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The Mike Toole Show
Terminal Tominosis

by Michael Toole,

Okay, the title should clue you right in. In the march of columns about awesome anime creators, I've talked Tezuka, Hata, Rintaro, Ishinomori, Shirow, Dezaki, and now it's Yoshiyuki Tomino's turn. I've had Tomino on the brain lately - the original Mobile Suit Gundam TV series, which he directed, has just gotten a proper bilingual release on DVD (though, infuriatingly, still missing that odd fifteenth episode - Bandai Entertainment says they asked for it, but were denied), and one of those discs contains a trailer for Turn A Gundam, the 1999 20th Anniversary Gundam TV series that he also directed. Over at the Anime World Order podcast, I recently discussed Garzey's Wing, one of the worst anime ever made and arguably Tomino's biggest disaster. So without any further pomp and circumstance, let's talk Tomino.

Unlike a lot of anime directors, Yoshiyuki Tomino didn't get his start as a visual artist or manga-ka - the man can draw pretty well (he could still sketch a very decent Gundam RX-78 when I met him in 2002), but his first job in animation was as a storyboard and script editor for Astroboy. This meant that he had some drawing duties, but he focused a lot of his efforts on writing the scenario and dialogue and managing the flow of work at the office - he held that "production advancement" job that's sometimes incredibly difficult to define. Tomino had a talent for this work, but he was a tough-talker who moaned about his colleagues' lack of cinematic sense. After repeatedly butting heads with a fellow junior director (some kid named Rintaro), Tomino left the permanent employ of Mushi Productions, and spent several years doing a variety of production duties on shows like Attack no. 1, Kurenai Sanshiro, and Marine Boy.

Tomino eventually fell in with one of his old Mushi Pro colleagues, a fast-talking office manager named Yoshinobu Nishizaki. That's right, the same late, great "Nish" who'd give us Star Blazers and several other beloved classics about boats in space gave Tomino his first chief director job, on the 1972 TV series Triton of the Sea. In an unattributed eulogy posted on Japanese BBS 2ch shortly after Nishizaki's death, Tomino spoke grudgingly of Nishizaki's pushiness and manipulation of creative staff, but admiringly of his business acumen. Triton, ostensibly based on manga by Osamu Tezuka (Nishizaki's company, Office Academy, hadn't exactly acquired the rights to make a Triton cartoon honorably) was the first to really feature an emergent narrative style by the young director. Tomino readily played up the titular Triton as the show's dashing do-gooder, last of a dying race, but just as the drama hits a fever pitch, Triton discovers his ancestors weren't the heroes he'd imagined them to be. The show is remembered well by fans of the medium, and soon Tomino found himself taking on more and more projects in its wake.

A lot of these shows involved the old "production advancement" or "storyboard editor" hats, but Tomino would take the director's chair again for the second half of 1975's Star of the Seine, a Sunrise joint with an unlikely plot about a young female masked vigilante during the French Revolution. See it if you get the chance - like so many great 70s anime, it's pretty easy to find in a variety of European languages, but not in English. Akio Sugino did the character designs, making it an interesting companion to the artist's subsequent Rose of Versailles. As for Tomino, Star of the Seine would open up more doors for him at Sunrise - having proven himself a capable director, he was handed the reins to a TV series called Brave Reideen. And so it was that Tomino, who fancied himself a writer and cinema auteur, found himself director a TV cartoon about giant robots.

But even if that's what Brave Reideen was, it stood apart from other robot cartoons. Full of gripping action and powerful melodrama, Reideen was the first robot show to feature a magical robot rather than a super-scientific one, and director Tomino would collaborate closely with an artist named Yoshikazu Yasuhiko to create the characters, marking the start to a long and prosperous working relationship for the pair. To this day, whenever Tomino starts a new animation project, he points out that he usually asks Yasuhiko and original Gundam mecha designer Kunio Okawara to participate before approaching other artists, but they're usually just too busy! Tomino would make way for a fiery young director named Tadao Nagahama midway through Reideen, which was probably for the best, as this freed up Tomino to pursue other weird robot projects. The move proved pivotal to Nagahama, who'd turn out three of the best robot shows of the 70s. I'll talk about those some other time.

The first of these other weird robot shows is Zanbot 3. Zanbot 3 has long been infamous among Japanese fans for its unexpectedly dark tone - on the surface, it looks like most any 70s super robot show, but the series is run through with sacrifice and death, climaxing with the violent demise of most of the cast. This series, along with several others, would eventually earn Tomino the nickname "Kill 'em All" Tomino. Zanbot 3, like many of the otherwise obscure shows in this column, has been extensively fansubbed, and it's been interesting to get some exposure to work like it. In his later career, when fans have asked him about his darkest works, he's responded by saying that he was often suffering from depression or insomnia during their production. He usually self-medicated by brightening up the narrative of his next project - so Zanbot 3 began a production cycle that would continue for the director throughout much of the 80s. After Zanbot 3, he directed Daitarn 3, which was notably lighter and funnier, including a lot of comedy that was dialogue rather than gag-driven – to this day, that's not something you see very often in anime.

Then, there was Gundam. Tomino didn't know that the 1979 series would be a career-defining moment for him, he just wanted to tell a cool story about robots becoming brutal war machines and mankind's consciousness-expanding progress into space. But while the director populated his story with interesting heroes and anti-heroes, chief sponsor Bandai kept asking for new mobile suit designs, so they could keep making toys. Watching the 43-episode series is a really interesting exercise - it's not that great overall, but it has good stuff, good characters and fights. More than that, it's possible to see a certain hilarious laziness and cynicism creep in midway, as Tomino responded to toy company demands to feature the Gundam's cool new G-Parts accessories by running the same stock sequence over and over again across several episodes, and the introduction of an array of hilariously ugly enemy mobile suits, most of which would never be seen again in the franchise. Despite butting heads with sponsors and the show's untimely cancellation, kids across Japan clamored from Bandai's Gundam model kits, and the tidal wave of cash and fan interest allowed Tomino to go back and recut the series as three movies, complete with improved animation sequences. He really made all the right moves; the films are riveting and rightfully held up as classics today, and Gundam would become a permanent fixture on the anime landscape as a result of his efforts.

The director sure kept busy, too. After Gundam was yanked, but before it was revived, he somehow squeezed in Space Runaway Ideon, countering Gundam's ambivalent tone with stunningly brutal story of intergalactic warfare and one of the silliest-looking robots of the 80s. But that titular robot contained planet-smashing technology, and the show's climax (told in the film Ideon: Be Invoked, as the TV series had suffered Gundam's fate and was also cut short) involved an oddly upbeat depiction of the entire universe getting blown up. You'll have to watch the film to figure it all out; it's very interesting, and Ideon would go on to be a direct influence on Hideaki Anno and his ragingly popular Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Just like the bizarre contrast of Zambot 3's nihilism and Daitarn 3's comic tone, Tomino would purge himself in the post-Ideon phase by directing 1982's Combat Mecha Xabungle. This is probably my favorite of Tomino's shows that haven't gotten western release - it's the first TV series where he really throws the viewer off the deep end, introducing a desert planet populated by the aloof and technocratic Innocent and the barbarous Civilians with barely a word of explanation, leaving the viewers to puzzle out the strange world, huge cast of characters, and confusing jargon themselves. For me, the show wins out thanks to its excellent combat animation (the gasoline-powered mecha of Xabungle are weird as hell and fun to watch) and its protagonist. The upbeat, pugnacious Jiron Amos would provide a welcome respite from the callow heroes of Ideon and Gundam.

Tomino isn't just a director, he's also written plays and novels. His novelization of Gundam is fascinatingly bizarre, though if you ask me it doesn't add much to the story and takes the reader to places they didn't really need to go. He also wrote a series of short novels called The Wings of Rean starting in 1983 - and wouldn't you know it, Sunrise and Bandai were into the idea of making a Wings of Rean TV series! Naturally, Tomino was amenable to this, and set to work bringing his world of Byston Well, a fantastic realm reminiscent of medieval Europe and populated by fairies (he simply grabs "ferario" from European myths and inserts them into his story) and odd, mystical "Aura Machines," to the small screen. And then the sponsors started asking about toys, and Tomino found his work once again perverted by the onerous influence of toy companies. Rean, a story about a young man's inexplicable spiritual journey and the war between two worlds, became Aura Battler Dunbine, a tale of awesome, insectoid robots!

I love reading about Tomino's seemingly decade-long clash with sponsors. Judging by what we've actually seen, insisting on the presence of cool robots has actually improved the material more often than not. But at the same time, it's tough to see a creator squirm when his story is changed by outside forces. To this day, Tomino has a chip on his shoulder about the process; he almost invariably works with Sunrise, but stodgily maintains that he's a freelancer. "Some of my work has been altered by outside producers - salarymen, essentially," he related in 2002. "I've been unable to influence these salarymen, and I regret that." While Gundam has been Tomino's bread and butter since 1979, it seems likely that he's a little more attached to Wings of Rean. He'd revisit it, down the road.

But before that, there would be other works. Tomino would team up with mecha designer Mamou Nagano to create Heavy Metal L-Gaim, which laid the foundations for Nagano's baroque manga serial The Five Star Stories. And in 1985, at the urgings of literally millions of fans, Yoshiyuki Tomino took the helm of Zeta Gundam, a direct follow-up to the popular Gundam. This series is routinely held up as the best the franchise has to offer, and with good reason - Tomino's creative staff on the show is absolutely world-class, and while his dialogue is still charmingly idiosyncratic, the show's story arc, about the heroic Federation going too far in their administration of the post-war Earth and space colonies and giving rise to new idealistic opposition groups, is dead on, and it's filled with memorable characters and battles. Tomino would also amusingly fulfill a lifelong dream, tapping one of his favorite musicians, Neil Sedaka, to write the show's theme songs - songs which would be filled out by Tomino's own lyrics! In fact, Tomino has a knack for lyrics - he's written the words to the themes of most of his shows, so the next time you're listening to the first Gundam TV theme and laughing at how dumb it sounds, Tomino himself is directly responsible!

Zeta Gundam, which ended with the fulfillment of Tomino's "Kill 'em All" reputation (nooo, he offed my favorite character in the show!) was followed directly by ZZ Gundam. Just as before, the director followed a scathingly grim series with one that was almost absurdly lighthearted at times. "I was sick when I made Zeta Gundam," Tomino said in a 2002 interview, "and I really tried to lighten ZZ Gundam up. I was trying to make myself feel better, but I was also concerned for the fans. ZZ Gundam was my way of telling the fans, 'Cheer up!'" Interestingly, a whole bunch of intriguing story elements, like the re-introduction of iconic antihero Char Aznable, got pitched out of ZZ Gundam after Tomino got the green light to make Char's Counterattack, a big wrap-up movie for the tale of Amuro and Char. The end product is pretty good, but it's incredibly typical of Tomino's hot-and-cold approach and results - the film has some of the franchise's absolute best mecha battles, but it also has one of the most annoying anime characters ever created. If you've seen Char's Counterattack, you know who I'm talking about!

Okay, so I've written about a million words, and I've only gotten to 1990. Thankfully, Tomino would start to let up his breakneck pace. He would revisit Gundam's Universal Century a couple more times, first with the theatrical Gundam F-91; like much of his work, it's not really that good (it was originally planned as a TV series, then viciously cut short thanks to behind the scenes squabbling), but it' still a really interesting failure. He did a little better with 1991's V-Gundam, which takes a huge leap ahead in the UC timeline and introduces what might be the entire franchise's least-liked protagonist - still, the show improved through its run, and Tomino would gleefully embrace the "Kill 'em All" approach one last time at its climax. Then he took a break for a couple of years, and then there was Garzey's Wing.

Tomino's works are generally either pretty entertaining, or pretty interesting failures. Garzey's Wing is a remarkable failure, a 1996 OVA that revisits Tomino's beloved Byston Well. There are no meddling toy sponsors, so no Aura Battlers - just a kid who takes a magical journey to a primitive land, where he flies naked with glowing wings sprouting from his ankles, scolds the narrator, aids a slave rebellion, and telepathically begs his physical self (which is still in the real world) for information on how to make gunpowder and manufacture weapons. The show's original laserdisc release featured on-camera discussions with Tomino about the world of Byston Well, in which he attempted to explain Garzey's Wing's nonsensical story. In later years, Tomino would remark that he was extremely depressed during the production, and both his patience and the show's budget were stretched to the breaking point. Garzey's Wing's US release was bolstered by one of the worst dubs ever made; our own Justin Sevakis discusses it extensively here. Justin has commented that, when Tomino visited New York in 2002, his employers at CPM tried to ask questions and set up an interview about Garzey's Wing, to develop as a DVD extra. This left Tomino, who had no desire at all to discuss the show, angry and confused - kind of like the people who watched Garzey's Wing!

Tomino would start to get his mojo back with 1998's Brain Powerd. This show is often tipped as a response to Evangelion's ascendancy, but in fact, it was in pre-production before Evangelion hit the airwaves - there might've been some measure of influence, but a lot of the comparisons came about simply because Tomino played it up to the media, happily declaring that his new series would outdo Evangelion. It didn't, but it's still got some beautiful art and animation courtesy of designer Mutsumi Inomata, and one of the best TV anime soundtracks ever, a gorgeous, strings-driven affair by Yoko Kanno. The plot, not surprisingly, is a pot of gibbering nonsense about alien technology and environmental renewal that only starts to make sense about two thirds through the series. Gotta love that Tomino!

Turn-A Gundam, Tomino's next project, would filter most of the weirdness to the mecha, which took the iconic Gundam and put it through Syd Mead's distorted lens. I actually like the weird, mustachio'ed look of the title mecha, which actually only happened because Bandai asked for something more Gundam-like (the show's Sumo was originally going to be what the Turn-A looked like). In a broad sense, Turn-A might be Tomino's most consistently enjoyable Gundam project - its characters are fun and sympathetic - hero Loran Cehack is young, but not dumb - and its story is stable and coherent throughout the entire run. I'm really looking forward to seeing Bandai Entertainment's release, since I haven't seen the show since its original laserdisc/DVD issue in 1999.

2002's Overman King Gainer would continue the director's good run of form. Tomino actually had high hopes for the show, which was in production when he visited New York in 2002. He spoke about how he'd tried to keep western sensibilities in mind when developing it, and said that he hoped western fans would really enjoy it. Unfortunately, not all too many western fans got to see it - it was a relatively low-profile DVD release, and while a TV airing might've gotten it a little love, the show is honestly a hard sell. I absolutely love its weird mecha designs, cavalier disregard for physics, hilariously awkward main character, and rapid-fire, almost George Bernard Shaw-esque comic dialogue, but it's an acquired taste, and the show's climax is as muddled and weird as... well, as what we'd expect from Tomino.

But what do we expect from Yoshiyuki Tomino? Having seen the majority of his output, I expect big battles with scenes that cut away to the cockpits, so the dogfighting adversaries can argue about something completely unrelated. I expect shy, callow heroes and taciturn, intelligent villains. I expect at least one fiery, charismatic, but hilariously ineffectual bad guy. (Zeta Gundam's Jerid Messa is my favorite in that category.) I expect names that are anywhere from odd (the city of "New Yark") to absurd (Marvel Frozen! Shot Weapon! Quattro Bageena! Aesop Suzuki!) I expect to see a lovably grizzled combat veteran fighting on the wrong side. (Ranba Ral, anyone?) I expect exotic terms and concepts referred to in the dialogue, but left unexplained for long stretches. I expect characters who blurt out things like "I'm really shy, you know!" but then never actually act shy – in other words, expository dialogue abuse. I expect characters who you grow really fond of getting wiped out in an instant, with no time for grief left in the show's story arc. Altogether, I expect to be stimulated - and more often than not, Tomino gets the job done.

What also amuses me about Tomino is his reputation for being a troublemaker, a pot-stirrer. He's a creator that's typically been unafraid to attack anime's weird production process. He recently gave some sage advice to a young girl who asked about being an animator (he essentially told her that if she wasn't already working on her draftsmanship like crazy, she was falling behind - and he was right!), and trolled the hell out of video game fandom by remarking about his disdain for the medium. His brief misadventures in North America may or may not have torpedoed Gundam's momentum here - I've heard stories for over a decade that involve him monkeying with translations personally, backseat driving at Ocean Studio's casting call for the TV series, and offering helpful suggestions for marketing the toys, but the fact is, I can't source any of these hilarious tales. Only a handful of people over here worked directly with him, and none of them are keen on burning bridges, even years after the fact, so there's no way to confirm these legends without causing trouble. To this day, however, many people in the industry cheekily refer to Tomino as Hagemadoshi-san - "Mr. Bald-headed Wizard" - a nickname that came about because of his mischief over here. But I'm not telling who came up with that nickname, no sir!

But what of Byston's Well? Tomino would go back to the Well (HAW!) in 2005 for Wings of Rean, an adaptation of his novels that hews closer to the original text than Dunbine, even though it still has Aura Battlers in there. Rean is amazingly beautiful to look at, full of odd terminology (the main character, Aesop, was named after the acronym ASAP. Yes, really.) and an only barely coherent story about a boy sucked through a portal to confront an ambitious World War II vet, bent on using his magical powers to return to earth and restart WWII. I enjoyed watching it, but at the same time, it left me wondering why it was made. I think it might be because Tomino just loves Byston Well. People will always remember him for Gundam, but Rean and the Byston Well saga belong to him in a way that Gundam, a show originally mandated by Sunrise and their toy-company sponsors, does not. I expect him to take us back there sometime - and hopefully it'll be a bit more coherent than Garzey's Wing.

Tomino has spent the past few months dropping hints about a new project. Fans are excited, of course: is it a new Gundam? After all, just a few years ago he directed a trilogy of "new" Zeta Gundam films, movies that gleefully ignored series continuity and clumsily shoehorned in hot new digital animation with the original 1985 TV stuff, and while Tomino likes to grouse about a variety of Gundam subjects, the possibility of him reviving his original hit is always there. Personally, I'm hoping for something brand new - part of why I liked King Gainer so much is because it took risks in ways that Gundam probably wouldn't. Throughout his entire industry-shaping career, Yoshiyuki Tomino has been a risk-taker. And let's face it, anime needs more risk-takers!

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