Interview: Gundam Wing screenwriter Katsuyuki Sumisawa

by Zac Bertschy,

One look at the incredible resume of screenwriter Katsuyuki Sumisawa and it's clear you're dealing with a legend – over his long career he's worked on everything from Inuyasha to Macross 7 to Saiyuki to Sailor Moon, having stood alongside industry giants like Yoshiyuki Tomino and Kunihiko Ikuhara. His most famous work is, doubtlessly, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing – Sumisawa wrote virtually the entire beloved series, and was in attendance at Otakon 2017 to discuss his life's work. Canderous, crowd-pleasing and full of fascinating stories, Mr. Sumisawa spoke at length with us about his legacy, the hardest types of scripts to write, and the enormous continuing popularity of Gundam Wing.

ANN: At your panel, you mentioned that you thought Gundam Wing was most representative of your work and I was wondering: how so? Why do you feel that way?

KATSUYUKI SUMISAWA: At first I have to say that Gundam Wing, being Gundam, it was a very difficult thing for me to do. But as kind of an epoch-building thing, I believe that it was something that could speak out to a range of audiences. I thought that was a very important thing as a writer. In that sense, I think that Gundam Wing is the most significant thing for me.

ANN: Do you have a theory why? Have you ever thought about why it connected so much with American fans and international fans?

My personal theory is that Gundam Wing is a question being asked about “what is peace? What is war?” I believe this is the kind of question that everyone around the world is asking constantly. I think that is why it got recognition from people that are actually actively asking those questions. In a sense, we cannot get a success even if we try. But then the success of Gundam Wing was because it was something that makes you think for over twenty years—well, this you could kind of expand to the general idea of Gundam, but then Gundam and Gundam Wing are both kind of things that are asking questions that people have been thinking for a very long time, and thus might have resonated. That's my personal theory anyway.

ANN: What's your writing process like? I'm sure it's different from project to project, but how long does it take you to finish a single screenplay? Like a twenty-two-minute episode, how long does that take you?

It's a varying process. Sometimes I can get it instantly, and twenty-two minutes just comes in the night. But there are other times when it takes considerably longer, because there are lots of things to think about and lots of things that I need to gather. So in that sense, it could take something upwards to a month, I guess? Say for example the last episode of Gundam Wing, that actually took a month, and then even after that month I was still going “ehhhhhh…”

ANN: <laughs>

So in that sense, I would say there are a lot of variables to it. For example, the three episodes for Endless Waltz, that came instantly. The first episode of Gundam Wing, that was in the night—well, night might be pushing it…

ANN: Right.

But roughly around a day, right? So it's a varying process. And after that, as you know, we go onto storyboards and then drawings, so that's how you get Gundam Wing.

ANN: Amazing. What's the most challenging thing you've ever written? The script that gave you the most trouble?

I did an episode of Dragon Ball Z that adapted 8 panels of manga.  8 panels in 30 minutes.

ANN: <laughs> Wow.

Other than that, I'd be bringing up Gundam Wing again. Around the end was especially difficult for me. And also, to say specifically, there were some… since Gundam Wing was done by several writers, the writer before me has crashed the Libra and the Peacemillion while I did not know. We did not talk this over. When I go over the story, I go “wait, the Libra and the Peacemillion crashed? You crashed it.” And he was going “Yup, I crashed it. That's probably going to be much more interesting, right.” And I'm going “Okay, yes, you're right, it's going to be more interesting. Okay… now I need to tie the ends together.” So that process of tying the ends together was a very difficult task.

ANN: You wrote a tremendous amount of Inuyasha for TV, and you also are credited with all four of the films, which are original side stories that don't adapt any manga. I've always wanted to know: what are your restraints when you're writing something like that? How challenging is it to write one of those movies where you're not allowed to move the actual story forward?

In a sense, it's difficult. But then, I actually have experience with this previously in Dragon Ball Z, where we also asked ourselves “where does this movie place itself among the TV storyline?” Like say, we're going to planet Namek, but then Goku seems to be doing stuff on Earth, how does that really work out? It's kind of a given that those standalone stories will be like that. It isn't really a question of whether or not it's difficult – we have to make it happen.

ANN: You're credited with writing six episodes of the show Brain Powerd, which was directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino, and I was wondering if you worked with him directly and what was that like?

You know very well.

ANN: <laughs>

I must say, Mr. Tomino was actually very fond of me. When I wrote something—well, he told me “I need these episodes done for Brain Powerd.” And I went “ok, ok, I'll write it.” And when I wrote something, he told me, “this is the best thing I've seen, and I'm going to do a storyboard with this right away, your work is so awesome. Thanks to you, we have a good story.” After that, at 5 in the morning, Tomino-san calls and I was sleeping, my wife took the call. He was saying “your husband has done a wonderful job writing these stories for me, these are our best storyboards in a while.” And she was going, “oh, that's wonderful, I'll wake up my husband.” But he was saying, “no, I want you to hear this.” After that, my wife tells me about what Tomino-san was saying, and I was going, “well, good, if it was wonderful, I wonder what the final product looks like.” And I see the final product, and then I got, “wait, this isn't what I wrote.” In fact, I don't feel like he's even used a line out of what I wrote. It was that different. 

ANN: Wow. <laughs>

Seeing that, I kind of felt like… he's very fond of me, but I have a feeling he also feels he could make it even better, in a way.

Thanks to Katsuyuki Sumisawa and Otakon for this opportunity.

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