Gainax’s Never-Completed Uru in Blue and an Interview with Hiroyuki Yamaga

Tracing the production history of Uru in Blue, the never-completed sequel to Royal Space Force that’s been in and out of production for three decades, is a monumental task. It’s gone through numerous false starts and revisions, with quite a few impressive names attached over the years, and yet it remains in development hell. A perfect example of this complicated, convoluted production history came from the writer-producer himself at FanimeCon 2017, where Hiroyuki Yamaga gave a panel about his work. While showing off examples of pre-production artwork for Uru in Blue, a fan raised their hand and asked who had drawn the particular piece on screen at that moment. Yamaga paused and then replied, “I don’t remember.”

Your reality is indeed much, much more interesting than you think!

Royal Space Force‘s place within the Gainax oeuvre is an odd one; it was a professional company built by unprofessional otaku, its foundation laid at the 20th Japan SF Convention in 1981. The company’s subsequent work and their deep ties to fandom gave them unmistakable credibility among fans, with titles like Aim for the Top! Gunbuster [1988], Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water [1990], and Neon Genesis Evangelion [1995] shaping the otaku zeitgeist of their respective eras.

But in the wake of the Daicon Openings and excursions into professional work, the anime industry’s most famous group of fans-turned-pro were given an enormous opportunity by Bandai. Gainax itself, incorporated on Christmas Eve in 1984, was created to facilitate that opportunity and produce an animated theatrical film. But while the Daicon shorts were a reflection of everything otaku knew and loved, Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise [1987] was something else. It rode the post-Nausicaä anime theatrical wave as Bandai ponied up to cover the bill for an anime production on a scale rarely seen before. The film’s writer and director Hiroyuki Yamaga, just a couple years removed from his professional debut on Super Dimension Fortress Macross [1982], set out to create a film that would bring people back to reality and fight against the “Peter Pan syndrome” of young people grappling with anxiety and unease who relied on media as an escape. It was to be a film that, rather than use the real world, would lure in anime fans with the appeal of an alien world and the simple things in everyday life rather than fetishizing “mecha or cute girls.” In the words of Yamaga and producer Toshio Okada, the film was to be a reminder to viewers that, “Your reality is indeed much, much more interesting than you think!”

Weaponizing the mundane in a sci-fi setting was an ambitious goal, but the film achieved at least some of what Yamaga set out to do: the details and world-building in Royal Space Force were second to none. The Kingdom of Honneamise–the film’s setting–was not a reflection of our world, but a new world unto itself with an astonishing amount of thought and creativity poured into its design and detail. Whether or not that brought anyone back to reality, though, is harder to determine.

Pre-production artwork for Uru in Blue

…but we had nothing to show for it

Royal Space Force is often described as a “flop” but in his Royal Space Force 25th Anniversary Fanzine1, Carl Gustav Horn points out that it seems to have at least made back its production costs, with extravagant marketing spending being what brought it into the red. The one-day premiere at Los Angeles’ Mann’s Chinese Theater to build up credibility and hype for a Japanese domestic release being exactly the sort of absurd spending you’d expect for the bubble era and it certainly didn’t do the film any favors.

Despite the film’s box office receipts coming up short of the revenue Bandai had hoped for, the film’s unparalleled world-building apparently spurred Yamaga into developing an indirect sequel. The article included below dates from April 1993; smack dab in that awkward era for Gainax after Nadia but with Evangelion still a few years away. The early ’90s were lean years for the company despite the success of Nadia, and it was the success of Takemi Akai’s Princess Maker series and other video game projects that kept the lights on. It was a difficult period to push the production of a theatrical film on the scale of Royal Space Force, but that’s exactly what they tried to do.

In its earliest iteration, the plan was to have Yamaga produce and write the script while Hideaki Anno would direct. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto [Evangelion] would handle character designs while Masamune Shirow [Appleseed, Ghost in the Shell] and Kazutaka Miyatake [Macross, Orguss] would take care of mechanical designs. Takemi Akai, Gainax co-founder and the driving force behind the company’s best source of revenue at the time, threatened to leave the company if pre-production on the film didn’t get underway, as if he sensed that the company was just spinning its tires without a project. Yasuhiro Takeda described working on Uru in Blue at this time as a “chore.” The mood at the company seems to have been dire and pre-production began with the assumption that they had to do something, but finding the funding for a theatrical release was no easy task.

Despite making a serious go at it, Takeda described the project’s lack of progress in Notenki Memoirs by saying “Anno, myself, and all the rest of the staff had worked so hard on this project, but we had nothing to show for it.” The collapse of the Japanese bubble economy probably didn’t help. Production on the film was eventually halted.

Scratchbuilt models based on aircraft designs for Uru in Blue

Launch aborted, again

Over the years, Uru in Blue kept popping up. It was asked about regularly in interviews with Gainax staff, particularly in Western media where Royal Space Force still carried some serious cache among fans. It wasn’t the only project that Gainax had dropped, but its connection to the studio’s debut meant that it wasn’t an uncommon topic. Evangelion’s success in 1995 suggested that it might actually be feasible for such a grandiose film to finally see the light of day at the revitalized studio, but the next few decades were just marked by more false starts.

In 1998, Gainax released a multimedia CD-ROM titled “Aoki Uru Frozen Designs Collection” with production material from the original 1993 project. That same year, alongside an interview with Yamaga, Animerica magazine ambitiously described Uru in Blue as “nearing launch readiness.” In 2000, Gainax released a Microsoft Flight Sim add-on based on Uru in Blue with aircraft designs by Masamune Shirow, Ikuto Yamashita, Katsuhiro Otomo, and Kow Yokoyama. The following year a new production push for Uru in Blue was announced alongside a sequel to Gunbuster. In 2013, a new round of production announcements kicked off, although this particular iteration may have suffered from the balkanization of Gainax and the fact that it had been, well, eight years.

I’m reluctant to go into more detail about the film’s tumultuous production over the years, in part because it’s filled with so many false starts and loose ends and so few details that it’s not very interesting. If you’re curious, the Wikipedia page for the film does a good job of going through the troubled production history (I rarely recommend Wikipedia for anime research, but in this case, it seems comprehensive).

Roughly thirty years on it’s easy to write off Uru in Blue. Old film projects can eventually find the right spark needed to kick off production, but with each passing year it seems more unlikely that it’ll happen in this case. If it does happen though, it won’t be at Gainax. As the company split off into various subsidiaries and regional offices and the company came under increased scrutiny for how it handled the departure of Anno and Evangelion, Yamaga took Uru in Blu to a studio called Gaina2. Production of Uru in Blue reportedly got underway in 2017. In 2018 it was announced that Uru in Blue would be released in 2022. With nothing seen since then, it seems unlikely they’ll make their release date next year.

The Comet of the Anime World

Hiroyuki Yamaga, 1993

During his professional ascendency, Yamaga was reportedly dubbed “the comet of the anime world” and it’s easy to see why, at least for a while, his professional journey must have seemed extraordinary. As a follow-up to directing the Daicon III Opening Animation [1981], he worked on Macross as an assistant director and later episode director for episode nine. The Daicon IV Opening Animation [1983] and Royal Space Force followed, and he wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed OAV debut of the Gundam franchise, Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket [1988]. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, he worked on more than a few Gainax titles, but never achieved the same heights he hit in the late ’80s.

It’s difficult to fathom the expectations put on a director when their debut is something like Royal Space Force. The weight of that must have been immense, and it’s not hard to see why returning to the world of Honneamise must have seemed appealing from both a practical and creative point of view.

What’s fascinating about the interview below, which dates to 1993, is that it doesn’t paint Uru in Blue as a particularly interesting movie. Perhaps being in the early stages of the script process meant that Yamaga was just being cagey, but what little is mentioned of the plot and the focus on action is underwhelming and in some ways the antithesis of the original film. Two years later Gainax co-founder Toshio Okada described Uru in Blue’s story as “almost exactly the same as Streets of Fire,” and it sure sounds like it was. Albeit with fighter jets.

In the interview, Yamaga comes across as defensive and unconcerned with anyone’s expectations for the film. He proudly declares that it’s a movie he’s making for himself, starring a swashbuckling self-insert character based on himself. With Royal Space Force he set out to make a film to bring people back to reality, but it sounds like Yamaga was hoping to make a sequel so that he could escape it.

Tell-All Interview with Uru in Blue Producer Hiroyuki Yamaga

G.Press Stage 26, October 1993
Translated by Maude Duke

Everyone’s asking us about Uru in Blue lately—it’s clear everyone’s dying to hear about this highly anticipated upcoming film. We’ve decided to cut straight to the chase and probe core staff member Hiroyuki Yamaga for details. Ready, set, go!!

So when exactly do you think Uru will be finished?

Not sure, but my estimate is three years.

What are the main roadblocks in the way of production?

The answer is simply money. Theatrical releases are cost-heavy, and we’re going to require a lot of funds.

What makes it so expensive?

Labor costs. The total estimated budget is something like 1.3 to 2 billion yen.

Akai Takami, who is also present: “That’s excluding publicity and related expenses. It’s double the cost of the average Japanese blockbuster.”

How far along is the project?

I’m still in the process of writing the script. It’s coming together at a good pace, I think.

Many people have been asking for details on the film’s subject matter. I’ve heard it’s going to be a continuation of Wings of Honneamise. Why did you decide to make a sequel?

Honneamise’s setting was created with the potential for reuse in mind, and we’ll probably keep doing stuff with it forever, not just the sequel. The setting being not too far in the future nor the past is convenient for us. It’s an asset.

Will we see any returning characters from Wings of Honneamise?

No, definitely not. We’re deliberately having it take place a considerable amount of years apart.

VTOL designed for Uru in Blue by Kazutaka Miyatake. This design can be seen in the background of the image at the top of this article.

I’ve heard the story is about the Air Force this time.

No, it’s not about the military at all. It’s about a soldier of fortune. To get into specifics, a wandering mercenary—think Ronin of the Wilderness3—is hired to resolve an incident related to a woman he was involved with in the past. And the opposing force is also composed of hired mercs…

The incident being an abduction, of course. Why was she kidnapped?

Hmm, why indeed? I haven’t really thought about it yet. [laugh]

So he’s a wandering ronin that travels around in a jet instead of riding a horse? Tuning up the engine by himself as he goes, and such?

Yup. Sounds like a total badass, right?

And “Uru” is the name of the main character?

Not quite. The characters aren’t going to be hollering at him like “Yo, Uru!” It only comes up once, as the protagonist’s nickname during a past war. It’s like Char’s nickname, the “Red Comet”—it wouldn’t be right to call him Mr. Comet, now would it?

What kind of person is the new protagonist?

Shirotsugh, the main character of the last film, was purely an invention of my mind, but the protagonist this time is more of a self-insert. I want to try writing more from the heart this time. Therefore, he’s pretty aloof. And difficult to write, by virtue of being so similar to me.

So you project yourself onto the main character?

It’s not just projection, he IS me. I wrote Shirotsugh to be completely unlike me, although some bits and pieces might’ve slipped in—the unguarded parts. But I have to dig deeper into myself for this character, which is challenging.

So since he’s a self-insert, does that make you the Ronin of the Wilderness?

That’s kind of what my life is like right now. Still, no matter how closely I model him after myself, a fictional character is just a fictional character in the end.

What will the story be like this time?

I’m not a big fan of “stories”. Save the princess, happily ever after… not my thing. What’s more important is breathtaking visuals and rousing action.

What kind of film are you hoping to make?

The kind that makes you go “that kicked ass.”

There hasn’t been any published information about the film, in magazines or otherwise. Why is that?

One big reason is that we haven’t made much progress yet, but even going forward, I don’t plan on talking to the press. Not worth the effort. These days we’re bombarded with every detail about a film before it even comes out, so isn’t it nice to abstain for once?

VTOL designed for Uru in Blue by Kazutaka Miyatake.

What would you say are the main selling points?

Gotta be the action-packed fight scenes. If I fill it with a bunch of loosey-goosey melodrama it’s gonna bore the audience to death.

Why has production been so slow? It sounds like everyone’s eager to see it.

People are so impatient. We can’t just snap our fingers and have it be done.

So there won’t be any other new Gainax movies until Uru comes out?

Gainax isn’t that big of a company, and the staff is split up between different projects. You get that, right?

Everyone’s hoping for Gainax to put out more stuff like Gunbuster.

You’re being a glutton. Anime like that only comes along every so often. Please try to live a more ascetic lifestyle.

It’s just sad to hear that we’ll be able to see such a thing only once in a whole three years.

The things you saw in your parents’ youth, you’ll get another chance to see in your childrens’ youth.

So there won’t likely be a project involving the entire staff in the foreseeable future?

Depends on what you consider the entire staff. If they made a hundred more Nadia films, it wouldn’t have anything to do with yours truly.

You said you’re making the type of movie you want to make this time.

Whether or not my tastes will line up with others’ is up to coincidence. I’m not going out of my way to make a movie that other people want to watch.

In specific terms, could you describe the kind of movie you want to make?

A theater is where you go to see things that you can’t experience on a day-to-day basis. People pay for the chance to witness things that are out of the ordinary for two hours. Those who are satisfied with their regular lives don’t need movies.

How do you define “out of the ordinary?”

I’m an odd person. So usually, whatever I think is normal is abnormal by definition.

When do you notice that you are odd?

When other people tell me so. My reactions are different from other people’s. Even my gait is different from everyone else’s. To others it’s clear as day, though from my point of view, it’s all normal.

So the film’s main character will also be an odd person?

He’ll act in a way that I consider normal, but if people want to pay to gawk at an oddball, it’ll probably meet their expectations.

Did you behave oddly as a child, too?

I was always going against the flow. I was just the odd one out. When Crayon Shin-chan was at its most popular I was reading Kariage-kun. I wasn’t a weirdo per se, just a little out of sync with others. I was really into the occult in grade school, like Nostradamus’ prophecies and the curse of Tutankhamun. One time I devoted an entire summer break to researching pyramid power by myself.

Akai: “Once, he got his finger stuck in a 16mm film rewinder. It was all swollen and black and blue. He made a pyramid out of cardboard and insisted that it would heal it.”)

I kept asking what the ratio of a pyramid was but nobody knew it.

Akai: “Of course they didn’t! Why would they? If you had the time to go around asking that you should’ve gone to the hospital.”

In middle school, I was really into disaster flicks and watched a ton of them. In high school, there wasn’t anything I was particularly interested in.

What made you want to become a director?

After watching a movie called Capricorn One I went to the bookstore and stood around reading film magazines off the rack. One had a column by Nagaharu Yodogawa, where he wrote: “I get a lot of letters from people who want to direct, but there’s no easy way to become a director. If I had to pick something, I’d recommend rewatching the same movie ten times.” I thought, gee whiz, I guess I’ll give it a try. And once I did, I was like “Hey, I could do this!”

You watched that movie ten times without getting sick of it?

I got sick of it alright. But there are some things you only start to notice when you watch a movie you’re sick of. “Why did they make it like this?” “Are people really enjoying this?” “This is how you make the audience smile, huh?” “I’d have done it this way instead.” I watched it ten times in theaters, watching other audience members’ reactions all the while.

So is Uru also going to be a movie you can watch ten times without getting sick of?

I’d like to think so, but who knows? Anyone who would watch it ten times is sick in the head, though.

I hope that Uru will be finished as soon as possible.

I’m not in any particular hurry. I’m making it for myself, after all.

Gainax is the best studio for you to work with, right?

The staff at Gainax isn’t always the best, but I think it’s a good fit right now. I don’t know if I’ll feel the same way in three years, or ten. With Anno no longer directing, we’ll have to see how it goes. Anything could happen.

You said the script is coming together well, but when do you expect to have it finished?

Within the year, hopefully. But I couldn’t tell you what’ll happen a week or longer from now. For all we know, I could die tomorrow.

If the movie never comes out, the theatergoers might not be able to hang on any longer.

By the time it’s finally released, it’ll be for a completely different audience than the ones who want to go see it now.

We hope you enjoyed this exclusive peek into the deep world of Hiroyuki Yamaga.

Akai: “To give a metaphor, what Yamaga is doing right now is digging a tunnel all on his own. It might be a narrow one, but once he finally comes out the other end, we’ll be able to get everyone together to create something spectacular. I think that doggedly pushing forward while things are still in the concept stage is what makes Yamaga, Yamaga. Nobody knows what the final product will be like, but it’s going to be the likes of which no one has ever seen before. I think that it’ll all become clear once the script is finalized. But right now he’s the monk in Aonodōmon4, putting his all into his inscrutable work.”

Did you enjoy the interview? Mr. Yamaga is somewhat of an enigma, so we’re glad we could capture a glimpse of his idiosyncratic personality. In G-Press, we lay out all the spicy info that you’d never get from a typical magazine. If there’s anything YOU want to hear about, please feel free to write in.

Apology from Producer Takeda5
Sorry to everyone who’s been waiting patiently for Uru in Blue! It’s going to be a while before it’s ready. We’re all poor, you see! Settling on a budget as big as 1.3 billion was quite tough. Of course, nothing is set in stone yet. A lot of things are still up in the air. But I assure you, no matter what happens, Uru in Blue is going to be completed! It’ll be a masterpiece that’ll leave its mark on Japanese cinema forever. And it shouldn’t be too far in the future. (I think.)
Please cheer us on, everybody. (^^)

Further Reading

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  1. Nearly ten years old, but highly recommended. You can still buy it on MagCloud.
  2. Gaina was originally a Gainax subsidiary called Fukushima Gainax but is no longer affiliated with the company. Calling the new studio “Gaina” is a bit cheeky, as that’s a bit of Tottori-prefecture slang for “big.” When naming Gainax in 1984, they used the same root word but added an x to make it sound “more like the name of an anime robot,” according to Yasuhiro Takeda.
  3. An early 70’s period drama.
  4. During the Edo period, a Buddhist monk (…) decided to build a safe passage for worshipers in order to atone for his crime. Beginning at the age of 49, he dedicated 30 years of his life to digging the 185 metre tunnel by hand, using only a hammer and chisel.” -Wikipedia
  5. This appeared as a sidebar at the end of the interview.