Tomino Yoshiyuki’s “Big Picture”: Why the Gundam Creator Can Be So Hit or Miss

Director Tomino Yoshiyuki is a perplexing figure in the anime industry. He’s the creator of Gundam, which makes him a legend to a certain type and generation of anime fan. He’s been described as passionate and even frightening by those who’ve worked with the man. Also, because his anime range from legendary to seemingly non-sequitur nonsense, Tomino has a George Lucas-esque reputation, where people can’t tell if he’s a genius, a fool, or a one-hit wonder. While this might mark Tomino as an inconsistent director, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that a major factor in the effectiveness of his anime is length. Tomino is a creator who’s better with longer-format series than shorter works.

I think one of the roots of all this is the way he approaches setting up an anime. In a recent episode of the Anime World Order podcast on the Tomino-helmed mid-2000s animation Wings of Rean, the hosts referenced an interview included with the DVD release. When asked  about his approach to film by using a classic ramen analogy (do you start with the ramen itself or with the steam that suggests its presence?), Tomino says that he prefers to start right at the point the noodles reach the lips—and if the lips are sexy, all the better. This seems like a very roundabout answer that might not make sense at first glance, but it’s actually a very good description of how Tomino constructs narratives.

Take Reideen the Brave, Tomino’s first ever directorial work on a giant robot anime. Instead of calmly introducing the main characters, the villains, the stakes, and finally the wondrous robot (as was typical of even the best robot shows of the time), Reideen the Brave‘s first episode comes a mile a minute. The main character, Hibiki Akira, is playing soccer with his friends! Suddenly, DEATH AND DESTRUCTION AROUND THE WORLD AS LANDMARKS CRUMBLE. A voice calls for a hero to awaken. It speaks directly to Akira and tells him the AGE OF DEMONS has come about, and that he needs something called “Reideen!” A LIGHTNING BOLT HITS AKIRA.

Keep in mind that, including the opening, less than five minutes have passed.

I love this first episode because it really puts the viewers into the thick of things and leaves us to try and piece together everything going on. As I’ve watched more and more of Tomino’s works, this is clearly a trend, evident in shows from all across his history with anime, such as Space Runaway Ideon, Overman King Gainer, and Gundam: Reconguista in G. It’s the directorial equivalent of shoving someone into the deep end of the pool and asking them to make it to the surface, and when there’s enough intrigue laid out, it can become a fine motivator to stick with a series. However, this can be a double-edged sword, and the other side of that blade produces his more maligned works, like Garzey’s Wing and Wings of Rean. If that rush of information isn’t compelling enough, or doesn’t leave enough meat to sink one’s teeth into, it becomes a poor framework to build on.

My belief is that Tomino is a “big picture, big philosophy” creator who tries to show fragments of a world to give it a sense of scope and significance. By doing this, he tries to actively challenge viewers to think about the real world. The issue is that the “little picture” often escapes him. This is perhaps why creating convincing romances is one of his weaknesses—the development of relationships is a very intimate and local thing. He does fine with established romances, and he’s great at placing a romance within the greater context of a world in motion, but the actual motions of love burgeoning between two people seems to escape him. Instead, he goes for instant love: newtype psychic explosions and the like.

When Tomino has enough room to really lay something out, like in Ideon or Mobile Suit Gundam (even though those two series originally had their runs cut short), the blanks he establishes in the beginning can be slowly fleshed out and given dimension by him or whatever staff he has. Turn A Gundam is probably the best example. It was allowed to run its full length without being cut down at the knees like those other earlier anime, and the result is just a sprawling story where emotions and human actions ripple through outer space.

However, it always seems as if Tomino tries to make “big picture” anime even when time is much more limited, and this is why the shorter works end up feeling so inscrutable. Longer works can breathe, but there’s literally not enough time to fully expand on the forces that Tomino is trying to convey in his works. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the five-minute Ring of Gundam is so incredibly obtuse, even compared to the infamy of Garzey’s Wing. Something like Reconguista in G falls in the middle. There’s a lot of rushing from one moment to the next, but also plenty of indicators of how the world has changed since the era of the old Gundam anime, and the unceremonious death of one of the series’ main antagonists works satisfyingly well given the groundwork laid out by those episodes. It’s just that individual character actions often go unexplained.

Tomino Yoshiyuki will continue to be a divisive creator because certain elements considered to be fundamental to good storytelling are things he either can’t do or doesn’t care for. However, his desire to convey big ideas,  challenge viewers politically, and make them put in work while watching his anime is something to admire. This approach is poorly served in shorter works, because Tomino doesn’t try to compromise, but if given enough room he produces some of anime’s greatest.

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Secret Santa: Overman King Gainer is Such a Thing

This post is my latest participation in the Reverse Thieves Secret Santa Project, wherein fellow bloggers anonymously recommend each other some anime and everyone writes a review of one of their “presents.” Given the Christmas theme of the endeavor, it is perhaps all the more appropriate that I review an anime which takes place in a land of endless winter, but really the reason why I ended up picking Overman King Gainer out of the choices I was given is that I had always wanted to watch it but had never gotten around to doing so.

Overman King Gainer is a 2002 anime from the mind of Tomino Yoshiyuki, the famous creator of Gundam. He’s a man with a long history and resume in the industry, and when people talk about Tomino anime, they usually divide them into two categories: Depressed Tomino Anime and Happy Tomino Anime, with the amount of bloodshed and trauma varying accordingly. Featured above is a gif of Tomino during the production of Overman King Gainer; I’ll let you decide which kind of show this is.

At first glance, Overman King Gainer is a strange show, not only because of its extremely catchy opening courtesy of Fire Bomber and JAM Project’s Fukuyama Yoshiki, Gaogaigar composer Tanaka Kouhei, and both characters and giant robots alike doing the Monkey (possibly the show’s most enduring legacy in anime), but because it presents new information about its world constantly and without any prior warning, making the whole thing quite difficult to summarize.

In the future of Overman King Gainer, humanity attempts to survive a harsh and close to uninhabitable planet by living in massive shelters known as “domepoli,” but among the people there are movements to participate in “Exoduses,” mass pilgrimages to lands with potentially more opportunity and resources, accomplished through the use of massive moving cities. The main character is a boy named Gainer Sanga, a video game champion who becomes the pilot of a mysterious organic robot he dubs the “King Gainer,” and who ends up becoming a part of the Exodus despite his objections to it. There is a complex world underpinning the main narrative, but we the viewers only ever get to see a few slivers of the whole, and even into the final episode the show still keeps a lot of its secrets. In that respect it reminds me of Xam’d: Lost Memories, which shares that similar pacing of world-building = plot progression, but much like Xam’d that’s also where a good deal of its charm lies.

Watching this show, I couldn’t help but feel that, more than Ikari Shinji from Evangelion or Kira Yamato from Gundam SEED, Gainer Sanga is the true updated version of classic Gundam hero Amuro Ray. Gainer has this strange introversion to him, as well as an aversion to the situation he finds himself in, but he adds this additional modern otaku element from the way he engages in his gaming. As an aside, the fact that he engages in games instead of tinkering with machinery reminds me that the original Gundam came out in a very different era of video games.

The character designs in this show are excellent, with both male and female characters clearly showing that a lot of care was put into their creation. The designs are full of vibrancy and personality, and though not the sole character designer on the show, the influence of Yoshida Ken’ichi (who would go on to do character designs for Eureka Seven and Xam’d) is both quite obvious and welcome.  I have to wonder what material would have been made for Overman King Gainer had it appeared in a post-Megami Magazine, maybe even post-Pixiv fandom environment. The show has a large number of female characters who seem to have a fair deal of enduring popularity, and I suspect that characters such as the strong-willed Sara Kodama, the spunky child princess Ana Medaiyu, the spy-turned-humanities teacher Adette Kistler, and the eccentric Cynthia Lane would’ve won the hearts of many current fans had the show been made in the last few years.

Tomino is often known for having rather stiff dialogue, and it’s easy to put Overman King Gainer in the same category, but I feel like that doesn’t quite tell the whole story, because it doesn’t take into account for its usage as a comedic element. The awkwardness of the phrasing and the responses they engender from other characters feels like this constant revolving tsukkomi, and when you take that sort of interaction and apply it to a diverse range of characters, including crazy Koyasu Takehito (see current anime JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure for reference), it makes for a fun if confusing anime which exudes a strange sort of energy that’s hard to find in other anime.

Another element of the anime that really stands out from other shows is its mechanical design, which both Yoshida and Yasuda “Akiman” Akira of Capcom fame worked on. The robots in Overman King Gainer come in two categories, the more basic and grunt-like “Sillhouette Machines,” and the “Overmen,” strangely powerful robots with a variety of abilities from invisibility to lightning bordering on the super (natural). Between their organic appearances and elements (artificial muscle tissue in the limbs for instance), as well as their striking appearances, probably the part of the show which most clearly describes the aesthetics of the anime, and that’s putting aside the whole Monkey-dancing thing.

I know I’m talking more about the components of Overman King Gainer than I am the overall feel of the series, and it’s something I normally prefer to avoid when I write reviews, but again I have to point out that the show kind of messes with expectations. Overman King Gainer is an unusual hodgepodge of elements which perhaps shouldn’t work together but do, and it defies categorization in the sense that it’s hard to say whether the anime is extremely straightforward or extremely obtuse, but which ends up being fun and clever.

Oh Me Oh My, Tomino to Be in NY

The New York Anime Festival announced its first major guest today, and it is none other than the creator of Gundam and one of the most famous anime directors ever, Tomino Yoshiyuki.

Having grown up in New York City, I was a bit upset that I was not able to meet him at Big Apple Anime Fest around 2000 or so, and thought I’d never have the chance again, especially because he’s not exactly a big name among today’s anime con crowd. But here he is again, and I’m going to make sure I bring my Zambot 3 box set for him to sign. Definitely.

I’ve spoken before about Gundam and how it’s not only influential to not only the anime industry as a whole but for me personally, and to have the opportunity to pick Tomino’s brain is something I can’t pass up. Like or hate his work you know he’s different from most others, particularly in the sense of his tumultuous career as hate turned to love.

Anime News Network has an interview with Tomino to go along with their announcement, and it’s worth a read if only for the following line”

Until I was middle-aged, I liked to cram my frustrations into my works. However, my mindset changed when I realized that anime is an entertainment medium, and it has to be something people look forward to. That line of thinking is plain to see in the Z Gundam movies.

In other words, the films were an expression of the fact that by nature, all people have both a positive side and a negative side.

Wow. I am looking forward to this.

Shugo Chara Doki, brought to you by Tomino Yoshiyuki, Tanaka Kouhei, and Fukuyuma Yoshiki

COOL COOL

COOL AND SPICY

COOL COOL

COOL AND SPICY