The character designer of the original Mobile Suit Gundam anime and author of the Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin manga reflects on his creative process, auspiciously lax TV regulations, early female fan reaction and the rise of parody doujinshi culture.
Amuro Ray Could Have Been Japanese
Women have such varied ways of enjoying a work. It’s truly commendable. Any time I try to slip things in to appeal to them specifically, it proves entirely unnecessary (laughs).
Gundam was a project where the character designs were settled on very easily. A big-eyed boy with curly hair who wasn’t cheerful or, frankly, especially handsome… in other words, an anime hero quite unlike those who had come before him. When Tomino, the director, approached me with this concept for the lead, I had already been thinking of just such a character. It was as if we had read each other’s minds, and Amuro’s design was quickly finalized.
Since Amuro wasn’t going to be handsome, we decided to make his adversary, Char Aznable, good-looking instead. This move was inspired by the character of Sharkin from Raideen, a show Tomino and I had worked on together previously, who had been well-received by female fans. Through him, I had learned villains were also capable of leaving a strong impression. But since good looks aren’t so interesting on their own, Char needed an individual element to distinguish himself. Thus, the mask to conceal his face. This had the added effect of giving him an air of mystery. Call it haphazard or superficial (laughs).
As for Bright Noa, he’s nineteen but mentally much older. Role-wise, he’s the middle management type. So I gave him his hairstyle imagining he’d develop a receding hairline in a few year’s time (laughs).
The biggest factor behind us being able to design the cast so freely was the TV programming agency becoming lax with their inspections. Normally they’d go over everything and make demands like: “The hero must be Japanese! He must be handsome and he must be cheerful!” But with Gundam, they let it all pass without a word. I had even thought up a backup setting for Amuro which changed the Ray in his name to Rei and listed his birthplace as being in the mountains of Shimane… but we didn’t up needing it (laughs). While we’re on the topic, the characters of Mirai Yashima and Hayato Kobayashi sprang from this hidden agenda of wanting to portray the Japanese in supporting instead of starring roles for a change. That’s also why they’re shorter and plumper, with smaller eyes (laughs).
Regarding the costumes, I tried to add some fun touches. I felt the Federation uniforms would seem unappealing if the colors were too military-like, so I went with a 19th century-esque, French Tricolore-inspired palette. In contrast, I gave the Zeon uniforms more traditional coloring, hoping to evoke the image of pre-war Germany; less Nazi, more Prussian. I wanted outfits that kids could cosplay by adjusting their uniforms. I even hoped the really dedicated girls would do pair looks with their boyfriends (laughs). And sure enough, the cosplayers appeared! I remember exclaiming: “Yes! There they are!”
A Work Becomes Attractive The More People Play With It
Looking back, Gundam came out during a transitional period when anime was moving away from the standard hero pattern of story-telling. So while it’s a military drama, there are still some unrealistic parts. Take Char’s cape, for instance. I wanted him to wear one, but if it were too long, it would look cartoonish… so I made it waist-length. As for his helmet, those horns serve no purpose beyond being a hazard, but I figured an anime character requires some extra ornamentation (laughs). I troubled myself over these details a lot, and even taking the middle road, things got muddled (laughs).
But there were people who had fun parodying such details. I remember them calling Char’s cape ‘The Cockroach Mantle’ and remarking on how he looked ‘pretty adorable’ scurrying away from battle in it (laughs). Garma, the narcissist rich boy, got called cute and became far more popular with female fans than we ever anticipated. Even the freckled weakling Kai had his admirers. As for Amuro, many girls said he was the kind of character they couldn’t leave alone, that they wanted to take care of.
It was around this time that the light parody doujinshi*1 scene, including yaoi*2, was growing with women at the center of it. Their work was fresh, completely unlike the stodgy parodies being made up until then, and took me off guard. Some were angered by it all, claiming it made a mockery of the source material, but I didn’t think so. It was a brand-new culture, after all. So while keeping in mind issues of copyright, be it parody, fangirling, yaoi or cosplay… I’d like to encourage everyone to continue enjoying Gundam in their own unique way.
*1 Doujinshi: Fan comics and zines which are most often either comedic, romantic and/or pornographic. Usually sold exclusively at cons or special events (and, in modern times, via select websites). While these doujinshi occupy a murky area legally, as they are largely not sold for profit and considered an expression of love and enthusiasm by fans of the work on which they are based, copyright holders tend to leave them be.
*2 Yaoi: A type of work, mostly written by women for consumption by other women, featuring romance between males. The term encompasses both fan-created and official work. Compared to related terms like shonen-ai and boy’s love/BL, yaoi implies a greater degree of explicitness, though the exact usage has been fluid over the years.
Source: Girl’s Gundam (Pub. Date 9/23/2009)