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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!

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Real vs. Perfect: The Two Opposing Idol Values

1983’s Creamy Mami was the first idol anime, and it made an idol out of Mami’s voice actor as well. Watching her videos from back then, a 15-year-old Ohta Takako comes across as awkward and unaccustomed to the spotlight, even in “Love Sarigenaku” above, her most “grown-up” song. Compared to many of the slickly produced pop hits of later years, Ohta can come across as almost unprofessional, but that’s exactly where her appeal lies. When it comes to Japanese idols, there are two general directions: “unrefined and real” or “polished and perfect.”

When comparing the Japanese idol juggernaut AKB48 to the K-Pop sensation Girls’ Generation (who have been enormously popular in Japan), the latter visually comes across as a much more “professional-looking” group. While calling them idolsTheir dance and choreography are on point, and their music videos make them look like a million bucks. But while the girls of AKB48 have a kind of awkwardness about them, and many aren’t the greatest singers, there’s a sense of them “trying their best,” and this is exactly what the fans want. In other words, perfection isn’t necessarily desired. It can be, but that strain of inexperience and perseverance is just as strong.

These dual forces can be seen in idol anime in spades. In Love Live! School Idol Project, the main characters are the ragtag group μ’s (pronounced “Muse”), and the defending champions are the practically-professional A-RISE, who come from the richest high school in Akihabara. In Aikatsu!, Hoshimiya Ichigo is shown as having some kind of natural spark of genuineness that contrasts her from the seemingly unassailable Kanzaki Mizuki. And in Macross Frontier, the main love triangle features, as seen above, the humble waitress Ranka Lee (right) vs. the sultry Sheryl Nome (left). In every case, what causes the “small fry” to ascend isn’t that they transform into polished and perfect idols, but that even as they improve, that unrefined and authentic quality shines through. Perhaps it says something that the main heroines of these shows tend to lean that way as well.

And yet, as touched on briefly in the beginning, voice actors who play idols in anime actually end up being idols themselves. When the girls of Love Live! hold live concerts their flaws come out, but that’s part of the appeal of seeing them in person. When watching the characters in the anime or in music videos, that imperfection doesn’t come across in the performances so much as in the dialogue and supporting materials. A similar phenomenon exists all the way back with Creamy Mami. She comes across as much more “polished” than Ohta Takako does, yet they share the same voice.

An interesting case of the strange interaction with the 2D vs. 3D and real vs. perfect contrasts are those that toe the line, like Hatsune Miku or virtual youtubers. With Miku, her limitations—the fact that her voice sounds robotic—is considered part of her appeal. With virtual youtubers, the fact that there’s a person performing behind the character is much more obvious, and the idea that they start to break down or break character is what lends a sense of “realness.”

In this regard, California-born Japanese idol Sally Amaki is especially interesting. A member of 22/7, an “anime-style characters” idol group in the vein of Love Live!, she plays the bilingual character Fujima Sakura while bringing along her own fans as Sally. Not only does she perform the virtual youtuber role as Sakura, but her native English fluency brings an interesting dynamic that highlights a sense of “realness,” especially for English-speaking fans. Not only is there often a contrast between Sally’s “cute, practiced idol” voice and her Californian mannerisms when switching between Japanese and English, but she’ll mention something that only someone growing up in the US would know off the cuff. This lets American fans connect with her sense of authenticity in ways that they might not have been able to in the past.

In the end, “real vs. perfect” is not a true dichotomy by any means, and every idol/idol group approaches that divide in different ways. Whether you’re an idol fan or not, which do you prefer?

Aikatsu! and Idol Franchise “Experiences”

As Aikatsu Friends! inches ever closer, I find myself thinking about the longevity of Aikatsu! as a franchise. By this October, it’ll be a whopping six years old—a lifetime when it comes to children’s anime. Where other similar series have tried to compete, few have managed to hang on as Aikatsu! has. One of its closest competitors, Pretty Rhythm, eventually pivoted towards the male-idol-centric King of Prism series. Either by outlasting or outmaneuvering other idol series, Aikatsu! feels as if it’s conquered its own niche—though the exact nature of that niche is what I’m trying to figure out.

There are, of course, key differences between Aikatsu! and other idol character franchises. Series like King of Prism and Idolish 7 utilize male idols in a desire to capture a different market. Love Live! and The iDOLM@STER feel like they skew older. Macross Delta and Symphogear have idols as thematic flourishes as part of a greater science-fiction story. They cover various demographics, as well as various degrees of idol presence. Yet I feel there’s another element of difference that isn’t accounted for, as if Aikatsu! and Love Live! occupy different compartments of mental space, at least personally.

While this is only a tentative thought exercise for the sake of categorization, if I had to describe that difference it would be as the following: With Love Live! or The iDOLM@STER, I’m most interested in how the idols will react, but with Aikatsu! I’m most interested in the actions they’ll take. The way I phrased it makes it seem as if it’s a contrast between more passive characters and more active ones, but that’s not quite right. Instead, it’s more that the girls of Love Live! seem to draw their appeal from the way they behave and influence each other, while the girls in Aikatsu! feel as if they influence the environment around them.

Perhaps the reason I see Aikatsu! different is because of the fans and how they express their love for the series on social media compared to other idol anime lovers. Other series appear to celebrate cuteness and style. Fans of Aikatsu! revel in an aura of power and excitement. At the heart of this fan output remains the indelible images of Ichigo, that very first Aikatsu! heroine, as she climbs those cliffs and wields that axe. It’s as if Ichigo and her successors reshape and navigate the land while other idols move through it.

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The Wacky (Not Wacky) World of Macross Delta: Ogiue Maniax on the Veef Show Podcast

macrossdelta

I recently made another appearance on the Veef Show to talk about Macross Delta. There, we discuss the ups and downs of the show, and I learn about fan reception to the series, as well as the illicit dealings of the owners of Robotech. Join us!

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The Intertwined Histories of Magical Girls, Idols, and Science Fiction Anime

Magical Angel Creamy Mami

I recently learned (thanks to Japanese popular culture scholar Patrick Galbraith’s new book The Moe Manifesto) that Magical Angel Creamy Mami is not only an influential magical girl anime but the very first anime about an idol. In other words, idols and magical girls have been conceptually tied to each for decades now. You can see this not only in the the fact that you’ll get the occasional idol + magical girl still (Cure Lemonade and Cure Sword in the Precure franchise, for example), but the fact that the latest competitors to magical girl anime have been idol-themed shows, such as Aikatsu! and Pretty Rhythm, both of which feature magical girl-like transformation sequences. I think Creamy Mami is especially significant here because the majority of magical girls prior to it were more “witch girls,” characters who already have magical powers without the need for transformation and use them for mischief.

Of course, the common trait of magical girls and idols is that they both feature cute girls, and with idols especially they’ve always occupied a position where they are innocent yet sexual, and I don’t mean that necessarily in an “idols are creep magnets” way. Both men and women respond to idols for a variety of reasons, and a lot of it is tied to the image they present. They can be somewhat literal idols for girls and targets of affection and desire for men, and this can be seen in how idols are used in anime. While Creamy Mami built an unexpected older male audience, for example, Superdimensional Fortress Macross reveled in it by combining the idol with the extremely prominent aspects of science fiction and giant robots. The 1970s brought forth a lot of giant robot anime, and the 1980s saw the time when those who became fans of robots and SF began creating their own works, as seen with Kawamori Shouji and Macross and later Studio Gainax and their Daicon III and IV animations. Many of these creators said, “I like SF, and I like cute girls,” and created a defining combination of anime where mecha and other forms of fantastic technology are mixed with cute girls.

Daicon IV

It can also be argued that the girl in the Daicon animations is herself a magical girl, but the connection between magical girls and science fiction is especially evident in the 1990s and the advent of the fighting magical girl, most notably with Takeuchi Naoko’s Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon. While Sailor Moon does not feature giant robots, it’s undoubtedly influenced by the Super Sentai (i.e. Power Rangers) franchise with its own transformation sequences, color-coded costumes, and monster of the week fights. Super Sentai is not only traditionally marketed at boys (though this too changes as they eventually start trying to appeal to the “moms” market), but it’s also more broadly tied to tokusatsu, the costumed fighters and rubber monsters genre that more or less literally means “special effects.” What I find significant here is that when it comes to categorization of genres in Japanese, you often see “SF/tokusatsu,” tying things back, at least somewhat, to science fiction.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon

Moreover, the manga group CLAMP have been fans of titles like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Saint Seiya, and Galaxy Cyclone Braiger, and have produced titles such as Magic Knight Rayearth, which features magical girls in a swords-and-sorcery world who also gain the power to summon giant robots. “Rayearth” itself is the name of a giant robot, thus making the title itself reminiscent of the naming scheme of many mecha anime such as Mobile Suit Gundam or Super Electromagnetic Machine Voltes V. It’s as if these female creators have taken the works that were made “masculine” by Kawamori, Gainax, and others, and in a sense re-feminized them in a process that created something new and exciting.

If we’re talking influences though, Sailor Moon and CLAMP works such as Cardcaptor Sakura are huge in and of themselves, and their shadows can be seen in a number of anime from the 2000s on. Sailor Moon basically transformed magical girls to such an extent that many assume that fighting magical girls have always been the norm, and Precure has come up as a spiritual successor that has lasted even longer than Sailor Moon. The protagonist in Sunday without God practically is Cardcaptor Sakura protagonist Kinomoto Sakura, and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, which has as its primary audience older men, clearly takes a lot from Cardcaptor Sakura as well. In the case of Nanoha, it also incorporates an increasing level of science fiction from one series to the next, as the franchise goes from technology-based magic staffs that shoot lasers in battles reminiscent of Mobile Suit Gundam to spaceships and interdimensional travel. Once again, the magical girl as cute girl is tied to SF. As for idols, they not only haven’t been forgotten, either in real life or in anime (as seen with series such as Love Live! and the aforementioned Aikatsu!), but Kawamori makes his return in the form of AKB0048, a series that not only features idols as magical girls of sorts both piloting and fighting giant robots in a story that spans a galaxy, but is directly based on one of the biggest real-world idol acts in Japan today.

AKB0048

It’s as if magical girls, idols, and SF have been doing a song and dance for years and years, changing partners along the way but always being drawn to each other. They’re seemingly tied together by the fact that just a few tweaks to either appeal to a male or female audience more, while the fact that people will not necessarily stay within the genres or types of entertainment that they’re “supposed” to remain with. Cuteness is a versatile tool that at times reinforces societal and gender norms while other times becoming a tool to defy them, and this continues to influence anime to this day.

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Robotech, Voltron, Nostalgia

When the Robotech/Voltron crossover comic was announced a few months ago, my immediate response was, “Why?” Of course the answer is “nostalgia grab,” but there’s something strange about both of these works and their continued presence in the geek public eye (and perhaps even beyond that). Unlike Transformers which not only has a huge variety of toys both old and new, as well as a long history of cartoons both from America and Japan (not to mention the live action films), both Robotech and Voltron do not really renew themselves, aside from the occasional thing like the The Shadow Chronicles or The Third Dimension.

Though this speaks more about the people I associate with, I can’t say I’ve ever talked to anyone, online or offline, who is hardcore into either Robotech or Voltron. I know that there’s a Robotech community of course (they even have an official site for it), though I have little interest in it. With Voltron, I know people who have fond memories of it, myself included, but the foundation that Voltron has in geek culture seems not only deeper than Robotech‘s but to the extent that, when you say cool giant robot with a signature finisher, Lion Voltron is just the default, or it shares that spot with the Megazord from Power Rangers. It’s like Voltron as a source of nostalgia goes so far beyond itself that the vague perception of it exceeds the influence of the actual anime. 

What’s funny about a show like Voltron and its emblematic presence in US geek culture as de facto super robot is that the process of dubbing and adaptation that turned the anime King of Beasts Golion and Armored Fleet Dairugger into Voltron: Defender of the Universe happened with different anime in different countries to similar effect. In the Philippines, Voltes V exploded with popularity. In France and Italy, UFO Robo Grendizer captured attention as Goldorak and Goldrake respectively (with success in the Middle East to boot). In Brazil, Gloizer X became O Pirata do Espaço, the country’s first real exposure to giant robots. While it’s possible say that this was all a matter of timing and that they’re all interchangeable in that respect, I do think that the specific properties of each show had a major impact on how each country perceived giant robots from that point forward (I’m less sure about Gloizer X so if any Brazilians want to help, feel free to leave a comment).

One thing that I do believe plays a role in how these series become more specific in their nostalgic output is the level of support the original works have in Japan. I visited France recently, and when I went into the comic stores I would regularly see displays of Grendizer merchandise. Whether it was the Super Robot Chogokin or the Soul of Chogokin or a chibi version, it was all straight from Japan, sitting prominently in the store. Grendizer has enough cultural presence in Japan that it can continue to get these toys and even a fairly stable presence in Super Robot Wars, whereas Golion has had to content itself with just one Nintendo DS appearance. In lieu of support from Japan, Voltron‘s had to carve its own place, and often times it’s not even from the company World Events which holds the Voltron license but from fans conjuring it up in their own minds. And while Robotech is an utter legal mess due to the way it stifles the presence of Macross in the US, if you put that aside part of Robotech‘s prolonged presence comes from the fact that its fans want new Robotech to constantly feel like old Robotech, whereas Macross changes according to the whims of its dark lord Kawamori Shouji.

Actually I wouldn’t mind at all if Voltron got a revival with a solid piece of fiction to support it which doesn’t rely too much on nostalgia. I know we got Voltron Force, but the less said about that the better.

Flexibility of Ingredients in Giant Robot Anime

On the recent Anime World Order podcast there was an e-mail from a listener lamenting the lack of “real mecha anime.” The AWO guys (Clarissa was absent) concurred with his view, and said that, while they understand the argument that elements they don’t enjoy in current shows were present in past robot anime, the ratio of ingredients for baking this “cake” has changed for the worse. As one of the people who speaks about elements of current robot shows being able to trace their elements back to previous decades, and who has argued this point before, I agree that the shows of today are different. Different things are emphasized to differing degrees, and the robots are not always used in the same ways as they would in the past. My question in response is simply, what is wrong with this change?

From what I understand, when Anime World Order and their listener say they desire proper mecha shows, what they are actually looking for are shows heavily featuring action, power, and manliness as represented by giant robots. While I too am a fan of cool robots shooting lasers and all sorts of diplays of machismo, and I’m aware that Daryl and Gerald’s tastes are not exactly the same as their listener, the problem is that if you define “proper mecha” as such, then the genre becomes extremely limited.  Who draws the line to say, “this is the correct amount of robot prominence in a mecha show?” You can point to Mobile Suit Gundam and say that it’s a show that has the “right ratio” of elements, but I can point to Mazinger Z and say how actually different it is compared to Gundam in terms of narrative focus and even the ways in which the robots are used, not to mention the differences between Gundam the movies vs. Gundam the TV series. How about Superdimensional Fortress Macross, which (indirectly) takes the Char-Amuro-Lalah love triangle and transforms it into a main draw of that series?

The reason I bring this up is firstly because I want to emphasize how much  that ratio has changed even within the conventional history of robot anime (and I am deliberately avoiding bringing Evangelion into the equation due to its unusual position), but even more importantly because the shows which “get it right” in the current age are the product of adjusting the ratio in favor of a certain perspective on what giant robot anime should be like. Shin Getter Robo vs. Neo Getter Robo is brought up frequently in the podcast as an example of a relatively recent giant robot anime done right (or at least in the spirit of the old stuff), but it does not actually have the same ratio of elements as the robot anime of the past. If anything, it’s somewhere between the tamer Getter Robo anime of the 1970s and the harsher Getter Robo Go manga in terms of action and violence, and to highlight certain elements of each while ignoring others makes not for a show like the old stuff, but one which emphasizes certain desired elements from the previous works. This is hardly a problem as Shin Getter Robo vs. Neo Getter Robo does in fact offer the things that AWO says it does, but it’s also the result of distilling a robot anime into something more focused and specific to the preferences of particular viewers, which is not that different from the objections leveled at the current audience of robot anime.

I understand that this criticism is primarily aimed at Code Geass and other anime like it which put characters front and center in their stories and use robots for flavor. While I could argue that shows like Votoms do the same thing only in a way which emphasizes a masculine ideal, if we assume that current shows simply do not have enough robots, then I have to ask why the thrill of violence and power should be the primary motivation of robot anime? AWO speaks of the sacrifices that robot fans must endure in current mecha shows, but what about the same sacrifices people made in the past to enjoy those old robot shows when the ratio may not have been ideal for them? If people see elements such as romance, attractiveness of characters, drama of war, friendship, or any number of themes in robot anime, then I think it’s fair to say, “You know what, it’s cool that those elements are there, but wouldn’t it be great if there were anime which really brought those things to the forefront for people instead of having them buried beneath layers of action?” Using robots as a means to tell the story at hand, having problems solved by thoughts and intentions instead of by robots as a power metaphor, those sound like great ways to convey a narrative or express an idea. De-emphasizing power in a giant robot anime can and often does lead to interesting things.

Turn A Gundam, which isn’t a “modern” mecha series like Code Geass, but still places both a different level and type of emphasis on its mecha component, results in an overall stronger story because of it. The 2004 remake of Tetsujin 28 is hardly like the old 1960s one, because the theme shifted from “isn’t it cool that this kid has a robot?” to “exploring the post-war condition of Japan and the specters of the war through this robot as a science fictional element.” Yes, the latter theme was part of the original manga and anime to an extent, but by not having to value the proper “ratio,” it was able to do more. Robotics;Notes possesses many of the “flaws” of current robot anime such as an emphasis on high school, a lack of robot action, and a strong dose of drama, but it’s also an anime which emphasizes the thematic purpose attributed to giant robots. It uses the intimacy of a high school setting to show the bonds the characters have with the concept of giant robots, and does so by utilizing the “modern formula” that is supposedly anti-mecha. In all three cases, their amount of straight-up conventional robot fighting is less than expected, but it allows them to serve different purposes.

Gerald spoke of Die Hard and how keeping its constituent elements but not understanding it as a whole does not necessarily make for a proper Die Hard. That might be true, but why are we limiting the scope to just one movie? Action movies can be Commando, but they can also be Highlander or The Dark Knight. If that example is too broad, then let’s look at a franchise like The Fast and the Furious. After four movies about racing cars in deserts or highways and having some vague infiltration plot, Fast Five comes out and changes the formula into what is essentially a heist film. By focusing more on action with purpose and the teamwork element, and being less about the cars themselves, the result is a much more solid and well-rounded film which is still undoubtedly of the action genre.

Or to put it in terms of Daryl’s analogy, yes if you change the proportion of ingredients when baking a cake, you get something different. The thing is, cakes are but one possibility. What we have now are robot pies, robot souffles, robot quiches, robot donuts. You might prefer cake in the end, but all of those are equally valid and can be equally delicious.

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