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Yasuhino Imagawa - Marching to a Different Drummer
By Ridwan Khan
I arrived at Georgia State University around 1:30. With the actual lecture beginning at three, I arrived early, before even the event staff. However, with a seating limit of 150 people, my companions and I wanted to be assured seating. After a futile search for a working camera, we sat in the growing line for some time. We had expected few people to show for the lecture, which seemed to get little local attention; however, by the start time of three, the line wrapped around the hall.
Luckily, the entire line was able to enter the lecture hall. After brief speeches from the Japanese consulate and the head of Asian studies at GSU, Imagawa-san took the podium and began speaking through an interpreter. Imagawa-san would speak for several sentences in Japanese, after which the interpreter would translate of the audience. Imagawa-san was dressed in a blue bandanna, a khaki colored jacket, and a brown "pin-up" t-shirt; in short, he was the classic bohemian artist.
Imagawa-san started with a little humor by greeting the crowd with "Ohayo gozaimasu." Animators often don't know what time it is outside and thus they simply greet everyone with Good Morning. Joking further, he chastised American fans for the cancellation of the original Mobile Suit Gundam, a series he called a "watershed" in anime history. According to Imagawa-san, earlier robot anime was overblown with black and white characters. In shows like Getter Robo and Mazinger Z, the good guys always won, the bad guys always lost. For Imagawa-san, the hackneyed plots became a "redundant" situation, with the same good versus evil story week to week.
He continued that Mobile Suit Gundam changed the idea of "robots as superheroes" for a generation of animators, including himself. The show featured identical mobiles suits - these suits weren't super heroes, but military weapons. Mobile Suit Gundam featured a dizzying array of politics, love, and most importantly to Imagawa-san, people fighting with people; good guys fighting among themselves, as well as against human enemies.
Both earlier robot anime and Mobile Suit Gundam were backed by sponsors, whose main interest was to use the shows as vehicles for selling toys. Mobile Suit Gundam "upgraded" standard mech toys with plastic models. These models were more realistic than previous toys and could be placed in diorama scenes that mimicked the television show. The new Mobile Suit Gundam models sold so well, the creators were free to do whatever they wanted with the series for a number of years. However, as the series continued on, sales dropped. The sponsors finally decided to give the Gundam series a last chance - with a show called G Gundam.
Imagawa-san was chosen to direct the new series, as he was a "distant disciple" of the original creator of Gundam. However, the sponsors decided to scrap the idea of a military-centric Gundam in order to increase toy sales. The designs Imagawa-san had produced for the new series were quickly dumped by a designer (who, according to Imagawa-san, "barely looked at them") who trotted out his own new designs - Gundams based on nationality. In Imagawa's words, they were "terrible." To highlight that point, he played clips of the various ethno-centric Gundams, including the Neo America Gundam, who came complete with a football helmet and boxing gloves and Neo Japan's Gundam, who resembled a samurai, down to the topknot. Imagawa-san was "stunned." He said, through his interpreter, "I didn't know how to react" to Gundam abandoning its military roots.
To further illustrate the ludicrousness of the concept, Imagawa-san played a clip from G Gundam's opening, showing the Earth with a ring around it, suggesting it was a ring. Imagawa-san, "thought it was stupid." Neo Hong Kong also came up during the clip - Imagawa-san said he was aware that Hong Kong would go back to China in the near future - so it wouldn't exist as an independent state in G Gundam's far future; to that the sponsors said, "Whatever." According to Imagawa-san, "My head was spinning." Imagawa-san even questioned, "What if the nationality based Gundams are offensive?" The sponsors countered by saying that adding "Neo" to every country (and saying they were off-Earth colonies) would solve the problem - and in the case of America, it could be "Neo A 'pause' merica."
Much of the Gundam staff was upset by the changes in the Gundam formula; some complained and others outright left. Imagawa-san joked, "I was afraid of walking alone at night, since someone might stab me for doing this to Gundam." According to Imagawa-san, one of the most important aspects of creating an anime is having the staff buy into and support the anime - without that the anime would suffer. Imagawa-san was not immune to this - to trip up the sponsor, he designed some complex Gundams, including the Dark Gundam, which wears a cape that becomes a pair of wings. Imagawa-san figured that the sponsor would be unable to create a toy based on the Dark Gundam - however, to his surprised they did, with a real transforming cape. He created another Gundam whose hands were its main weapons. The complex hand was another feature Imagawa-san thought the designers would not be able to recreate. Again, he was proven wrong: they created a Gundam with jointed fingers that were able to mimic the anime. At that point, Imagawa-san thought, "I lost to the sponsor."
To the surprise of Imagawa-san and many of the Gundam staff, G Gundam did "outrageously well." The designs he thought terrible, especially the "samurai" Gundam, looked incredible as models. The older generation of animators and directors had created "a box" for themselves in seeing Gundam as only a military license. On the other hand, many young kids were now being introduced to the world of Gundam through G Gundam. From this, Imagawa-san learned that anime creation was not always a competition between sponsors and creators. In anime, there was room for both groups to work together.
Imagawa-san began speaking on the practice of TV stations licensing old manga and TV characters for new anime. Generally, the original creators were strict with their creations and making an anime on old characters provided little room to do something new. However, Imagawa-san was fortunate in being able to work on Mr. Achiko, based on a manga about a young culinary expert. Imagawa-san introduced this anime to the audience with more clips, explaining how hard it was to show "taste" in anime. His clips highlighted how he overcame the barriers of his medium; in the opening, he used video footage. In the next clip, the particularly tasty pork cutlet glowed a warm glow. After that, ingredients in competing obento, Japanese boxed lunches, wrestled each other to decide which had the stronger flavor. Imagawa-san considers these additions, which were not in the original manga, his contribution to Mr. Achiko.
Next on Imagawa-san's resume was Giant Robo. He played a short clip of the anime, in English. He mentioned that he did something unthinkable when he began creating the cast for the show; though Giant Robo already had TV and manga incarnations, he was unable to use characters from them in the new series. So he went to one of his mentors and the creator of the original Giant Robo manga, the influential director, Mitsuteru Yokoyama (according to Imagawa, he is as famous as Osamu Tezuka in Japan). He was going to ask the fabled artist for permission to use his characters (not only those from Yokoyama's Giant Robo but spanning the manga artist's entire cannon of 230 manga works) in the new Giant Robo series. Imagawa-san did not expect Yokoyama's approval. However, Yokoyama, who said he knew nothing about animation, allowed Imagawa-san to freely use his characters in the Giant Robo anime, which created a potpourri of characters for Giant Robo's cast.
Thus, Imagawa-san introduced the audience to Shichinin no Nana or Seven of Seven, an anime about a middle school girl, Nana, who is in love with a classmate. Wishing to follow him to a prestigious high school, she pours her energy into studying for her high school entrance exams; not an easy task when she has six copies of her self, each miming a specific part of her personality.
From here, Imagawa-san went on a small tangent. Shichinin no Nana (which flopped in Japan, but is going to see an American DVD/VHS release) was a response to what Imagawa-san sees as the lack of courage in Japanese children. In his opinion, Japanese children were coming from the same mold, unable or unwilling to nurture and express their individual natures. Imagawa-san added that he had always considered himself "marching to the beat of a different drummer."
Finally, Imagawa-san added his love for old U.S. TV shows, including Kung Fu, Ben Casey, and the more recent Star Trek and ER. He also said he was influenced by Hitchcock and especially the Rocky Horror Picture Show, from which he pulled a quote -- "Don't dream it, be it."
At this point, Imagawa-san opened the floor to questions.
The first question to Imagawa-san was about what new anime he enjoyed. Imagawa-san responded that he could not answer that, because he "doesn't watch much anime anymore." He enjoys watching operas and kabuki, but avoids anime. He did this because, he said, when he was 16 or 17 he saw the Italian cartoon The Whale Named Josephina. It was set in a world where each child has a whale, that he or she can ride and fly on, and that only he or she can see. Imagawa-san said, when adults were asked why children didn't eat fish, they said it was because fish were hard to eat. In the Italian cartoon, one boy decided not to eat fish because they were living things. And from there, he did not eat animals, and then even vegetables, because even they were alive. The boy became weak, because he did not eat. Finally, his grandmother came and talked to the boy. She told him, that when eaten with respect and gratitude, the life of the fish is not given in vain; instead, every living creature depends on every other living creature. He admired the respect for children exhibited in that cartoon and said he cried after watching it, such that nothing could compare to that particular show in his opinion. For that reason, he tended not to watch anime any longer.
The second question was from the mother of a fourth grade son who is very interested in anime. She asked Imagawa-san how they could help their son in his interest, as he saw little encouragement from his group of friends. After the interpreter translated the question for him, Imagawa-san laughed, saying that the women had "put him on the spot" and that his answer had to be "responsible and wise." He answered that he respected the boy for doing something his friends did not encourage, for being an individual as he had mentioned before. He also said much of the work lay on the shoulders of the mother and father. Additionally, he suggested the young man become acquainted with many things beside anime, to broaden his horizons and enjoy other aspects of life. He told the boy not to concentrate solely on animation. He also told the young artist not to copy other art styles, as this would only limit his abilities.
The third question was from a woman who praised Imagawa-san's message about children. She asked if he would be interested in doing some sort of educational video on anorexia, eating disorders, and other similar maladies. After discussing it with other guests afterwards, the consensus was the question was inappropriate, as least in this forum. Imagawa-san answered by saying even in anime, when the message is so important, the show becomes preachy, and viewers lose interest. He said he enjoyed the Teletubbies and the simple way it taught children.
The last question asked had two parts: First, what directors had influenced Imagawa-san and second, would there be more Giant Robo? Imagawa-san tackled the second question first; he would not produce any new Giant Robo. However, he said it was possible and even likely that another director would pick up the series and run with it. As for the second question, he mentioned Hitchcock, Chaplin, and Woody Allen as influential to him. He also mentioned a number of European directors he liked. After this, Imagawa-san thanked the audience and encouraged them to buy Shichinin no Nana on DVD and Gundam toys.
After the lecture, a smaller reception was held were Imagawa-san spoke further on the anime industry. The theme of his shorter speech was on the limitations on anime and the self-imposed rules the anime industry now had concerning flashing colors/lights (after the Pokemon seizure incident) and with sexual content. Imagawa-san mentioned that he did not allow sexual content in his shows and he didn't show women's underwear in his programs. He mentioned how is animators wanted to add innuendo to Shichinin no Nana; he did not allow it in the TV broadcast, but allowed them to add a little innuendo to an unbroadcast twenty sixth episode that would appear on the DVD. Finishing up, Imagawa-san thanked the audience again and repeated his sales pitch.
My impressions of Imagawa-san were that he was an amiable and approachable man, with a wry sense of humor. I wonder about his claims that he doesn't allow sexuality in his anime (Virgin Fleet anyone?). In any case, it seemed that both Imagawa-san and everyone in attendance had a great time.
Note that quotes are approximate, since they have been filtered through an interpreter and my own notes. It is in largely in chronological order, except where it is more logical to place similar topics together.