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Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino talks about Gundam, mecha anime, and even Marvel movies in interview with FORBES

Yoshiyuki Tomino has done many things in his career, from working on classic anime like Voltes V to working with Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli. But he’s best known for his work in the mecha genre, particularly, creating the worldwide phenomenon known as GUNDAM.

However, Tomino is also known for his harsh criticisms of the video game and anime industry, and he’s not shy about mincing words about modern voice actors as well. Recently, he sat down with FORBES magazine’s Ollie Barder for an interview. They talked about a number of topics, from anime as a whole to even Marvel movies. He first talked about starting out as an animator over at Mushi Production.

“During my final year of university the anime for Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) series started its weekly airing. It was known then as a ‘limited anime’ but after one year into this broadcasting approach, they began to settle into their production process.

“After I entered Mushi Production, about three months in I began to wonder whether I could direct or write a script. So I started to do that and six months later, my storyboard for an original story was accepted and I got to be involved in the directing side of things. However, I found this kind of work within animation to be a bit childish and I wasn’t sure it would be all that gratifying.

“I had a hard time familiarizing myself with the method of limited anime, I left Mushi Production and went into TV advertising as a freelancer but that turned out to be financially difficult. In addition, I was so accustomed to desk work at that point and my body had a hard time switching to a job that was more physical. As a result, I went back into animation. It was childish work but I could make ends meet. So as a freelancer I did subcontract work directing and storyboarding.

“In that sense, I returned to all this with a very pragmatic frame of mind. But I did things differently after getting back into animation. This time, I worked on as many genres as I could. At that time, I was making around half my income from storyboarding and I thought that as someone that is involved with making animation, I just wanted to increase my level of skill by accepting whatever work came my way. When some of my storyboards were taken up, I could then get involved in directing. Fundamentally though, I was focusing on improving my skill and to deal with all sorts of areas. In hindsight, looking back at those days I can see it was very important that I did all this. I continued on with this until 1978 when I started working on Mobile Suit Gundam.”

He then talked about the franchise which would serve as his masterpiece, Mobile Suit Gundam.

“To go back a bit, from around 1974 I worked with Mr. Isao Takahata on the storyboards I was doing. At the time, various people were involved in the projects and they were discussing on how to dramatise them, how to do the animation. They were all debating and discussing this, almost theorising. Then I realised that I shouldn’t be looking at my work in a purely practical manner and that I needed to look at this work as something creative and almost artistic. I also met Mr. Hayao Miyazaki around this time and he really loved animation and how to approach mecha type stories. Until then I had never thought about playwriting for animation. It was a really great period of study for me.

“If you’re not involved in a wide variety of work, your focus gets narrower. If you are not studying various types of works and if you don’t learn different types of dramatization then you will only make limited work. What I mean by this is that I don’t want to be a producer that is only capable of making something like the films made based on Marvel Comics properties, which from my point of view is very silly. Of course, I acknowledge the existence of Marvel label as a business.

“So from around 1977 onward I started to do mecha related series and from then on I was integrally involved in checking all the stories and production. I felt that because of all the studying I’d done up to that point I could do a much different job, without making it like some kind of Marvel film series.

“Within the restrictions placed upon these productions I tried to move them away from them being inherently childish and to make it closer to a film in terms of its approach and depth.

“To create cinema you have to rely on the structure of each scene. Normally within each shot you tend to need two points (allies and enemies) to focus on to make it work. Such as you and I for example. However, if you are going to make a story based around a war in space, how can you frame a scene like that? As the setting itself is so vast in terms of the distances involved.

“So you have things like radar, which can detect an enemy’s position, but that means you won’t be able to get these objects into the scene. This means if things don’t get closer to one another, they won’t be able to fit into one shot and it would be impossible to depict the drama.

“To solve this problem, my team and I came up with the idea of the Minovsky particle. When this was distributed across large areas, you couldn’t rely on radar or detect where the enemy might be. This meant the forces had to come closer to one another in order to fight.

“By inventing this particular setup, we were able to create something equivalent to the depiction of a cinematic (and theatrical) drama within this space war scenario. That meant within the next 30 minutes of the story, due to the Minovsky particles the forces had to fight in close proximity to one another. This wasn’t done because I necessarily wanted to make a story based around a space war itself but was invented purely for cinematic purposes.

“Although this was a space war, it was possible to communicate over large distances. In terms of cinematic technique, it was possible. However, the depiction would have been too ideological or too difficult to have theatrical empathy. This meant unless the distances between the characters were closer together, it would have been difficult to express human relationships. If I hadn’t been conscious of theatrical expression, then Mobile Suit Gundam would have been the same as any other type of story about war. The Minovsky particle then forced the characters to meet one another, either in joy or vengeance. It created a sense of tension, and established a dramatic atmosphere.

“Obviously, I didn’t come up with the idea for the Minovsky particle all on my own. I discussed with my staff and explained my requirements and they came up with this solution. However, this was a key point in making a story set in space, which is mostly empty, have more of an impact as to its cinematic effect.

“These things as well as everything I learned from Mr. Miyazaki in terms of characterisation and how to build characters, not to mention the various other theatrical and dramatic elements that I learned from Mr. Takahata. If I hadn’t met these two individuals and learned all these elements from them, then it’s very likely that Mobile Suit Gundam would not have turned out in the same way. I’m admitting this for the first time but without them and me aiming to make the series more cinematic, such as thinking very keenly on how to set up each scene; it would have ended up being worse than the Marvel films.

“It may sound like I am insulting the Marvel films, but I haven’t produced an outstanding work for 20 years, so I really do not have the right to say anything about them. Not to mention that as an entertainment, there are things that tend to fit their time period. So something like Marvel film series has its own place. For example in Hollywood, there were two Godzilla films made but recently we had a new Godzilla film made in Japan. As it had a different director, Hideaki Anno in this case, it had its own realism and was maybe just a different approach. So I suppose there should be places for various types of entertainment but I only think that if it is coming from somewhere like Tokyo it shouldn’t be placed in somewhere like Hollywood.

“Moving back to Mobile Suit Gundam for a bit, while the Minovsky particle was meant to bring characters together in a cinematic way the idea of Newtypes was separate from this. The Newtype notion came from somewhere completely different.”

Newtypes are a very big part of the narrative for Mobile Suit Gundam. In the story, they are the product of humanity moving into space and evolving to meet that challenge. However, in the years since their portrayal has been warped somewhat. Something that Tomino went on to talk about in detail, “Around that time, there were other mecha-related science fiction works but looking at them they didn’t come across as being science fiction at all. So in that sense the creation of Newtypes was a solution to that.

“Forty years ago, the use of psychic powers and telepathy in science fiction were often added as some kind of fighting ability. Whereas a Newtype is just a notion in the story, it isn’t an ability.

“While I was working on Mobile Suit Gundam over the course of 10 years I began to think about how human beings might improve and evolve. Unfortunately, I was unable to properly get this idea into the original Mobile Suit Gundam. In that, I was unable to present an adequate form of a more evolved human. Speaking in modern terms, the first cognitive revolution occurred when Homo sapiens crossed the ocean, and I wanted to depict the second cognitive revolution by going into space.

“In terms of describing this idea in subsequent Gundam series, I wasn’t able to do that either. In terms of the later Gundam stories I worked on, trying to show how a human might evolve into something better, it would be usually described as something like a god but that’s not something I intended. Newtypes are just evolved beings and not gods. I don’t think that the later Gundam series were able to adequately show what that might be.

“That said, about 25 years ago I tried to get at the core of this Newtype idea and it resulted in a type of human that could comprehend someone else without any misunderstanding. However, I couldn’t really make a compelling story out of it. In short, it didn’t become a story. So I couldn’t do it and I’ve been stagnating since and I’ve recently caught a cold as well (laughs).”

While he didn’t really criticize Marvel movies, he was really talking about their limited scope. In the interview, he also talked about Gundam Reconguista in G, which is perhaps one of his most unpopular works.

“In terms of these new Blu-ray releases of my work in the West, this is something other people have organized, so I suppose I am quite nonchalant about it. As I said, animation is made for a global audience. In that sense, these releases are something that is innately part of that. The fact that these animated works weren’t widely available beforehand is the issue really. That was quite irritating and annoying actually.

“Naturally, I will be very happy if there is any response to my work now that it is more widely available outside of Japan. However, as I fundamentally think that animation is made for a global audience I regret that I could not make more works that had a previously wider release and in turn produced a reaction. I believe it was due to my inadequacy.

“In regards to Gundam Reconguista in G, there isn’t any particular hope and yet there is a hope, in that I wished the Blu-ray release was of the complete work. To explain, we made the TV series but it wasn’t perfected in terms of the content. So the fact that the production couldn’t stop to include the updated content in the Blu-ray version is something I found extremely frustrating. Even in my position as the originator and producer, I didn’t have the power to stop it whereas someone like Mr. Miyazaki is able to do so on his work. I found that really sad. In that sense, that’s why I am now working on the movie version but I can’t really talk about that yet.

“Up until now, all the various recent Gundam series somehow target an audience older than teenagers. I don’t think that is how it should be. In that sense, I tried to make Gundam Reconguista in G for younger people. I also think other directors that have worked on Gundam have even noticed this situation and that it was wrong. Animation is for young people, so with that in mind I made Gundam Reconguista in G. That means even though the story is about war, it is somewhat cheerful.

“Although Gundam Reconguista in G is meant for young people, I am still presenting some issues for them to think about. So to give an example, I am opposed to the concept of a space elevator. I added the elevator known as the Capital Tower in the series so the younger viewers would wonder if it was really possible to make something like it. I also wanted them to raise questions toward the adults. It’s a delayed response maybe, as we might not see a reaction for another 20 years or so.

“As I see it, a space elevator cannot work in terms of offering a viable infrastructure. That’s the point. Economically it is not feasible, unless it becomes something like Capital Tower, which is like a train system. Even then, it is an inherent contradiction. This is because as a means of transport there are simple conditions that need to be fulfilled. There has to be a destination or goods that need to go to and from that destination. Otherwise there is no point in going there. So in Gundam Reconguista in G we set it up so that there was a reason that this space elevator had to exist, in terms of transporting Photon Batteries from orbit. In that, there were goods to be delivered. However, unless it is in the world of animation there aren’t any legitimate reasons to travel into space via an elevator. I really wish engineers would understand this simple fact; there needs to be a real utility here.

“With the current technology and skillsets we have, a space elevator is not possible. You can’t put a cable at that distance tethered to a space station with the currently available construction technology. There is no technical information as to how you would design something like a public transportation system. Earlier this year it was also shown to be impossible and I suppose that through Gundam Reconguista in G I wanted to highlight that.”

Finally, the interview focused on a topic that Tomino’s not really fond of, and that’s video games. He talked about  Overman King Gainer, where the protagonist is an ardent gamer and his gaming abilities play a role in the story. He also talked about the fact that there are too many humans on Earth.

“As I don’t play video games, I don’t really like them. So in the same way I don’t like a certain food, without even having tried it. However, as it is popular it must be fun but I don’t really want to touch it. Moreover, in terms of my personality I think it would be unwise for me to play video games, as I would likely spend far too much money on them.

“Regarding the fact that Gainer Sanga was a skilled gamer in Overman King Gainer, the staff around me decided that it was a good idea. At the time gaming was popular, so they thought it would be good. However, within the work I believe I wasn’t able to make use of this idea that if you play games your overall skill improves.”

BARDER: At this point, we shifted the discussion more towards some of the technological themes explored across Gundam as a whole. One of the biggest underlying points in the saga is that the humanity created orbital colonies due to overpopulation and pollution on Earth. In short, there’s a broad undercurrent of sustainable environmentalism in the narrative. It’s clear that this is a subject that Tomino has continually pondered over the years.

“During the Obama administration there was a plan to send people to Mars. It’s complete nonsense. There’s no point in doing that. There’s nothing there.

“The idea that we need to escape the Earth due to environmental pollution is just science fiction. I suppose this might be a quite shocking remark to make but the solution should be to stop the human population from growing any further and find some way to reduce it by at least half over a period of time. We need to re-organise and plan our civilisation to use the available natural resources on the planet for the next ten thousand years or so. I’d almost say that capitalism in its current form shouldn’t be really allowed. I believe the modern world is a miserable result of the entire world focusing only about the economy.”

BARDER: To be honest, the idea that there are too many of us and that the current economic setup is a toxic one are ideas that have been echoed by the likes of Stephen Hawking and Sir David Attenborough, so I think in that regard it’s clear Tomino is aware that he is not the only one that has considered this.

“During the 1800s people thought the oil would only last for the next 80 years. Now that time has passed, there are some people that laugh at those remarks. However, just a hundred years or so ago the human population was about half of what it is now. In addition, these days we now have the world of mass production coupled with mass consumption. Not to mention that money is now made on internet businesses through people simply clicking on links. This in turn creates economic classes like that 1% that rule over all of us. Around the time of the Edo period, Japan’s population was around 35 million, perhaps that would be the right sort of number for sustainable living. Looking at Japan now though, the mentality of people has changed completely. The types of crimes now committed are things I worry about. With all that said however, I would still be in need of a comfortable lifestyle, with things like washlet toilets and heated floors. So I am consuming as well obviously. This contradiction is something that brings to mind of my own despair.”

BARDER: In regards to the 1% and the distorted economic landscape that the vast majority of humanity now has to navigate, it seems that this was also something that Tomino thought about a great deal for the production of Gundam Reconguista in G.

“As I worked on Gundam Reconguista in G, I started to think about the global economy as a system. So I described the Capital Tower and in the middle of all that there is a means to gather all the funds. The result of this is that the Earth is not tainted by this system, whereas for us it is obviously spread across the world now. That said, the economy is something that is very important. Nowadays we talk about free market capitalism but where does this kind of capitalism come from? So I studied it. If you talk about free market capitalism you mean things like the stock market and there is no way to stop that. The real thing though is that there doesn’t appear to be any ‘real’ money involved, it’s almost an imaginary type of money. So how did this all begin. Last year I came across a book by Max Weber called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I learned that capitalism came about by quite a moral and Christian set of ideals, that it was based around undertaking trade via things like guilds. From there it developed onward into what we have today. So very serious and hard working people made this system but now it has changed into free market capitalism, which isn’t the same as the original form. Obviously, it’s not the time to talk about idealism if we want to continue to live on this planet for the foreseeable future. We have to find a way though and if I were able to figure this out then I would become a real Newtype.”

Well, as expected of Kill’em All Tomino. You can check out the full interview though this link

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