If I have my information correct Gundam NT (Narrative) was the first Gundam movie to get a US theatrical release on February 19th, 2019. At the very least, it got a rather timely release only months after it showed in Japan as well a great turn out so hopefully, this is a step in the right direction! (Original trilogy next? Please?) Anyway, today I bring you an interview with NT‘s first-time director Yoshizawa Shunichi and veteran producer Ogata Naohiro. Enjoy!
Original interview from Akiba-Souken.
— First off, how did production for Gundam NT get rolling?
Ogata: In 2014 the final Unicorn Gundam OVA release, then in 2016, the TV version Gundam Unicorn RE: 0096 aired, and finally in 2017, the life-sized Unicorn Gundam was erected in Odaiba. The series was such a success that we talked about where we might be able to take it next. A story that takes place around the same timeline as Unicorn seemed to be a given, so we dabbled in the idea of a Gundam Unicorn 2. Continuing an already drawn-out series with even more story would take time, though, so Fukui decided to start with bringing in the Unicorn Gundam 03 Phenex from Phoenix Hunting.
— The movie changes quite a lot from Phoenix Hunting.
Ogata: During our meeting, we agreed on using Phoenix Hunting as a motif, or starting point, but ultimately rewriting to bring in a new main character and what not. We thought about naming it Unicorn 2 or Unicorn 1.5—to connect it to Unicorn—but we went with Gundam NT because it is a new narrative added to the Universal Century timeline.
— This is the series that will start the “UC NexT 0100 Project,” correct?
Ogata: “UC NexT 0100 Project” at its core is a way to fill in the gap between the events following the conclusion of Unicorn and the start of Gundam F91. Only once the production for NT was underway, did we decide to follow up with projects that were attached to games, novels, and manga. If we were delving into further UC territory, why not keep going?
— Gundam NT has the potential to be a very influential film as the starting point of this ambitious project.
Ogata: You’re right, the pieces will overlap at times, but Fukui intends for NT to be the punctuation point between Unicorn and the rest of the UC timeline. Fukui brought together all the Universal Century storylines up until that point and arranged them into Gundam NT.
— Why was it that you chose for Gundam NT to be a theatrical release as opposed to an OVA like Unicorn or Gundam Thunderbolt?
Ogata: By going for the movie format we created yet another way to enjoy UC Gundam. I’m falling back on Unicorn again, but when we first were brainstorming of how to distribute it, we thought of going the traditional OVA route like its UC predecessors 0080 War in the Pocket, 0083 Stardust Memory, and 8th MS Team. However, at the time (late 2000s) OVA culture had collapsed—straight to video series weren’t selling anymore. When we thought of how we could sell it, the idea came to show it in theaters then sell it afterward. We could even have special viewing events where we could sell the discs. Simply put, for NT, we went straight to the movie format instead of showing OVAs as movies.
The movie version of Gundam Thunderbolt has been pretty popular as well as Star Blazers: Space Battleship Yamato 2199 and Star Blazers: Space Battleship Yamato 2202, so we thought it was about time we gave movie version a chance. There were a lot of places we could have easily not put effort into, but seeing how NT was set to be the flagship piece to restart the UC timeline, one thing we wanted was for all 47 prefectures to enjoy it. And while it wouldn’t be released at the same time, we wanted America, China, and other Asian countries to be able to watch it.
— Can you tell us why you decided on Yoshizawa Shunichi to be the director?
Ogawa: Yoshizawa had been working in Studio 1 on series like Gundam Reconguista in G and Thunderbolt, but I think I first asked for his involvement in the project towards the beginning of Thunderbolt.
Yoshizawa: That’s right.
Ogawa: We’re trying to usher in new, young talent, but… well, you’re not that young (laughs).
— If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?
Yoshizawa: I’m thirty-nine.
Ogawa: We wanted forty and unders working on UC Gundams. It was that way for the TV release of G-Reco and the movie version now. I guess we want them to sort of bathe in Tomino’s light.
There are many stories within the Universal Century. Furuhashi Kazuhiko took a new approach with directing Unicorn, which I think was for the best, but we wanted something a little closer to Tomino’s style this time around, so we asked Yoshizawa.
— What is unique about Yoshizawa’s directing?
Ogawa: I’m not sure about the artistic side of it, but Yoshizawa has a particular tempo or rhythm to his work. He is aware of Tomino’s directing style, and I felt that his tempo was a good match for this project.
Yoshizawa: That’s how our conversation went, but when you first brought up the proposal to me, I turned white. It would be my directorial debut, and a movie at that—I was surprised. I had no reason to turn it down though, so I accepted it.
While working on G-Reco, I had briefly talked to Tomino about how to go about future job proposal discussions. He told me I wasn’t in any position to be picky about my offers, so I went in with an “I’ll take whatever comes at me!” kind of attitude.
— How did Tomino react when you told him you were going to be the director?
Yoshizawa: Ha ha ha ha. Well, he seemed pretty worried when I told him, but he gave me advice here and there—kind of like he was pushing me in the right direction. Even when I drew storyboards or did work for other companies, I asked Tomino for advice. Taking the other company’s work into consideration, he would give me advice on techniques—stuff like moving the camera angle to get more dynamic shots, paying attention to how characters rise and fall during their steps, or just generally how to liven up a scene. It was always very concrete advice so I sent him the storyboard for the opening phase of NT out of curiosity of what he would say.
The next day he didn’t come to the studio. I thought, “Huh, that’s weird,” but then he didn’t come the day after that either. I thought he’d had enough, but when I finally asked him he said he got frustrated after seeing the first couple of pages. Reason being that NT starts with the colony drop scene. “You’re all so young, and yet you’re going to start from the colony drop scene just like all those years ago?” Basically, he was saying it was a pretty big failure (laughs).
Ogawa: It’s fine. Better he said it then (laughs).
Yoshizawa: Tomino felt that we hadn’t taken a single step from his UC stories. This is a story that takes place after Char’s Counterattack, so why were we falling back on the same setup? From there, he had some not-so-nice words towards the scenario writers. I wonder what kind of face I was making during that…
Ogawa: I’m sorry you had to take the brunt of that (bitterly laughs). Did you take anything away from that scolding (laughs)?
Yoshizawa: I’m going off track here a bit, but Tomino always has nothing but positive words for Imagawa Yasuhiro (director of G Gundam). Imagawa made a completely different kind of Gundam, after all. Tomino also saw the first episode of Wing Gundam recently and had nothing but praise for that as well. Seeing the scene where the character just comes out with, “I’ll kill you,” he said that was a fresh spin on drama (laughs).
The Gundam series that he likes to see are ones that are lightyears away from the Gundam he created. Because of how he is, you would think he has this strict image of what Gundam is supposed to be, but in reality, he praises lots of other Gundams with stuff like, “What a fresh take on it,” “This is an interesting angle to attack it from,” or “This is a Gundam I’d never thought of!” I wonder why he doesn’t say it to others when he tells me all the time. Anyway, because of that, I worked up the courage to try and vary myself while still staying within the restrictions.
Ogawa: We had a lot of restrictions on you, what kind of stuff did you end up going with?
Yoshizawa: Well, the colony had to fall, right? Usually, the colony falls, and the whole screen turns white, but this story focuses on the circumstances around adults, and those affected by war, so we drew the fall with that in mind. Before, there was never a camera placed on the ground capturing the hole created by the impact and the countless lives lost. The Musai, the Zakus, the colony falling, we didn’t focus on that at all. I just changed where we placed the camera is all.
I also changed the presentation of the Gundams. In Zeta Gundam, it starts with the Mk. II Gundam, then Zeta Gundam appears. In Victory Gundam, it works its way up to the V2 Assault-Buster Gundam. Everything keeps powering up. In NT, the first time Narrative shows up is when it’s at its flashiest—it only gets simpler after that. The opposite of the norm. Having things opposite of the norm, or just changing how it was present, was how I tackled the challenge. If you watch with that in mind, I think you can spot the slight differences.
— What were you focused on while creating NT?
Yoshizawa: I really think it was the film’s speed and tempo. I tried to go for pacing similar to Char’s Counterattack—the fights and the drama coming at you one after another. Given how long Unicorn was, it was able to take full advantage of that and show off massive mobile suit battles or fluid character animation depending on what was needed and then connect it between the films. NT is, well, the complete opposite on this front. I also like the Gundam films more than the original TV broadcast. This isn’t exactly a point about film, tempo, or characters’ walking animation, I just like a specific pattern of directing and was able to do that. I watched Tomino’s anime since I was a kid, so I think it was a question of how do I incorporate that into my work? It’s something that got drilled into my head while working on G-Reco.
— What were you told while working on it?
Yoshizawa: Oh nothing specific as I had heard it all before. However, I was able to get to the heart of what I’d heard while working on G-Reco. The more you work with it, the more extensive your knowledge of it is.
— Can I ask about the character designs as well? The character designer this time around was Kim Se Jun, director, scriptwriter, character designer, storyboarder, key animator, mechanical designer, and animation director for Gundam Twilight Axis. How did he come on board?
Ogawa: NT was actually approved first. We hadn’t properly moved into production yet though so the release orders were reversed.
— Interesting. Kim has a 90s analog style to his artwork.
Ogawa: He definitely has that 90s Madhouse feel to his art. The reason we brought on Kim was that he could draw old guys. There aren’t a lot of people that can draw old guys well, and they are abundant in UC. The lines are very fine, so it seems like picking up a sense for it is pretty tricky.
— There are a lot of hand-drawn mechs in NT. What would you say is the allure of hand-drawn mechs?
Yoshizawa: Fluctuation. When you draw with 3DCG the lines are perfect every time, but with hand-drawn stuff the form is often broken, the lines don’t match up, and there are smear effects that all add more character to the animation. By using that smear to your advantage, you reveal a charming part to the animation. The opening sequence is out, so if you look at it closely, there are parts of the setting that are completely off. Those are good moments of that fluctuation. That’s what I felt at least.
This is especially true for mecha animation. Komatsu Eiji is an amazing mecha key animator that knows how to use smears and deformation to his advantage. The Anksha transform in a slow and clunky way, but he was able to fantastically draw up a shortened version in the blink of an eye! He fudged his way through transformation mechanics with the smear effects. It’s amusing to see what each animator brings to the table.
That doesn’t mean there’s no merit in 3D. In fact, precision is key. The sheer amount of detail that can be added is fascinating. In the latter half of the movie, there is a scene where they’re flying through an uncountable amount of gas tanks, that would be far too exhausting to draw by hand. The Phenex Destroy Mode transformation gimmick is incredibly detailed and shines because it’s 3DCG. If that’s what you like than CG is what you want—both sides have their appeal, so it’s not crazy to say you like both.
— Can you clue me in on why you want the younger generation, artists like Yoshizawa, Kim, and Komatsu working on Gundam?
Ogata: I mean, everyone else has gotten older, so it’s harder for them to draw fine lines with their worn eyes (laughs). No, I’m only joking. Of course, that’s a concern, but every new generation has different experiences and shows they grew up with. Even if they all like the same series, they could have picked up different things depending on when they watched it. I’m forty-four right now, but if we went with my interest and preferences it would end up being the fifties and up creators with our target audience being the later generations. That’s how series were created, and how they will be created, but with stuff like Unicorn that was intended for the thirty to forties crowd, it gets a TV airing, and suddenly the view age range expands. When you think about what Gundam should be about from here on out, it has to be for that next generation, not use older guys that are going to die in twenty or thirty years. However, if we continue to stick with the same group of people making what we like, then it’ll get stuck on the forty to fifties group. With that in mind, we bring in the younger generation to work on series.
I think by having Tomino team up with these different creators he’s able to rejuvenate himself in a sense—he had his time to preserve his work. Gundam deserves the same treatment by having new entries one after another put out by young creators. By doing that, we’ll get closer to reaching the next generation. Of course, this means going down entirely new avenues like with Iron-Blooded Orphans and Build Divers, but it also means taking a fresh approach to the Universal Century. It’s no fun if the same set of fans get to see the same thing over and over again. Tomino has said this before, but he sees Gundam as a weapon for young creators to make a name for themselves while making what they want.
That’s why, while we had a lot of the staff from Unicorn, the core of the project was comprised of a younger generation. They’re the main while the Unicorn staff is their support. So while NT is a Universal Century Gundam, it will likely be different than what you’re used to. That’s part of the fun.
— As the director, who do you think is the most interesting character in NT?
Yoshizawa: Of course, I have a personal attachment to all of them, but Zoltan Akkanen is definitely my favorite. He’s an odd fellow who comes out singing in his first scene. Things end up pretty out of this world for him in the end, but he completely surrendered to evil and that stuck with me. Dealing with, or well, drawing such an odd character was something new for me. That’s why he was singing—you don’t see that all too often.
You know in Zeta there’s the character Rosamia? Out of nowhere she starts acting like an elementary school girl and calling Judau her big brother—it strikes you as weird. That’s Zoltan. On the inside, he’s just a little 5th-grade boy. He’ll shoot a beam rifle inside of a colony and kill innocent bystanders just as easily as he’ll sing at an inappropriate time.
I was talking about it with Fukui a bit, but Zoltan is the kind of guy that nearly kills a mechanic after accidentally being bumped in the shoulder—he’s trouble. We thought about how to display that and came up with the idea to have the latter half directed like a horror movie. It was fun to write and draw him—I favor the bad guys.
Ogata: Zoltan’s idiosyncrasy is that he’s an enemy that lives based on morals. He punishes the bad and rewards the good. This wasn’t something that was covered in Unicorn. With Full Frontal as the villain, there was only a little bit of room for a story on morality. That coupled with Ikeda Shunichi’s voice for the animated version, changed Fukui’s characterization of him. That’s why, for Zoltan, we decided to have him surrender to evil from the get-go. There’s no bad guy like that in the Gundam universe.
Yoshizawa: Thinking about it that way, that is a new concept. A villain who surrendered to evil. He was forced by adults to become a Cyber Newtype. You can’t help but feel bad for him, but at the same time we drew him out to exhaust his role as a bad guy. Zoltan is possibly a new part in the ever-expanding Gundam universe.
— So, if I understand this correctly, the story has merit as a human drama. Can you tell us about that?
Yoshizawa: I’m talking straight out of the scenario, but rather than restricting ourselves to slowly driving into a corner of tragedy, the tragedy was always there, the pain and pity were always there. He was used by everyone, dealt with at the Newtype Research Center, and grew up in a world where adults didn’t care for children. When I read just how tragic he was in the scenario, I knew I wanted to preserve it in the film.
Ogata: Unicorn, on the other hand, had lots of very empathetic adults.
Yoshizawa: Yeah. NT is a story about adults hurting children, which connects to the opening colony drop scene.
— I’m going to change the topic, but can you tell us your personal experience with Gundam.
Yoshizawa: Ever since I was a kid I watched tons of anime that re-aired on TV, but within all that, Sunrise’s 80s robot anime were my favorite. I fell in love with stuff like Armored Trooper VOTOMS and Panzer World Galient and got to watch Zeta air in real-time. Zeta‘s final episode scared me so much that I actually stopped watching anime for some time. I think I was in 2nd or 3rd grade in elementary school at the time—it was a source of trauma. Yet here I am as an adult making the same thing that traumatized me (laughs).
— NT does have a similar occultic feeling like the ending of Zeta gave.
Yoshizawa: That’s right. I felt that when I read Fukui’s Phoenix Hunting, there is just something occultic about the Phenex. One of the focal points for it was the way it sparkles and lights up as well as how different its movements are compared to other mobile suits. I’m sure Fukui was writing the scenario with Zeta in mind.
— What was it like between you and Fukui?
Yoshizawa: Of Tomino’s works I love Char’s Counterattack and Space Runaway Ideon. When I was talking with Fukui it turned out he felt the same way—we found a connection between us. We were talking about how Ideon‘s theme kind of brings into question what a newtype is, in its own way of course.
Ogata: I think Fukui was always thinking about what a newtype is. That’s something his generation is a little too fixated on though (laughs).
Also, why you keep calling it occultic, I personally see it more as a fantasy. Gundam has been military-centric as well dramatically realistic, so this time I feel like it breaks off from some of that and becomes a fantasy.
Yoshizawa: A fantasy, huh? I can’t wait to see this fantasy Gundam in theaters!
Ogata: Don’t say that! You’re one of the people who worked on it (laughs)!
— Thank you for the interview!