Yoshiyuki Tomino Press Conference

Sep 14th 2009

Acclaimed director Yoshiyuki Tomino gave a talk to the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan on July 7 to mark the 30th anniversary of the Gundam anime franchise. He talked about the inspirations for his works, some of his ideals, and the 18-meter-tall, "life-size" Gundam statue that was just being finished at the artificial Odaiba island in Tokyo Bay. Although he has worked on several popular series in many capacities, Tomino is best known for creating the Gundam franchise, lending his name and creative talents to dozens of Gundam series over the years. He has also created series such as Aura Battler Dunbine and Space Runaway Ideon.

Note: The following talk and interview was conducted press-conference style, and as such, the questions were contributed by various media outlets.


Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon and welcome to the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan this afternoon. My name is Martin Williams, and I'm the moderator today. Anyone who's grown up in Japan in the last 30 years will surely know the Gundam anime. Kids today, whether they are 5 years old or 40 years old, still enjoy the series and today we are honored to welcome Yoshiyuki Tomino, who is the executive director of the anime series. I was trying to thank Mr. Tomino in the anteroom before we came in here, and was already hearing some interesting stories, so I'm sure we are going to hear a lot more as the speech begins. Without further ado, please welcome Mr. Yoshiyuki Tomino.

Hello, I'm Tomino. I've just been introduced.

Today, I would like to talk a little bit about my career, my background, and I would like to talk about that in the context of how Japan and the anime and manga culture is viewed in Japan. What I mean by this is that I don't necessarily care for the way Japanese manga and Japanese anime are portrayed at present. I have some thoughts about them and I will talk about that today.

When I was a child, and of course I'm referring to a period 50 to 60 years ago, basically manga did exist, but they were a thing that was read quickly and then discarded. You could find it in the trash boxes in every home. Also, there was no anime as we know it today. What we did have were moving manga—cartoons, of course. There were also these longer works created by Disney. But in general, the world of animation, the world of manga, was not considered to be high art.

As I mentioned earlier, the only longer works featuring animation at all were Disney works at that time. In fact, I have good memories of elementary school when we would have a movie viewing session and we would go as a class. Each class would go to the movie theatres and watch these long-form Disney movies. They were the only kinds we were allowed to see. In retrospect, however, I can see that perhaps this was part of the educational effort directed by the GHQ, the occupation forces of Japan. In other words, I felt that these films, now that I look back on it, were something that was forced. Not forced on the Japanese, but given to the Japanese to watch, and Japanese people were expected to absorb the lessons there.

However, when I look back to my first reactions to seeing these long works, I must have been around 10 years old. I remember still being extremely moved at the technology and the perseverance at the people who made these films. After all, these animated films were all drawn by hand. They were all in beautiful color, and they were a wonderful thing I was able to be exposed to. I would not have been able to be exposed to them if the school had not sent me to see these films.

Whether it was Bambi or Cinderella or Peter Pan, there were some things that disturbed me. One was that in all of these films, I felt the movement was very jerky. Another thing that bothered me about these films was that the storylines were too simplistic, the kinds of storylines you could deceive children with. And until these two problems were solved, I felt that these manga films, these animated films would not be able to earn citizenship or legitimacy in the film world.

I would like again to stress that even though I had some reservations about the Disney films, I felt tremendous awe and admiration for the producers and for the system that was put into place that allowed these kinds of films to be made. Because, after all, these were not digitalized, computerized things—people drew each cel by hand. It required tremendous skill, required a very solid system and it required tremendous perseverance.

In regard to my first awareness of the possibilities of manga, that happened when I was about 11 years old. That is where I first began to read the Astro Boy series, which is written by the very famous manga creator Mr. Osamu Tezuka. For the first time, I felt that manga could be something you could read, something that had meat on it.

It may sound paradoxical, but I think the reason I was so drawn to Astro Boy was that it used many of the characteristics of Disney films. In other words, the Astro Boy character had many Disney-like qualities. Although I found myself attracted to Astro Boy, I felt a sense of great frustration as well, because I realized that I had fallen in love with something that had been created by the United States, which was the country, of course, that had caused us to lose the war.

However, I would like to stress again that I did fall in love with Astro Boy and without doubt, it was the first inkling that manga could be something to celebrate, that could be something to be part of a culture, be part of city life, be part of modern society. I think I learned tremendously from Astro Boy, and I think it provided a foundation to the comic books I am able to produce today.

After I graduated from university, I joined Mushi Productions, which was the production company that belonged to Mr. Tezuka. I would like to clarify that I didn't enter the company because I was a great fan of Mr. Tezuka, but because that was the only company that would hire me.

It's sort of a coincidence that I was able to enter this company, when I look back. I studied film for four years. Well, I was at least in the film department for four years; I don't know if I actually studied. But I realized that if I wanted to be any way involved in film, this was the only company that that I could enter, and the only company even remotely related to film that would take me.

One of the great shocks and surprises that I experienced when I entered Mushi Productions was I realized that you had the Disney films in one hand, and they were very bright and full of movement, and on the other hand, you had the Osamu Tezuka works, which did not have that kind of movement at all. They were manga films, but were basically stationary pictures that you kind of showed one after the other and filled up 20 something minutes to make movie.

However the fact that this was the best work I could possibly get was something that filled me with great frustration, great sadness, great regret. Having said that, however, I realize this was the extent of my capacity. I didn't have the talent to be in any other field or in any other company. Still, as I worked in the field, I began to learn many interesting things.

What I learned was that these Tezuka works did not have the kind of movement you saw in the Disney animations. However, when you showed these pictures or these manga on a television screen, the people watching it are existing in real time, so time is passing even if the actual characters are not moving. What I learned was that if you took a cinematic approach to constructing your storyline, you can convey the feeling of movement.

In other words, what I wanted to say is that even though these were not moving pictures, if you constructed these works from a cinematic point of view, you had a good cinematic structure, and a good cinematic story-telling technique. Then you can actually make a moving film.

The next thing I learned during my work was, I had the opportunity to be in charge of a television series for the first time, which meant that I was in charge of deciding the storyline. In this was a tremendous responsibility, because it was the first time I was being asked to use the public airwaves to tell a story. So I thought a great deal about this concept and thought, what kind of responsibility does this entail?

I don't have any details and I don't remember the exact book that I read, but I did a great deal of research about how to write children's literature. There was one line that remained burned in my memory and it really it provides the foundation for all of my work even today. The line basically said something to the effect of, “If you have something important to tell a child, put your whole heart and soul into it. And someday the child will remember it and will understand.”

The way I interpreted this was that regardless of the genre you are working in, regardless if its animation or something else, if you have a story to tell, tell it straight to your audience. Put everything you have in it. Don't lie, don't hide anything dumb, don't hesitate, just put all your passion and your sincerity into it.

It was on the basis of this fundamental philosophy that I began to develop my work as a specialist, as being a specialist in the giant robot field. And the reason I chose this field is it allowed me to create original stories.

In other words, I was being paid a salary. I was being able to pay for my own livelihood and yet at the same time, even while I was receiving a salary, I was able to work on creating a story each and every week. It was a wonderful way to get training. So what I am saying is that I have not been working at this job for so many years simply because I liked it, but there were other factors as well.

Some ask “why.” In fact, I ask this of myself. Why don't I have the career and success that a person like Mr. Hiyao Miyazaki had. Of course, he is the head of Studio Ghibli and he, of course, won an Oscar for his work. We are the same age, and I ask myself this question quite often. but in the end, I believe that he is a true author and I am not. In other words, there is a tremendous difference between our abilities and I cannot deny that is true.

Of course, I've been specializing in the robot genre for over 30 years, and looking back, I realize that I was very lucky to be working in this genre, because it is a very versatile one. It is one that never allows you to be bored, because when you think about it, we've had all kinds of toys and mecha. You can also bring in all kinds of animation. You can bring in any kind of storyline that you would want into this field, so I'm never bored. I learn so much.

When I say that you can bring in any kind of storyline that you want, what I would like to emphasize is that for many authors, or for many people who create works, the tendency is to focus simply on an adult audience. And the tendency there is to become more introspective or inward-looking and more focused. Quite often, because human beings are social animals, the tendency is to only think about very small-scale things that have to do with being in a certain situation at the correct time, only dealing with the people around you. The fact that I was able to deal in the robot genre, and I was able to deal with all kinds of storylines, means that I was not limited to these kinds of introspective or inward-looking adult-focused stories. Another problem that I see with many works that are only directed towards adult audiences is that they tend to be focused on only temporary situations or transient issues.

I think in that sense, I've learned a great deal through my work. In fact, I recently learned the words of the very famous political theorist Hannah Arendt and I feel very sympathetic to some of the things that she said. For example, she noted that although there are many, many people in the world, there are only a handful of people who have critical thinking skills and can make judgments on their own. I feel this very acutely.

What I'm saying is, as you well know, at least in Japan, manga and anime have developed to the point where many adults enjoy them. However, and it sounds a little paradoxical, because I am very deeply involved in this field, for someone of my generation, when I look at the current situation, I feel a sense of anxiety. I feel a sense of danger in that, as wonderful as manga and anime are, if you only are immersed in these two genres, you are not going to be able to create the work yourself.

I see many people in my field who come into this field because they love anime and they love manga, but that's really the extent of their interest, and the kinds of works they produce are very stereotypical. In other words, when I look at some of the anime and manga that surrounds us today, I don't really necessarily think of them as rich and diverse in content. So, if in the future I am allowed the opportunity to create another series like Gundam, I have a concept in mind that I'd like to realize.

As I mentioned earlier, there is this political theorist, Hannah Arendt, whom I admire deeply. She wrote about the possibilities of totalitarianism. What I'd like to do, if I ever have an opportunity to create another Gundam-like series, is to use this theme. The possibilities of totalitarianism and the dangers of it. I would embed it into this work and tell the story of totalitarianism and its dangers using robots or cute anime.

I have tremendous feelings of appreciation for Gundam and the series because it allowed me to mature so that I could eventually come to have this kind of awareness and this kind of sensibility, so that I could learn to make comments such as the one I just made. Gundam has played an important role in my life. I'm very grateful for it and also grateful for the fact that it allowed me to come speak before you today. Thank you.

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