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Anime’s Human Machines: Shoji Kawamori Talk At The Barbican


On the evening of 17th September as part of their ‘Anime’s Human Machines’ film season, the Barbican held host to creative legend Shoji Kawamori.  The season, curated by anime historian Helen McCarthy, was sponsored by the Japan Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.

Please note that we were requested to not take photos during the presentation,, with which we have complied.

Kawamori began with a greeting to the audience in English- “Good evening. My name is Shoji Kawamori, please enjoy!”. He then explained the title of the talk, ‘Anime, Human, Machine, Deculture’. Deculture is a word created for Macross, meaning ‘surprise’. Kawamori believes that surprise is an important occurrence, hence choosing it for the focus of his talk. He has assumed many creative roles by this, his 40th active year as a creator. These works were highlighted in the Shoji Kawamori Expo, a celebration event held this summer in Japan. He has also been busy with projects such as producing mecha designs for the Nintendo Switch game Daemon X Machina. He also noted that he had previously collaborated with the Barbican on an installation piece but on that occasion the work had been carried out via Skype meetings. So he was glad to finally visit in person.

He then reached further back, into his formative years. He was born in a village in the Toyama prefecture of Japan, describing it as “in the middle of nowhere”. In winter snow fall in the area reaches 2-3 metres deep, so external doors are built into the upper floors to cope with such weather. At age 3 his family later moved to Yokohama where he was amazed by the trains present there, referencing it as his first ‘deculture’ experience.  Indeed he believes that this is the experience that generated his lifelong fascination with the concept.

His next such encounter would be watching the Apollo 11 moon landing live, joking wryly that he felt frustration seeing these people getting to land on the moon instead of him doing so.  He pursued similar in his studies to become part of space exploration himself but found he was not suited to the necessary curriculum of English and maths.

A few years prior to this he had become a fan of the British science-fiction series Thunderbirds, Thunderbird 2 being his favourite. Whilst other children built plastic models, Kawamori instead built a paper model of the craft complete with working landing struts. Decades later he would be brought in as one of the staff on the latest reboot of the series Thunderbirds Are Go, where he would design Thunderbird S (Shadow). Additionally in his childhood his father gifted him a Fischertechnik construction set. Roughly comparable to LEGO, the toy was not as ranged and more expensive thus his father could only afford a limited amount. This limitation inspired Kawamori to start experimenting with designs that could transform from one form to another, increasing play options. He joked he’s never really stopped even as an adult.

When Kawamori was in high school, Kazutaka Miyatake of Studio Nue produced new designs of the powered suits as illustrations for a Japanese release of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers. These realistic takes on the designs were a standout moment in the Japanese science fiction community as at that point robot designs in Japanese media tended more towards stylised superhero-like forms. Miyatake’s designs and the influence of emerging stablemates such as Mobile Suit Gundam would be an influence on Kawamori and his peers. To highlight this he showcased part of a manga he and friends were working on inspired by Miyatake’s designs, a space based war story with pilots using mecha combat suits. He highlighted he and his friends produced this mere months before Gundam premiered, joking that with different timing it could well have been them who ushered in the ‘real robot’ anime genre instead.

Kawamori would himself be hired by Studio Nue at age 19, during his second year of university. He continued his studies whilst undertaking the job. The workload was heavy, noting he was working on two television animes, one manga and one robot toyline simultaneously. This included working on Diaclone, the transforming robot toyline by Takara that would go on to form the bulk of the multimedia franchise now known as The Transformers. Although he wasn’t directly involved with that transition of the brand, he is thankful for the link he shares. In terms of design misgivings, Kawamori was disappointed with the lack of mechanical detail (engine blocks, passenger seats, etc) that the toys had to endure to facilitate a workable transition from vehicle to robot. This fact encouraged him to working towards this not being a handicap of his own later transforming mechanical designs.

At this point we were shown a trailer celebrating Kawamori’s 40 year portfolio of work. He noted that all the works he had produced were only made possible by the many people who had supported him over the years.

He highlighted his preference to work on original stories rather than adaptations, with emotional human drama always being a key element of his stories. He also again related back to the concept of ‘deculture’, using Macross as an example. Perhaps audiences could perceive of mecha battle suits and aliens, but how many would think of a massive ship that itself transforms into a colossal robot? Further still, how many would expect this transforming ship to in turn house an entire city within it? That kind of delightful surprise is ‘deculture’, his creative guideline.

The pitch concept for what would become Super Dimension Fortress Macross began with the manga he had shown us earlier, with many of Kawamori’s student friends such as Haruhiko Mikimoto signing on to work on it. Kawamori led us through his design sketches that transitioned the mecha designs of that original manga into the more iconic Valkyrie. When he showed potential sponsors they were uneasy, informing him that in their experience planes do not sell well as tie in merchandise. Rather than be daunted by this Kawamori chose to take it as an opportunity, believing there would be great reward if he could pull it off and encouraging us to think likewise when people tell you an idea is unworkable.

The Valkyrie’s plane form was inspired by the F-14 Tomcat. Whilst rotating a plastic model of said plane, he noticed a gap between the engines on the lower side and reasoned he could copy this on his design, using the space to stow the robot mode’s arms.

He then turned focus to one of the most fan beloved visual motifs in Macross, the ‘Itano Circus’. Named after its creator Ichiro Itano, it refers to iconic extensive simultaneous missile barrages which are usually avoided by a skilled mecha/jet pilot. Kawamori revealed he met Itano when the pair of them were working together on Crusher Joe, with the ‘Circus’ having its roots in games they would play to see who could launch the most fireworks simultaneously. Itano in particular would attempt to launch them from the handlebars of his motorbike.

Although the idea of the Valkyries and the Macross itself were intended to be new and surprising ideas, he still wasn’t satisfied. He noted that when you look at other sci-fi stories like Star Wars and Gundam the heroes tend to use physical weapons like lightsabres and beam rifles. But what if a war could be stopped by a more surprising means, such as the power of song? This led to the creation of the heroine Lynn Minmay, a singer who helps end the conflict in an unconventional way.

The success of the Macross television series led to a movie, Do You Remember Love?, the directorial debut for the then 23 year old Kawamori. He noted that at the time he was still in his third year of university, noting dryly that his workload had seen him fail the second year three times.  He would paint the original theatrical poster for the film himself. He believes that in contrast to more traditional musicals, Macross will have both spoken dialogue and sung lyrics occurring on screen at the same time.

He conceived of the concepts of both Macross 7 and Macross Plus at the same time as opposite extremes of one another. The concept for 7 concerned exploring the idea of a musician going to war and although he was proud of it and the guitar pilot control setup used by protagonist Basara Nekki, Plus was conceived for audiences who might find the tone of 7 too whimsical. As part of the research for Plus, both he and Itano underwent stunt plane flying sessions together and engaged in mock dogfights. He noted that when experiencing this scenario in reality you spend more time looking behind you rather than in front and this was adapted into how they handled the piloting scenes in the OVA. Additionally, Itano managed to black out. A curious Kawamori asked him to describe the full sensation to him and this too was translated to the animation.

Plus also addresses the then emerging concept of drone weaponry and artificial intelligence, including the artificial idol Sharon who was created to flip Macross’ usual stance on music on its head and comment on the ways it can be used negatively. When Kawamori first conceived of the concept his colleagues dismissed it, feeling the idea of artificial idols would not interest anyone. He noted there is now an entire business around such constructs two decades later.

These talking points led collectively into the next segment of the talk. Kawamori noted that if for argument’s sake he requested research information on flowers, his staff would go to the internet and bring him photos from there. But one can only learn so much from a photo and a photo can be faked in various ways, such as in this example where the photo he showed us was actually for a bunch of artificial flowers. He feels second hand research is no counterpart for researching something first hand in person. During a trip to China thirty-three years ago he visited rural areas where low income populations live. He was entranced by the fact that local children were happy, despite lacking many of the comforts other children around the world enjoy. This simple joy led him to wonder if his own animated productions were enriching children’s lives or simply spoiling them. He has since travelled to various countries across the world to experience different societies, feeling that whilst his stories should comment on cutting edge advances it’s also important to highlight simple truths inherent to humanity that connect us as a species and what they mean for our collective future.

Kawamori concluded by highlighting several of his recent projects leading up to the forthcoming Macross Delta movie due next year, of which he noted he had been continuing his work on the storyboards during his time in London. He stated his gratitude for being invited to speak at the Barbican, feeling that the experience of meeting us will in turn enrich his work.