Film

Shoji Kawamori: 40 years spent designing an anime future

by Matt Schley

Contributing Writer

If you’ve watched any robot anime in the past 40 years, there’s a decent chance Shoji Kawamori had a hand in it.

Kawamori, whose four decades in the anime industry were celebrated with a recent exhibition titled the Shoji Kawamori Expo, is best known as one of the creators of “Macross,” the 1982 series that kicked off a franchise that continues to this day.

Kawamori has also spearheaded or contributed to classics like “Mobile Suit Gundam,” “The Vision of Escaflowne,” “Cowboy Bebop” and “Ghost in the Shell” — in fact, the list of titles he’s been involved in is so long it might well take up the rest of this story. His designs have been featured in video games like “Armored Core” and “Devil May Cry 5,” and even a version of Sony’s robot dog Aibo.

After four decades in the industry, Kawamori, 59, remains a legendary figure among fans of robot anime. As he walks me through the exhibition devoted to his work, several patrons do a double-take, realizing they’re in the presence of the man who created everything they’re surrounded by. But if the attention has gone to his head, the soft-spoken Kawamori doesn’t show it. He bows to the guests, pausing to grab a marker and scribble a handwritten note on the wall next to a piece of art.

Kawamori was born in 1960 in Toyama Prefecture where, he says, “it would snow so much we would enter the house through the second-floor windows.” The experience, he says, taught him to look at things from a different perspective from an early age.

“You don’t necessarily need to go in through the entrance,” he says. “That was an important lesson.”

That lesson may have played a part in Kawamori’s unusual path into the anime industry. In middle school, he and his friends were fans of early sci-fi anime series “Space Battleship Yamato,” which featured mechanical designs by a studio based in Mitaka, Tokyo called Nue. Kawamori and friends took the bold step of looking up the address to Studio Nue and paying a visit.

“I don’t think there were any middle or high school kids making visits to anime studios back then,” he says.

Eventually, Kawamori’s group began participating in Nue’s monthly meetup, dubbed the “Crystal Convention,” getting advice on their nascent drawings and designs. In high school, the young designer began working part-time at the studio.

Being a young designer had its difficulties. For one, Kawamori didn’t receive credit for several projects. On the other hand, Kawamori explains, his youth helped endear him to some producers.

“The chief behind ‘Diaclone’ (the toy line that later became ‘Transformers’), Inoue, used to take me flying over Tokyo in his propeller plane,” Kawamori says. “This was before there were so many skyscrapers. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but he actually handed me the controls sometimes, too. It was definitely a more lax era.”

While the young Kawamori had become an anime professional, he also remained a fan. Around this time, he and his friends put together a now-legendary “Mobile Suit Gundam” fanzine called “Gun Sight.” But Kawamori makes a distinction between his activities as a fan and as a pro.

“Some people draw a strict line between being a fan and being a professional, and I would agree with that stance,” he says. “To me, if you’re not doing something original, you can’t call yourself a professional.”

As our interview progresses, it becomes clear that “originality” is an incredibly important keyword for Kawamori.

“I’m not really sure why myself,” he says, adding that his obsession with originality goes back to elementary school.

“I was really into (British sci-fi puppet series) ‘Thunderbirds,’ but I didn’t want to build the plastic model kits from the store. If I did that, I would be the same as everyone else. So I made my own models with paper.”

Kawamori continued working part-time at Nue throughout high school and into university, when he helped create what would become one of the most popular robot series in anime history: “Macross.”

It all started, Kawamori explains, with a more realistic sci-fi project called “Genocidus.” That project didn’t receive approval from the sponsors, but it did spawn what was dubbed the “Gerwalk,” a Kawamori robot design with knee joints that bent backward. Later, over the course of a single evening, Kawamori and others at Studio Nue brainstormed a “dummy project” to replace “Genocidus.”

The project, refined over the next few months, was a robot show unlike anything Japan had seen to date. Sharing elements with predecessors like “Yamato” and “Gundam,” it was based around repelling an alien invasion using humanoid robots — but in “Macross,” the aggressors were ultimately defeated not by weapons, but by pop music. Featuring Kawamori’s signature VF-1 Valkyrie, a transforming fighter jet that incorporated the Gerwalk design, “Macross” was a hit in Japan and in the United States, where it was repurposed as the first third of robot series “Robotech.”

Mr. Roboto: Shoji Kawamori has made his name primarily through the design of robots and machines. | MATT SCHLEY
Mr. Roboto: Shoji Kawamori has made his name primarily through the design of robots and machines. | MATT SCHLEY

Soon after “Macross” finished came a movie retelling of the series titled “Macross: Do You Remember Love?” (1984), which would serve as Kawamori’s directorial debut at age 24.

“Studio Nue had taught me how to be a designer, but not how to direct,” he says. “I tackled the entire thing from the perspective of a designer: story design, directorial design, scene design. I did it all with design in mind. … It was an important experience, especially because I essentially taught myself. That meant I didn’t follow anyone else’s example, but figured out what went well and what didn’t on my own.”

The “Macross” sequels and spinoffs that followed, virtually all of which were developed by Kawamori, featured new characters and settings, but always retained the same basic elements that made the original a hit: transforming robots, love triangles and pop music.

Retaining those elements while simultaneously keeping each sequel fresh is “incredibly difficult,” says Kawamori.

“By the time you get to ‘Macross Frontier’ (2008), everyone knows from the outset that music is going to save the day. When people know how the story ends, that makes it especially hard,” he says with a laugh. “What I decided to do each time was keep the concept, but change the style. For example, ‘Macross Zero’ is manga style, ‘Macross Plus’ is American movie style, and so on.”

For “Macross Delta,” the latest entry in the franchise, the style is “teamwork.”

“We’re now in an era where things like the internet and AI are increasingly prevalent,” Kawamori says. “In an age like this, I wanted to rethink what it is for humans to form an old-fashioned team.”

Indeed, for all his interest in futuristic, spacefaring designs, Kawamori seems to place a lot of value on the traditional. About a year ago, he says, he finally started sketching with an iPad and Apple Pencil — but before that, he drew exclusively on paper.

“When you work in analog, the size is exactly how you draw it,” he says. “With digital, you can zoom in and out. There are advantages to that, of course, but your sense of scale can often get distorted. In addition, I’m not sure whether or not this is the fault of digital tools, but recently, though I see some really beautiful designs, they all look very similar.”

Circling back to “Macross,” I ask if being so closely associated with the franchise is ever frustrating.

“Well, the biggest frustration is that it’s hard for me to get projects approved if they don’t contain robots!” he says.

Despite that hurdle, Kawamori has managed to get the green light for a few non-robot projects over the years, including “Spring and Chaos,” a film based on the life of poet Kenji Miyazawa, and “Arjuna,” a series about a high school girl who saves the planet from humankind’s own environmental destruction.

When I ask if Kawamori would mind seeing a future generation of storytellers continue the “Macross” franchise, the answer evokes his emphasis on originality.

“Yes — if they understand that ‘Macross’ is trying to do something totally different than ‘Gundam,’ ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Yamato’ or other things like that,” he says. “If you don’t understand that, it’ll just become another ‘Gundam.'”

For now, Kawamori remains the creative heart of “Macross” — he’s directing the latest film, a follow-up to “Macross Delta,” which is set for 2020. But he acknowledges that recent trends in the anime industry pose new challenges for the franchise.

“One thing that’s becoming a little bit difficult in terms of ‘Macross’ is that back when it first came out, there were relatively few anime series, so we could combine music, robots and love stories into one show,” he says. “These days, there are so many, and they’re separated out. Music fans watch music shows, love story fans watch love stories, robot fans watch robot shows. For us, it’s become an era with less freedom.”

If you’re reading this and wondering whether “Macross” is really all that big of a deal, it may be because you live in one of the many regions where, due to tangled legal issues that stretch back decades, the franchise is not legally available.

“I really hope something can be done about it,” says Kawamori. “I really want it to be delivered to everyone, everywhere, as soon as possible.”

Of course, the “Macross” co-creator is involved in a range of projects outside that franchise. That includes 2018’s “Last Hope,” a series produced in collaboration with Chinese firm Xiamen Skyloong Media.

“It was my first time to work so closely with China. It was very stimulating,” Kawamori says. There were certain things that went very well, and some things that went differently from what we imagined. I think we’ve reached an age where it’s hard to make things within a single country. I’d like to work on more international projects going forward.”

Is there anything else this industry veteran still wants to accomplish?

“I’d like to try designing more real products — airplanes and other vehicles. And in terms of film, I’d like to try virtual reality and augmented reality … new types of media that I haven’t had a chance to work in yet.”

After 40 years in the industry, Kawamori says his biggest source of inspiration remains “going to places I’ve never been, seeing things I’ve never seen and soaking up that stimulation.” And his favorite part of the creative process, he says, is coming up with new ideas and forming those ideas into a cohesive story with storyboards.

Not design, the thing for which he’s most renowned?

“Design isn’t a matter of ‘like’ or ‘dislike.’ It’s a part of me, like breathing.”

As we wrap up, I take the opportunity to ask Kawamori about an aborted project from the 1980s called “Maimu” about a young girl who rides her bicycle through Tokyo. When I ask why it never went forward, Kawamori’s favorite keyword comes up yet again.

“Around the same time, there were a couple titles released that had a similar feeling, so we decided not to do it. It wouldn’t have felt original,” he says.

For more information on Shoji Kawamori, visit www.satelight.co.jp/kawamori.

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