Hidetaka Tenjin

by Andrew Osmond,

This May, visitors to the MCM London Comic Con had a chance to see a master mecha artist at work; Hidetaka Tenjin, who creates extraordinarily lush digital paintings based on Macross, Space Battleship Yamato and many other titles. He also has 'mecha' credits on such anime as Macross Frontier and Hellsing Ultimate. While he was in London, I had the chance to quiz him about his career. (Thanks to Viewster for inviting Mr Tennjin to London Comic Con, and arranging this interview.)

Hello, Mr. Tenjin. According to a previous interview, you first started drawing when you were about eight or nine. When you were very little, were you already drawing robots and planes?

Tenjin: Actually I think I was drawing from about three or four. I had a brother who was eight years older than me, so I was influenced by the films and anime that he was watching, and I used to draw things from those.

You've said that anime such as Mazinger and Yamato were influences on you when you were young – were there any other big influences on your imagination? [Tenjin was born in 1973.]

There was a really famous film, I don't know the English title… (sings) da-da-da-da-daa…

Close Encounters of the Third Kind?

Ah, Close Encounters! And I was really influenced by Battlestar Galactica [the 1970s series] and Star Wars as well.

Were you influenced by Japanese tokkusatsu (special effects) series?

Of course. All Japanese children were into Ultraman and Kamen Rider and I was too. But comparing the Hollywood sci-fi films and the Japanese tokkusatsu, I was struck by how little money the Japanese ones had to spend on their effects.

And how did you feel about that; were you sad that the Japanese shows had so little money, or impressed that they could still make effects on such small budgets?

I really felt there was a gap, and I wondered if there was something I could do to close the gap.

When you were at high school in the 1980s, were you still drawing science-fiction pictures?

Yes, because that was mostly what I liked.

This was around when Japanese people first started talking about 'otaku.' Did you need to keep quiet about your interests?

It's a really good question. Otaku were discriminated against, really… At that time, the time when you could watch anime was the time when you should be participating in sports club activities, so there was that clear split. And so there were people who did like anime but couldn't say so…

Did you have friends at school with similar interests?

Just a handful, very few. But they couldn't say it out loud! But strangely in Japan, you couldn't talk about anime, but manga were fine; anyone could read manga. Everyone passed manga around in class, and sometimes you'd notice one of your friends crying because they were reading a particularly emotional manga.

In the 1980s, there were the famous “Daicon” fan conventions in Osaka. Were you able to go to those?

That's the generation before me, but I know about them and I've seen films (of them).

After university, you became a professional artist and then later on you came into contact with Shoji Kawamori, the creator of Macross. You showed him the art that you had drawn of the Valkyrie planes from the series. Can you talk a bit more about how you met Mr Kawamori?

I had a chance to meet him, just as a fan, and showed him some art from my website. That was the end of it.... But the next day I got a call from Bandai Visual asking me to do some work for them. I asked them, “Is this a competition?” and they said no, they wanted me to do it. I was confused, because I'd only met Mr Kawamori yesterday, and he hadn't mentioned anything about this, but that was my opportunity and I grabbed it.

Looking back now, do you think there were some particular things about your fan artwork that impressed Mr Kawamori so that he invited you to do this work?

I think it was probably the fact that I hadn't just drawn the Valkyrie, I'd drawn the entire space, the background, the people…

The surrounding context?

That's the best way to make a Valkyrie look real.

What were your first impressions of Mr Kawamori, the first few times that you met him?

He looked just like he did in the photos I'd seen… He was very curious, he asked a lot of questions to everyone. I'm interested in all sorts of things as well; I like going and checking new things out. But I hadn't met anyone who was even more curious than I was up to that point. I'm still like that now.

Leading on from that comment; what are the best means of research and learning for you as an artist? For example, do you look at surviving warplanes in museums, or do you do much of your research from books?

I use every method available to me. But I try not to actually research too much but just talk to people; the people on the ground as it were. If it's a museum, talk to the people in the museum. If it's the air force, talk to the people who flew the planes. Talk to them with respect - everyone's proud of what they do, and they're happy to talk to you and what they tell you is the most important information.

You do many different kinds of work: illustrations for boxes, magazines, posters… You also work directly for anime productions. Can you talk about your anime work?

What I was first asked to do was to be an art director, which involved looking at the direction of the shadows, and the colour of the shadows, and creating imageboards, which is something I still do. I realised it was quicker, rather than different people doing different things, for me to do all of that myself, so I got involved in more and more scenes in that process.

You've worked on mecha designs for Yamato, Gundam, Macross, and others, across many different franchises and studios. Do many other artists work across franchises in the way that you do?

Yes, that's quite a common way of working in Japan.

A lot of your art is adapting designs which were originally created by other people. Have you also created mecha from scratch, from the ground up?

Yes, I do a lot of that as well. For example, I do mecha design for Japanese videogames, and also I'm designing mecha from scratch for the new Macross that I'm working on now.

What is the name of the new Macross?

(Chuckles) Secret!

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