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Q&A: Legendary Mangaka Kenichi Sonoda

by Lynzee Loveridge,

Manga creator and character designer Kenichi Sonoda is well known to anime viewers who joined the fandom is the late 80s and early 90s. His signature style touched some of the era's most popular works including Bubblegum Crisis, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Riding Bean, and its subsequent re-invention Gunsmith Cats filled the manga scene's early demand for car chases and gunfights.

He launched his last serialized manga, Bullet the Wizard, in 2010 and wrapped it up after four volumes. Since then he's contributed artwork for AnimEigo's North American Otaku no Video and Riding Bean Blu-ray releases but otherwise has remained quiet on the character design and manga front.

His panel at Sakura-Con in Seattle would delve a bit into what has kept Sonoda away from drawing manga, but not before candidly revealing Bubblegum Crisis and ARTMIC's connection to yakuza, why Rally Vincent looks so different in Gunsmith Cats, and his favorite Italian supercars in a one-hour, open mic Q&A session with fans.

Kenichi Sonoda: This is not my first time Seattle, it's actually my second time but this is my first Sakura-Con. My first visit was for Emerald City Comicon 2014. I'm happy to be back and I'm really enjoying Seattle.

What originally got you into character design?

The first time I was asked to do character designing was for ARTMIC when I was 21. Gall Force was actually not my first time doing character design, my first was Combat Jō. The "Jō" part not being a name, but an honorific to refer to ladies. I would create attractive girls in Army uniforms. Around the same time I got requests from ARTMIC I also got a request from Gainax for the Royal Space Force - The Wings of Honnêamise. Doing those two works, I felt there was enough demand for me to make the move to Tokyo from my hometown in Osaka.

As far as working on The Wings of Honnêamise at Gainax, I didn't do too much. Do any of you happen to know which part I worked on? There was a scene where a group of friends in the Space Force are honoring a member that passed away. To honor him they were drinking and there's a scene where they're throwing some drinks in the forest. The part I worked on though, was the train running in the background. There were some scenes where I was in charge of a “red light district” so to speak, I did some of the designs of the workers as well signs.

You draw a lot of cars and guns in Gunsmith Cats and Riding Bean, do you have a favorite muscle car and firearm to draw?

I do have to say I like some of the older Mustangs. In an old movie called Bullitt, I saw how the Mustangs were depicted and I thought it was really cool. I also thought the depiction of the cars in Gone in 60 Seconds, Vanishing Point, and the Mach 1 Mustang from Vanishing Point were intriguing as well.

There's two versions of the character Rally Vincent, one in Riding Bean and one in Gunsmith Cats. What inspired the change to make Rally Vincent half-Indian, which is less common in manga?

When I worked on Riding Bean I was still with ARTMIC. Gunsmith Cats is something I worked on after ARTMIC, but because of copyrights I couldn't use the same title. I had to change the look and feel in Gunsmith Cats. I felt I wouldn't be able to design anything cooler than what she originally looked like, so that's why some of it was kept in tact. The thing with Riding Bean is that I did all the planning. I came with all the package art, I did all the mechanical design, everything. But I was just an employee at ARTMIC, and I didn't have control. So I didn't really like that, and decided to leave the company and come up with something with a similar feel. That way I could own all the rights, so that's what I wanted to do.

What's your favorite design and influences?

As far as character design, I really like Bean from Riding Bean. As far as mechanical design I really like how the Power Suits came out for Bubblegum Crisis. My influences include Thunderbirds and UFO by ITC Entertainment in Britain. Because of that, from when I was in 1st grade I would draw a lot of mecha on the blackboard. I also really liked Knight Rider as far as American works.

Would it be possible for you to create any more Riding Bean manga at this point? The new pages I've seen for the Kickstarter campaign look great.

From a legal standpoint, I cannot use the title Riding Bean. If it's under Gunsmith Cats, then I would be able to create new chapters. From that angle, I might be able to do stuff with it.

I appreciate how accurate your firearms depictions are as a firearms instructor. What kind of resources did you have for that?

I wasn't that specialized in guns and such, so I was reading through magazines with special feature articles that had good depictions of firearms. Recently, with all the technology now for research, there are so many people who have the same level of knowledge or more than I do. I get a little nervous now because people will now know and bash me on the internet [if I make a mistake]. There's definitely more pressure. I do have to admit there was one time that I made mistake. The characters were using an RPG-7 rocket launcher. When it came to launching the rocket, I made a bit of a mistake so I apologize for that.

One of the founders of Gainax said that members of Gainax appear in The Wings of Honnêamise. Since you were on good terms with the Gainax staff, which character in the film represents you?

My involvement with The Wings of Honnêamise was quite limited and I don't think that I appear in the work.

What are your favorite Italian supercars and do you use digital assets in your work?

I love the Lamborghini and the Lamborghini Diablo designs. The one that shocked me the most was Countach. I personally prefer doing hand drawn stuff, but my assistants will use some digital assets for convenience. This is mostly finishing touches like toning or backgrounds.

Bubblegum Crisis was the very first series I watched. What was your favorite part of working the series and which character did you like the most?

Bubblegum Crisis was one of my earlier works. Anything I designed that moved was fun to watch, but designing the suits and seeing them in action was the best part. As far as the characters are concerned, I'd pick Nene. Later down the road, I started designing other costumes for them which was exciting to see in the animation.

What are the odds of a Bubblegum Crisis or Gunsmith Cats revival?

There have been some talks of animating Gunsmith Cats, so it's a possibility. We're still talking about it. If that does actually come to pass (we're still early in planning) I'll be assuming the role of executive director. [Applause] As a disclaimer, this has only been talked about – nothing's happening yet!

Editor's note: this question was originally transcribed to discuss only the potential of a Bubblegum Crisis revivial, but on further review and confirmation with firsthand sources, Sonoda was speaking more directly about Gunsmith Cats in this question. ANN regrets the error. Thanks to Ferquin N.C. Root for the clarification.

For the 30th anniversary of Bubblegum Crisis, what would you like to point out to fans watching it for the very first time? Small details, like design elements?

I'm happy that we've reached the 30th anniversary, but I was merely the character and mechanical designer, with no rights assigned to me, per say. But if I'm asked to work on Bubblegum Crisis again, I'd love to take it on. For those people watching for the first time, I would love to recommend parts 1-8... but you don't need to watch Bubblegum Crash! That came out after I left ARTMIC, so I was barely involved with it. In retrospect, maybe I did leave the fold at the right time. As far as ARTMIC is concerned, right before I left, the president had started buying into a real estate deal that didn't pan out very well. I only found this out later, but he kinda disappeared because of some issues happening with the real estate. So, I guess I really did leave at the right time!

The ARTMIC president actually ran away in a very bad way, in that he was illicitly selling off company assets, including some of my original production artwork. With all of these happenings, when he ran away some of the things he needed to pay for were shifted to [animation studio] AIC, so they ended up being held responsible. With ARTMIC basically collapsing and no longer having copyright, trademarks, etc., AIC came in and took over. [Note: AIC was the animation production studio for Bubblegum Crisis 2040]

Then, when we were about to do the Bubblegum Crisis 2040 television anime, the president who had disappeared came to AIC with a bunch of yakuza and demanded some money, because as far as he was concerned, they were using his company's work. Under Japanese law, you're not supposed to discuss which Yakuza family you're from, but this yakuza mentioned this, and was caught. The president, once again, simply ran away. Since then, the president is nowhere to be found, and I have no idea what he's doing!

Did any of these experiences help you create plot lines for Gunsmith Cats?

Well... not necessarily!

As for what Sonoda's been up to recently, the manga creator revealed to the audience that he's back in his home town again. The 55-year-old has taken over his family's shop from his father, an honor that extends 19 generations and 400 years of history. Due to his father's health, Sonoda said he could not let the tradition end and has since taken it over. He would like to return to manga when he can.

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