Shoji Kawamori described his creative past and process at Otakon 2018!
Shoji Kawamori may be the most famous name in mecha, having invented one of the most famous franchises of the genre in Macross, as well as one of the rare western mecha hits in Escaflowne, and designing mecha for everything from Eureka Seven to Patlabor to Outlaw Star to the Armored Core franchise. Approaching the 40th anniversary of his anime debut, and with another original anime in Juushinki Pandora soon to premiere, Kawamori visited Otakon 2018 as a guest.
The ever-industrious creator used the opportunity to deliver two panels, the first was a fascinating look into his creative process, inspirations, and creative philosophy based on the concept of transformative ideas titled “Originality & Mecha Design” and the second a comprehensive “History of Macross.” I also had the pleasure of interviewing Kawamori. By the end of the weekend I had over four hours of recorded audio of Kawamori providing an autobiography of his creative life. I’ve gathered notable points from all three events into a rough chronology including the highlights!
Kawamori began both panels by touching on his early life,born in the rural Ecchu Gokayama in Toyama Prefecture where he lived until he was three. He experienced a shock when his family moved to the city of Yokohama and he first saw a train, which he credits as the moment he became interested in machines. The story bore a strikingly similar to an aside from one of Kowamori’s anime Earth Maiden Arjuna, in which the chief of a nuclear power plant claimed witnessing a train as the moment he developed a passion for science that lead him to become a nuclear technician.
You may be familiar with a certain film inspired by Thunderbirds' style
When it comes to his fascination with mecha, Kawamori’s recounted watching Thunderbirds as a child. He jokingly claimed his preference for transforming mecha may have come out of necessity. His father bought him Fischertechnik blocks which, while more versatile than many of it competitors in the toy industry, were prohibitively expensive. Left with a limited amount of materials that provided many points of articulation eventually resulted in him building designs that had multiple variations to maximize their use.
Kawamori’s inspirations were diverse and unexpected, often credited both aesthetically and holistically contributing toward some aspect of his eventually design philosophy. Kawamori was impressed with the Isuzu 117 Coupe, designed by a legend of the automotive industry, Giorgetto Giugiaro, and credits that specific model with his realization that a designer can have influence over the final product. Another personal inspiration was the ambition of the Apollo project, which he watched on TV in the 3rd grade.
He was very open about his desire for originality and revealed an intensely competitive mindset, not only with other creators, but also himself. Too proud to build the pre-designed model kits of his peers, he learned to make his own out of paper. Kawamori recounted that he and Kazutaka Miyatake were locked in competition for over a year that ultimately lead to the design of Macross’ unique GERWALK. Kawamori also shared how near Macross had come to ending in 1987.
Having made a TV series, movie, and OVA, Kawamori felt he’d touched on each possibility for the franchise and didn’t want to cover old ground. With the encouragement of a friend and several years worth of pleading by Studio Nue to continue the franchise, Kawamori decided he’d give himself a week to either completely revolutionize the series or let it die if he was unable to come up with any ideas.
Describing the outcome in almost apologetic terms, Kawamori admitted he came up with not one, but two ideas. In his last effort to avoid returning to Macross, he demanded Nue allow him to make both or threatened he would make neither. To his surprise, they enthusiastically agreed, leading to Macross 7 and Macross Plus as two completely new takes on the core concept. Kawamori mentioned that, at the time, his peers joked about the idea of a virtual idol becoming popular, to which he believes hisstory has shown that they "vastly underestimated the power of otaku."
Despite working creatively on everything from settings to narratives to the literal nuts and bolts of their robots across mediums including anime, video games, and toys, Kawamori has managed to find enough time to ponder the nature of creativity itself. He described what he believes are the two types of originality, which he referred to as “Inspirational Originality” essentially a foundationally transformative idea that inspires others and “Unique Personality” which involves putting a personalized take on an existing idea.
Perspective was one of his described necessities for design, with him going so far as to stand up on his chair as an allegory to how climbing in a tree as a child provided him with a unique viewpoint, something is entourage seemet do disapprove of. He claimed his new position allowed him to look at the same things in a different way, adding that the inherent risk of falling tends to drive the brain into a mode of dynamic thought.
Practically, he used the example of his original design for the GERWALK. Again using a physical example, he ran to either side of the stage to display what had inspired the design, getting into his bent-leg skiing stance, he said that he realized mechs have only been given straight leg designs up until that point and he eventually settled upon a digitigrade “reverse-knee” model to give them a unique silhouette.
In a more general sense, Kawamori has taken steps to develop his unique viewpoint. He spoke of many trips he has taken to the different corners of rural Asia. Originally meant as an escape from the overwhelming amount of media he was assaulted with during his time in America, he found many of his perspectives about the world challenged during his original visit. During a power outage in a village, he noticed the children seemed happier playing on their own than they had looked watching television, causing him to wonder if the introduction of modern amenities was truly improving quality of life as we believed.
He also described something of a spiritual awakening over the years, witnessing individuals who seemed to have perceptions that couldn’t quite be explained by modern science: sherpas that could spot the expression on a mans face when they were little more than a speck in the distance, or martial artists who seemed to be able to read things about other people through sight alone.
Kawamori spoke of the role he believed the subconscious plays in creation, believing that the iconic design for the TIE fighters of Star Wars must have grown out the mind from the constant view of the similarly-shaped rear axle of semi-trucks on American highways. Later, he discussed the concept of synchronicity, again in reference to Star Wars, as the reverse-legged AT-STs were being developed around the same time he was originally creating the GERWALK, leaving an open question to the audience. How could two people, separated by thousands of miles, be inspired to create the same design at nearly the same time?
For all of his higher concepts about the origins of creativity within the human mind, Kawamori has developed a remarkably practical framework for his approach to design work. He pulled up several slides (regrettably photography was prohibited) on considerations regarding the purpose, setting, and medium of the work he will be designing for, listing off concepts like location, culture, physical laws, level of technology, story themes, and the purpose of individual mechs when ideating their designs. Focusing on these differences lead to the more realistically aerodynamic Valkyries of Macross vs the excess of the magically powered Vector Machines in Aquarion.
Taking it a step further, he also spoke of the medium that his design work would be in. For toys the transformations would need to be realistic and simple enough to easily performed by anyone. Designs for anime required as few lines a possible to make drawing thousands of cels a simpler process whereas manga had fewer limitations. With video games, he spoke of his work with Armored Core, where he paid special attention to the array of boosters on the back of each mech since that’s the part the player would be staring at for the majority of gameplay. Every project has unique opportunities and limitations.
Along with his panels came a demonstration of the transformation from one of his designs in Juushinki Pandora from motorcycle to mech without compromising the cockpit. He held up a model he’d made out of legos and other materials which served as his prototype. In our interview, Kawamori he admitted he’s a rarity among mech designer making 3D models, mentioning Gundam’s Ogawara as the only other creator he knew of to use this method.
Kawamori’s panels were enlightening, their structure and his articulate thoughts regarding the nature of creativity showing an individual of exceptional mental meticulousness. When presented with a task, he’d break down every aspect, consideration, and approach, to determine the best course toward a solution, even stepping back from this mental feat to asses his own thought processes and similarly deconstruct them in his relentless pursuit of optimization.
Matching his intelligence is a relentless work ethic that has evolved into a massive ouvre over the course of his nearly 40 years in the industry. If you’re a fon of anime, it’s nearly impossible not to have been exposed directly to his work. He touched almost all the greatest hits of the Suncoast-era ‘90s anime boom, including Outlaw Star, Ghost in the Shell, and Cowboy bebop. Into the 2000s Kawamori's work continued to appear in high profile anime such as RahXephon, Eureka Seven, and even his own Escaflowne. Kawamori’s original work Macross could be described as just the sort of transformative originality he discussed in his presentation, becoming one of the most recognizable franchises in anime. If you’re planning on playing Devil May Cry 5 next year, he designed the Nero's robotic arms, the "Devil Breakers."
It was a rare treat to see Kawamori stateside and he truly went above and beyond in putting together his own panels for the trip, seeming to enjoy the opportunity to discuss his past and his process. Despite his nearly four decades of work, he still moved around the stage with an excess of enthusiasm and energy. Just watching him for five minutes, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be stopping any time soon.
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.