One of the most popular mecha designers in anime is one with a unique international reach. From working on anime like Escaflowne to Cowboy Bebop, Kimitoshi Yamane is a widely respected figure, but he wouldn’t necessarily call himself a typical mecha designer.
Unlike many major figures in anime, Yamane still works near where he grew up and commutes into Tokyo when he needs to. On one of these trips, I was lucky enough to sit down with him and talk about his career. Naturally, I started by asking where he grew up and what he enjoyed doing as a child.
“I was born in Kawamoto-cho in Shimane prefecture, it’s a small town in the countryside. At that time, the population was around seven thousand people. These days, it’s even less, with only about three thousand people living there. When I was a child, there were only two bookstores and two toy shops, but there was no cinema.
“These days I live in Hamada-shi, which is about fifty kilometers away from my hometown. The reason I live here is that it offers me quite easy access to Tokyo, there used to be a direct bus service but that is no longer available, so these days I fly to Tokyo as the airport is quite close as well.
“The old bus service would take about twelve hours to get to Tokyo. It was a night bus, so it was cheap but very uncomfortable. However, if you reserve a flight in advance, the price is pretty similar. So I make sure to ask my clients in Tokyo to give me advance notice to plan my trips properly.
“As I grew up in the countryside, I often went fishing at one of the rivers near my town. I also used to go hiking too. So I was quite close to nature in that regard. My dad also liked fishing, so we often went together. One of the reasons I named the Swordfish II in Cowboy Bebop the way I did was because I like fish and fishing, so it was a reference to that. The same goes for the Red Tail and the Hammer Head, so I took these ideas from fish.
“Despite growing up in the countryside, I still followed things on TV like anime. When I was around 7 or 8, there weren’t that many channels available to watch in my area. So I mainly watched shows on NHK or TBS, such as sports anime like Star of the Giants and Attack No.1, not to mention Sally the Witch. However, I was unable to watch some of the more famous programs.
“While I lived in Shimane prefecture, my grandparents were in Hiroshima. That meant when I visited them I could also watch things like Fuji TV, which included anime like Gatchaman and other science-fiction-themed shows. I probably enjoyed Gatchaman the most and was very impressed by the mecha in the show. I would often draw the enemy mecha from the show as well. I loved the God Phoenix especially.
“I would say that Mitsuki Nakamura, who worked on the designs for Gatchaman, was some kind of mecha design pioneer. I still often refer to his designs even now.
“I obviously liked building model kits as a kid as well, things like airplanes and tanks. Military vehicles basically. I also built model kits from Thunderbirds and an American TV show called Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, such as the main submarine the Seaview and the Flying Sub. However, I was unable to watch the show where I lived, but I could build the model kits. Those kits were also quite interesting, as they had motors. That meant I could take them to the river nearby and play with them there.
“The motors were included with the kits; obviously, I had to build the kit and add some grease to the propeller to prevent water from getting in. They also had internal ballast, so it would dive of its own accord. I would lose a fair few of these kits, as they would sometimes dive and never resurface. I guess there must be many of those Seaview model kits at the bottom of that river near where I used to live.
“As I said, the number of TV channels I had access to growing up was very limited. However, when Mazinger Z started on TV, my area started to get a few more channels to choose from. So that meant I could see more mecha anime, such as Combattler V and Space Battleship Yamato. I think Yamato had an especially big impact on me around this time.
“I obviously also enjoyed drawing too, which was something I used to do when I hung out with my friends. I also tended to enjoy drawing military things, like tanks or battleships. This also fed into my interest in novels and comics about war. Naturally, I drew spaceships too.
“Around the time I entered high school, I found out that there was this actual job of a “mecha designer”. So after watching things like Yamato, Gundam and Macross, I realized there were people that worked at this new kind of job as a mecha designer. It was this that made me think that maybe I could also be a mecha designer one day.”
Moving To Tokyo And Making Anime
Like many hoping to start a career in anime, Yamane came to Tokyo and started to work on a variety of classic 80s anime, as he explains.
“I realized that I needed to learn a lot more about anime in order to become a mecha designer. That’s why I decided to come to Tokyo, to study anime at college. However, during those days there were only two options for becoming a mecha designer; go to Kunio Okawara or go to Shoji Kawamori. That said, I still knew I had to learn a lot more about anime first, so I went to college first in Tokyo. It was quite unusual to ask your parents for money to formally study this kind of thing, so I worked other jobs to pay for my tuition.
“My first real job designing mecha happened when I was at college, as my teacher would sort me out with part-time work. After college I went to Artmic and worked on Bubblegum Crisis, designing things like cars and helicopters. I also worked on Wanna-Be’s, which was not really a mecha anime, as it was about women wrestlers. I think I did some car designs on that and maybe some exercise machines.
“This was also the first time I worked with Shinji Aramaki. So I would sometimes get rough designs from him and I would do a bit of clean-up work. However, I designed things like helicopters first and would then show them to Aramaki, which would often result in some interesting discussions.
“When it comes to direction, it really depends, but with Cowboy Bebop I received planning documents along with some descriptions, such as things like “this car should be fast” and for which character. I have a think about it, do a design, and follow that up with a discussion with the director.
“With someone like Okawara, he had to do the design with toys in mind. For me though and with things like OVAs, there were rarely any toys involved. This meant I could use my imagination more freely. Of course, Okawara did it this way as well, as with the ATs in Armored Trooper VOTOMS and the Zaku in Mobile Suit Gundam, there was no pre-existing toy. I think this is the biggest difference between my generation and Okawara’s generation. I suppose at the beginning anime companies wanted to sell toys more, but things like the switch to DVD meant it was maybe more self-sufficient, so our working style changed.
“With the release of Good Smile Company’s large Swordfish II toy, I did indeed supervise some of the smaller details. Of course, I am very happy to see my designs become a reality, but it’s quite difficult to satisfy the original design completely. This is because even now there are limits to the toy development’s budget and schedule. With this toy, it took about a year and I came down to Tokyo around three times to help out. Each time I checked a prototype of the toy and we discussed various details.
“Obviously, I was very happy with the final result, but I think I need to respect the modeler who designed the toy. We both have different ways of approaching design, but I do my best to respect their opinion and expertise. While I worked with T-Rex on this, I never met them in person. I only talked directly with Hiro Tanaka, who would show me the 3D printed prototypes and the CG modeling.
“With the Swordfish II appearing in Ready Player One, about two years before the film was released the production sent the film’s version through to Sunrise for checking. I got to check it and said it was fine, as I respected their own perspective they had on the film. I also couldn’t really say no to Steven Spielberg. I was worried that he might check my comments, so I didn’t feel I could so “no” to anything.”
The Design Genius Of James Cameron
What makes Yamane’s designs so special is his fascination with making them believable. Something he thinks that the renowned director James Cameron excels at.
“Growing up, my favorite anime was probably Space Battleship Yamato, Future Boy Conan and Space Runaway Ideon. While there aren’t really many mecha in Future Boy Conan, there are still many ships and planes, as well as a robot. I really loved Hayao Miyazaki’s designs for that show, as well as its setting.
“With anime like Yamato or Gundam, I could feel the atmosphere and story inspired by the Second World War and the Pacific War. I found that concept intriguing.
“When it comes to mecha designers I admire, that would be people like Mitsuki Nakamura, Yoshiyuki Tomino and people at Studio Nue, such as Shoji Kawamori and Kazutaka Miyatake. I also really like James Cameron’s designs.
“With Tomino and Cameron, they obviously work as directors but at the same time, they are great designers as well. In that, when they design mecha they do so on the basis of the story and its overall concept.
“A good example of Tomino’s design work is for the Buff Clan mecha in Ideon. I really liked those designs, as they were created just for fighting with the Ideon. The configuration and general form were great. They were strangely practical designs for fighting something like the Ideon. There are many other designs I like of Tomino’s, they are more like sculpture I think.
“As for Cameron’s designs, his work is very believable. For example, the dropship and power loader in Aliens really reminds me of things like the Osprey military aircraft. With Avatar you can also see influences from the military vehicles used in the Vietnam conflict. I really like the believable approach he takes. I would love to work with him one day, but I am pretty sure he doesn’t need my help, as he can design things far better than I can.
“For me, when I design things I try to make them as believable as I can. Maybe that’s why I also like Cameron’s designs so much. I feel that Aliens actually had a really big impact when it came to mecha anime in Japan.
“For example, anime like Bubblegum Crisis and Gall Force, from Artmic. As well as with movies like Ghost in the Shell, directed by Mamoru Oshii. With the latter, I heard that Cameron was also influenced by that movie. I also think Aliens had a big impact on things like Gundam as well.
“Actually, I think with Gundam it’s more with 08th MS Team than anything else, and I worked on that. So maybe that’s why? (laughs) The more I think about it, the more I think that Aliens impacted so many different anime. It’s hard to give specific examples though.
“I also think that anime inspired Cameron on things like Aliens and his other work. So it’s not just one-sided, but the influences go both ways.”
Gundam, Escaflowne And Cowboy Bebop
It didn’t take long until Yamane was working on major anime productions within the Gundam franchise, but his other work for Sunrise is probably what most people know him for internationally.
“Talking of Gundam, the first Gundam series I worked on was Mobile Fighter G Gundam. During the planning phase, it sounded like it was going to be a believable hard science fiction setting, which made me happy because I could use all my military knowledge. However, they ended up changing the show’s direction to be more like Dragon Ball, which was a bit disappointing. So when the 08th MS Team came around, I was so happy as this was exactly the kind of mecha design I wanted to be doing.
“Around the time I was offered to work on 08th MS Team, I was also working on The Vision of Escaflowne and Silent Service. The producer on Silent Service was also on The 08th MS Team, so I think that’s how I got involved with that.
“At first, I designed tanks and the hover truck, and the original designs were much simpler before I reworked them. The Ground Gundam was designed by Okawara. I think Hajime Katoki designed the Apsalus. Generally, it worked that Okawara handled the Federation mobile suit designs, Katoki did the Zeonic mecha and I did things like planes and tanks. However, as the series went on, one of the Ground Gundams was badly damaged, so when they needed a rebuilt design of the Ground Gundam, the producer asked me to do it. That turned into the Ez8.
“I really enjoyed designing the Ez8, it’s not like your typical “powered up” design. One of the Gundams had been broken, so they had to rebuild it and that’s more believable. I suppose it may look weaker, but it makes more sense to handle it this way.
“The Ez8 is also quite popular in Japan it seems. The original Ground Gundam designed by Okawara had cannons in the chest. Considering that it was rarely used, I removed it and it helped make the design more believable.
“As I said previously, around the time I worked on the 08th MS Team, I also worked on Escaflowne, which was a fantasy anime. The two styles did not interfere with one another, in fact moving between the two actually helped refresh my approach. That said, while Escaflowne is a fantasy anime, there is also a military aspect to it as well. The guymelef mecha are armored in a very military way. In addition, Kawamori supervised my work on Escaflowne and he is very good with transforming mecha designs, so the whole process helped to refresh my perspective.
“At the start of Escaflowne’s production, Kawamori did the initial designs. They had this power stone in the chest and these big gems on the shoulders. Those were interesting and characteristic points to the designs. However, at this point, there were no ideas for the mecha to transform, but Kawamori then asked if it could turn into a dragon. Initially, I wanted to make it more toylike and like an Okawara design, but Kawamori really liked more complicated designs. The result was a really intricate design where parts would come apart and reassemble into something like a train for the tail. This is probably why we have never had any toys of the Escaflowne, but only really complicated and expensive garage kits.
“For Cowboy Bebop it all started when the director asked six or seven designers to give some rough sketches, it was like a competition basically and I ended up winning it. The director really loved my designs. While the original designs for Escaflowne came from Kawamori, whereas with Cowboy Bebop I was able to design everything else from scratch, so that’s why I really like these designs. When it came to the naming of the various ships, like the Swordfish or Red Tail, that was something I came up with too.
“There’s also a funny little fish I designed for Cowboy Bebop, sort of inspired by the Clione. I loved doing that.
“To be honest, I prefer designing military-type things. So I really enjoyed designing all the ships and other vehicles for Cowboy Bebop. While outside of Japan mecha sometimes just means human-shaped “robot”, but it can also extend to stuff like ships and other mechanical things here.
“For instance, when I was growing up shows like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Thunderbirds had a big impact on me. Before shows like Tetsujin 28-go and Mazinger Z, there weren’t many mecha anime. However, there were other shows like Zero Tester that didn’t have humanoid-looking robots but were still quite mecha-themed.
“In terms of episode ideas for Cowboy Bebop, the one with the space shuttle was mine. I wrote an initial plot and asked one of the writers to flesh it out. The director initially asked for a mecha-type episode, but I didn’t want to design a robot, as I thought real-world vehicles would be more interesting. Growing up I really liked the design of the space shuttle, as it was more like a plane than a rocket and that’s partly why I prefer to design things like planes rather than pencil-shaped rockets.”
Xam’d And The Future
Finishing up I wanted to know more about the production of Xam’d, an anime I adore, and what Yamane’s hopes were for the future of his work.
“With more recent anime like Xam’d of the Lost Memories, I mostly did ships again but the glider wasn’t mine, I think that was one of the animators who designed that. I think he really liked the Swordfish II and wanted to reference the design, but I didn’t really like that. It did look too similar I thought. Most of the staff on Xam’d were actually from Studio Ghibli, so it had really strong Nausicaä elements and I thought that wasn’t necessarily such a good idea. I did design some small mecha I as well for this, just not the biological ones.”
“When it comes to the future, I would like to work on something original from the beginning. Nowadays it’s quite rare to have an original story, so that’s why I’d like to work on something original. From robots to spaceships, if I could work on it from the start I could really express that story’s world view.
“As for working with people in the U.S., I have already received offers but there is a language barrier and a very different workstyle. For example, in most American productions you have a lot of staff involved and it often lacks clear and more focused direction. It’s also difficult to say what parts you actually designed when so many people work on something at once. The other big thing is that the legal protection for designers is considerably reduced outside of Japan. The contract process is also far more complicated, so I am not sure about it.
“I also don’t have any staff of my own, it’s just me. Even though I have worked on things like Escaflowne and Cowboy Bebop and am somewhat known, the fact I don’t have an assistant seems to shock people outside of Japan.
“Gundam is Tomino’s work, so I am pretty sure many people want to get involved with the Gundam series in general. To be honest, I am not so good with robots and I am more into original works. So whether it’s live-action or animation, I am not so interested in working on Gundam these days.
“Gundam is really the core of mecha anime, so I really respect Tomino and am grateful for having been a part of it, but what I want to do creatively is more original work.
“However, with Cowboy Bebop there is a new live-action series being made. I thought it would be good to get involved, but with the live-action Gundam movie, I am not so sure. Gundam is not my original work, but Tomino’s. So if I keep on talking about it as though it was my own, I would lose my job, so I won’t talk about it anymore. (laughs)”
Kimitoshi Yamane recently worked on the mecha design for Gundam Hathaway, which is now showing in Japanese theaters and will be available globally via Netflix on July 1.
Read my Forbes blog here.