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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Otakon 2016 Interview: LeSean Thomas

leseanthomas

I had the pleasure of interviewing LeSean Thomas at Otakon 2016, where he was debuting his new animated short, Cannon Busters. Though we didn’t talk much about Cannon Busters itself, I was pleased to find out about his life as an artist, his philosophy on art and anime, and even his family.

Ogiue Maniax: So you grew up in the Bronx, and I assume that you had some sort of arts education. Could you describe what it was like to grow up as an artist?

LeSean Thomas: It was fairly okay. I stayed indoors quite a lot. I used to sketch a lot, sketch in school. You know, I grew up when hip-hop was growing up, and so a lot of stuff happened in the 80s in New York City. I thought it was cool. I had a lot of colleagues, a lot of friends in my apartment building, who I’d sketch with from time to time. I had a lot of friends in class who I could sketch with. I was into video games and sketching.

I think I decided to make it a career when I became a teenager. I moved to upstate NY for a period of time, to Middletown, and when I came back to the Bronx I decided to become an illustrator. I enrolled in a school that focused on the arts.

OM: Which high school?

LT: Julia Richmond High School. It was in Midtown Manhattan.

That was sort of my circle, and by the time I got back after I graduated high school I decided I wanted to become a comic book artist. But it was tough because there was a lot of competition in New York City—Marvel and DC. But I was also really influenced by animation, Japanese animation.

I landed a couple of opportunities that led me to work in animation production, and one thing led to another. I got onto a couple of big shows, and I was able to use that to build up momentum to work on more shows and create opportunities for myself.

OM: More and more young kids, teenagers, college students, are embracing anime and manga as part of how they get into art. I also know there’s concern that anime and manga are teaching the wrong lessons.

LT: What kind of wrong lessons?

OM: Like it’s teaching people to draw the wrong way or look at art the wrong way. And I’m sure already from your question to me you probably don’t agree with that thinking.

LT: Yeah, I don’t.

OM: So I’m wondering, what would you think is the best way to use anime and manga in an arts education?

LT: I think you should do whatever you want. I haven’t ever heard anyone say to me that copying Picasso or Michelangelo, or Italian or French artists perfectly, is wrong. We get into this really weird, shaky territory where we start becoming ethnocentric towards specific countries and their art history. I think a lot of that is based off the fact that the US was a European colony, and our history is based off of European history, and our art history is European. What’s wrong with India? What’s wrong with Mumbai? What’s wrong with China. I think that, respectfully, it’s just the way it is, but I don’t think that a lot of thought is given into how we judge children who copy the styles of other countries, as opposed to what our curriculum forces us to teach, which is European art history.

I know a lot of graphic designers who are brilliant who don’t study European stuff, they study Japanese art. When you’re in a school, you’re programmed and taught to be an employee and not an auteur, and I think that plays a big role in how teachers choose to enforce their ideals onto students, who are very impressionable at a young age. I’ve also noticed, in my experience, that a lot of teachers are graduates who couldn’t find jobs themselves. You have this cyclical dynamic happening where teachers who don’t have a lot of experience are telling kids what they should and shouldn’t draw.

How did Murakami learn how to draw? When you’re telling kids how to draw, you’re telling them how to interpret art. It’s not right. When you’re telling them how to respond to art, you’re robbing them of the privilege of interpreting art themselves, and interpreting how they learn. So I respectfully disagree with the logic that a child shouldn’t learn how to draw anime because of the historic implications behind that.

OM: You worked on The Boondocks, and it’s clear from the comic strip that Aaron McGruder is also very influenced by anime and manga. Is your mutual interest in how you came onto the show?

LT: Certainly my drawing style played a big role in choosing me to help him develop the early designs with the crew.

OM: The Boondocks as a comic strip was pretty forward thinking, advanced, and progressive, but the comic strip medium is a pretty conservative place. So when moving the series over to Adult Swim and an animated setting, was it a very conscious decision on your part and the staff’s part to push the envelope much further?

LT: No, that was actually Aaron’s mandate. I may be wrong, but I remember a rumor from around 2004, 2005—from someone in our circle—that Mike Lazzo, the head of Adult Swim, played a role in having Aaron push the envelope. So when I came on board, that was already a demand that came from on high. I was pretty detached from that. I was more focused on the visuals. A lot of that envelope pushing was in the writing. That was the stat quo on the production; we knew what we were getting into.

But as far as the decision from Aaron going from the conservative comic strip to the extreme in the animated form, I’m not privy to that. But there is a rumor that Adult Swim was encouraging that as well.

OM: You worked on Cannon Busters, and you mentioned previously about your friendship with Thomas Romain. You come from different cultural backgrounds, but you seem to have a lot in common. So what’s it like working with him?

LT: Well, Thomas is a westerner, whether we want to admit it or not. He speaks English, and while there are some things he doesn’t get about American culture, he’s still a westerner. That’s part of our common bond, as is our need to collaborate internationally. I think we’re kindred spirits. I told him that that, because of him leaving France to go to Japan and me leaving America to go to Korea for pretty much the same reason.

I like to use Thomas’s phrase, “world animation.” It’s not anime, and it’s not American animation. It’s world animation because of the nature of how it’s put together. I really respect Thomas. I like him a lot. I think he’s one of the most talented guys. He’s an incredible draftsman, and one of the most incredible thinkers. I’m going to see him next month when I go to Tokyo. He’s one of my favorite people.

OM: You worked in Korea, you’ve worked with the Japanese studio Satelight [on Cannon Busters], and you’ve worked with American companies. What’s it like working with different studios in different countries?

LT: In America, it’s pre-production and post-production, and that’s it for most shows. There are a lot of shows that are being animated in Flash in America, but most daytime animated shows are done in Korea.

Korea doesn’t do pre-production or post-production, so they’re just main production, largely. And Japan does all of it. And that’s the difference, at least in my personal experience. I could be wrong, but that’s the gist of what I got.

OM: You spent time in South Korea in the animation business. I know that Korea doesn’t create a lot of animation in pre-production or post-production, but I know there is a desire by South Korea, by the government and the animation business, to be known as an animation powerhouse.

LT: It’s mostly service work.

OM: Do you think there is a strong potential for them to break out and become their own thing?

LT: I think so. I don’t know if the problems that were there when I was in Korea are the same as the ones now, but I know the trick is to find venture capitalists who are interested in and see value in animation production beyond government funding and subsidization. I’m not sure if that’s something they’re risk-averse towards. When I was there back in 2009, 2010, there was a massive aversion towards taking a risk on animation over video games. And I’m not sure if that’s still an issue, but I definitely think they have the potential to stand out. I mean, why not? They animate most of our shows, and I think a lot of it has to do with just finding alternative revenue streams to finance original properties and projects.

It seems like there’s a slow coming back at the feature level, but it seems like everything sort of fizzled out once Wonderful Days aka Sky Blue died. I think that scared the industry in general, made everyone say, “Well, we’re not going to take this risk anymore.” I’m just waiting for a resurgence.

There are a few animated feature films that have come out in the past one or two years, like King of Pigs. It’s like, wow, they’re doing features now. They’re in film festivals.

Overall, do I think they have the potential? Of course. If they can do Sky Blue, they can do anything. I just think they have to figure out internally within the industry, within their government and culture, how to create a platform for creating original content. And they also need to motivate young kids. A lot of kids are going into game design instead of animation because of work labor and pay and all that.

OM: My last question is this: Your little brother is Sanford Kelly, the fighting game pro. Growing up, did you notice that he had a talent for fighting games?

LT: Yeah, he learned all his gaming from me [laughs].

Me, him, my older brother Kelby, and my two sisters Valtvaia and Shavon, we all lived in the same apartment with my mom and my grandmother. So we all came up, and video gaming was one of our major bonding aspects. We gamed hard. We played everything, PlayStation, Dreamcast, Turbo Grafx-16, Super Nintendo. That’s all we did. So by the time Sanford turned 18, we were so hardcore into it, we would go to the local arcade shops—back before there was only Chinatown Fair, in the mid-90s—and hit the sticks.

He just got really good, and he built up a circle in Chinatown Fair, in that area. I kind of moved on to animation and left the city to move to LA. I used to get on him about it. “You need to focus on other stuff.” But then when I started seeing him winning money and awards and stuff like that…

Gaming culture’s still relatively brand new. Talking about the early 2000s, where there were legit funded tournaments, he came up in that circuit where the Justin Wong and Daigo era was pretty much coming up. Now it’s a big thing. It’s on ESPN.

When he was coming up, I was a bit nervous about it, but then when I saw how well he was doing, and how he was creating a name for himself, I embraced it.

I get that quite often. “Oh my god, you’re brothers with Sanford Kelly, that’s so cool.”

OM: It’s kind of unlikely—well maybe not unlikely, but it’s interesting to have two different, talented brothers in two very different fields.

I’ll be honest, I’ve been forced over the years respect the game circuit. Because, like many people, if it’s not sponsored or it’s not on TV, then it’s still a subculture. And now it’s a major thing, so now it’s common for kids that I run into to say that they love Street Fighter and that they know who Sanford Kelly is. It’s still kind of weird, but it’s still really cool.

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