Entering the Itano Circus

I’m pretty sure Ichiro Itano is going to punch me in the face.

It’s hard to tell, because I have a pair of opera glasses strapped to my head, the wrong way round, so that everything looks as if I am staring at it down the wrong end of a telescope. But in the round window of my vision, I very clearly see the director of Gantz, his hair tied back in a ponytail, his wiry muscles rippling under a khaki vest, hauling back his arm and then lurching right at me.

His fist speeds into view, looming huge in the frame. His arm seems to trail behind it for an impossible distance, while his hand blocks the entirety of my view. I stumble backwards, expecting a blow at any moment, but Itano has deliberately fallen a couple of inches short.

“Ha!” he says. “See? That’s what the world looks like if you’re the pilot of a giant robot! You’re looking through a viewscreen, you see. You’re not using your real eyes, you’re using a camera! And so, when we show a pilot’s-eye view in an anime show, we shoot it the way that a camera would see it!”

I lift the opera glasses gingerly and peer at him with my real eyes.

“That’s what an action director does!” he continues, enthusiastically. “He puts you inside the action. Inside it! Not observing, but participating. That’s why an anime director must always think outside the box. He must think himself into the places where no camera has been before.”

Yes, I say timidly. Which brings me back to my original question. Why exactly did you strap fifty fireworks to your motorbike?

Itano looks at me askance, as if wondering if I am dim.

“Well,” he says, “that was as many as I could fit. You know, some on the mud guards, some on the cowling, some on the –”

Yes, I say. I see that. But perhaps we are talking at cross-purposes about the meaning of “why”. Why did you do it?

“Oh,” he replies. “We’d been told that it was dangerous. So obviously, we decided to try it. I had my bike on the beach. And my friend had his, and we rode out a ways to give ourselves plenty of run-up, and then we charged each other. On the motorbikes.”

And then, I ventured meekly, you lit the fireworks?

“That’s right. They were all linked together with fuse cord, but I still had to light them. Did you know that a Zippo lighter is still windproof at eighty miles an hour? That’s really impressive, isn’t it?

“So anyway, I lit the fireworks, but they all kind of went off at once. There was this sudden, explosive cloud of smoke, and then there were rockets and firecrackers in my face, looping past me, around me… and it was really weird, sometimes they seemed to hang in space for a moment, as if they weren’t going anywhere. It was because I was still moving, along with them. Relative velocities, you see! Some were moving faster, others slower. And the smoke trails behind them billowed out in yet another direction, carried off by the wind, which was blowing in its own direction, nothing to do with the direction my bike was going. Or not going. Because I fell off. And I think my clothes were on fire by this point.

“So, you know… that’s a daft thing to do. Even if you’re twenty years old and drunk, it’s not recommended. The biking around on the beach is actually more fun than the actual fireworks… But I’m an artist. I put that experience to use. There was a storyboard on an anime show that had a pilot’s eye view of missiles coming towards him. And I said, you know what, that’s not what it looks like. It’s not so linear. I’ve been in the middle of a bunch of rockets going off, and they snake all around you. They don’t always go in the same direction! There are duds, and ones with unexpectedly high charges, and always smoke going in a direction you don’t expect. So I put all that in, and in the show we got this massive explosion of rockets and contrails. And it was pretty good!

“Not long after, Kazutaka Miyatake gives an interview to My Anime magazine, and he mentions this kind of shot, and says that it’s turning up all over anime. It’s turning up in Macross, of course. This kind of three-dimensional positioning within a salvo of rockets, and he calls it an ‘Itano Circus.’ Named after me, you see! How about that?

“Now, for my next trick, I shall re-enact the opening of Star Wars with nothing but a mobile phone…”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in SFX Total Anime #3, 2010.

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Blackout

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)