With his ponytail and khaki vest, Ichiro Itano looks like a rock star. The man who once strapped fifty fireworks to his motorbike to “see what would happen”, who once had a part-time job playing the Masked Rider in a department store theatre, is also one of the best animation action directors in the business. He taught for four years at the Yoyogi Animation College, and now he’s facing down a class of eager students in Switzerland, demonstrating how to use wide angle lenses, how to shoot moving vehicles, and how to block a cavalry charge against Chinese soldiers. All things that come in handy for the director of Angel Cop, Blassreiter and Gantz.
Someone asks about authenticity in animation, and his eyes light up mischievously.
“Let me put it like this,” he says. “There’s this flight school in America run by retired air force pilots. They’ll give you one lesson in really fast English, and one safety demonstration, and then they’ll take you up to 10,000 metres. You have a co-pilot, but he leaves it to you once you’re up. So it was me and Shoji Kawamori, in jets, ready for a dogfight. All as part of the research for Macross Plus. I wanted to know what it was like to fly a plane, to be in aerial combat, and I was curious about G-force.
“Each plane had a laser pointer, and if you could keep the enemy in your sights for three seconds, you scored a hit. So we started the dogfight, chasing our tails. I scored six hits on Kawamori. He was all over the place, but I was really good!
“So after all that, I decided: ‘I’ve done the dogfight. Let’s faint.’ So I grabbed the joystick and pulled right back on it. I heard the pilot shouting ‘Itano! Itano-san! Mr Itano! NO! Stop!’ and the G-force pushed me back in the seat. I felt my head lolling and then there was black. I’d blacked out, and it was like someone had pulled the plug on a computer.
“After that, it was just like I was rebooting. There was like static, and images, and the realisation that I was… wait… in a plane? Why am I in a plane? Why is there an American slapping my face…? Where am I… wha-? And then BANG, I’m back, after a minute unconscious, my head spinning as the co-pilot brought the plane down to land.
“I stumbled out of the cockpit and down the ladder, and then I threw up.
“Afterwards, everybody went to lunch. But the producer from Bandai took me off into a corner and just gave me a coffee, some paper and a pencil.
“He said: ‘No lunch for you. You might drop dead at any moment. First, you must draw the storyboards of a blackout.’
“So I sat there and drew the storyboards for the sequence in Macross Plus where a pilot blacks out. And that’s what we call authenticity.”
(This article first appeared in NEO magazine #69, 2010)