New York Anime Festival 2009
Yoshiyuki Tomino Keynote & Focus Panel

by Mark Simmons,

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New York Anime Festival 2009
Keynote: Yoshiyuki Tomino

This year may be the thirtieth anniversary of the television anime Mobile Suit Gundam, but the keynote delivered by its director, Guest of Honor Yoshiyuki Tomino, was neither celebratory nor especially nostalgic. Sounding some of the same themes he focused on in his address to the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan earlier this year, Tomino took the opportunity to deliver some stern and challenging advice to the aspiring professionals in the audience. "The word 'professional' has many meanings," he added, "but I feel that otaku are a type of professional. Conversely, I believe that many professionals are also otaku."

Due to unexpectedly high turnout, the keynote was relocated at the last minute to the convention's more capacious concert hall. Here, following a brief introduction by Japanamerica author Roland Nozomu Kelts, Tomino discussed the original Gundam series as an example of his creative philosophy. "My goal was neither to purposely make a giant robot story, nor a war story. What was foremost on my mind while creating Gundam was to make a work of film." A work, in other words, whose story and direction lived up to the standards of cinematic quality - standards that he feels many modern films fail to meet.

Meeting those standards, Tomino continued, requires a collaborative effort. The original Mobile Suit Gundam required the talents of mechanical designer Kunio Okawara and animation director Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, despite his personal opinions of Okawara's designs or Yasuhiko's story ideas. "What's important as a director," he said, "is to be able to work with people you don't really get along with." Tomino confessed that this has been a problem for himself as well. "After Gundam, whenever I worked on a project, I kept thinking about how I wanted to do things my way, and I've come to realize that that is why I have not been able to create something greater than Gundam."

Personal enjoyment, in other words, isn't sufficient to create good work. "Just because you love manga doesn't mean that you can create manga, and just because you like anime doesn't mean that you can make anime." Without solid storytelling, your audience won't be able to understand your message, and thus a good story is a higher priority than ideas alone.

Tomino also discussed some of the personal experiences reflected in his work. "When I created Gundam thirty years ago, I used many things that I had learned from American sci-fi movies that I watched growing up. And I also have personal memories from my childhood of running away from American B-29 bomber attacks in Japan." Both these elements, he said, contributed to the creation of Mobile Suit Gundam. "The brilliance of cinema is that you can take these two disparate things and combine them into one piece of work."

His goal, he said, was to create a work that could still be enjoyed ten or twenty years later, a target that Gundam has now well exceeded. "And thus," he concluded, "if you can challenge yourselves to create something that can still be enjoyed ten years or twenty years from now, then you all hold the potential to create something even better than Gundam."

Having concluded his speech a little ahead of schedule, Tomino fielded a few questions from the audience about his recent work and future plans, providing a note of wry humor to offset the serious tone of his keynote. Why are the main characters of Gundam civilians rather than soldiers? Two reasons, he replied. "One is that there are more common people than soldiers. The second is that common people are more likely to die than soldiers." That certainly sounds like the Yoshiyuki Tomino his fans have come to know and love.