Shoji Kawamori may be one of the iconic names in anime and certainly in mecha. The creator of one of the most famous anime franchises in Japan in Macross and megahit in the west in Escaflowne, his work is some of the most recognizable and celebrated in the industry. Even if you don't know him, chances are you've watched some of his anime, or at least marveled at some of his almost ubiquitous mech designs across countless series. Hell, even if you don't watch anime, you might have unknowingly enjoyed his work playing Armored Core, FROM SOFTWARE's mecha predecessor to the Dark Souls franchise.
Basically, Kawamori's influence is absolutely immense, which is why it was such a treat to have him visiting the United States as a guest for Otakon 2018. After nearly 40 years working in the industry and with a new anime, Junshinki Pandora, soon to premiere, he made a visit to deliver two panels on his design philosophy and the history of his most storied franchise, Macross. He was also available for interviews. Here are my 15 minutes interviewing the industry legend where I ask him all my most selfish questions about his career.
I’ve read that you use paper models and saw your demonstration with your Lego model during your panel. Is making real-life 3D models common among mecha designers?
When I began my career in mech design over 30 years ago, I started on the precursor to the Transformer series called Diaclone, so I started concurrently designing for both toys and animation. For me, it’s been easier to pitch ideas when I have an actual model to show and, since I was a child, I’ve enjoyed building models so that’s something that came naturally to me. It seems it’s not much of a common practice among Japanese mech designers… Ogawara of Gundam being an exception.
I’m a huge fan of Armored Core. Could you tell me a bit about how you became involved with FROM SOFTWARE on the project?
The production of Armored Core started before the launch of original PlayStation, it was slated to be one of the launch titles. FROM approached me to design for them and back then they didn’t even have a working title, just the concept of combining parts to make mechs, but the actual implementation and design hadn’t yet been developed.
At that time, the game developer was thinking that this would be imitated by other publishers in the future so it would become quite common to see other games where you put parts together to design your own mech. I thought what would be important would be to come up with a key concept that would be able to differentiate Armored Core from any potential competition. I came up with the core component, the cockpit, along with the minimal engine, and weapons and connectors that would separate Armored Core from other games to follow.
I pitched my concept as “Armored Core” and that became the title.
You’ve done work on both original concepts with mech designs and mech designs standalone. Is it more difficult to design mechs as part of your own original concept or as part of someone else's work?
It really depends on the designer but, for myself, it’s much easier to independently come up with the mechs and have other designers work on world building. If I’m asked to design mechs for a prebuilt world, I tend to come up with ideas that destroy that prebuild world, so I typically only accept work from clients who don’t mind that kind of destruction.
As you said, you’ve been making anime for quite a while and, specifically, through a period of rapid international growth for the industry. Is there a specific moment when you realized anime had developed a global audience?
I think the moment came to me a couple of years after Macross. I’d finished the TV series and movie Do you Remember Love? I went a research trip to the US and went to see an airshow at an airforce base and a bunch of pilots came up to me and told me they’d all watched Macross.
If I had to pick a running theme throughout your career, it would probably be these bonds that develop between characters that aren’t just emotional, but spiritual connections, often facilitated by mechs and music. Is this a recurring theme you’ve consciously focused on in your works?
That’s a tough question to answer. After I finished work on Do You Remember Love?, I travelled to China and visited very remote parts of that country. Where there is no television or electricity, I saw children that were playing with a lot of energy and looked very happy. That was a shock to me and, after that, I’ve been traveling to various countries in Asia every year like Nepal.
I personally have great vision but there are people over there who have vision even better than mine. Also in Japan there are accomplished martial artists that can tell the presence of people without even looking at them or can look at an opponent and anticipate their moves. There a plenty of people who have these kind of transcendental senses and, of course, some of them may be frauds, but there are plenty that have to be real.
If science isn’t going to investigate any of them I think it’s something I can express through my works of entertainment, so I believe that’s why.
Alright, for my final question, the idea of manipulating fate in Escaflowne is always something that stuck with me. Can you tell me a bit about how that concept was developed?
We may have advanced science today, but there are some things that remain inexplicable. The concept of where consciousness comes from and fate in particular are of interest to me. My idea was there may be principles about fate that can be quantified and worked on at a fundamental level. If we looked at it as a computer, it wouldn’t be a graphical interface but a protocol that might be manipulated by rewriting it. I came up with that concept and thought it might be best to incorporate it into a fantasy setting.
Peter Fobian is an Associate Features Editor for Crunchyroll, author of Monthly Mangaka Spotlight, writer for Anime Academy, and contributor at Anime Feminist. You can follow him on Twitter @PeterFobian.