Behind Gundam’s Creation

During the production of the first Gundam, many of the staff believed it was a failure—that it would become another one of the many anime lost to time. Despite this, they worked hard until the end and managed to go on to become a cultural phenomenon. To showcase this process, for the 40th-anniversary NHK aired a 50-minute documentary interviewing many of the staff involved.


Running off the popularity of the 1997 compilation movie of Space Battleship Yamato, Tomino and other Sunrise staff had the idea to make an anime that would be deserving of its own compilation movie. By that time, Tomino had successfully directed two robot series, Zambot 3 and Daitarn 3, so giving him the ambitious plan didn’t seem like a problem at all.

Masao Izuka (37 years old at the time) – Nippon Sunrise project planner

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“If Sunrise kept going with the same business model, all our works would be done in a year and forgotten. Unless we pushed for something bigger than that, we’d return to being nothing more than a subcontracted company. We needed something that would get big enough to warrant a movie version and make a name for itself—something like Space Battleship Yamato. That’s why we thought up a new plan, something that would stick with people, something that would put Sunrise’s name on the map.”

Tomino Yoshiyuki (37 years old at the time) – Director & Animator

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“Giant robots were an established genre at that point. It was thriving proudly as its own genre, but about two years before Gundam began, we started to see it decline. I had put out two giant robot anime and putting out a third that performed the same seemed like a waste for our sponsors. That’s when we set our sights on making something worthy of getting a movie version.

“Back then, it was pretty common to see stories following the monster or mech-of-the-week formula. I wondered what would happen if I veered away from that formula. Would people understand the story if we structured everything differently? If we were able to get our story in the theater, it might boost the giant robot genre back into the spotlight. From a business perspective, it would expand our audience.”

Plans for Gundam originally started as Freedom Fighter Gunboy (or just Gunboy), which was a similar concept to what we know today. It was meant to be a more down to Earth story. Nothing flashy or superheroic about it, just a story about your average pilot.

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Yasuhiko Yoshikazu (31 years old at the time) – Character Designer & Animation director

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“Our planning room was a tiny six-tatami apartment room. We all stuffed in there together and kept parroting ‘So what are we gonna do?’ at each other. That’s where Tomino brought out his notes. Now, when I say notes, but what I mean is he brought out 30-pages of pre-written concepts and dropped it on the floor with a thud in front of all of us. I couldn’t believe he had written that much—it was pretty amusing.”

The sponsor’s request was to have a twenty-meter tall robot. Tomino and his team put together the plans, sent them in, and thus Gundam was approved. A story of characters discovering the truth of the world around them and finding their reason to live in it.

Tomino Yoshiyuki – Director & Animator
“You can’t fight on Earth if you have a twenty-meter robot, that’s why we initially took the story to space. If that were the case the only way we saw fit to instigate this war was to divide enemies and allies between people living in space and people who remained on Earth. There was no room for stuff like aliens. With no aliens, it left a story of humans fighting humans. That shared ancestry could lead to collusion or families being split up. It was something we had to incorporate.

“Char’s name and the fact that he was an enemy was pretty set in stone early on, so his sister got put on the ally side. With her as the protagonist’s ally, it created an easy to understand split family dynamic. Traditional robot and SF works, especially the ones aimed at children, by nature cut that kind of stuff out.”

The Characters

Yasuhiko Yoshikazu – Character Designer & Animation director
“What I remember was Tomino detailing Amuro having sanpaku eyes with the white space visible under his irises and frizzy carrot like hair. When I showed him what I had, he was pleased—told me it looked good. That’s how Amuro came to be. Usually, the protagonist is supposed to be cool, burning with the desire for justice, and whether he’s got brains or muscles, he tries his best. A protagonist that everyone can love is what you usually go for, but we were bored with that. We wanted something else. Nowadays it’s pretty standard to have a protagonist that isn’t upstanding, but at the time it was groundbreaking. A gloomy mecha-enthusiast with no friends wasn’t exactly an everyday sight.

Casting Amuro

At the time, Furuya Toru was an up and coming voice actor who had gained fame from his role of Hoshi Hyuma in Star of the Giants.

Furuya Toru (25 years old at the time) – Amuro’s VA

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“I was working with a lot of hot-blooded hero characters. When I had to say these impassioned lines like, “I’m getting fired up!!” I felt like I was reverting to Hoshi Hyuma. I felt like I’d frozen myself into one role. The roles I were receiving were different, so I needed to act differently—I needed to give them all different voices, but I was struggling.

“That’s when I came upon the role of Amuro Ray from Gundam. When I first went in for the audition, they explained that Amuro was a character that didn’t want to fight. I was pretty perplexed on how to depict a robot anime main character that didn’t want to fight. I thought, ‘what if I let all my tension out and spoke freely—spoke like I’m having an everyday conversation. If I could get this character just right and give a worthy performance, I might finally be able to shed myself of Hoshi Hyuma.’”

Casting Char

Ikeda Shuichi was a popular drama actor who hadn’t dabbled in voice acting until it was decided he would audition for the role of Amuro.

Ikeda Shuichi (29 years old at the time) – Char’s VA

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“I had spoken with my manager about breaking into anime voice acting. It seemed pretty difficult, so I actually ran away from it at first. Amuro is a young boy—I knew that was impossible for me. Then I saw Yasuhiko’s drawings of Char. It wasn’t a question of whether I could pass the audition or not for me at that point. When I saw Char, I knew I had to try.”

The Mech Designs

Okawara Kunio (31 years old at the time) – Mechanical designer

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“The Gundam, Guncanon, and Guntank were only possible after collecting and condensing the pooled ideas of the staff and sponsors. The enemies on the other hand usually weren’t sold as products, so I had a lot more fun creating the Zeon mechs.”

Interviewer: What was fun about it?

“I had complete freedom. All Tomino wanted was a mono-eye, everything else after that was entirely up to me. Before coming into this industry I worked with apparel, so the Zaku had a business suit sort of design. After hearing from Tomino about the mono-eye, it took me only about a week to turn around a design. The second draft became the final draft. They really let me do whatever I wanted.

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Zaku 1st draft

The Start of the Ambitious Project

Yasuhiko Yoshikazu – Character Designer & Animation director
“All of Sunrise was poor. Even Gundam couldn’t escape that. At the time, the main powerhouse of Sunrise was Nagahama (Tadao)‘s team. That’s where the subcontracted work for Toei’s Voltes V went. You have to give your best for outsourced work. Originals, on the other hand, stay underfunded. Don’t ask me why.

“When I worked on the Yamato movie, I thought, Sunrise could do this, but we would want to do it in three movies. For Yamato, the color chart for the cels had something like three-hundred different colors. When I was working on Gundam, I had maybe seventy-nine different colors. I told them that was impossible and was able to introduce three more colors to get a grand total of eighty-two. Why did I get more colors with Yamato when it was just a grey ship (laughs)!

“When the first episode of Gundam aired I was actually in a meeting for Yamato—lots of Toei big wigs were there. I asked them, “Do you mind if I turn on the TV?” When they asked why I told them that the first episode of a new show I was working on was airing and I hoped they’d let me see it live. Everyone at the meeting stopped what they were doing, and we all watched the first episode. It was a win in my book (laughs). It was like I wasn’t even at the meeting, my heart was completely engrossed in Gundam. It was a good move. Everyone silently watched and not a single one of them had anything negative to say about it. We’d taken our first shots at Yamato. I’m sure everyone in the room wanted to watch the rest.”

Okawara Kunio – Mechanical designer
“I was only a designer, but eventually those designs moved—they were animated. When I first saw that, it sent chills down my spine. The Zakus looked so cool when they entered the space colony. The design that so easily popped out of my head and onto the paper was the coolest out of all of them. Even if the ratings were bad or the toys didn’t sell, I was proud of my design. With my job, if the toys don’t sell, it’s considered a failure, but with Gundam, I gave myself a pass.”

Matsuzaki Kenichi (28 years old at the time) – Script and SF setting coordinator

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“Thinking back, while Gundam was a show aimed at kids, we definitely veered off track when it came to making certain things. Tomino would say items or settings he wanted, and it was up to me to figure out what was necessary to make that happen. Lots of brainstorming.

“The whole show was a setting that Tomino really had an attachment to so I thought about naming things Tominovsky (laughs). Instead, we cut that up a bit and made it sound a bit more like a Russian scientist. Then I realized that Minovsky particles were the answer to all our problems. I handed the idea to him and left it at that (laughs).”

Everything Comes Together

Yasuhiko Yoshikazu – Character Designer & Animation director
“After looking at the storyboards, I wanted to be animation director for each episode. Every single one of them was such a compelling story. That wasn’t possible, of course. There were single scenes that I was able to get my hands on, though. Stuff like when Amuro runs away, when he gets called out for it, when he says he’ll never forgive them, when he gets slapped, when he says not even his father slapped him. I was thrilled. It felt great—I thought I could keep taking on everything.”

Itano was a new animator who spent the night in the office a lot. He practically lived there and thus saw a lot of what other staff members might have missed during after hours.

Itano Ichiro (20 years old at the time) – Animator

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“The part with Miharu hit Tomino the hardest, and he was inspired to write the storyboard himself. While Tomino was working, he’d called out to Yasuhiko, “Yas, you gotta come read this!” Yasuhiko would come over asking, “What’s up, Tomino?” and Tomino would look up at him and say, “I couldn’t help crying while drawing this storyboard.” Tomino insisted it was a tear jerker and asked for Yasuhiko’s thoughts on it. When Yasuhiko finished reading it, I saw him tearing up as he walked by me. He handed back the storyboards and said, “Miharu is a good girl.” Then they went back and forth talking about how powerful of a story was. I was curious what kind of storyboard it was, and Tomino had left it open on his desk after he left, so I quickly flipped through it. I was moved just as much as them. The both of them were guys who barely cried, and yet they were moved to tears. After they went home, I was able to share the same feelings as them.

A Ratings Fight

Gundam aired on Saturday at 5:30 pm. Yamato II that aired on a different channel at 7:00 pm finished the same day Gundam started. They need to break the 20% ratings that Yamato II frequently got. However, they averaged around 3%.

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Ueda Masao (23 years old at the time) – Production assistant

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“No matter what, ratings are always hanging over studio’s heads. Each episode goes up on a board that has the staff involved and in a column to the right of that, the ratings. Every week the TV stations would tell us the ratings, and we would write them down. Week after week that number decreased. It wasn’t like we were doing anything wrong. No one in the staff felt we were making a joke show or screwing around. Everyone was proud of what we were putting out. It must have been hard for Tomino—he had to take the full force of any and all complaints.”

Yasuhiko Yoshikazu – Character Designer & Animation director
“Ratings are difficult. Think about it, A show that airs in April at 5:30? The sun hasn’t even gone down by that point. It’s a problem of time. Who’s going to be home in time for that on a Saturday? Of course, the ratings were low, but logic wasn’t reaching anyone.”

More to Gundam Than Anime

Itano Ichiro – Animator
“There were a whole bunch of coloring books for three to five-year-olds titled stuff like ‘Our Gundam, Fight, Gundam!, Strong Gundam’, but Tomino kept hearing that they weren’t selling. They wanted a Gundam toy that was like the Mazinger Z toy where the arms pop out and even if we did, Tomino continued to get yelled at—‘Why isn’t it selling, Tomino! What are you doing?!’ I’d look over and he’d be on the phone bowing while profusely apologizing. Once he hung up, he’d sigh and go cheer himself up with all the fan letters from university and high school students. Because I saw him in that light, I knew that what Tomino and Yasuhiko were doing was the right thing. Despite getting blamed by sponsors and crashing against these theoretical waves they never appeared irritated in front of the rest of the staff. They were much more worried about us doing well, so I felt that the rest of us needed to put our best foot forward for them.

New Toys for More People

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Ueda Masao – Production assistant
“The toy company was our primary sponsor, so we had to think of a way to sell toys. There was the G Fighter that acted as a support mech that we introduced. Every show has something like that, that could push its sale in the latter half of the series so naturally, Gundam did too. There are times where, even after following orders, it might not sell well, so we were also told to keep the G Fighter in the show for as long as possible. It would create more of an impression that way and possibly sell more. Even so, if it’s a mech that isn’t utilized often, even if it’s there for a long time, it has the potential to not gain popularity.”

Much to Tomino’s dismay, The decision to cut Gundam short came sometime around the twenty-ninth episode.

Yasuhiko Yoshikazu – Character Designer & Animation director
“I thought having fifty-two episodes was a waste, so I was kind of glad it got cut to forty-three.”

Ueda Masao — Production assistant
“It was Tomino who was the first to hear the decision, definitely. They had a meeting, and he came back to the studio dejected and sadly announced they had planned to cut the series short. Everyone was there to support him and try to comfort him, but I think we were all a little happy. It was a challenging project (laughs).”

Having a show cut short wasn’t new by any means. While it was sad, the staff would wait for what their next project would be.

Itano Ichiro – Animator
“The ratings were bad, and the toys and coloring books weren’t selling. The sponsors were mad at Tomino and so the decision to cut the show was made. It was already decided that Sunrise Studio 1 would be assisting Tsuburaya Production with The Ultraman to bring in funds. They told us that I and the others would work mainly on The Ultraman instead of Gundam. Internally, I was questioning them up and down thinking what cowards they were to do this. I like Ultraman and all, but I wasn’t so sure about an anime version. The producer told me they’d get me back for the next show, so I just needed to focus and finish what I was assigned. I kept getting more and more jobs that weren’t Gundam, but I still felt like I was apart of the team.”

Enter Lalah
[spoilers]

Han Keiko – Lalah Sune’s VA

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“Lalah enters around the climax and soon loses her life soon after. Despite that, I do believe that her role had a great deal of merit. While Lalah and Amuro are in the midst of an unforgivable love, Char comes in to break up the two. It was amazing that the show could have such a romantic and dramatic departure. Honestly, I think they were able to take full advantage of being cut short. It’s a story that captures your heart.”

[End spoilers]
Trouble Strikes

Yasuhiko Yoshikazu – Character Designer & Animation director
“I thought I was having a heart attack at first. I don’t know anything about my body and I’m no doctor. I’d heard of animators suddenly dying from heart attacks after working too hard despite being young. That’s why I thought, ‘oh no, it’s my turn.’ I was so tired. There I was, thinking I was going to die, it was the middle of the night after all… man, this is kind of embarrassing to say, but I kept repeating to myself ‘Don’t you dare die,’ out loud over and over again. It was nothing but words, but I was able to get to the bathroom and tell myself ‘it won’t even be funny if you die here.’ I was able to call an ambulance before entirely losing consciousness.”

Tomino Yoshiyuki – Director & Animator
“Without an animation director, there’s no one to make all the keyframes cohesive. That meant that I was the only one that could draw the keyframes, everything else was unchecked, so we theoretically couldn’t use them. That coupled with getting the series cut short made people throw their hands in the air and give up. That’s the situation we were faced with. Our fight against the odds started there, and a lack of quality showed that. We had to air with what keyframes we got, but for some of the animators, even though they were trying their best, still had a long way to go before they could go unchecked. I’ll say it once. I’ll say it a million times. There are some pretty awful keyframes of mine in the TV version.”

Yasuhiko was admitted to the hospital and could do nothing but watch as Gundam continued to air.

Yasuhiko Yoshikazu – Character Designer & Animation director
“It was so hard to watch. I felt so bad. I couldn’t give it my undivided attention. Every time I did I thought, ‘oh no, that’s wrong’ or ‘oh, that’s so bad.’ I was in a private room with a bed and kept pulling the blanket over my head until I was completely underneath unable to watch anymore. I would sneak a peek and see a terrifying Gundam staring back at me and think of how terrible it was. I feel bad for the people that worked on it, that’s just the conditions they had to work with.

Itano Ichiro – Animator
“We’d all basically all been trained by Yasuhiko, so all we could do was work to put anything we could together. If Sunrise Studio 1 was the White Base bridge, and Tomino was Captain Noa Bright, Yasuhiko was the Newtype genius Amuro. We couldn’t fight, and there was no way to resupply our staff. But we couldn’t let White Base sink—we had to make it until the final episode. Regardless, the enemy fire was intense, and our Amuro escaped (laughs). He was hospitalized after all. Our Bright wasn’t sure what to do. The whole place was full of people with their hair standing on end.

Things Looking Up

In an unexpected turn of events, Gundam’s fan base grew exponentially mid-broadcast.

Furuya Toru – Amuro VA
“I think it was around summer time, there was a group of male university students waiting outside the studio for me (laughs). They were fans in waiting. I was wondering what exactly they were waiting for, so I asked them. One of them told me he was the Gundam Fan Club Alliance President and hoped to have an interview with me. I looked at him like, ‘Wait, not only is there one Gundam fan club, but there is an alliance of containing multiples?!’ He was the guy that managed all of the Gundam fan clubs in Japan. I interviewed after a recording session, and they told me about how excited they got about parts. It really surprised me.”

Tomino Yoshiyuki – Director & Animator
“One of the problems during Gundam was that there just weren’t that man fan letters. Despite that, even if it was just one letter, I felt that I wanted to continue the series. But, one-third of the fan letters were from girls. A lot of the girls talked about how they saw the White Base crew as an extension of their family. If we got a movie version, we would also have to think about our female viewers.

The Power of Magazines
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“Noooooo! You can’t cut Gundam short! No! No! No! Noooooooo!!”

Komaki Masana (24 years old at the time) – Anime magazine editor-in-chief

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“When Tomino announce the series would be cut short, we received a huge influx of postcards all asking ‘why?’ or ‘don’t they have a duty to explain why!’ But I didn’t have an explanation (laughs). The overwhelming response was amazing. Every day we had boxes and boxes of postcards coming in for Gundam. I was shocked.”

The OST
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Back then, OSTs weren’t typically recorded or sold. Regardless the music producer decided he wanted to do it regardless.

Fujita Junji (29 years old at the time) – Music producer

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“When I said that, everyone was shocked. ‘Sell the OST as a record?’ Rightfully so, they questioned if the input cost would generate any revenue. There were usually fifty to sixty songs in these kinds of OSTs, and they were only about thirty seconds each. Most people didn’t see any worth in it, but I knew that even with thirty-second songs the fans would have a positive reaction. Even if the song were strung together, I knew we had to sell a record.

“When they first came out, they didn’t sell too well. Even still, we managed to sell over 10,000 copies. It was a good enough triumph that we decided to sell a second record. Now, when we made the first record, Tomino wasn’t too excited with the jacket cover—he felt it was childish. Then we got feedback from customers that they were embarrassed to take the record up to the register because it looks so childish. From a middle or high school student’s perspective, I guess it would be embarrassing.”

 

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The second release featured a jacket drawn by Yasuhiko.

“I was surprised that just changing the jacket would impact the sales so much (laughs). As far as King Records went, this was the only thing that was selling. Pop songs weren’t selling, western songs weren’t selling, nothing was selling except Gundam in mass quantities.

Models

Kawaguchi Katsumi (17 years old at the time) – Plastic model maker

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“For middle and high school students, what we wanted as viewers was some kind of figure. Bandai had collectible action figures type toys out, but they took that idea and decided to dabble in the world of plastic models. These negotiations with Bandai happened while the show was in the mid-stages.

“They first went with a plastic model of Yamato’s ship. It was a fairly simple design, and you would have to add most of the details yourself, but they functioned well as a display piece. In that similar line of thought, Gundams could be used as display pieces as well. Character models were starting to establish themselves, so why not these models as well? Every show has famous scenes, and there’s something exciting about being able to recreate those scenes for yourself. I’m sure many people make gunpla because they want to recreate a scene or think the gundam looked cool during a certain part.”

The Movie

Tomino Yoshiyuki – Director & Animator
“About one or two months after we were cut, we had talks about making a movie version. I was very thankful for Matsutake for reaching out to me about it. I’m pretty sure I lied to him, though. I told him we could create a condensed movie version, but only the first cour into one movie. Nothing more, nothing less. None of the fans expected we’d go on to make a second or third movie. In the first movie, we didn’t add on the [I] because of this. We condensed thirteen episodes into one movie. When we put it together, I was confident it would all work out. The day after opening day it was obvious the talk about a second movie would arise.”

Finally, Yasuhiko was discharged from the hospital.

Yasuhiko Yoshikazu – Character Designer & Animation director
“Tomino came to visit me in the hospital every week. I told him he didn’t have to come every week, he must have been busy, but he still came. Then he told me that we got the movie green-lit. He said it would be three films and we’d be able to fix the animation. He had fought so hard and finally won. I was so excited. I’d be able to fix the parts that only happened because I fell sick and wasn’t there to help. I wasn’t sure how much we’d be able to fix, but I would try and fix as much as I could.”

The End

Itano Ichiro – Animator
“As an animator, Gundam was my most valuable textbook—I learned so many things from working on the series.”

Yasuhiko Yoshikazu – Character Designer & Animation director
“When I think back to the Tomino Yoshiyuki I worked with, I really think he was in his best element—truly an eccentric man. I’m glad I was able to work alongside him.”

Tomino Yoshiyuki – Director & Animator
“It’s been a long time since I’ve thought in-depth about the details surrounding the production of Gundam. I think there’s plenty of focus on the bad, but there were an equal amount of good things. I learned a lot about myself by working on that project. Regardless of whether I end up thinking my works are good or bad, I like the foundation that started it.”

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