New York Anime Fest 2009: What Yoshiyuki Tomino Was Probably Talking About

Before New York Anime Fest, Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino was asked what he thought of the current Japanese animation industry. He said he tries not to think about it.

Fair enough: we try to avoid it ourselves, but we just can’t. Look at the coming Japtoon-packed (but kind of boring) fall season! Look at the deplorable conditions of the industry! Look at poor Manglobe, which has stooped to adapting light novels about swordswomen in maid costumes after the previous business plan– to make good, fresh cartoons— failed due to lack of interest in same! Of course, we’d be surprised if old man Tomino even knew any of this was going on, and we’d be doubly surprised if he gave half a shit. But for a dude who plays it so detached, we think Yoshiyuki Tomino knows a little more than he lets on.

Otaku are a kind of professional, Tomino began, and indeed, he spoke to us in the crowd as though assuming us to be future creators ourselves. What followed was a lecture that wasn’t about what to do– by his own admission, the man has no idea– but about what not to do. This is something Tomino knows all about.

The point that Tomino would bludgeon us with for much of the hour was: “Just because you like anime doesn’t mean you can make it.” Many of the short pieces this very site has reviewed– and, indeed, many Colony Drop Official Favorites– demonstrate this quite well: it isn’t enough to just throw the things you love into a story and expect a good story to appear solely because these things are present.

(Koichi Ohata and skulls are naturally an exception.)

That said, look at where Japanese cartoons are right now. They typically air after most productive members of society are asleep for one thing. For another, they’re hopelessly mired in an inbred otaku culture, one that too often only cares about getting the obsessively fetishized and codified little girl, superhero or giant robot onscreen without worrying why we should care. This stuff is too often trapped in genre: it’s being made by and for otaku whose field of reference has never strayed from the otaku world, and with an audience that so insistently demands the same old shit over and over again, why would the otaku on the production side ever bother breaking out? The industry and the people who consume its products are stagnating together.

Tomino took bold moves with the original Mobile Suit Gundam because he was ambitious enough to see beyond the bounds of the giant robot cartoons that already existed, to aim for something new. While Gundam never outright abandoned the tropes and confines of giant robot anime– and was better off for it– it was a landmark and mildly subversive cartoon that, despite Tomino’s refusal to admit to the fact, helped create a new subgenre.

But look at Gundam now: it’s a franchise. Tomino says that a good story is first priority, but with Gundam story has been second place for years to the sacred task of selling toy robots to kids and nerds like us. The series is stagnant, and as a profitable genre franchise it must stay that way. Let’s say that, in some theoretical world, a talented staff were to make a fresh, smart Gundam series. The problem is that it’s still Gundam, and as we saw with the second half of 00, Gundam is too big for some tool at the studio not to order you to screw it up somehow.

Tomino knows it’s a lost cause to look to Gundam for the forward movement the anime industry so desperately needs: at the end of his Q&A panel, he treated us to Ring of Gundam, his recent short that is, in essence, about how we don’t need Gundam anymore. The old man still firmly believes that adults are the enemy, (he dubs himself the “super enemy”) and he knows better than anyone that it’s up to a new generation of creators to make a new generation of entertainment. And maybe it’s up to you, reader, and the people around you– as it once fell to Tomino, Yasuhiko and Okawara– to make that future. In this case, Colony Drop Industries would like to, with apologies to Mr. Tomino, echo his position:

Something new, please.

It doesn’t even have to be anime.

30 Comments

  1. Tomino’s view of Anno is known, or at least it was.

    Back in the stone age there was a post on the English language Gainax blog about a party held for the premiere of one of the original Evangelion movies,probably the first one. It was reported that Anno shyly went up to Tomino and told him something to the effect “you know, it was because of you that I made this”

    Tomino hotly shot back something like “don’t you DARE blame this shit on me!”

    I imagine Anno went into a room and cried for about a month after that, don’t you?

  2. >You’re not going to mention the atrocious translator from the Friday panel?

    Stuff like this was kind of beyond the scope of this post, and more material for a personal blog. But just for fun, and since I didn’t get to it on MY personal blog, let’s make a list of cringe highlights at the Tomino panels for the people who weren’t there.

    -The translator during the keynote, obviously. The guy across the aisle from me couldn’t bear to look, it was so awkward and sad and embarassing for everybody in the room.

    -The “I’m a lot like you, Mr. Tomino!” girl who was talking so little about Tomino and so much about herself that they had to cut her off and chop her question down to a single sentence.

    -The guy who asked about Gundam 00, was booed down by the crowd the moment he said those words, then asked “WHO WOULD WIN IN A FIGHT, GUNDAM OR STAR WARS”, and was booed down again.

  3. Dave, you made a great point at the end. That’s something I whole-heartedly agree with.

    I was at Tomino’s panel at NYAF, and thought most of his points were good ones–but I looked at it a bit differently–more that Tomino has had years of experience in this industry, and has seen it move away from taking chances (as he did in GUNDAM and Takahashi did with VOTOMS, for example) and going to what’s safe, what appeals to the fans.

    Problem is, the latter is bad, as you mentioned. Sadly, the former is very, very hard to do. It is not impossible–for all the crybaby screams people have about the state of live-action films, there are still gold nuggets out there where someone took the chance and tried something different–not necessarily new, but different.

    But that opens up a huge, smelly can of worms, because it will most likely fail. It will catch a small audience, a few fans, and will struggle, get praise, or disappear…majority will miss it and will not discover it until it’s gone off the grid. It happened to GUNDAM, it happened to BLADE RUNNER, BRAZIL, hell, even the new BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. Why does this happen? Well…the reason for that is twisted, convoluted, and all over the place. It’s just a sad fact of life and art.

    That said, your point about “something new, please,” is an honest plea. I agree with you. It’s just that it is a case of “easier said than done.”

  4. Tomino’s frustration is obvious. Problem is, it’s never going to change, as long as Bandai owns Sunrise.

    Back when Bandai took over, around 1992, they looked around, saw a problem. Every time there was a new Gundam series, the Gundam outsold all the other kits by a large margin, and this vexed Bandai no end. The solution? “since only Gundam sells well, then everything will be Gundam. All robots are Gundam”..you see the start in V-Gundam but it goes full bore with Gundam Wing. Then of course Imagawa went apeshit with it in G-Gundam.

    And surprise, the plan hasn’t worked. Because it’s not the fact the robot is called Gundam that sells the kits, it’s the fact it’s the HERO’S ride, the face of the main protagonist if you will.

    Yet Bandai doesn’t UNDERSTAND that. But the plan is in place and by god they’re gonna STICK to it.

    So we get Gundam 00, the ‘Gundam designed for America’, and it pretty much flops around, nobody really caring.

    Coming up, Gundam Unicorn, another ‘We’re making this because THIS TIME we’ll nail the big American money!!” attempt, and it’s bound to be horrible. It’s a Gundam with the V-Max effect from Layzner. Ohhh, baby. :/

    The solution for Bandai/Sunrise?

    a. go back to One Gundam.

    b. STOP MAKING GUNDAM FOR AWHILE

    c. Make more original stuff. More Overman King Gainer would be nice. How about getting Yas and the crew back together for another big-ass super major Crusher Joe movie?

    ah well.

  5. You’re right about Gundam overload, Steve (it’s exemplified in SEED), but that wasn’t 00’s problem. 00’s problem was that the show does a complete and abrupt tonal shift from one season to the next. First it’s a competently written, grounded, and unexpectedly smart reinterpretation of Gundam Wing. Then the second season starts and from the first minute of the first episode it’s another show completely: this total mess of nonsense plot developments and bad character drama between an unbearable, one-dimensional supporting cast. The transition is so graceless that it reeks of outside influence, so I felt the need to mention it here.

  6. Tomino’s speech is something I will remember for quite some time. Even though things were a little shakey on that first day due to that poor interpreter, the true feelings behind what he was saying managed to get through.

    Meh… Maybe one day, something awesome will appear that’ll blow our socks off.

    Let us keep that light of hope shining bright.

  7. They are still working on the “proper translation.”

    I’d say you got the gist of it, though. Tomino decried people who only look to make the form of cinema and not the function.

  8. To Moritheil: That’s definitely true. If there was one thing that I took away from the Tomino panel, it was that point that he made.

    To Steve: Where exactly was it mentioned that GUNDAM 00 was the “Gundam designed for America”? In all of the articles I read about that series, that was never mentioned…or maybe I never saw it. And was 00 really a flop? How did it really do in the ratings?

    (Not trying to bust you here, but just need a little reference to your points.)

    To Dave: I agree on the shift in the second season of GUNDAM 00; but as to who was responsible for that…well, let the speculation begin, but the true reasons might remain hidden for a long time.

    GUNDAM, it seems, is in the position as STAR TREK was not too long ago. The franchise had run out of steam, fans complaining about the direction it’s going, and no hope in sight. The same discussions–putting it to bed for a while or going in a new direction–were common. Which is the right way? That’s a good question. STAR TREK was given a major shot in the arm thanks to JJ Abrams’ movie earlier this year which was both a prequel and a reboot. Will that work for GUNDAM?

    Let the discussion begin!

  9. Marc, don’t worry, I’m a big boy, and someone correcting me with actual facts and truth won’t spin me off into a crying lump of super butthurt fanboi angst!

    I can’t cite actual chapter and verse about the ‘Gundam for America’ quote, but maybe you have good google-fu. It was a translated speech by Bandai’s CGO (Chief Gundam Officer and yes, that’s an actual, honest-to-god position at Bandai), I want to say it was 2005, might have been ’06. I think ANN ran parts of it. This was either just before or part of the announcing of Gundam Unicorn as a concept.

    The quote mentions something about how important the international market had become, and that the way to correct the mistakes of Gundam not succeeding in America (and boy, do I have things to say about that, but later) was to create a Gundam with America in mind.

    And so, Gundam 00, which was expected to have the success of Gundam Wing.

    (note the cruel irony that the discussion and all that took place as the American anime market was utterly falling to pieces)

    In other places and other times I speak of outdated ‘playbooks’, how Japanese companies, when dealing with America, seem to ALWAYS make the same mistakes over and over and over, the utter failure to understand that it’s NOT the ’70s anymore, it’s surely not the ’80s anymore, and that golden age of 1999-2005 is DEAD DEAD DEAD.

    Gundam 00 was designed to run on Cartoon Network in the afternoon ‘kidvid’ timeslot of Toonami, just like the successful Gundam Wing. Some time between 3-5 PM EST, mon-fri. This did not happen. I don’t even know when it DID run, wasn’t it on for a time in the late night (post midnight) weekend Adult Swim slot, then the second season ran on Sci Fi? What time was that? Either way, the viewership was WAY WAY down from the projected audience simply due to the placement. I’m sure sales of the DVDs are pitiful.

    So, that’s why I say Gundam 00 is a failure. It didn’t set the world of the AmeriOtaku on fire. I strongly doubt there’s tens of thousands of new anime fans created by it.

    How it did in Japan doesn’t matter. Bandai is chuffing out the kits, they keep hoping that the other Gundams will get heat but what I see is endless variations of the main protagonist’s Gundam. Which, if you really think about it, shows that Bandai understands that the ‘all robots are Gundam’ concept IS AN ABJECT FAILURE, yet they cling to it.

    So, that’s what I got. Thoughts?

  10. Steve,

    Thanks for that! Granted, the uninformed opinion is king on the ‘Net, sadly, but it is very refreshing to see someone provide facts and not blow angry yells out of their nether regions(and yeah, I am sick of the fanboy angst myself).

    Your point about how Japanese companies deal with America using outdated playbooks is, sadly, spot-on. While I became a fan during the 80’s and really miss the golden years of 1999-2005, the truth is that “them days is long, long gone.” What’s replaced it is, well…that’s another story.

    GUNDAM 00 was run only on Sci-Fi (now Scyfy (sic)), both seasons, on their “Anime-Monday” block. To be honest, I am glad that the channel returned to broadcasting anime, but as for ratings…hmmm. Being that it is a cable network, ratings and viewer numbers become a messy thing to wade through. Remember the re-vamped BATTLESTAR GALACTICA? A critically acclaimed show, best thing on TV…and it pulls only about a million or so viewers. Same for MAD MEN. Cable channels will get lower viewers than the major networks.

    Being a GUNDAM fan for many years, I will be honest and admit that it was always going to be a tough sell in the US. Just hoping to broadcast all the UC timeline material would have been a Herculean task. Still, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on the best way to market GUNDAM in the US. Frankly, it’s a franchise that should have done gangbusters over here, but hasn’t and that’s sad. We’re talking about a series that, to me anyway, stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the best American science fiction shows, like STAR TREK, and yet, trying to market it over here has been hit or miss–more of the latter, sadly.

    Ironically, it’s hard to believe that it was only a few years ago when Gundam toys and models could be found at Toys R Us. Man, I miss those days…

  11. Helen, of course you’re right. What the Japanese consider fit for child viewing is WAY off what is allowed here in the US and over there across the pond. Even Pokemon has the occasional pee joke, from what I recall. Something like Dr. Slump? HORRORS! Pee, poop, farting, DROPPING A HAND GRENADE IN SOMEONE’S MOUTH TO WAKE THEM UP? NOOOO think of the CHILDREN!

    Everything else over in England I blame on the legacy of Manga. Once Japan (for the most part) stopped making boob and blood shows (Ninja Scroll and so on) and became the little island that MOE owns, what’s a honest ‘video nasty’ vendor to do?

    As to the vendors here in the States, they’ve all but given up. The Internet (as in sales via web stores) hasn’t saved the industry as expected, the closing of something on the order of between 3000 and 4000 stores between 2005 and today has all but killed the storefront market, and blah blah blah.

    It’s really feeling alot like 1988 again, isn’t it? 🙂

  12. the BBFC thinks it has a duty to protect them from such material

    The people at the BBFC have a rotten job, I think. They generally seem to be huge cinema fans, but they have to operate in rubbish circumstances. There are numerous instances of inspiringly enlightened liberalism from the BBFC when the cultural wind seems to be blowing their way, but if the Daily Mail scents blood, woe betide thee that teeters the good ship British Values. The government responsible for the ridiculous 80s “video nasty” laws who forfeited responsibility (except there there were cheap political points to be scored) to this vague organisation with no clear or easily enforcible guidelines is truly to blame (and all the governments since who have been happy to squat in this particular status quo).

    Remember the re-vamped BATTLESTAR GALACTICA? A critically acclaimed show, best thing on TV…and it pulls only about a million or so viewers.

    To be fair though, BSG was on the Sci Fi Channel in the US, which is a cable channel with a fairly specialist audience, but it was on Sky One (an entirely mainstream, if more subtly evil, channel in the UK). It was made relatively cheaply in Canada and aimed for an international audience, which it did successfully enough for it to make a full story arc over four seasons, with some vicious political swipes along the way. I’d say it was pretty successful within its remit.

  13. To Dotdash:

    Good points there…and thanks for bringing up the fact that BSG was on Sky One (COMPLETELY forgot about that, my mistake). In fact, the pile of mush I call my brain now recalls that you guys across the pond saw the series first–at least a few months before we did in the States–on Sky One.

    Thanks for clearing that up. It’s just that in the US, as critically acclaimed as BSG was (and it’s still one of the very best shows I’ve seen in quite a while), most reports about it kept pointing out that it’s audience was limited, due to it being on SciFi. They ignored the international audience.

    Hmmm…talking about BSG…ack!! This is a post about GUNDAM! Gotta get back to that…

  14. Steve, I sometimes feel we’re caught in a time loop. It starts to feel like 1988 again with greater and greater frequency these days. The decline and fall of the anime industry has been predicted so often, and with such convincing arguments and statistics, that when it finally happens it’ll be a total anticlimax (or we will have bigger things to worry about, like The End of The World As We Know It.)

    Dotdash, I agree the BBFC has a rotten job but everybody there volunteered. I find this very strange. Their lives are dedicated to seeking to impose increasingly irrelevant ideologies and values on a population well equipped to ignore them. That way madness lies.

  15. >>>> Coming up, Gundam Unicorn, another ‘We’re making this because THIS TIME we’ll nail the big American money!!” attempt, and it’s bound to be horrible. It’s a Gundam with the V-Max effect from Layzner. Ohhh, baby. :/

    Do you people really think that Japan/Bandai gives a shit about foreign fans at all? Sad fact: they only produce for the Japanese market, foreign fans are like an afterthought. You either live with their products or move on.

    ========================================

    That said, his sentiments are all valid, and I think Tomino has got to the point of being really JADED by what has happened to the anime industry. But really, it’s just a vicious business cycle, it’s sad but it keeps the franchise and series running. Would we really want to see anime to totally go away just for the sake of renewal?

  16. Speak for yourself.

    I frankly am looking forward Gundam: Unicorn, not because I am a blind consumer of all things gundam, but because I have read some of the novels that it is based on, and I DO think that it is a credible story with interesting characters. I want to see GU because I want to see if the director actually did this little story justice, and at the very least I’ll come out with that slightly buzzed feeling all mecha fans get when they see giant animated explosions and showers of scrap metal.

    and yeah I would love to see a fresh original series that was not gundam, about as much as I would love to see a fresh orignal series that was gundam.

    After war gundam x, turn A gundam, ms igloo, the gundam evolve shorts, even some of 00. These all prove that gundam can still be innovative and entertaining while staying true to its “roots”.

  17. Ummm, welllll

    If Gundam was going to be ‘true to its roots’, it would be a jumped up ‘super robot’ show, thematically not that much different from Zambot 3. I suspect this thought causes massive screams and the rending of shirts from some folk. Sorry, it doesn’t make it any less true.

  18. True, but “super robot” and “real robot” are just categories fans have forced onto shows. In the end its just giant robots blowing each other up. Its just that the motivations and the means are different.

    Also its sorta scary that people would get pissed off just cause you called gundam “super robot”. A giant bright white red and blue robot, yeah that just screams authentic military equipment.

  19. The whole point of Ring Of Gundam was decyphered as “dont get obsessed with the past,carry on.”.

    Sadly for Tomino,that wont happen as long as Gundam franchise produces more money.Bandai will hardly find a Behemoth powerful enough to replace it anytime soon.

    Not like I really want Gundam to end yet,mind you.I’d rather prefer the francise to take a break for a year or two.Godzilla took a 10 year break for example.

  20. The problem lies in the fact that Bandai made a HUGE mistake in the early ’90s, deciding that rather than having Gundam be one of any number of product lines, it would be their main focus. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out what failed so big, what gamble didn’t pay off that made them make this choice, and I can’t find that one ‘leverage moment’.

    Oh, there were a few, of course. Galatt bombed big but that wasn’t going to be a major source of plastic kits anyway, I know that ALL the ’80s shows had decent product runs- if anything I think Gundam ZZ was under represented plamo-wise.

    Heck, if anything, you look back at the various plamo lines for the different Gundam series and THEY are the underperformers! 0083 got totally shortchanged for example!

    But then I go back to the ‘old playbooks’ thing and once Bandai took control of Sunrise, I can see them thinking of that glory time from 1980-85, the explosion of the MSV line leading to Zeta Gundam and I guess they looked at that yellowed page in the book and said “yes, THIS IS FOREVER”.

    And it’s not, of course. *sigh*

  21. Growing up in japan is see a major difference in the way Japanese see anime vs their western counterparts. To often westerners get caught up in the line of thought that for it to be successful it needs to be great in the western world. that is not true, more often then not western audiences get an American equivalent of the cheap fall line up because producers and distributors know that the best market tool is a show is endless aka ninja series and dragon ball, versus gundam which has a beginning and an end. Westerners specifically Americans have a short attention span and if they were to air the more successful series aka gundam they would quickly lose sales because the shows eventually ends, however the cheap Japanese shows that were specifically designed with an western audience in mind go on and on to drum up more toys and merchandise versus a 50 episode gundam series. Gundam remains popular in japan but most of what is popular in Japan never reaches western shores because it not a bottomless episode marketing pit. So western audiences are stuck with what they think is the cream of the crop in japan and japan still has its own series while they laugh at the cartoon network otakus. US distributors do not take chances however Japanese creators still do in some regards. What Tomino was worried about was not so what is being created in japan right now but what the future of the Japanese creative industry is. The problem is that to many distributors are forgetting their core base the Japanese and trying to create shows that resemble teen titans and looney toons then a true anime to appeal to US distributors. He is afraid that more companies are going down that road and designing stereo typical anime aka pretty boy and wide eyes to appeal to Americans then to actually sell to our people.

    Please forgive my English its horrible but I am trying to get my point across as best I can. I had the pleasure of working with in the anime market and tomino once, from 1993 to 2004 my job used to advisory to localization. Tomino truthfully is a great visionary but he see anime as a form art in its own and not something that needs to be changed to sell to western audiences.

  22. Well, Morisaki-san, please forgive my bluntness, but if you were involved with localization, then, and again forgive me, YOU are the problem I have referred to.

    What you mention about ‘what America wants’ is about 20 years out of date to the reality of today, let alone the reality of 2004.

    If you have comrades still working for Bandai or Sunrise, have them look into something created in 1991 and attempted to be sold to America, the idea that Bandai could sell old SD Gundam toys here. It was a show called ‘Doozy Bots’ and it was not good, not good at all.

  23. Ah yes the doozy bots was an attempt by sunrise to market to an American audience. Bad failure. This was back in the early days of the market when anime in America was limited to things such as red planet and sailor moon etc. Most of the anime at that point was not even recognized as from japan beacuse the people that aired did not even market it that way. What Americans want has been proven time and time again with shows such as bleach and proven successful. I am not arguing whether or not the industry has tapped the American audience which it has, but what its cause and affect will have on the industry. Tomino is not worried about whether or not American are an audience because they are, he is more worried about the affects it will have on the style and quality. Most companies have successfully found their niche with in the market the problem is that the stock holders and producers are now trying to change anime from what it is supposed to be to what they think an American audience will like. When this happens it usually causes a show to fall through example 00. My personal opinion, not what is going on, is that anime should remain created to the original style and not be created with a strung out 400 to infinity episode series in mind. Localization team job is not the problem they just structure the dubs and work american producers. The problem people are show producers and holders who localizers can tell one thing and it will go out their ear. they have created a major market in the US st the cost of quality, however that is one of the reason I am no longer part of the industry. IF you look at anime syles of the 80s and mid 90s it looks more quasi realistic, not the bug eyes and pretty boy of the late 90s to now. The industry is now being pushed into a stereo type direction.

    Thats is why I like this website, its see through the crap being pushed now and focuses on the traditional style. The industry is banking on ninja and dbz clones instead of staying with its roots.

  24. I see what you mean, Steve, but I agree with Morisaki (and Tomino, apparently.) I like anime because it’s not a clone of British or American entertainment. In any event, the idea of a group of suits in an office about what’s ‘suitable for a US audience’ is often out of date and out of touch, whichever country they’re in.

    I’d rather leave the creators to make the anime, then the viewers can decide if they like the work or not. Utopian, maybe, but it used to work before we invented marketing and all its arcane sciences.

  25. Helen, that’s my point, I think. Just make the stuff and if it’s good, it will find an audience. 🙂

    OTOH, I do think the Japanese make a mistake when they make a show…wow, this is going to sound very odd… needlessly overly Japanese.

    If someone does an anime version of a Chambara show from the ’60s, heck yes it needs to be period correct and I want every fold in a kimono sash to be drawn, every knot in the silk thread holding a katana sheath to the belt, and so on.

    If you’re doing a SF show set 1000 years in the future don’t bog it down with ‘love language bento’ and Golden Week and Boy’s Day and Cherry Blossom Festival minutia. And why is EVERYTHING based on the ‘Warring States’ period?

    Ahh, I’m probably Mr. Crazy now.

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