work with established studios to create anime shorts. Little Witch Academia is probably the most famous work to result from this. Second is the Japan Animator Expo started by Evangelion director Anno Hideaki, which encourages more experimental work. Third is the more practical Animator Dormitory Project, a crowd-funded way of giving young and old artists a place to blunt the cost of living in Tokyo on a meager animator’s salary.

On the manga side, I look less at the competitions which exist and more at the fact that sites like Pixiv have brought about a number of success stories. Among the series that began as amateur webcomics on Pixiv are Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san and Wotakoi. Seeing them go from creator pages to Pixiv Comics to physical releases to full-on anime adaptations has given me joy.

Overall

I’d say I was about 50/50 in terms of predictions. Nothing hit the target dead-on, but I think I was able to see at least in part the various trends and where they were headed. In some cases, I was maybe too ambitious or naive. Let’s see how I do in the next ten years, but before that, next time will be a more thorough look back at 2010–2019.

“Quality over Representation in Comics” is a False Argument

When looking at current discourse over media, one notion hanging around comics and other related mediums is that diversity is somehow “forced.” The argument, so it goes, is that over-prioritization comes at the expense of storytelling and presentation. There is a disingenuous element to this whole line of reasoning where the true motive is trying to keep racial and sexual minorities out of fandom, but you’ll sometimes find people trying to argue this anti-diversity point in good faith. After all, “I love diversity, but quality should come first” seems like an innocent enough stance at first blush. However, the way they think about it is somewhat backwards. Being able to ignore the state of representation in works and judging them primarily on aesthetics is, to a degree, a luxury born out of already being able to see yourself and your values in them.

The image of the strong white man is practically foundational to the superhero tradition upon which American comics were built. Batman is one clear example, but even Superman—who was somewhat secretly coded as an immigrant—could pass as a typical white American on a visual basis. This is not to say that the intent behind their creation was racism, but rather that these stories had to deal with an assumption of what and who was the default.

It’s certainly not impossible for a reader or viewer to see themselves in a character who doesn’t look like them, come from the same background as them, or think and feel like them. In fact, that’s one of the beautiful things about media and fiction. But there’s a difference between being able to do this whenever you want and having to do this because you have no choice otherwise. Even when a new character is introduced as a way to speak to fans who could not see themselves in comics before, such as Stan Lee with the Falcon or Jack Kirby with Black Panther, their good intentions were also inevitably limited by a lack of firsthand understanding that comes with being born a part of black culture—which is where later creators such as Reginald Hudlin and director Ryan Coogler come in.

Comics and comics culture benefit not just from having a wide range of possible stories, but also giving the opportunity for a greater range of people to experience those stories while still feeling like they are as important and as special as anyone else. The many decades since the golden age of comics have brought the world an ever greater range of heroes of all colors and walks of life, with different authors and artists being able to leave their marks on this history. And even if a particular title is perceived as being too blunt or ham-fisted in its championing of certain groups or just diversity itself, having voices out there saying, “How you live and how you are is perfectly fine. You can dream!” is an important precedent to make, especially because it’s all too easy for an industry or culture to slide back into ignorance.

 

Thoughts on the Kyoto Animation Tragedy

Over thirty people at Kyoto Animation (Suzumiya Haruhi, Sound! Euphonium, Free!) died tragically this past week, with more injured and missing, after a suspected arson attack on their main studio office. The news has gained international attention, reaching far beyond the world of anime. In certain respects, it’s worse than the infamous Tokyo subway sarin gas attack, and as far as I know, nothing even close to this has ever happened in the anime industry.

My heart goes out to the victims and their families. Last I saw, they haven’t yet been identified in full detail, only that they were mostly in their 20s and 30s. But regardless of their positions or levels of experience, these were people who helped support a studio famous for supporting its creators and having women in prominent positions in their staff. Losing these people means a blow to a place where people could apply their passion and be proud of what they do and where they work. This potentially also sets back the progress of women in the anime industry for years, as there was a lot of talent in that one building.

This really is unprecedented in the history of anime. There have been a number of incidents related to anime fans and places where fans shop, but a direct attack on creators of Japanese animation is so unexpected and new that it’s bound to have a ripple effect on the industry as a whole. Putting aside, the effect this will have on schedules and the like, this will likely affect aspects we haven’t even thought about. Similar to how 9/11 changed what it meant to fly in the United States, the relationship between animation studios and the public might just change permanently.

Right now, there are few details suspected arsonist who was caught and taken to the hospital, but the last thing I want to do is assume anything about the person or their motives. It’s all too easy to jump to conclusions about who would attack Kyoto Animation.

My hope is that this is not the end of Kyoto Animation. They produce good work while treating their employees like people, and I want them to come back, recover, and be stronger than ever.

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.

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!