Media Q&A with Toshihiro Kawamoto (co-founder of Japanese animation studio, Studio BONES) by Dennis A. Amith and Michelle Tymon (J!-ENT Interviews and Articles)
April 14, 2013 by Dennis Amith
In Japan, Toshihiro Kawamoto is one of the anime legends that fans just can’t get enough of when he comes to the United States as a guest of honor at an anime convention.
While in high school and after graduating, Kawamoto became interested in becoming an animator thanks to the “Macross” and “Mobile Suit Gundam” series. Inspired by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s character designs, after graduating at Tokyo Designer Gakuin College, he was offered a job to work on the 1986 animated film “Arion” supervised by Yoshinobu Inano and mentored by lead character designer Sachiko Kamimura.
During his earlier years, Kawamoto had worked on some of the highly regard classic titles such as “Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ, “Metal Armor Dragonar”, “Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack” and “Venus Wars”.
Three years later, in 1989, Kawamoto was the animation director for “Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket”, “Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory”, “Mobile Suit Gundam F91”, “Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Last blitz of Zeon” and “Super Dimension Century Orguss 02”.
While Kawamoto has a long list of anime that he has worked on in his oeuvre, for American fans, he is best known for his work on “Cowboy Bebop” as a character designer and animation director, “Wolf’s Rain”, “Golden Boy” and “Kurau: Phantom Memory” as an animation director.
Toshihiro Kawamoto is also known for his work with the animation studio, Studio BONES, that he co-founded with Sunrise staff members Masahiko Minami and Hiroshi Osaka in 1998.
And in the last five years, Studio BONES have worked on anime series such as “Darker than Black”, “Skull Man”, “Soul Eater”, “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood”, “Tokyo Magnitude 8.0”, “Star Driver: Kagayaki no Takuto”, “Un-Go”, “Eureka Seven: Astral Ocean” and many more.
On April 6th, Toshihiro Kawamoto took part in a media Q&A at Sakura-Con 2013 in Seattle. The following is a transcript of the press conference with Toshihiro Kawamoto which J!-ENT took part in.
KAWAMOTO: I can’t announce the two titles right now but there are two anime series being created by BONES. So, I really wanted to announce these two upcoming titles, but we have to put off the the announcement for a little while, so I am unable to answer any questions about these two titles right now. But if you like to ask me questions about my experience as an animator or about BONES, I’ll be more than happy to talk about that. Thank you very much.
With your contribution to the Gundam universe and seeing the transition of the character designs, for example, “Mobile Suit Gundam” originally to “Mobile Suit G Gundam”, what are your thoughts about the transition of the character designs? Is there anything you want to add or improve on?
KAWAMOTO: So, I worked on “Cowboy Bebop” in 1998, and after that, the producer at Sunrise, Masahiko Minami, who was the producer, decided he wanted to go independent and so he invited me along and that was the trigger for the creation of BONES. I think that Minami-san wanted to work on creating something new rather than previously existing work, so that’s why he left Sunrise and left to go independent.
When you established BONES 12-years ago, were you confident in starting it up the animation studio?
KAWAMOTO: So, I joined BONES and joined my friend Minami-san and because I had the same thoughts as Minami-san, as far as what I wanted to create and becoming an independent animator, I wasn’t really thinking if it would be successful or not. I was just thinking about what I wanted to create and the things that I wanted to make. And I was very happy that many of the people that worked on “Cowboy Bebop” that were freelance animators, were able to move and join BONES as well. I was really happy about that! And so we were able to create “RahXephon” and the actual feeling of where we were working, didn’t really change that much from “Cowboy Bebop” because we had the same staff working on it.
My question is the reception of “Cowboy Bebop” in the West. And by many Western anime fans, “Cowboy Bebop” is one of the most well-regard anime. Were you surprised by the Western reception to “Cowboy Bebop” was?
KAWAMOTO: When we made “Cowboy Bebop”, it was hard to get broadcast slots, so we didn’t know if it would become a hit or not. So faced with all these difficulties, we shortened it from a 26-episode series to a 13-episode series. But now, even ten years later, even outside of Japan, it’s almost a strange and surreal feeling. With regards to a sequel, you saw the last scene, so there are no plans at this time. I’m not part of the staff, but I heard there still may be a possibility of a live-action version. So, we may see a Hollywood version of “Cowboy Bebop” in the future.
Can you please elaborate more on the difficulty of the broadcast slots?
KAWAMOTO: When we were trying to find broadcast slots in Japan, we were facing challenges of some of the violence such as the “Bloody Eye” episode which had a lot of drug references and also the violence made it hard. Also at the same time, there was a real-life incident known as the Pokemon shock when a youth was wielding a knife, so we had to remove a knife digitally from a particular scene because of the social impact at that time. So, the bloody eye episode was episode #1, so we had to start broadcast episode #2 because of those kind of issues. But the episodes #1 and #5 were released in their original format, so I was glad to be able to take care of those.
Who were your inspirations as a child in becoming an animator?
KAWAMOTO: There are many! There are not so many people but their creations and the anime I was watching in high school that inspired me. So, for example the Gundam designs fromYasuhiko Yoshikazu and from Yoshiyuki Tomino , as well as from Hayao Miyazaki’s films. And Shoji Kawamori of “Macross” fame and “Urusei Yatsura’s” Mamoru Oshii. It was their work and watching their creations that I decided to join this industry.
Speaking of “Gundam”, for “Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory”, featured many different characters of different ethnicity, how important was that for you in being a director?
KAWAMOTO: “Stardust Memory” has a Hollywood movie feel to it, there was a request from the developer to include people of many different races. I think we became more aware of that over time, “0083” was made in the similar style of the first Gundam. I’m sorry, I’m not to familiar with the recent Gundam, so I don’t know what direction they are taking. But my memory of “Gundam 0083” is that we thought about the different characters that the actors were representing, and we based the character design on that. And “Cowboy Bebop” was like that as well, we thought about the characters first as well.
Studio BONES has done a lot of really awesome animations and there have been some that were original creations from BONES. How does BONES approach pre-existing titles vs. anime series that you created yourself?
KAWAMOTO: For projects such as “Fullmetal Alchemist”, it was a creator at BONES named Yoshiyuki Ito who thought it would be great to make an anime series, so he talked to the producer at BONES and then we talked to Square Enix who owns the IP. And that’s how we created the anime for “Fullmetal Alchemist”. And that’s how it was decided that Yoshiyuki Ito would become the character designer and main animator for “Fullmetal Alchemist”. And of course, there are times when sponsors or the original creator of the work will sponsor the creation of an anime. So, a recent work that I worked on was “Towa no Quon” was also based on an original work by a creator who created that work.
How do they choose whether or not the next project is pre-existing work or original?
KAWAMOTO: It’s all up to the President. Whatever he says goes. However, we all do have input in the direction the company is going. So, we have the feeling that we do want to create our own works, and so that is a possibility. Although it can be difficult to do that some times. But I think there are possibility for original work from BONES.
Given that you worked with prolific titles such as “Gundam”, “City Hunter” and “Venus Wars”, was there any fears of you working on established series?
KAWAMOTO: No particular concerns. But there is a strong way of thought in the industry in terms of a business standpoint, it’s easier to be successful with known properties. So, there is a tendency to prefer sequels over original works if they are already known.
Given that, are there any series that you haven’t worked on yet that you wanted to work on?
KAWAMOTO: No particular concerns. But there is a strong way of thought in the industry in terms of a business standpoint, it’s easier to be successful with known properties. So, there is a tendency to prefer sequels over original works if they are already known. Sequels…hmm…that really is a difficult question. I think from a sales or business success standpoint, it would make sense to do a sequel for “Cowboy Bebop”. But that would violate the director policy to create that, so that would be a bit difficult. And instead of existing work, creating something new or original work that would have some long term popularity and become a long term series would be great for our company. So, there was tendency in the past to create a series with 26-episodes, which we call two packs. The tendency now is for 13-episodes or one pack series. So, there is a difficult situation of creating a 13-episode series and make a decision of whether to create an additional 13-episodes, so it’s becoming more difficult.
You have been part of the growing industry of constant changing styles as each new generation of anime emerges. What do you think of animations and character designs today, compare to those from your beginnings, particularly against popular series such as “Madoka Magica”, “Sword Art Online” and “Guilty Crown”?
KAWAMOTO: I think those series that you mentioned reflect to popular face styles and character design, so I think that face balance kind of reflects the current state of the industry. There will be a tendency where there will be a hit of a particular series with a particular art style and when that’s popular, a lot of similar series will be influenced by that art style and that style will be used and will spread. But even within those trends, there are an increasing number of original creations and new directions. So, I really think it’s up to our choice to choose the designs that we like and up to the fans as well to choose the designs they like. Our job is to create designs that are requested of us by the producers and directors.
How does all that change from older series such the original “Gundam” and “Cowboy Bebop”?
KAWAMOTO: It’s hard to be specific, if you look at them side-by-side but you can tell. The biggest would be the change from creating individual cells to the digital creating process. One of the effects of digitization, previously when people were doing hand-drawn animation in cells, the width of the lines can vary. But now with digital, all the lines have to be the same width. There is sort of a trend to that, but that is one thing that has had an effect. So, while the screen is clearer, you can get a very clear image. You lose a little bit in terms of what the creator’s hand drawn works with the new digital process. The appeal of the hand drawn aspect has been lost to some extent.
Do you prefer the old style as opposed to more mainstream current works?
KAWAMOTO: Of course, I’m from the cell era. I think it’s something we need to challenge and how we can take that same feeling that we created from cells and convey it to fans using the digital process. Other companies are working on this issue and I think there are various technologies that they are experimenting with. So, they can reproduce this original feeling of the original cells, but it takes extra effort to bring back what was originally there. I think another big change is that now it’s possible for individual animators to perform their own animation check digitally, so now a single animator can put something together and check how it flows very easily.
How much difference from your other works was it when you were working on “Golden Boy”?
KAWAMOTO: So, Tatsuya Egawa was the original creator and Hiroyuki Kitakubo was the director and so meeting their vision was something that I would strive to work hard in “Golden Boy”.
Do you have a favorite series that you worked on?
KAWAMOTO: I get that question a lot and it’s hard to say and choose what is #1. Of course, “Cowboy Bebop”. And I think “The Cockpit” that I did with Hiroyuki Kitakubo was an important because it led to “Ghost in the Shell” and “Cowboy Bebop”.
I know that Ed from “Cowboy Bebop” is one of the most interesting characters of that anime era and that you based your design on Yoko Kanno. Why her? And what sort of challenges did you face in matching her to the character personality of the story?
KAWAMOTO: I’ll talk about how the character of Ed was created. So, the original plan in additional to the characters of Spike, Jet and Fay, there would be a little boy who was a hacker and a girl that would be laying around sleeping. So, there were five characters. As planning progressed, it was decided to combine the hacker boy character with the girl who was always sleeping on the sofa to a single character and that became Ed. And the idea was that the character would be like a cat lounging around all the time, but then the director said, “Like Yoko Kanno?”. I haven’t met her at the time, so I would have to imagine in my mind but I was told that she was the kind of person who would sleep in a meeting and a a very honest and natural person. So, although I haven’t met her, I would imagine her character. I remember the amazing work that she did in “Escaflowne” and “Macross Plus” and it was really hard for me to fill in that gap between those amazing works and this character that I was being described. So, why did that become Ed? It’s very interesting. And then after the design was done, then I actually met Yoko Kanno. Visually, she was a regular, cute and attractive girl. But when I actually saw her fall asleep on the sofa, I thought “oh yeah, that was her”.
Final words from Kawamoto
KAWAMOTO: Thank you all for coming today, I really appreciate it. Thank you for your interest and support in the anime industry and I look forward to your interest in our future works.
For more information on Studio BONES, please visit their official website.
Top photo courtesy of Sakura-Con / second and third photo by Michelle Tymon, J!-ENT
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