Interview with Thunderbolt’s Matsuo Kou

Thunderbolt Season 2 episode one (5th episode in the series) is now available to watch and to celebrate I decided to start my blog off with an interview with the director of both season 1 and 2. The interview was included in the December Sky Blu-ray box set along with many others that I will get to eventually. Without further ado, the interview!

Matsuo Kou


The keywords were lightning and water

— What was your impression was of the manga?

Matsuo: When I was working on Gundam Reconguista in G, producer Ogata (Naohiro) talked with me about Thunderbolt. Gundam Thunderbolt would be a story unlike any of the One Year War OVAs to date and the polar opposite of G-Reco. I remember being genuinely perplexed. It was a difficult subject matter as well, what with characters dying one after another. I had the impression that it would become an incredibly dark story.

— What were some decisions you made as the director?

Matsuo: Lightning and water. I was impressed by the manga’s idea to have lightning in space created by electrical discharge from the debris. In ancient times, lightning meant the arrival of rain or water, and it was possible to see the promise of an abundant harvest. If I could overlap the tears — the water — that those first settlers shed, into the situation of those living in the Universal Century, it would give more meaning to the anime. That’s why there was the scene with Carla and Daryl having a conversation near the hallway mini tomato planter, and why Daryl’s tears came out one droplet after the next — because water was our key word.

— Speaking of which, Claudia’s room in the 1st episode had a small greenhouse, and then there was the scene with Carla in the 2nd episode.

Matsuo: Putting plants inside the ship was something director Tomino Yoshiyuki started with Zeta Gundam. Without that kind of stuff, it’s difficult to keep sane, and that is something I understand. The cut with Carla and the tomatoes was a difficult cut because it was her doing something completely unrelated while she talked, but it brought out the feeling that these people are living in the Universal Century.


— From the start, was it decided that there would be four episodes at 15-minutes each?

Matsuo: We decided the whole thing would run an hour long and the episode breaks would be dependent on the flow of the story. With the manga’s turning points in mind, we decided on splitting it into four episodes. The quality we proposed, with the schedule we had, and episodes at fifteen minutes each, it was a boatload of work.

— The final scene with Daryl and Io facing off brought the whole story to a close.

Matsuo: Really? When I was thinking about where to cut off the story, that was the only place I could think of. The conclusion is the most important part of a story, so I anticipate the ending even in the beginning. For Thunderbolt, when I thought about how to end this arc, I could only imagine the scene where Daryl’s true nature is revealed.

— Daryl’s true nature?

Matsuo: Yes. Daryl is a kind-hearted person. He even feels sorry for Carla, who took his hand but inside of him sleeps the mad drive to settle his score with Io. That is the concluding point. If that much is understandable, then the meaning and plot were able to get across. The story, from the 1st episode to the 4th, was a process strung together to slowly reveal Daryl’s true nature.

— So Daryl was a like a connection between the past and present. What about Io?

Matsuo: I first thought of digging deeper into Io, but when I tried drawing him, I realized that Io is a person who isn’t bound by his past. When his fellow pilots entered the Thunderbolt zone, they were unable to shoot in the direction of Side Four’s ruins. Even though it was now a war-devastated area, it was still the place they used to call home. Io, however, was able to shoot. Even with the other pilots asking “Are you telling us to attack our own home?!” That’s how much he’s cut out his past, and that’s something I wanted to highlight. By showing this kind of Io, we could fix his position in the story. And finally, we could draw Daryl — who clutches onto his past more than Io disregards his — and his descent to becoming more and more like Io.


— What did you think about the mech scenes?

Matsuo: They weren’t all that different from other Gundam series I’ve worked on. The Thunderbolt mobile suits had a unique extra arm attached that required some thought on how to best utilize. I knew the arm was going to be used in the 4th episode during a battle, so I put in cuts like the Zaku’s arm automatically clearing away debris, in the 1st episode. I wanted to try and capture all the different uses and capabilities that were possible. I also wanted to take full advantage of the skills of our mechanical directors, Naka Morifumi and Nakatani Seiichi.



— Teraoka Iwao wrote the storyboard for the 2nd episode, and Katoki Hajime wrote for the 3rd episode. Both of these men specialize in mechanical animation.

Matsuo: We talked about the general direction to head in, and I left the rest to them. Teraoka has written storyboards for countless works and understood what I liked to include since he worked with me on Valvrave the Liberator. As for Kataoki, after we had our meeting about the screenplay he didn’t need much explanation from me.

— The character designer, Takaya Hirotoshi, used tablets a lot to draw out the expression of the characters.

Matsuo: From the beginning, Takaya said he wanted to use tablets. Using tablets for this kind of work is rather tedious, but if the animation director wants to do it, then you have to comply (laughs). We tested four different ways to add in shadows and make the shapes look appropriate. We decided on drawing the narrow, color separating, lines with the tablet. While testing, we tried a style similar to director Kawajiri Yoshiaki’s [Wicked City & Ninja Scroll] style of ‘color separating lines that just barely show.’

— Will this change the way animation is made if using tablets to draw high content images becomes a norm?

Matsuo: When we used the tablets, we tried as much as possible to limit it to scenes that weren’t so detailed and, instead, to expressions or the emotion displayed in the characters’ eyes like in cuts when they’re in battle. This was a simple design, so if their expression changed, or they moved their head just a little, you could still connect the performance. That’s the most efficient way to use it. Using a lot of the tablet for fine movements will make the scene very noisy, and that will remain in the viewers’ memory instead of important things like what the characters are saying. That’s why we kept tablet use to a minimum with movement. For this film, we used a method that brought back the feel of cel animation, where you only apply filters to certain sections of the scene. In anime from the later half of the 80s, killing time by filling in the the darkest part with beta wasn’t all that uncommon (laughs).

— How did you feel about putting all four episodes together as December Sky?

Matsuo: Until we tried putting it together I was worried.

— Why is that?

Matsuo: I first felt it when we were doing the dubbing, that the people that watched this as a full-length movie wouldn’t have anywhere to rest while viewing. Looking at the runtime, I was fully aware it could be a very exhausting film. However, if you compare it to the theatrical releases the screen people will watch on is probably much smaller, like their computers, so I was able to wrap my head around the idea. We assimilated the episodes, and honestly, it was perplexing how we made it large screen friendly.

— Is that so?

Matsuo: During editing, we extended a number of cuts by a bit. It was only a bit, like adding in 12 frames (0.5 seconds) to a scene, but by adding in just those frames here and there, a break appeared.

— You also changed the music, correct?

Matsuo: That’s correct. We had created music to play during 15-minute segments, but now it was necessary to play songs over an hour long segment meaning we had to reposition things. In the end, the overall number of songs decreased. But once that was recreated I was able to see it, I was able to see how this movie would be seen on the big screen. Up until then, I had been worried.

— The atmosphere of this work is due in large part to Kikuchi Seki’s music.

Matsuo: Yes, it is. Free jazz and oldies, Io and Daryl, he does such a perfect job of defining the characters I think the music would accomplish this even without the animation. Before the music was written, I drew up the storyboards, but when we had our meeting, and I heard the concept songs tempo, I felt that the music and anime were sure to be a perfect fit for each other.

— How did you decide on the title December Sky?

Matsuo: One of the reasons was that the end of the One Year War was in December. On the other hand, lightning is something that usually occurs between summer and fall, not winter. So it essentially was “the war’s end in December, but lightning still falls from the sky,” I thought an uncomfortable title would be better.

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