“Could we do another Macross?”- A curated look at Noboru Ishiguro’s Interview with AnimEigo

Just before Christmas in 2001, AnimEigo released their DVD box set of Super Dimension Fortress Macross. The product of a very early kind of crowdfunding1, this newly remastered set of the classic series was bolstered by extensive liner notes and audio options that even gave enthusiasts access to the series’ M&E, or “music & effects” track. These features naturally led to a box set that has been highly lauded and sought after by fans in the years since. However, over 20 years later, I learned that AnimEigo left a handful of morsels left to be discovered by the most eagle-eyed of viewers.

Having owned the set for a while now, it occasionally appears in photos of my display case dedicated to the Macross series. One such photo caught the attention of fellow Zimmerit contributor John Falco, who pointed out that there was a commentary track by series creator Shoji Kawamori hidden somewhere in the set. After checking over the discs a few times to no avail, animation scholar Ethan Halker suggested I take another look—taking care to mess with the audio tracks a little more this time around. When setting the last two episodes to audio track three, accompanied by subtitle track two, I discovered something fascinating. It wasn’t an interview with Kawamori, but rather a candid conversation with director Noboru Ishiguro on the series’ production and the challenges the team faced when schedules became tighter than expected.

Captivated by the late director’s stories, I found myself left with three questions swirling around in my mind.

  1. Why was this interview hidden as a secret feature?
  2. What is the story behind this interview?
  3. What is the best way to share Ishiguro’s insights?

After all, this is an interview I didn’t know existed until I was nudged about it. An interview locked to a vintage North American DVD release that also somehow found its way onto an Australian release. I thought there might be a bit of a story here.

To start answering these questions, I spoke with Robert J. Woodhead and Natsumi Ueki of AnimEigo. Woodhead quickly knocked question number one out of the way, simply saying that he had no idea why the interview was hidden. As for the story of the interview itself, Ueki said that Ishiguro had kindly accepted their request to speak with him while he was in attendance at Anime Expo 2000. She made a point of pointing out Ishiguro’s acceptance of their request being in the shadow of the then-ongoing legal issues surrounding the series. It’s interesting to note considering the set was produced in partnership with Harmony Gold, using their 16mm film2 prints of the series.

Now, the third question. What follows is a curated version of the interview that expands on Ishiguro’s stories with additional insights from Macross’ other key creatives that have been included in various interviews over the years. Furthermore, animation scholar Renato Rivera Rusca spoke with me to provide further clarification on his late friend’s comments.

What’s in a Name?

Ueki starts off the interview by asking Ishiguro’s recollection of how the title came to be.

Macross actually started out with a completely different title. It happens to a lot of shows. During the planning stage, it was called ‘Overlordsomething'”

He goes on to mention how Big West Producer Yoshimasa Oniishi wanted something more “trendy.” It’s well known that as a Shakespeare connoisseur, Oniishi suggested the title of the playwright’s famous Scottish play to christen the series. Ishiguro most likely had the same proclivity as me to know that name has a tendency to drum up bad mojo. Not to mention that they couldn’t copyright the name either.

“You can’t ignore what your producer tells you, you know, but THAT title would be a mistake, so we changed one letter to make it into ‘Macross.'”

Another story well-known in regards to the series is told in the book Macross Perfect Memory, the name being a portmanteau of “Macro” and “Across” to create “Macross.” Once the name was settled, it took some time for the team to come around on it, which Ishiguro mentioned was pretty par for the course in the industry.

Stolen Ideas and the Valkyrie Miracle

Ishiguro mentioned that laying down the groundwork for the series took about a year, a year and a half, maybe even two years. While confident in the story and characters they had developed, their extended pre-production resulted in designs being leaked and co-opted for other series. The team had to draw a handful of new designs to replace the stolen work.

Curious, I asked Rivera Rusca what series Ishiguro may have been speaking about.

“It was my interpretation that he was probably talking about shows like Mospeada, which were in development at around the same time, and the Artmic members were very aware of what Nue and Artland were doing, as they themselves were commissioned to provide artwork for Macross merch and suchlike.”

After hearing that, Mospeada’s similarly transforming jet—the Legioss—does come to mind. However, Zimmerit Boss Sean O’Mara pointed out that while Rivera Rusca’s reasoning is sound, the dates might not line up specifically with Mospeada’s production timeline.

“In October 1982 when Macross was premiering, working designs for the series [Mospeada] looked more like blocky power suits. The Legioss as we know it didn’t really appear until the first couple of months of 1983, based on the dates written on pre-production artwork. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been another show or borrowed other designs entirely!”

Regardless of what may have happened, the commotion around the designs goes to show just how revolutionary Shoji Kawamori’s VF-1 Valkyrie truly was. According to Ishiguro, Kawamori was scratching his head on the concept of a jet fighter robot toy that could transform just like it did in the show. The director thought this task was more easily said than done.

“In anime, you can make things transform any way you want, but with toys, you have to take one part off and put it back together. We were talking about dealing with so many parts. He [Kawamori] was saying he didn’t want that. He wanted something that would transform, just like in the show. People around him said it’d cost a fortune to come up with that kind of a toy. Plus, the current toy technology wouldn’t allow us to make anything like that.”

Despite the challenge and the series’ sponsors insisting planes wouldn’t sell3, Kawamori pushed on to develop a prototype out of his own pocket. Ishiguro and company were shocked by the whiz-kid’s ingenuity.

“We were saying, sure, it would’ve been cool if it could’ve been done. But then, after seeing a functional mock-up, we thought we saw a miracle. We were shocked. Because it really transformed like it did in the show. When that was shown to us, Mr. Kawamori himself was shocked! The idea was great enough, but the technical capabilities to realize it were incredible. The abilities of Japanese model makers, their precision and all… They’re the best in the world. I hear that they even obtained a patent related to the toy. So we were saying, if we could sell that, it’d be a hit… a phenomenon. And lo and behold! It really did.”

“If you think you got what it takes, then step inside!”

Shoji Kawamori and Haruhiko Mikimoto were still college students at the time of production. According to Ishiguro, their inexperience rubbed many of the veterans on staff the wrong way, leading to many just walking off.

“This happens every now and then in the industry. Some people felt that these characters were not worth working with. After they left, we were in trouble. It became a real problem, but we had to go on. If we had beginners doing the characters, why not get beginners doing the rest?”

Ishiguro was able to get together a team of animators with a year to two years of experience tops. He was the only crew member with any notable credits, Space Battleship Yamato, being his claim to fame. Running on such a new staff was risky, but Mainichi Broadcasting System (MBS) producer Tsuneyuki Enomoto had his back, telling him

“I trust you. Do what you want.”

Enomoto’s trust in Ishiguro allowed the director to carry on with his scrappy team of newbies. However, that inexperience quickly caused the crew to fly face-first into a series of hurdles. According to Rivera Rusca, the greenhorns ate up their production schedule by planning and drawing until they thought their work was just right. Recording Director Yasunori Honda would often see the result of this when recording dialogue, being provided scantily drawn-upon frames with no robots to be seen. This led to the team missing more deadlines than Ishiguro was comfortable admitting, resulting in a breaking point with episode 11.

It was a reality check for the crew, as the airing of the unfinished episode had MBS threatening to pull the show. The episode’s airing hit Kawamori hard. He was so anxious, he couldn’t bear to speak with others afterward. He claims it got so bad that it morphed into a physical pain that didn’t subside until he resolved to keep to the schedule4. To get production fully back on schedule and stretch out the episode count, recap episodes like “Global’s Report” and “Phantasm” became necessary5.

“Phantasm” was a great illustration of how brisk Macross‘ production was at this point. Two weeks before the episode was to air, producer Hiroshi Iwata approached Shoji Kawamori to fill an episode slot in order to conserve their resources for the episode “Pineapple Salad.” Integrating previously used footage with only a small handful of new animation cuts, Kawamori hurriedly reviewed previous episodes to write and edit the episode. He did this over the course of a week, which is impressive considering it was far from the only plate he was spinning at the time6.

“Think without boundaries” – The Generational Divide

Ishiguro mentions to Ueki that he occasionally felt a generational gap with his co-workers. A key moment in building the relationship between Hikaru and Minmay—being stranded in the bowels of the Macross—came to Ishiguro’s mind.

“What happens to a boy and girl stranded in space. I remember having huge debates over that with Kawamori and others. I thought that if you were in that situation things would be fun at first but eventually you’d feel trapped. You won’t know what to do and sooner or later you’d feel hopeless because you’ve got nowhere to go. I told them that’s what I thought people would feel. But Kawamori and others didn’t see it that way. They said that we should think without boundaries.”

He didn’t quite understand what they meant by “think without boundaries.” When asked his thoughts on the difference in approach, Rivera Rusca pointed to the situation’s recontextualization in Do You Remember Love?

“I believe the series version is Ishiguro’s idea that gradually the mental state of a teenager would devolve into despair and irrational thought, whereas in the movie, Kawamori had the majority of creative control with Ishiguro holding the fort as it were, so the dreamlike floating through the air and roleplaying angle that you see there is what he wanted to depict. Notice that Minmay and Hikaru don’t ever consider the gravity of their situation until they are actually found, and gravity is literally switched on. That’s a completely different interpretation.”

Despite the generation gap, he may have felt from this difference in opinion, Ishiguro admits that he learned so much from his band of newcomers.

“That was a project in which I was greatly inspired. I mean, it wasn’t a conventional project by any means. Sure it had undesirable elements here and there, but there’s a great deal of wonderful, innovative things. I think it demonstrated new potentials for the next generation of anime.”

So I know this trucker…

Ichiro Itano’s animation is inseparable from the series’ identity, from the legendary Itano Circus to its dog fights. His involvement in Macross started with Kawamori as well. He introduced Itano to Ishiguro as “a man who created amazing motion in Gundam.” Ishiguro described Itano as korisugichattete or a “craft-a-holic”—a man so dedicated to and particular about his work that it adversely affected his personal life. He was so obsessed with his craft that he could barely afford to eat, so he drove trucks to make ends meet.

“What a poor guy, we thought! So we talked about hiring him as a mecha design guy. I told him he won’t have to drive trucks anymore. When he joined us… oh, my. What an interesting fellow he was.”

While incredibly talented, Itano’s perfectionist streak regularly threw off the production. When reviewing Itano’s work, Ishiguro would give him the okay to move on, but he’d still be unsatisfied. As a result, Itano had a tendency to take all the work and disappear to polish it further. The production would then be scrambling to find him before he showed up at the last minute for photography. Itano later said that working this way was like running an ironman, however, it caught up with him. It left the animator surprised he managed to survive it7. As Ishiguro tells it,

“He kept on doing that on and on… and eventually he sort of ran out of his breath. I mean, he became, really ill, something to do with his kidney, so he was out for some time.”

As someone who follows the stories of creatives, it is a situation surprisingly reminiscent of Yasuhiro Yasuhiko’s illness near the end of Mobile Suit Gundam’s run. However, unlike Yasuhiko, Itano wasn’t willing to stay in bed—competing in a motorcycle race despite his illness. After his illness and the airing of episode 11, Itano came to the realization that he didn’t have to push himself so hard going into the series’ second half. He specifically mentions that having a great collaborator in the form of Haruhiko Mikimoto helped, as he noticed they had taken turns in the spotlight about every six episodes or so8.

Speaking of collaborators, Itano brought a pair of creatives into the production himself. First was Toshihiro Hirano, with whom Itano produced the series’ iconic opening animation. Second, some smelly kid from Osaka by the name of Hideaki Anno. Looking squarely at Anno’s career trajectory, Ishiguro said:

“Somehow, people who are good at animating mechas tend to be good at directing. Because they’re always concerned with how to visually represent something. People like that always tend to follow that career path, somehow. I was just having that very discussion the other day. We were wondering… why?!”

Shifting Scopes

Initially proposing the series, Ishiguro and company asked for 39 episodes or three seasons as he put it. However, worried about the business risk of doing so, the network asked them to push it down to 26 episodes. Near the end of the planned run, the series’ popularity prompted the network to request another season. Ishiguro was frustrated by this change in direction.

“I hated it when it happened because we shrunk 39 episodes to 26 and now they want us to thin them out! That was terrible. But, since they requested it… we had to do it. We had to create another season’s worth of episodes. We didn’t know how to proceed, we ended our story already! There were episodes we threw out during the initial shrinking process. There was footage we never got to use, so we thought about recycling that. We came up with some decent ideas… like the post-space war story. So we went with that.”

The post-war arc has a mixed reputation amongst fans, with a good handful preferring the idea of it not being included. Ishiguro himself wasn’t sure about it saying “I wasn’t sure about the way it turned out. Maybe we could’ve done without it.”

My interest was especially piqued by the mention of unused footage, however, Rivera Rusca informed me this wasn’t quite what Ishiguro had said. Reviewing the audio, he clarifies that Ishiguro was speaking more about nixed episode concepts instead of unused footage.

The Cast of Macross & Minmay Magic

When asked about the characters, Ishiguro went through his general thoughts of the cast. By then-current standards, he saw Hikaru to be a bit of a hick. That Roy was the best of the “older brother”-types, supported by an amazing performance from Akira Kamiya. His relief that Noriko Ohara was cast as Claudia, a character he thought was oddly mature for Mikimoto’s design sensibilities. Speaking of Mikimoto, Ishiguro seemed a bit taken aback that the character designer used him as the basis for Captain Global. A fact that made the director curious as to what Mikimoto saw in him.

Ishiguro really got talking when the topic switched to Minmay. Confirming that she was directly inspired by idol Seiko Matsuda, Ishiguro then shared his belief that Mikimoto’s illustrations are what turned Minmay into a sensation. After all, Mikimoto was channeling his admiration of Matsuda through his work.

“Mr. Mikimoto was actually a member of her fan club! He had tons of her photos, a lot of photo albums. They all helped create Minmay as a character really well.”

Ishiguro continues to mention that everyone pitched in on Minmay’s songs, coming up with lyrics and asking Kentarou Haneda to throw a tune to them. According to Yasunori Honda, Haneda would often take about an hour to crank out a song with Mari Iijima’s range in mind. Their process directly resulted in the creation of songs like “My Boyfriend is a Pilot” and “Shao Pai Lon.”9

However, Ishiguro points out that a good handful of viewers weren’t singing the same cheery tune when it came to Minmay. He reveals that they received many complaints about the pop star from the women watching the series. This struck me as surprising, especially given the well-known history of women serving as the backbone of the mecha community. Kawamori later said that this backlash was intentional, with Mikimoto elaborating that while Minmay looked like the heroine, it was all a smokescreen to conceal Misa10 as the series’ “true” heroine.

“Can’t you please fix her for this DVD release?”

When the topic of Misa came up, he felt that she turned out the closest to Mikimoto’s vision for any of the characters. However, due to the nature of the production, his team worked with another studio called AnimeFriend to complete the animation. To his recollection, they didn’t always do the most flattering work.

“Well, I hate to say it, but their Misa looked unbelievably ugly! I mean… I even had nightmares! I’m pretty sure they worked hard at it too, but.. Some facial features were… a little off, you see. And they got so used to that… so her face became… monstrous. With the same specs, why are Mikimoto’s Misa drawings so much more attractive? We kept wondering why and were impressed at the same time. I guess Misa was hard to draw for many. Some had given up, saying they couldn’t draw like Mikimoto. Can’t you please fix her for this DVD release?”

Though in reviewing Ishiguro’s words further with Rivera Rusca, the director’s statements are at odds with the general consensus that South Korean animation studio Star Pro was responsible for the occasionally less-than-flattering animation. Considering this interview was conducted almost 20 years later after the fact, it’s not impossible for a detail or two to be misremembered.

That was Macross? – The Restoration

Reflecting on the restoration done by AnimEigo, Ishiguro mentioned he heard about a “crazy fan” who had been color-correcting the series and doing other work. He was impressed that the technology existed to do so. It reminded him of a story.

“A few years ago, I was away on business… in Japan, somewhere out in the country and I was staying at a hotel. When I switched on the TV there was this anime show on. And, my goodness, did it look noisy and dirty! But it looked really familiar to me. Little did I know, it was Macross! It was awful! It was awful! I think this will be his masterpiece, in a way, I mean it.”

When I asked who that “crazy fan” was, Woodhead pointed to producer Shin Kurokawa. He continued on to say that Kurokawa was taking great care with the series’ video quality, along with fixing any dust or scratches he saw. In a previous interview with Jeff Kleist of Otaku no DVD11, Woodhead provided even more insight into Kurokawa’s work while the set was in production.

“Shin went out to LA for a month, and claims that he spent the entire month in the studio transferring about 1-2 episodes a day from Harmony Gold’s 16mm prints that they found at the bottom of their warehouse. […] He transferred it on a really top-notch telecine, and doing color corrections. They would note all the film errors they wanted to fix and go and fix them by digitally painting them out. There are a lot of tools out there for digital scratch removal and things like that, and now they’ve gotten something like 85% of the problems out. Now what Shin is doing during the subtitle process is logging every single remaining error down to the little dots of dust, and prioritizing them. Based on how many people pre-order the set, Shin will have a budget to go back into the studio and he’s going to tweak out as many of these as he can afford.”

Kleist remarked that he believed this was the first time an anime was restored in America. Kurokawa’s lauded work would lead him to being a guest at Anime Expo 2002’s Macross Panel, alongside others who had worked on the franchise’s stateside releases including Egan Loo and Neil Nadelman.

In talking with Ishiguro, Ueki mentions how Kurokawa had been working hard on the set, without much rest. As if he doesn’t know how to stop. Ishiguro couldn’t help but empathize with him.

“Yes, it’s true! You can’t stop until you feel like, ‘OK, if I do anymore, I’ll die!’ I’ve experienced it. I know the feeling. One wrong decision here could mean life or death!”

Having just started to work with digital equipment himself, Ishiguro was excited to see what new technologies could bring to their work. Whether it was cleaning up old series or producing new ones.

“Could we do another Macross? I don’t think so”

In wrapping up the interview, Ishiguro admitted that Macross was a difficult project, one that they just got through on the skin of their teeth. An experience filled with many missed deadlines and miscommunication. Not to mention that quite a bit of work that never made it to the light of day.

“We found some of those just recently [2000]. Some incredible explosions animated by Mr. Itano… were all lumped together! We got those too late, you see, we couldn’t paint all the cels in time. Only the key drawings were colored. And all the sound was already recorded too. All the effects. And the motion was just incredible. We found a lot of that. It’s really too bad! I wish we could show these to everybody.”

The time of the interview and discovery of this key animation lines up with the events following the fire at Studio Artland on February 9th, 2000. These key frames may have been found as the studio was being cleaned out and repaired. In reviewing it with him, Rivera Rusca was able to provide more details on the unused animation and the recorded audio.

“The ‘unused animation’ he is referring to here is not an edited and developed film, it’s just a bunch of frames. He said that they got the in-betweens too late, so there was no time to send them over to the colourists after being transferred to cels (hence only the keyframes being coloured). The sound being recorded makes sense if you don’t consider it being dubbed onto the visual footage, and it was likely just recorded according to the set timings. In truth, even in the episodes that were completed and did air, the animation was so delayed that the voice actors were usually recording their lines with hardly any visual aids, where normally they’d watch the characters’ movements on a screen and match their performance according to those cues, so sound was likely often produced in parallel (just not “added” until the end). ‘Showing these to everybody’ would probably require those frames to be physically filmed in some way.”

In the years following Ishiguro’s passing, Rivera Rusca isn’t aware of the whereabouts of these drawings. Even from his various visits to the Artland offices since then. Following up on his comments about the unused animation, the director summed up his thoughts on the Macross experience.

“Being young at the time, full of dreams and all. We all tried our best. I don’t know if it makes any difference now by showing all this lost footage. But the show was an unusual one made possible by young sleep deprived fellows. Well, I was one of them too. A lot of inexperienced people working together doing so out of their love for the craft. I supervised them all, and gave them guidelines. But in the end, I put my trust in them. And somehow, from all that, Macross came about. If we got together again now, could we do another Macross? I don’t think so. I think it was possible then, and only then. I had that same conversation with the TV producer at the time. We felt there was no way we could do this again even if we tried. So we ended it. I’m sure that the show will be remembered for a long time. And no matter what new technology may be developed, no matter what kind of repairs you’ll be able to do to the show, I don’t think, in essence, it’ll ever be perfect. But, even under those pathetic working conditions typical of Japanese animation productions we managed to face the reality and accomplished what we did and we demonstrated the new potentials in anime for a new audience. I think it made many people open their eyes to our achievements. I’m really glad I was a part of that. I hope that things will continue to evolve.”

When first listening to the interview, the trust cultivated by Noboru Ishiguro and his team throughout production stuck out to me. Despite the quirks of working with a new team of animators, despite the missed deadlines, and despite any tensions, they trusted each other to leap across hurdles on the way to the finish line. Speaking with people who had the privilege to know Ishiguro, I learned that integrity touched their lives as well. Considering that strong foundation of trust, I agree—it would be hard to make another series quite like Super Dimension Fortress Macross.

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  1. Source: An Interview With Robert Woodhead About AnimEigo’s Macross DVD Set.
  2. Source: SUPER DIMENSIONAL DVDs: An interview with AnimEigo’s Robert Woodhead.
  3. Source: Otakon 2018 – An Exhausted Account Part 2.
  4. Source: “The Men Who Made Macross.” Documentary. Tokyo MX.
  5. Source: Macross TV Series Liner Notes.
  6. Source: SpeakerPODcast Ep.119 – A Series of Nooks. DecultureSHOCK.
  7. Source: “The Men Who Made Macross.” Documentary. Tokyo MX.
  8. Source: “The Men Who Made Macross.” Documentary. Tokyo MX.
  9. Source: “The Men Who Made Macross.” Documentary. Tokyo MX.
  10. Source: “The Men Who Made Macross.” Documentary. Tokyo MX.
  11. Source: SUPER DIMENSIONAL DVDs: An interview with AnimEigo’s Robert Woodhead. Otaku no DVD.