Nov 06, 2007 - 01:41 PM
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Shoji Kawamori: The Man, the Myth, the Mecha

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Shoji Kawamori
Shoji Kawamori gives Anime Jump thumbs up! (Or is he giving me the finger?)

Shoji Kawamori will always be remembered by anime fans for just one thing: as a mechanical designer, he gave us Macross' Valkyrie, far and away the most impressively realistic-looking and elegant mechanical design ever seen. But above and beyond that, he's contributed Macross Plus, a spinoff of the original that's entirely his own creation, and quite probably the most realistic and engrossing version of Macross yet, to say nothing of Escaflowne, a triumph of stunning visuals and cracking good storytelling. Otakon 1998 managed to snag him as their guest of honor; as a member of the press, I was obligated to attend his press conference on Sunday morning. Oh, yeah, like I was gonna refuse.

First off, this isn't exclusive, this was actually a press conference set up by Otakon. I encourage you to read other folks' transcriptions of this conference, as mine was probably pretty sloppy. But despite the fact that my shorthand often confounds even me, I've taken down most of Mr. Kawamori's remarks at the press conference. I hope it gives y'all as much insight into what Mr. Kawamori does as it did me.

The conference opened with a fan asking Mr. Kawamori how he thought Japanese anime fans perceived American fandom. Mr. Kawamori was sure that they're pleased, and noted that anime has gotten very big, with over 300,000 people in attendance at the last Comic Market in Tokyo, a number he found frighteningly large. Mr. Kawamori was also amused about the varying use of the word "otaku" in Japan and America. While Japanese otaku are downright scary, Mr. Kawamori said, the American use of the word seemed to simply indicate enthusiastic fans.

Upon being asked how he felt about Macross's treatment in America, Mr. Kawamori said that he intended to give Macross Plus a distinctly American feel. One of my colleagues then touched upon a sore spot: Does Mr. Kawamori like hearing anime dubbed in English? Mr. Kawamori, like hardcore anime fans, actually prefers the stuff just being subtitled, but is tolerant of dubs; he just wants the voice-acting to be good. (For the record, he likes Manga's Macross Plus dub. He specifically kept an eye on them, trying to make sure that they'd do a good job.)

Then the interview moved up to poolside. How decadent.

But what got Shoji Kawamori started in anime and mechanical design? Mr. Kawamori says that Lupin III got him interested in animation, but design goes back a bit farther; he was inspired by Thunderbirds, not to mention the Apollo space program. When he saw the moon landing on television as a child, he was frustrated; he wanted to go to the moon, and would still like to go to Mars if exploratory missions are sent there within his lifetime.

Mr. Kawamori stated that he tries not to let any existing mecha design influence his work too much, but admitted he was probably unconsciously influenced by Thunderbirds. Rather than science-fiction, Mr. Kawamori likes taking ideas from existing machines and vehicles. While he enjoys seeing hints of his influence in other mecha design, he doesn't like strict imitation.

After broaching this subject, Mr. Kawamori pointed out something that amused him; he spotted Star Wars mechanical design in an unexpected place. The first time he saw a big rig truck's rear axle after landing in D.C., he thought, "TIE Fighter!". This pleased him, as he thinks part of successful mecha design is allowing your subconscious to influence your design, and to draw inspiration from places that aren't always obvious.

The next question was regarding whether or not Mr. Kawamori felt like Macross Plus or Escaflowne weren't fully realized. Mr. Kawamori stated that he felt that way about all of his work, that there were always constraints. This led to the question of which other film directors Mr. Kawamori liked. Mr. Kawamori said that, as in mecha design, he does his best not to be influenced by the work of other directors. But in terms of mentality, he enjoys the work of Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick's dynamic use of odd locales and unexpected stylistic changes appeal to Mr. Kawamori. However, since Mr. Kawamori never formally studied directing, he didn't feel it was proper to compare himself to film directors. After all, it's rare even in Japan to direct films without any training.

We then touched upon the subject of models and Mr. Kawamori's favorite mechanical designs. Mr. Kawamori stated that he likes to scratch out models of his designs, usually using cement, clay, or even legos. His favorite mechanical design is actually of an existing vehicle, the XB-70 Valkyrie experimental bomber, a plane with folding wings like the YF-21 in Macross Plus.

Shoji Kawamori
Unable to tolerate the heat, Mr. Kawamori prepares to dive into the Hyatt swimming pool.

On the subject of his favorite work, Mr. Kawamori cited Escaflowne, saying that it was by far his most creative effort. He still likes Macross Plus just as well, however, and feels unsatisfied with both of them. His most recent project, Kenji's Spring, was relaxing for him, because it was so different. His most problematic project was Macross Plus, because he was trying very hard not to be redundant.

One of the interviewers noted that Macross Plus was actually fairly popular among females in anime fandom in the U.S., a fact which pleased Mr. Kawamori greatly. In Japan, he said, there's an enormous audience for animation, but hardcore otaku tend to be mostly male, dark, and unsociable.

At this point, we asked Mr. Kawamori why he used cats to portray the characters in Kenji's Spring. He replied that Kenji Miyazawa (the early 20th century poet who is the subject of the film) was very unusual. Using regular people, Mr. Kawamori felt, would have been selling Miyazawa short. In a lot of Miyazawa's works (particularly Night on the Galactic Railroad), animals were involved. Finally, cats were used because it's rumored that Miyazawa actually despised the animals, and he had a tendency to despise that which was like him. Mr. Kawamori felt that the characteristics of cats influenced Miyazawa's work.

When asked the fairly heady question of what he thought people got out of studying Miyazawa's life, Mr. Kawamori replied, "A search for happiness."

Then the subject moved to lighter things, in particular the Escaflowne movie. Would it boast improvements, or a changed storyline from the television series? Mr. Kawamori says that the story will probably be different from the series, as he didn't have any problems with it. In general, there are other expressions and ideas Mr. Kawamori wants to explore, and that's why he creates new works. Someone then inquired whether the Escaflowne movie would relate to the TV series in the same manner that the Macross movie related to the series. Mr. Kawamori replied that it would be different than the way Macross: DYRL and the TV series were related. Continuing on the subject of Escaflowne, Mr. Kawamori was asked where he did his architectural and design research. He replied that his chief ideas actually came from a small village in Germany called Rottenburg, but also got ideas in Italy and France.

Then the interview became a bit more lighthearted. Someone wanted to know whether or not Mr. Kawamori thought his designs (particularly for the Valkyrie) were actually feasible. He replied that he definitely considered reality in designing them, but felt that they'd be horribly inefficient. But what if a Valkyrie really was produced? Mr. Kawamori would just want to fly it!

We then touched upon the very intriguing topic of the proposed Macross live-action movie, a project that's been a dead dog for years. Mr. Kawamori is very much interested in doing it, but says that the project is still on hold. He's gotten increasingly excited about the prospect of doing live-action Macross, though, because leaps in computer graphics have made the possibility of making a good Macross live-action movie more viable.

Mr. Kawamori was then asked what he thought about the idea of more and more original animation coming from China and Korea, and whether or not that was a threat to Japanese animation. He replied that a lot of current work is done in China and Korea anyway, but in terms of creativity and animation style, he thinks there's a 10-year gap in concepts between Japan and the rest of Asia. The gap is shrinking, however, possibly because of Japan's concentration on video games lately. Mr. Kawamori thinks that the idea of China and Korea competing with Japan is quite possible, and also quite fascinating. He'd just like things to remain creative.

Where did the Escaflowne name come from? When asked this, Mr. Kawamori replied that it was just a word that a director on the project (who moved on) had come up with the name, and that it didn't really mean anything. Then Mr. Kawamori was asked if he considered personality when creating and designing his characters. He replied that he prefers to first come up with a character's personality, then do the design work.

As a final question, Geoff Tebbetts came up with a killer. In Macross, the vision of the future was an odd but very possible and fascinating one. But as we draw closer to the millennium (and to the time when the events in Macross began), the real version of how technology is advancing is markedly different from Macross's vision of the future. How did Mr. Kawamori feel about this? He thought that the march of progress had veered off quite a bit from the way it was protrayed in Macross. Mr. Kawamori always believed that technology would evolve, but he never thought it would become so personal, or used so heavily in video games and home entertainment. He's especially surprised to see computers used commonly in homes. When working on Macross, Mr. Kawamori was very optimistic. Now, he finds it harder to be so optimistic; he still likes the way technology is evolving, but is very concerned with security.

Finally, Mr. Kawamori was asked that, after doing so much influential work, he had any ambition left over, whether or not he had a "dream project" or other story ideas left over. He replied that he was very interested in the concept of the unrevealed powers of humanity. He wasn't necessarily interested in high technology, but the precognitive powers displayed by Hitomi in Escaflowne, for example. When travelling in China and India, Mr. Kawamori witnessed people doing very unusual things, and would like to explore that in his work.

In the past, I've met a handful of Japanese anime creators, particularly Gainax's Toshio Okada and character design ace Tsukasa Kotobuki. I have to say, however, that Shoji Kawamori was by far the most interesting and personable guest I've met. He was polite, articulate (even when speaking his limited English), and quite sociable. During the poolside photo op, he even posed candidly, as if he were about to fall into the pool. I think it's pretty easy to see why such an original thinker with so many lucid ideas became successful doing anime, and I hope he'll visit the states again next year. I'd also like to thank my colleagues at the press conference (particularly Geoff Tebbetts, Egan Loo, and the representative of Anime Today) who asked most of the interesting questions; without their inquisitiveness, this inclusive interview probably would have been boring. And of course, I'd like to thank Mixx Entertainment's Stuart Levy, who translated for Mr. Kawamori, and Protoculture Addicts' Miyako Graham, who translated small talk for us while we waited for Mr. Levy to arrive.


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