Skies, Planes, and Macross Plus: A Shoji Kawamori Interview

On its twenty-fifth anniversary, Macross Plus remains representative of the high-end anime productions of the 1990s. The post-bubble economic realities of Japan in the ’90s had a hugely detrimental effect on original OVA projects and a crop of sequels, spin-offs, and reboots sprung up to cash in on familiar names.

A glossy, big-budget OVA tinged with CG, Macross Plus oozed modernity for a mecha show–a genre that even in the ’90s relied heavily on the established aesthetics of the previous decade. Macross creator and Macross Plus chief director Shoji Kawamori was never one to repeat himself and this OVA was a reminder that just because he was back for more sequels, didn’t mean he was back to do the same thing again.

The first volume of Macross Plus was released on August 25, 1994.


The following interview comes from the book, This is Animation Select Macross Plus Movie Edition, published on October 20, 1995, nearly two weeks after the movie hit theaters in Japan.

Skies, Planes and Macross Plus

Translated By Andrew Prowse

Born in Toyama prefecture on February 20, 1960. After working as a design assistant for Tōshō Daimos in ’78, he joined Studio Nue. Mechanical settings manager for Tōshi Gōdian. The director of the ’84 movie version of Super Dimension Fortress Macross. The original creator of and mechanical designer for the TV series Macross 7.

Since the previous movie, Do You Remember Love, you’ve been focusing on design work.

I was making a lot of plans, but… [laugh] I was having a hard time getting anything accepted. I thought maybe 10 proposals wouldn’t be enough, so I did 20 or 30, and then finally got a move-on. [laugh] They’d already told me I was free to make a Macross sequel whenever I wanted. But I also felt like I didn’t want to do the same thing again…

What sort of proposals were you doing?

All sorts of things—robot and mecha stuff, other stuff. Especially Starship Troopers—I went all the way to right before scenario work on that. Some of the projects aren’t science fiction. I just wanted to do as few robot-related things as possible. At the time, I felt like if I did something mecha or hard sci-fi it would turn into a super dark story, so I was mentally hitting the brakes on that.

In that case, there are shows I wouldn’t have expected to find your name on, such as Cyber Formula.

When you’re doing planning, if something chances to make it through, you can’t do anything else, you know? With design work, you can figure out the schedule to a certain extent and coordinate it. But when I was doing planning, it’s everyone else who thought I wouldn’t do any mechanical designs [laugh], so there was a period where I didn’t get any requests. I was connected to the design of, let’s see… Gunhed, Cyber Formula, Dangaioh, and Mobile Suit Gundam 0083. I think that’s it.

Let’s move to the topic of airplanes. Is there a particular kind of plane you like more than others, Mr. Kawamori?

That would be experimental aircraft, of course [laugh]. In terms of what level of aviation fan I am, I basically don’t know anything about actual planes anymore.

Why do you like experimental aircraft so much?

Because they’re all so weird-looking [laugh]. Visually they’re odd and they have this charm where you don’t know how they’ll turn out. The things that get officially adopted aren’t only designed from an aerodynamic viewpoint but also an economic one, and there’s something about it! Something that doesn’t sit right. When production costs and management concerns come into play, it quickly loses its purity. But in terms of whether experimental aircraft are superior—they use quite a few carryover parts and such. That absurdity sort of combines with the rest of it, and I love it.

A photo of the XB-70 Valkyrie taken by Kawamori.

The Valkyrie was also an experimental aircraft. Was it the name you liked?

It wasn’t the name—it was how it looked. I’ll never forget the shock of first seeing one. When I saw a picture from the back of its six jet engines in a row, I cried, “what is this thing!?” I never forgot about it, and a while after that I saw a picture of the whole plane and thought to myself, boy, this thing is cool no matter where you stand. And it’s so simple, too. It’s not often you see a plane that looks simple but gives such different impressions depending on the angle.

And you borrowed its name for Macross. Did it get accepted right away? It doesn’t seem like a name a protagonist’s robot would have.

It didn’t get through easily. But in the case of Macross, we were starting by throwing away the traditional concepts of a robot anime anyway. And it was a bigger issue than its name. There was a superstition in the industry that airplane stories would never work.

But later on, when they made toys of them, they made one that could actually transform, and it was a huge hit.

And even that was vehemently opposed until we showed a real one transforming. I made a simple prototype model using paper and balsa wood, and every day I’d visit the studio near Studio Nue that made mockups called Watanabe Giken. It only got approved after I gave them what I had those guys make.

In the end, the same way I like experimental aircraft, I like things that other people say are no good, will never work. Things that work when you know they’ll work are boring. Mass production planes, they know they’ll fly—but they don’t know with experimental ones until they try, right? It was the same thing when I was designing the Valkyrie. If a story about planes would never sell, then I would try making one.

I’ve heard you go on many trips to see airplanes. Does that factor into the production of these works at all?

The most recent one I went to was in the US. After making the previous TV series [Macross 7?], but before the theatrical version [Macross Plus Movie Edition?]. I’d never traveled overseas before, and I figured I shouldn’t try to make something without seeing it first. [laugh]

I remember running around like crazy on that trip. I went to Edwards Air Force Base, then Orlando after that. Then I went to Cape Canaveral and saw inside the facilities, saw a weather satellite launch. Man, those go way faster! They track them from far away on TV, so it’s totally different! It’s super-fast once it gets off the ground. It’s out of sight in the blink of an eye. Compared to them, shuttles are slugs. Weather satellites are unmanned, so they put 20G on them, which means their speed is way different. [laugh] It surprised me. After that, I went to a NASA training center in a place called Huntsville. Afterward, I went to the test center and the place they make the shuttle modules and got to see the tests. I went to Wright-Patterson and saw a lot of planes there. There were so many I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere…

Is there anything you saw in person and it changed your impression of it? Like, you thought it was heavy and imposing, but the real thing was really flimsy?

I mean, they’re all flimsy. So, to continue, I went to New York after that, got tickets to musicals and stuff, then went to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

But I was disappointed. Not that what they had there was bad—the way they put them on display was bad compared to Huntsville and Wright-Patterson. They put them there as antiques. They paint them display colors instead of current colors, for example. It’s like a museum of corpses. It’s such a famous museum that I kind of expected more, I guess. [laugh]

I heard you saw an air race, too.

The race was interesting in and of itself, but the acrobatics display before it was amazing. I was like, man, I’m speechless—they can do things like that? I’ve seen stuff in Japan too, acrobatic planes called Pitts, but the aircraft regulations in Japan are too strict to let them put on more intricate performances.

The Blue Angels were what I actually went to see. I can’t believe even they’re an opening performance. There was an amazingly good acrobatic pilot there, Art Scholl. He was on the filming team for commercials and Top Gun, and I didn’t know until just recently that he’d passed away…

But his performance was superb. Then there was Bob Hooper. Same generation as Chuck Yeager, so probably in his seventies. This old man was doing acrobatics in a business plane with feathers on top. I couldn’t believe he was doing that at his age. [laugh] The performance they put on gave me a hint for this anime [Macross Plus]. They did this stunt where they stopped both their engines. At the beginning, they stopped one engine and did all sorts of stuff like sixteen-point rolls, and I thought that was amazing—but then they shut both off and dropped, then went up again, pulled off an eight-point roll, then at the end slanted the plane and did a landing in a crosswind.

Kawamori in Death Valley, California.

What were your other main goals on the trip aside from looking at planes?

You mean the shows, right? One of my goals was to see a Western show in its native habitat. I went to see a musical in New York, and I was surprised at how amazing it was. After that, I went to Las Vegas. It’s kind of a disgusting place, you know? I figured I came all the way here, so might as well. [laugh] That’s what I said, but I decided to go see a show there—and it was really high-level! I was sort of astonished. It changed the way I think about entertainment. It made me feel like I’d never have understood it if I’d stayed in Japan.

Shows like that don’t particularly appear in your works. Do you feel you’d like to do that sometime?

It’s more the mentality of the thing. The enthusiasm they had toward making sure the guests enjoyed it was what clued me in. The simple juggling acts to make the audience laugh, how comfortable things were between acts, and the ventriloquism alone were enough to impress me. Like, what the heck were they? I’m still, at this moment, incredibly impressed by that ventriloquism. [laugh] That’s how different the level of performance is. It’s the same kind of thing, but it’s different. If I can’t solve that, I can’t make anything that will really be accepted worldwide.

There are plans to make an English version of Macross Plus and have it develop internationally. Are you confident you can rank among American entertainment?

Hmm. Japan’s animation has been established among fans overseas, so the problem now is how much we can get everyone else involved. If we’re talking purely TV anime, it’s a big hit in Europe and Asia too. Then there’s movies. For movies, there’s this huge wall called Hollywood in the way. We may be able to go far, but unless we can solve the publicity issue…

After hearing several people in the industry discuss Japanimation, they say its technical level is first-class.

The opinion is that this is a specialized skill for a highly specialized genre, and I don’t think you can discount that. It might be enough for people who crave the unusual things at the forefront of the world, but most people still have doubts about it. If this is something they view as a simple TV series, then there’s a sort of promised entertainment that comes with that. But the movie world is different, and there are things we don’t know, like how anime will turn out in the future, or how it will be seen by others.

Take Macross Plus and Pocahontas, for example. Would you put these two works in the same genre?

I’d like them to be in the same genre, and I’d like it to continue that way.

You think they’re still different at the moment?

Yes, because people view them as different. Basically, the only one not viewed as different is Miyazaki-san. It goes to show how completely accustomed our sensibilities are to the animation we’ve seen and created ourselves. It’s a really risky net to be caught in, I think.

This photo from a NASA room at Edwards Air Force Base served as the inspiration for a similar shot in Colonel Millard’s office in Macross Plus.

Even abroad, anime fans understand that Japanimation and major Disney-type productions are different things. But regular people might not have gotten that far.

I’ve talked about this with a few different people, but the enthusiast stuff that would work in Japan and the enthusiast stuff that would work in Hollywood have this difference in quality. That’s a big obstacle.

How so?

As a simple example, take Robocop. It’s a space detective movie, as we’d call it in Japan, but that concept alone wouldn’t turn into a major film in the US. Then, when you put a lot of effort into the designs of the guns, or the way they fire live ammunition—I think both Japan and America really like being particular about that stuff.

But when they act it out… When Robocop gets dispatched, his colleague throws him the keys and he starts the car himself. With the specific way normal Japanese animation is particular about things, you don’t see this idea very much.

Basically, it’s the kind of attention put into the characters’ actions. If you’re Japanese, you tend to focus on the gimmicks. But Americans will put their brains into how they can convey this mechanical character to normal people, how they can connect him to the audience. From the instant he catches the keys, he has a personality. A robot taking car keys from a colleague—from that very moment on, it changes the way normal people are involved. It’s no more than a movie for gun freaks, but when you have him turn that car key—something you could call a fundamental action in an American lifestyle—the character is complete. That’s where the audience connects with him. It’s a country of immigrants, and you can feel the power of that wisdom, of the lengths they go to get people to understand. If this was Japan, we’d have him put his hands together and start sparking—we’d focus on giving a gimmick to how he drives the car.

In that sense, whether it’s Japanese anime or real filming, it’s all about making it clear to an audience.

That’s something I pay as much attention to as I can. For example, if I’m going to show an airplane’s capabilities, I’ll depict it in the air. I’ll replace things with actions so that as many normal people can understand it as I can manage. Stuff like that.

When looking at the storyboards, it felt as though there was a timewise link of some sort, like between the fictional world of Macross and the real world. Was that intentional?

It’s the global situation after the end of the Cold War, around the time of the Gulf War, combined with the evolution of computers and virtual reality. This used to be a common setting in sci-fi, but it’s falling out of favor now.

Is a virtual idol an idea that’s realistically possible?

Yeah. I had zero intention of depicting it as though it were novel—instead, I made it with the sense that it’s a thing that already exists. In an extreme sense, isn’t animation itself the same? Like, how do we empathize with these pictures at all? [laugh]

Maybe not so much with entertainment, but I thought it was one way to approach religious faith. As in, how exactly would you love something without physical form?

Yeah, yeah, exactly. I have a lot of interest in this personally. It’s still a picture, no matter how good a voice actor’s performance is. Manga doesn’t even have voices, unlike anime. How are we able to empathize with two-dimensional paper media? The fact that we can feel so much for it is a human mystery. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.

What sort of aim did you have in using CG?

The main thing I was after was a difference in quality. I wanted a different kind of feel than the kind you get from hand-drawn things. Not just the picture quality, either, but the movements too. When it comes to CG, there are some parts that use it as a way to try and get close to hand-drawn movements, but there are others that don’t. I wanted that gradation. If we have realistic motions on one side and anime motions on the other, you can split up the stages in between as much as you want. I wanted to test out how much of the difference between reality and non-reality would appear on the screen.

Could you give us an overview of this new Macross project, starting from the beginning? Did they approach you after planning a Hollywood movie plus a TV series?

Eh, something like that. They dangled the cheese, and I got involved with something I said I wouldn’t do again. [laugh]

This photo was taken while landing in Orlando and shows the landscape near Cape Canaveral. This image served as inspiration for Macross City in Macross Plus.

How did it work, with both 7 and Plus going at once?

It was grueling. And it wasn’t supposed to be. [laugh] It’s fine to have two projects going at once, but I wanted to finish the actual work on Plus before moving to 7. I was like, uh, wow, they actually overlapped [laugh]. But there are things I could only do because the projects were simultaneous, too. I got to test out making a totally polar opposite work because of it. Plus by itself would have been tough in a few ways.

What do you mean?

I mean that we took a relatively realistic approach with Plus. On the other hand, though, I have doubts about that kind of methodology—essentially, I wanted to make something the opposite of that, something off-the-wall ridiculous. That’s why I was able to take a more manga-like approach with 7. There’s no point arguing over which of them is better. In a medium you draw by hand—one you can deform at will—why should we have to try and get close to reality? After all, no matter how much you do, it won’t be completely realistic.

We can try using subtle textural differences to base it more in reality, but it’s okay if there’s a completely different approach. So if we’d made Plus without making 7, I think it would have been mentally challenging. One of them was trying to be realistic, which is why we could bring the other one in a completely manga-like direction.

What kind of work would you like to do going forward?

If a new form of media were to come out, I’d like to try that. I mean, it’s been a hundred years since movies were invented, right? In an extreme sense, everything fundamental to movies was done within the first 30 years. It’s frustrating and disappointing. That’s why I’d like to work on a new medium itself. Something that’s not moving pictures. You may be able to express different things on television, but it’s still just an extension of movies.

Like Sharon.

Exactly. I just want to be part of those “first 30 years.” This time, I happened to be able to test a fusion of computers and animation. But that’s still just an application. I don’t want that—I want to do the underlying development. It’s frustrating! Leaving aside whether it was good or bad that I was born in Japan. They were saying Hollywood was on its last legs, but they used computers to recover, after all.

The reason you jumped into the world of animation in the first place was that you felt it had possibilities as a medium, wasn’t it?

It was. Gundam had just come out, and I think the medium was in a time of change. Something that had always been geared towards children was going into a maturing phase where it didn’t need to be for kids anymore. If the medium had already been stable, it never would have entered that phase.

So if you’d been born a decade later, you’d have gone into the games industry?

Yes, yes, exactly. No doubt about that. I only ever want to go to places that are changing. I just can’t seem to hold an interest in routine work.

Then maybe your next work won’t be an animation.

It’s possible. I still love animation and movies, of course, but if there are other possibilities out there, I’d want to know about them.

Would you have any interest in going the other way into older media, like literature?

If I specialized in that… It has a longer history, so it’s harder to get into, you know? I don’t think there’s much point in going in that direction now. But I do like theater, so I’d like to do a stage production at some point. It’d probably be hard, though. I’ve also been wanting to go around getting material for a documentary. The messages that journalists write are pretty different from authors, right? When you realize that, you start wanting as much first-hand information as you can. Documentaries are secondary information sources, but you still have to use raw information for them. But third- and fourth-hand information is no good, it loses its freshness. Of course, they’re easier to digest for it. In that sense, I’d like to work on something that always has a high degree of freshness.

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