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.