Question Time

Gainax were in the house. Almost all of them. It was a one-hour panel at the Locarno Film Festival, with a veritable football team of famous figures. Takami Akai, creator of Princess Maker, wearing a pair of welding goggles. Yasuhiro Takeda, author of the Notenki Memoirs, sporting a dapper panama hat. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, designer on Evangelion and Summer Wars, with a shock of rock-star hair and a pair of posh spectacles. Hiroyuki Imaishi was there, in a polo shirt (the true uniform of the anime creator). All in all, half a dozen heavyweight figures, and a moderator, and an interpreter, and me, stuck on the end as a sort of intellectual sheepdog.

Locarno, screening hundreds of anime, had dozens of guests in attendance. The Japanese were loving the attention and the exotic vacation quality – Takeshi Koike, director of Redline, was there that week with his new wife, and telling her it was a sort of working honeymoon. Yoshiyuki Tomino, director of Gundam, was there with his wife (a supremely arty sort), and kept making detours to drop in on Swiss art museums to look at famous paintings. The Gainax boys were there with their wives, but since they all worked for Gainax, too, it served to double the number of available industry people with something to say.

Which is great, but at the sharp end it meant finding things for them all to do. At a panel for half a dozen Gainax luminaries, with only an hour allotted, and a packed cinema, I had to make sure that everybody got to answer at least one question, so they weren’t twiddling their thumbs while the big names got the limelight. Which meant one question each, what with all the interpreting and the explication.

And then. And then they threw it open to the crowd. A packed theatre of 800, excited at the first, and so far, only time that Gainax were all in a room, drunk on foreign fun and hospitality, far away from home and ready to tell anime truths. In the first row, a faculty’s worth of PhD students from all over Europe raised their arms. Behind them, a forest of eager hands straining to be noticed, a whole day of comments unmade, reminiscences unsaid, poignant questions unasked. With only a few minutes to go, every second counted. In budgetary terms, what with flights and food and hotels, I’d guess that every minute was costing Locarno a thousand pounds. So you’d better make it count.

The moderator picked a girl near the front.

“Hello,” she said. “I like Evangelion, and I think it’s great. But when I bought a widescreen TV, the image looked all squashy, and the characters were a funny shape and that. I wanted to ask Gainax if they were going to do anything about it?”

The producers looked at the directors with mounting bafflement. The interpreter interpreted. Then she re-interpreted. With the gentlest of Japanese politesse, the Gainax boys sought clarification of the stupidest question in Christendom. A thousand pounds ticked by, as they came to understand that, yes, she really was asking for widescreen telly tech support.

Eventually, Yasuhiro Takeda took the microphone.

“I respectfully suggest,” he said, “that you read the manual.”

This article first appeared in NEO 74, 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)

Grown-Ups

Hiroyuki Yamaga was 22 years old when he became an anime director. The ink was still drying on his college degree when he was suddenly catapulted into the limelight, and sent off to make Royal Space Force, a vaguely defined science fiction epic about the race for the stars. There was also, somewhere in the pre-production meetings, a second vague assurance to the sponsors that there might be some merchandise tie-ins.

Yamaga doesn’t admit to feeling out of his depth. He went in supremely confident; he came out with an anime masterpiece. He knew what he was doing right from the start, and claims that, even though he graduated in film, the best possible training for directorship is to pick a movie and watch it ten times. Once is entertainment, twice is repetition… by the fourth or fifth time you’re climbing the walls. But then you start to see lighting you would have fixed, lines you would have rewritten, shots you would have reblocked. By the tenth pass, you hate the movie, but you are ready to make a better one.

Which is why, like all filmmakers, twenty years later he isn’t going to sit in the theatre while his work plays to an audience for the thousandth time. Instead, he’s with me, whiling away 90 minutes until the movie ends, sitting outside a bar in a square in Switzerland. He fiddles with his pipe, a sleek metallic artefact from Porsche Design, and sips his Italian wine.

I refuse to believe that his movie went that smoothly. I remember the first day I was given control of a meagre £17,000 magazine budget. I spent the first day vomiting. But he was 22 and running a six-figure production.

“Oh,” he admits, “there were the grown-ups, I suppose. The people who had to sign off on everything. The producers who’d put up the money. They left me to it largely, which is why I am still pleased with the film, but every now and then they insisted on some little tweak.”

It’s only when he talks of the changes made during production that we catch a glimpse of how outnumbered and outgunned he could have been. With Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind topping the box office, one of the “grown-ups” made the handy suggestion that The Something of Something would be a better title and would draw more audiences into the theatres. Since one of the movie’s sponsors was All Nippon Airlines, someone else helpfully suggested that something aerial-sounding should be in. And so Royal Space Force became The Wings of Honneamise.

I ask Yamaga how it felt on the first day, standing in front of a crowd of expectant animators, all waiting for  him to tell them what to do.

He shrugs and tinkers with his pipe.

“They’re animators. They’re professionals. It’s their job to do what I tell them. If I don’t like something, I am free to ask for changes. That’s my job. It’s much easier telling professional animators what to do, because they’re being paid to follow my orders. Like waiters,” he adds with a cheeky smile, as more wine is put in front of him.

“The most difficult thing is telling amateurs what to do. After you’ve run a fanzine… After you’ve run a convention, when the only staff members are volunteers and everyone is there out of love, and your only means of control is charisma and pleading… After you’ve done that, running a bunch of movie professionals is a piece of cake.”

(This article first appeared in NEO #67, 2009)