“While making [Space Battleship] Yamato, Studio Nue got in contact with us as a mecha design company. Every one of the four founding members was a huge fan of sci-fi. Even though they had to work within the confines of what I was looking for, oddly enough they didn’t seem to think of it as a job. I remember that time as being really enjoyable. Just by looking at their work you, can see its innovative appeal, can’t you?”
Noburo Ishiguro, 1981
Studio Nue Design Note
In the early ’80s, Studio Nue was a design house with a serious sci-fi pedigree. The staff at the studio, founded in 1972 as Crystal Art Studio, had earned respect among hardcore fans long before Super Dimension Fortress Macross (1982) thanks in large part to their powered suit design used in the Japanese language edition of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and their work on a slew of ‘70s anime including Space Battleship Yamato (1974) and Mobile Suit Gundam (1979).
While Nue had been involved in television animation for years, it was largely in a supportive role of supplying mechanical designs and setting material while other creatives took the helm. Macross would be the studio’s first chance to bring their full, combined talents to bear as they oversaw the entire production from concept to production.
A fresh-faced Shoji Kawamori joined Studio Nue while still in college and quickly earned respect as a mechanical designer on now largely-forgotten shows like Ulysses 31 (1981). He and a friend named Haruhiko Mikimoto had worked on an early Gundam fanzine called Gun Sight, and members of Studio Nue had helped put together a book called Gundam Century published by OUT magazine. Gundam Century, which included Nue members Kazutaka Miyatake, Kenichi Matsuzaki, and Kawamori among its contributors, was notable for being one of the foundational examples of Gundam world building; exploring the history, mechanics, and real-world science behind the show. In doing so, Nue had a hand in helping to establish the concept of “real robot” — a robot show grounded in real science and logic. While they may not have known it when Gundam Century hit store shelves, Macross would build on this real-world approach of robot animation and transform it into something entirely new.
Long before Hikaru Ichijyo and Lynn Minmay appeared on TV, Kawamori and Miyatake competed to design mecha for a TV project called Genocidus. Unable to find inspiration, Kawamori went on a skiing trip with friends where he took note of the particular way skiers bent their knees while charging down the slopes. That bent-legged, hunched-over position was the origin of the not-quite-humanoid GERWALK mode, albeit for a design that predated the VF-1 Valkyrie of Macross. Coincidentally, both Kawamori and Miyatake had come up with the idea of using inverted knees separate from each other, but Kawamori’s design had two legs while Miyatake’s boasted four.
Kawamori won the internal design competition (Miyatake’s four-legged design being deemed too complicated for TV animation) and Kenichi Matsuzaki coined the term “GERWALK” but Genocidus never hit airwaves. For one thing, toy sponsors reportedly said, “A reverse knee-joint mecha is too much of a risk for us, so please make it into a humanoid robot, even if all it does is just stand there.”1 This is evident in the difference between Kawamori’s Destrooper and Aquarius designs, where the former design featured just two modes (flight and GERWALK) and the latter boasted a four-stage transformation sequence, including a more recognizable humanoid form. Perhaps it was just as well that Miyatake’s four-legged design didn’t make the cut, as it was remarkably similar to the AT-ATs seen in The Empire Strikes Back (1980).
Mechanically, Macross drew from multiple projects and designs Studio Nue had developed but never seen through to production. Inspired by the idea of doing something decidedly different from recent sci-fi hits like Star Wars and Gundam, the Nue crew had begun kicking around the idea of a giant transformable space battleship. Kawamori combined that idea with an unused concept from the Japanese-French co-production of Ulysses 31 and soon that giant transforming spaceship concept became home to a city of 50,000 people living inside it. The transforming battleship lead to transforming fighters, and the mechanical aesthetics of Macross started to take shape under a different name.
Before Macross, there was Battle City Megaload, a sci-fi comedy that drew from both Yamato and Gundam. Depending on how you romanize the Japanese, Megaload can also be read as “Megaroad” – fitting for the story’s focus on a long space journey a la Yamato. From Gundam, it took the concept of civilians on a military ship to the extreme with the aforementioned city of thousands onboard a military ship. Like Macross, Megaload featured both a transforming ship and transforming fighters. Despite plans to produce a 48-episode series with sponsor Wiz, the project never materialized and the concept was shelved until Nue began working with sponsor Big West on a more serious iteration.
One of Macross’ mechanical strengths was its variety, the result of the two talented designers working on it. While Kawamori focused on the svelte and aerodynamic VF-1, Miyatake created a range of designs from the chunky, non-transformable destroids that served as cannon fodder, to the show’s numerous spaceships. Miyatake’s destroids felt as grounded in real-world armored vehicles as Kawamori’s VF-1 was in real-world aircraft, albeit without the same direct analog as the VF-1’s F-14. Much of the design language of Miyatake’s ground-pounders was also carried over from Miyatake and Naoyuki Katoh’s iconic Starship Trooper powered suit, particularly in the cannon-armed Tomahawk.
The show’s iconic VF-1 reflected Kawamori’s penchant for transforming robots, as seen in his Genocidus designs and his work on Takara’s Diaclone toy line (which later gained international notoriety as part of Hasbro’s Transformers series). While the VF-1 looked worlds away from the blocky, chunkier Aquarius and Destrooper designs of the canceled series, Kawamori apparently remembered the unnamed sponsor’s request, as one of the VF-1’s three forms was the distinctly humanoid battroid mode.
Later, with Macross nearing production, Kawamori was handling an early VF-1 toy prototype. With joints not quite yet up to production standards the legs dropped down from fighter mode and a familiar design resurfaced by accident — the half-airplane, half-humanoid GERWALK.
It’s worth noting that while the VF-1 is considered an iconic design today on par with some of the most influential mecha designs in history, at the time hardcore sci-fi fans were reportedly unhappy with Studio Nue turning their back on the hardcore sci-fi elements they were famous for.
I mean, a transformable airplane? Who would buy that?
- Interview with Kazutaka Miyatake, from the “SDF-1 Macross: Thorough Dissection” Book
- Shoji Kawamori, The Creator Hollywood Copies But Never Credits
- Great Mechanics G, Autumn 2018 Issue