Series profile: Blue Meteor SPT Layzner, 1985-86
In the parallel fields of comics and animation, there’s a dictum that applies equally to both: you reach the pinnacle of success as a storyteller when your story can be clearly followed via pictures alone. This also applies to a story that can be clearly followed despite a language barrier. Blue Meteor SPT Layzner is that kind of story.
Let’s get the name out of the way first, because a certain category of anime fan is already “correcting” me. The kanji in the title is pronounced Aoki [blue] Ryuusei [meteor, literally “flow star”]. As fans of Space Battleship Yamato know, Suisei is the Japanese word for Comet [literally “comet star”]. So if you’ve been calling it Blue Comet SPT Layzner all these years, you have a decision to make.
When it first appeared on Japanese TV in fall 1985, it fell right into a sweet spot in terms of video collecting. VCRs were commonplace and international tape-trading was at full momentum, so it took very little time for homemade VHS recordings of Layzner to make it across the Pacific. I was lucky enough to collect all the episodes in order within the space of a year, so I could watch the story unfold in a relatively short time. And what a story it was.
In the far distant future year 1996, humans have made it to Mars, but as usual they brought their political baggage along. In this version of the future, the Cold War is still raging. (From the perspective of 1985, it was hard to imagine otherwise.) The US and Russia have both set up military bases with nuclear missiles pointed at each other. Into this standoff comes a gaggle of international teenagers called the Cosmic Culture Club, visiting Mars on a UN-sponsored peace gesture.
Suddenly, powerful laser beams strike from orbit, followed by fast, energetic humanoid machines. In a flash, the UN base is devastated and only a handful of survivors gets into spacesuits in time to avoid instant death. They huddle in a safe room, hearing the footsteps of an approaching invader. He enters and removes his helmet. He looks human.
“My name is Eiji, and I’m from Grados. Earth is being targeted.”
End of Episode 1.
Director Ryosuke Takahashi rose through the ranks of anime production in the 70s to earn showrunner status on his first TV series Fang of the Sun Dougram in 1981. Sunrise Studio was on the upswing thanks to Mobile Suit Gundam, and Dougram was a new expedition into the Real Robot genre. This put Takahashi on the same career track as fellow showrunner Yoshiyuki Tomino. Though Sunrise employed both of them, their shows were sponsored by different toy/model manufacturers; Bandai on the Tomino shows and Takara on the Takahashi shows. While the two men were not necessarily in competition with each other, their sponsors certainly were. Everyone benefited from the “robot race” that ensued.
It was interesting to sample these two flavors side by side. Growing up under US occupation in postwar Japan gave them both plenty to say. But where Tomino was random and abstract, Takahashi was focused and grounded. Dougram was a gritty, realistic guerilla war drama with rock-solid utilitarian mecha designs. Takahashi’s second show, Armored Trooper Votoms, pushed farther down this road and his third, Panzer World Galient, took a left turn into medieval territory. His policy was always to try something new and see if the industry would follow. His fourth series, tentatively titled Stealthwise, edged toward dystopian cyberpunk. But it wasn’t going to go as planned.
Sunrise Producer Eiji Yamaura put Takahashi together with a mutual friend, Scriptwriter Tsunehisa Ito, and sent them on a new trajectory. In Yamaura’s estimation, Takahashi’s shows had become a little too grounded. Ito was known for more emotionally-driven stories, and his work on Galaxy Drifter Vifam helped to make that a breakout series. Yamaura wanted to bring Ito’s magic to a Takahashi production, so he gave them a set of parameters to work within. Together, they developed a premise under the working title Gredos.
They got another creative boost when they brought on board some high-powered design talent. Mecha designer Kunio Okawara, who put Gundam on the map, had worked on all three of Takahashi’s shows up to this point (not to mention Vifam), and was already doing concept design for Stealthwise. He responded to Yamaura’s parameters by loosening up his design hand and creating a new lineup of robots with flair and flash on top of his signature hardcore body frames.
Character design duties went to Moriyasu Taniguchi, who boldly stepped up as a key animator on Armored Trooper Votoms and redesigned the characters for one of its three arcs. He brought an edgier, sharper look to the series that attracted a lot of attention and elevated him to the design level. His Osaka-based studio Anime R became a major player in Gredos, laying important groundwork to expand anime production beyond the borders of Tokyo.
As these creative energies coalesced, the series approached its finished form and got a new title: Blue Meteor SPT Layzner. “SPT” was the abbreviation for Super Powered Tracer (the classification for this line of robots), with Layzner as the star mecha. Layzner’s pilot, Eiji Aska, was also a break from the past; an ardent pacifist determined to stop his own people, the Grados, from invading and subjugating Earth. He rebels against them at Mars, making contact with the first Earth people he can find, and doing everything in his power to fight back. Layzner is his weapon, a cutting-edge SPT that he uses to lead the refugees across Mars in search of a way to contact Earth.
The story unfolds thoughtfully and logically with every layer revealing other layers beneath. The characters act and react like real people. Previous anime programs attempted to involve international characters, but Layzner fulfilled it in ways they only pretended to. The Layzner itself has layers and secrets, pushing past Eiji’s reluctance to kill his own kind and living up to the “Blue Meteor” part of the series title.
Another Votoms veteran was Composer Hiroki Inui, whose blues/jazz/synth musical score added a fascinating, deceptive allure that beat Cowboy Bebop to the punch by a good 10 years. A short-lived pop band called Airmail From Nagasaki delivered an impossibly catchy opening song titled Like Melos, Lonely Way that hasn’t aged one bit; it still grabs people today when it accompanies Layzner in Sunrise Robot video games. It includes a “resting” moment that was used to make each opening title unique, with drop-ins from the episode you were about to see. I believe the only previous series that did this was Space:1999.
SPOILER ALERT: if you want to avoid story details, skip from here down to the next red line.
At the time the series got rolling, it was customary for a Sunrise robot anime to last a year (four arcs of about 13 episodes each), so that’s what they planned for. The Mars arc gave way to the Earth arc, bringing Eiji and his refugees back home and elevating the stakes as the Grados invasion force commenced its attack. This arc ended with a hail of gunfire…and then came the changeover.
The “changeover” was a staple of Sunrise anime, by now an industry-wide trope; as one arc gave way to another, a tectonic shift in the narrative would put characters on a whole new path with greater challenges. It was an effective way to shake up the game board and keep viewers hooked. Product sales would usually get a healthy boost around this time, so it was a tactic sponsors approved of. Takahashi and company had planned Layzner‘s changeover from the start, and it hit the audience like a torpedo.
After taking a week off for a recap, Episode 26 opened three years after the hail of gunfire…and we quickly learn that the enemy WON. The Grados have turned Earth into an occupied nation, ruled by authoritarian fascists bent on crushing all art, literature, and culture. (We learn later why this is a priority for them, but I’m not spoiling it here.) We catch up to our main characters, who have landed on different sides of the conflict. It’s a heartbreaking episode to watch. You can feel the weight of enemy tyranny, the desperation of the resistance, and the slow fading of hope. When Eiji finally appears, defeated and broken, the nightmare becomes absolute.
And then it turns again.
I want to describe every detail of what happens. My skin is tingling even as I contemplate it. No matter how many times I watch Episode 26, I cheer and I laugh and I cry at the same moments. The first time I saw it, I didn’t need a single word translated. Everything it had to communicate came through loud and clear from the visuals, the sound, and the voice acting. In my opinion, it’s the most perfect single episode of any anime show in history. I’m not even worried that I oversold it with those words. When you get there, you will know.
From that point onward, Layzner was a whole new ballgame. Whereas the first two arcs were informed by Gundam-style SF, this one borrowed from Fist of the North Star to create a genre fusion never seen before. A new arch enemy was introduced, backed up by a psychotic team of SPT pilots, and a cat-and-mouse game for the future of the planet began. If you’ve been reading my own apocalyptic SF comic series BROID, you don’t have to guess which anime was at the top of my mind when I developed it.
Among the many standout moments was a scene in which Layzner broke a human-vs-mecha taboo by having a giant robot physically crush a human being underfoot. There were countless opportunities for that to happen in other shows, but Layzner was the first to actually go there. The human being in question was the worst of the Grados villains, and he’d become a sadistic, murderous cyborg by that point, and he was crushed by one of his own, but that didn’t make it any less shocking. See that sequence in full on Youtube here.
Spoiler-free from here on.
And now the bad news. Another unique thing about Layzner is that it was destined for the rarified category of unfinished anime masterpieces. Other shows got hit by bad ratings or changing market conditions. This one was blindsided by perhaps the dumbest possible setback.
One of the sponsors was Sanyo Electric, a company that made kerosene heaters. A fault in their product led to fires and at least one death, a disastrous turn for any manufacturer. This sudden emergency caused them to withdraw funding from the show, and the only feasible response was to end it early. In fact, immediately. The third arc was meant to give way to a fourth, which would have further expanded the conflict, given us a Layzner Mark II, and followed the expected pacing of a year-long series. Sanyo’s pullout threw that plan in the trash.
Chief Writer Tsunehisa Ito was given only one option: jump right from Episode 37 (the end of the third arc) to the finale. When Episode 38 came on the air, the leap forward was as jarring as the three-year skip. A killer cliffhanger was left unresolved and we were transported directly to the final battle for Earth. And then it was over.
But not really.
It was the summer of 1986, and another anime format was in its glory days: the OVA (Original Video Animation). The same studios that were making TV shows now also made direct-to-video programs (averaging 45-60 minutes) and Sunrise was finding a second life for many of its expired series. Layzner went off the air in June, and three OVAs were released in quick succession in August, September, and October: Eiji 1996 (recap of arcs 1 & 2), Lu Cain 1999 (recap of arc 3) and Carved Seal 2000. The final volume did its best to stand in for the missing arc, encapsulating in a single hour what we were supposed to see in the last dozen or so episodes. Tsunehisa Ito followed up with his own novelization of Carved Seal 2000, closing the book on the story for good.
Layzner‘s legacy seems obvious in hindsight, growing to achieve classic status as the years progressed. It’s one of the most respected titles in the Sunrise Real Robot pantheon. It got fresh releases on home video every time a new format emerged, the star mecha continues to receive upgrades in product form, and the series makes new fans every time its propulsive theme song turns up in a video game.
The great kerosene heater uprising against the human race had its impact in 1986, but in the end it was no match for the Blue Meteor.
Music from the series
Opening theme Like Melos, Lonely Way
Ending theme 1 Just 5 Minutes of Selfishness
Ending theme 2 La Rose Rouge
Ryosuke Takahashi (Director) & Tsunehisa Ito (Series composition)
Refined literature for boys and girls is necessary, but this world needs sweets, too (Takahashi)
I felt like, “Now that we’ve come this far, let me do one more arc…” (Ito)
Published in the SPT Layzner Blu-ray book, 2013
Here, we invited the two authors of Blue Meteor SPT Layzner to talk about their memories of that time. The mystery hidden in Layzner will be revealed after 27 years…!
Interviewer: What is the connection between the two of you?
Takahashi: We’ve known each other for a long time. Mr. Ito got his start writing anime scripts for Yoshitake Suzuki, my senior from Mushi Pro, and I ran into him a lot when I worked at Sunrise.
Ito: There aren’t many bars in Kamiigusa, so you end up in the same place for drinking tea and eating dinner. (Laughs) That’s why we’ve been friends since before we started working, mainly at bars. (Laughs)
Takahashi: So I felt like we were old acquaintances. But Layzner was the first time we worked together. Eiji Yamaura said, “Please team up with Mr. Ito for your next work.” That was the offer…or rather, it was an order. (Laughs)
Ito: Was Mr. Yamaura the head of the Bandai planning department? It’s like planning and sales nowadays.
Takahashi: At that time, Mr. Yamaura told me, “Your recent works seem to be too logical.” So, I thought, “I need to make my works more emotional, with more feeling.” I think that’s why he arranged for me to work with Mr. Ito, because he thought it would be hard for the audience to watch if I didn’t put in more emotion into it. “Please team up with a scriptwriter who has a strong emotional feeling.”
Ito: That’s what it was like at first when I was invited to work for Sunrise after Mobile Suit Gundam. There was a feeling that the mecha part was becoming the main part. I felt that it was not good to be too biased toward either side. I was told, “A guy like you, with your ramblings, is the right person for the job.” I thought, “They probably called me in because of my naniwa-bushi.” (Laughs) [Naniwa-bushi: traditional Japanese storytelling, often accompanied by a shamisen.]
I don’t know much about science fiction, much less mecha, but I can write a character and a human drama. And since various people would take care of the other parts, I didn’t have to study much. That’s why I still don’t understand V-MAX. (Laughs)
Takahashi: No, it’s…more like plagiarism. (Laughs) There was a motorcyle called “V-MAX” at the time, and I borrowed that because it was cool. I thought it would be okay, since bikes and robots are different things.
Like Mr. Ito, I’m not good at military or science fiction. I ask, “Is this sort of thing science-fiction?” and the people around me make it into science-fiction. It’s the same with robots. In Layzner, I wanted to create a robot that wasn’t the conventional type that was steered like those we had up until then. It would not only run on the ground, but also fly in space. I wanted to do something like that. I’d say, “I want to make it fly like this,” and give the main character’s robot a unique power.
Interviewer: Did you create the basic parts of the concept?
Takahashi: The two of us, along with Producer Masuo Ueda, decided on that. Mr. Yamaura gave us the more basic ideas. “The kinds of crises that children can understand are ‘the world is in danger’ and ‘Mom and Dad are in danger,’ so please include something like that.” He said, “There were no moms and dads in Votoms.” (Laughs) In the end, it led to, “My name is Eiji, and Earth is being targeted.” So it was really a collaboration between the production side and the direction/writer team.
Ito: The credit for the original story goes to Mr. Takahashi and myself. But Mr. Yamaura and the producers were also involved. It was a collaboration. Or more like a council. (Laughs)
Takahashi: If I had been working alone, a little girl wouldn’t have suddenly appeared in an important position. That was a request from producer Ueda. That’s because he asked me to make the girl stand out.
Interviewer: Anna’s monologue in every episode was impressive.
Takahashi: I’m very particular about narration. Many people say, “If you narrate a visual, it will be less interesting as a visual.” But I think narration is effective because TV is half radio.
Ito: There’s no need to explain the visuals in narration.
Takahashi: That’s right.
Ito: Nowadays, some people in TV misuse music. Music has its own effects, and narration is the same. If the narration is there just to explain the picture, then it’s not necessary. But if used effectively, narration can be powerful.
Takahashi: I think Producer Ueda probably had an image of how to use the children based on Vifam. I think there was a calculation that by including them in Layzner, the tone of the work would be neutralized a little.
Ito: Certainly, part of it may have been inspired by Vifam.
Takahashi: However, in those days, Sunrise’s works, whether they were by Yoshiyuki Tomino, Takeyuki Kanda, or myself, they all had elements of Two Years’ Vacation in them somehow. [A Jules Verne novel about schoolboys stranded on an island; info here.] The same goes for Gundam and Vifam. I think it’s a convenient setting for depicting the lives of children. That’s why they’re so similar.
Interviewer: Moriyasu Taniguchi’s character design was also fresh.
Takahashi: I asked Mr. Taniguchi of Anime R to come and work with me. After all, animation is created by everyone. The power of the artist is very important. In that sense, the characters designed by Mr. Taniguchi were very strong, and I think it had a great impact on the whole project.
Ito: Each person’s unique strengths were all soaked in.
Takahashi: This was the work where I parted ways with my previous partner, [Character Designer] Norio Shioyama. Naturally, the way of making anime also changed. For example, Anime R also participated in Votoms. The animation, the movement…I wondered how much it would change if the key animator changed.
Ito: Well, the power of Anime R was great, especially in the action scenes.
Interviewer: Did you have any difficulties in organizing the unique staff?
Takahashi: No, it wasn’t that difficult. The staff of the 3rd [Sunrise] Studio was the main team for Layzner, and I and other people from the 1st Studio joined them and started making it. But until then, the 3rd Studio had been very cohesive after the success of Vifam. They were still in the aftermath of Vifam when they made Super Power Robo Galatt. If Galatt had been a big hit at that point, things would have been different.
Ito: That would have been a complete change. (Laughs)
Takahashi: But even though Layzner had already started, there was still a hint of Vifam in the air. Moreover, Mr. Taniguchi, who came from Osaka, was working there all night every night. I’m used to being lectured, but I’m not one to do it. I knew that this was not the right atmosphere. “Make it a clean break,” I said to him.
Ito: When you’re starting out, you have to work on several episodes at the same time. Naturally, you need scripts for several episodes, right? But I hadn’t even written the first episode. So that was the state with scripts, too. When I think about it now, that was an unusual start.
Takahashi: The point is that it was a mixed team of staff members from Studio 1 and Studio 3, so of course they were not integrated at first. In that case, sometimes you have to stir things up a little roughly. That’s part of the job of a director.
Interviewer: Were you in a state like Eiji, struggling between Studio 1 and Studio 3?
Takahashi: Well, it was only a little bit at the beginning, but I had a similar feeling of loneliness. (Laughs)
Interviewer: Compared to Chirico in Votoms, Eiji is more human and naive. Was this your intention?
Ito: Well, I created an extreme situation and started from there. I had no choice but to have the characters react on the spot. It would be a different story if they were mercenary soldiers, but they’re complete amateurs. In a way, it’s a story about growing up, and the only way to do that is to start with an average person.
Interviewer: While the story is straightforward, there are new angles in many places. It was also refreshing to hear Eiji talk about his “resistance to murder”.
Takahashi: Right now, Gundam and Evangelion are the two big winners. No matter what I make, it’s always absorbed by these two. These are the only two that come to mind when I think “robot.” At that time, Sunrise didn’t think that way. Mr. Tomino and I were always trying to create new things, thinking, “Next time, I’ll make something different from the last one.”
But in my mind, the basis for the story was different from Mr. Ito’s “naniwa-bushi,” and that was, “The Japanese of our time.” We can’t help but feel that we were defeated by America and had to accept its culture, and are still immature in the world of politics. That consciousness inevitably comes out in the work. You see it in Dougram and Votoms, and it’s most prominent in Layzner.
If you look at the characters of Hiroyuki Hoshuyama, for example, you can see that they are still in the grip of the All-Communist struggle, right? Aren’t there characters in Gundam that are typical of Hoshiyama?
[Translator’s note: Hoshuyama (1944-2007) was a prolific anime scriptwriter who worked on key episodes of Layzner and many other anime in multiple genres. See his Japanese Wikipedia page here.]
Ito: (Laughs) I’m of the same generation, so I think there are some of them.
Interviewer: The confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union seemed very real to me at the time.
Takahashi: There’s the idea of, “It’s childish to present the raw materials as they really are,” but there’s also the idea of, “It’s not very noble to avoid it from the start.” I don’t know which one is better.
Ito: There’s also the idea that, “In order to emphasize the science fiction elements, it’s more convenient to create a fictional world instead of the real world.” In fact, Layzner is a good example. About three years after the OVA of Layzner was completed, the Berlin Wall came down. If someone were to ask, “What’s your view of the world?” you can’t avoid it any more.
Takahashi: After that, we made The Silent Service. [A cold war submarine drama.] My father was killed in the war, and I don’t really know whether I like or dislike the civilization and culture of America, or the American people. There are parts of me that really like them, but there is also a sense of antipathy toward that “powerful nation.”
Interviewer: The depiction of the U.S. and Soviet bases on Mars being destroyed by nuclear missiles was shocking.
Takahashi: It is a problem all over the world, and nuclear weapons are not so easy to deal with now. But it would be strange if we didn’t deal with them, right? The truth is, when we talk about “thinking together,” if we don’t start from the manga level, we won’t be able to “think” at all.
Ito: The nuclear power plant in Fukushima is not being shelved, but is being restarted. I think the national consensus after the 3/11 disaster was, “Let’s stop and rethink this.” But as the recession continues, ideals become secondary, and the gap between rising prices and salaries becomes a sob story. The reality of this situation makes the “discussion itself” even more distant.
Interviewer: In those days, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone made a remark about an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” At that time, even junior high and high school students could feel the tension between East and West and the military threat.
Takahashi: These days, rather than “Japanese people have changed,” I feel that the kindness in the Japanese people has come out in a bad way. There are a lot of people who had a hard time after 3/11. I don’t want to bring back painful memories. There are some things that we shouldn’t touch. It’s already happening in the script stage; “Let’s not mention earthquakes.” “No tsunami.” “Nuclear energy is outrageous.” It’s true that we need to be careful. But we also need to keep in mind the sense of crisis that “this could happen.”
Ito: It’s dangerous not to have that imagination. It’s easy to say, “If you don’t touch it, it won’t hurt you.” But just putting a lid on it is not a solution to the problem.
Takahashi: It’s true that anime and manga can be biased by their creators. However, these entertainment works can be a gateway to broaden your thinking and it’s necessary for people to think about various things. I don’t think it should be all bland. Of course, there needs to be refined literature for boys and girls, but there also needs to be sweets in this world.
Ito: It’s horrible when we become entrenched in that way of thinking, such as sterilizing all kinds of bacteria to protect our health. Manga and anime are based on reality and deformed to some extent. In that sense, they are different from the real thing in live-action dramas, but the leap depicted in anime is much farther than that. Even if it’s not depicted in the work, the recipient can imagine it and turn it into an extension of the work. In this sense, I think the characteristics of manga and anime are very effective. If you’re tied down to reality, you won’t be able to escape the walls you’ve created. Well, I’m not saying “go to the demonstration” in any way. (Laughs)
Interviewer: Did you have a general idea of the “3 years later” concept from the beginning?
Takahashi: I had the feeling that I wanted to bring “another momentum” to it.
Ito: I was always felt frustrated that I couldn’t move the story to Earth earlier. But as I tried to depict the story in a realistic way, I felt that I had no choice because of the large number of people.
Takahashi: In my mind, I had the same image of the way the stages changed in Votoms. If you change the stage without thinking about the future and then connect it properly later, unexpected elements will expand and the story will gain momentum. I’ve had my own little success stories. (Laughs) Well, I still don’t know if it provided a boost or backfired. (Laughs)
Interviewer: So, did you make the changes to the character concepts in a rush?
Takahashi: Yes, I did. But the basics were already decided from the beginning. Mr. Ito is very good at digging into each character, isn’t he?
Ito: War isn’t limited to WWII. There are many examples in history of, “what kind of activities did the resistance do?” Besides, we tend to focus on the flashy resistances in history first. But there is also a parallel battle to “pass on culture and history.” I think that made this different from other films, even if we only depicted it a little bit.
Interviewer: Wasn’t it difficult to change Eiji in particular?
Takahashi: Yes. It’s not easy to change the main character.
Ito: But since the basic shape of the character was already established, I thought I could convince you that each of them lived deliberately for the three years you didn’t see. It’s a bit forced, though. (Laughs) I think it was interesting to see the change in Roan’s character as he infiltrated the enemy side and rose to the top. But in the end, it was a quality he had originally. It would be strange if he became a completely different person, and if he did, we would have to explain why. Instead, it’s an extension of the past.
Interviewer: The depiction of the desperate situation of the Earth occupation seems to be based on the experience of the war for both of you.
Takahashi: By the time we got a grip on it, the war was already lost. The evidence of defeat was so abundant throughout Japan that it was impossible to hide.
Interviewer: While changing the upfront part completely, you dug deeper into the theme of Layzner up to that point.
Takahashi: Well, it’s hard to change the spirit. If the director or the chief writer were to be replaced at that point, it would definitely be a problem. (Laughs)
Ito: You can’t deviate that much from the line you started with. It would become something completely different. For example, even if you said, “Let’s finish that part here and do something new,” I think it would still drag on quite a bit. That’s why nobody changes out the director or producer. (Laughs)
Takahashi: Incidentally, Layzner was my first Bandai-sponsored work. At the time [of production], I was contacted by the director in charge of Bandai. He said, “We’d like to have a discussion with the director, so let’s talk after seeing the latest episode.” It was the story of escaping from Mars directed by Takashi Imanishi (Episode 12, Goodbye Red Planet). There’s almost no fighting in it. (Laughs) So, going into the meeting I thought, “It’s sobering up time.” But after watching it, the officer in charge said, “We’re done talking for today.” That was a good episode, though it’s obviously different from what they wanted us to do. (Laughs)
Interviewer: It was very disappointing that the broadcast was shortened.
Takahashi: It was a real shame. Looking back, I think two arcs [26 episodes] would have been enough. Everything’s shorter now. (Laughs) It was a real luxury when you could start with a one-year plan.
Ito: I thought of it as a year-long series. So when I was suddenly told, “End it here,” I went crazy. (Laughs) I felt like, “I’ve come this far, let me do one more arc.”
Interviewer: I felt something like a creator’s grudge in the last episode saying, “This is the end, but…”
Takahashi: Well, the story doesn’t end there. (Laughs)
Ito: But I don’t have the image that “it was terminated because it was shut down.”
Takahashi: It was somewhat comforting that “robots weren’t selling any more.” It was like, “I want to give you some pocket money, but I don’t have any in my wallet.” (Laughs)
Interviewer: Even so, you were able to dispel that disappointment to some extent by making an OVA to finish it. You also wrote a novelization, didn’t you?
Ito: A novelization is print media, different from TV. So it’s like, “I’m going to say what I want to say.” And I did what I wanted. Things were said like, “Don’t say such juvenile things with robots,” or “Don’t do a love story with robots,” but I didn’t care. (Laughs) Of course you can’t break the main plot, but you don’t have to make it exactly the same. It would get boring, wouldn’t it?
Interviewer: Considering that Layzner was re-released with each change of video format from VHS video to Blu-ray, I think it was loved by fans.
Takahashi: I think it’s a bit too commercial. (Laughs)
Ito: When I heard the price, I thought “Isn’t it expensive? (Laughs) But it seems it’s unavoidable when you calculate the cost, so please forgive me. (Laughs)
(Interviewed on July 5, 2013)
Moriyasu Taniguchi Interview
The key animation by the Anime R team was done freely, with as few revisions as possible. (Taniguchi
Mr. Taniguchi created a sensation with his bold adaptation of the main character design in Armored Trooper Votoms. This was his first work as a character designer, and has a special meaning for Anime R.
Interviewer: You participated in the works of Ryosuke Takahashi, including Dougram, Votoms, and Galient. In your fourth work, Layzner, you participated as a character designer and helped to build the world view. Did you first hear about this from the planning office?
Taniguchi: Yes, that’s right. In those days, when a plan evolved, they would have two or three designers try out for it. “Which one do you like?” For Layzner, it was me and…I think it was Akihiro Kanayama. One of us was going to do it. But at that time, it wasn’t Layzner yet, it was called Gredos.
So we drew in a sort of competition, and then it was decided that I would do it. After that, I think we redid it once or twice until we settled. When Ryosuke started to participate, the name changed to Layzner. I don’t know if it was producer Masuro Ueda’s or Ryosuke’s intention, but someone said “I wonder if something needs to be different” and I did a retake. Gredos was designed with a taller look, but in the end the characters became more manga-like.
Interviewer: Even though this was your first character design, you’d already had quite a career, participating in Tatsunoko Pro works such as Science Ninja Team Gatchaman.
Taniguchi: I’m not like someone who came out of Mushi Pro or somewhere like that. If you don’t do something on your own, you’ll always be drawing characters designed by someone else, and you’ll end up doing key animation. I had this sense of crisis. I thought a lot about how I could get attention. I thought about how I could draw characters designed by other people and create my own character on top of that. The method that became a topic in Votoms came out of that idea. I think I was fortunate to be considered for the character design of Layzner.
The chance finally came, but it wasn’t just for me personally, it was for Anime R as well. I think the timing was just right.
Interviewer: I think your plan to elevate Anime R to the level of production companies in Osaka was a success.
Taniguchi: Yes, it was. Since we were able to do that, there are now anime studios in every region. When I was working on Gatchaman, people would ask me, “Are you going to do it in Osaka? Animation can’t be done in Osaka. I wish you would come here to Tokyo.”
At the time, there was a feeling that anything outside of Tokyo was impossible. That’s why I hated Tokyo. (Laughs) I really wanted to do it in Osaka. I felt that I had to do something about that atmosphere. I wanted to prevent that from happening.
Thanks to digitalization, the hassle of working in rural areas has decreased, but at that time there was no courier service. I had to go to Tokyo with a bundle of finished originals. It was very difficult. Paper is heavy, you know.
Interviewer: What was the policy when you made corrections as an animation director?
Taniguchi: I did corrections to key animation from other studios, but Anime R’s animators were free to do as they pleased. I didn’t touch their work unless it was something really serious, because I did what I wanted on Votoms. I couldn’t really say the opposite to other people. (Laughs)
Also, I thought it would be more interesting to let people do their own thing without any restrictions. Regardless of whether it’s good or bad, I’m happy to draw my own pictures. It’s nice to see it on the screen, isn’t it? If it were to be revised, I wouldn’t be so sure about it. Besides, I think it’s better for the development of young artists to let them draw as freely as possible. And they were already better at drawing mecha than I was, so I didn’t have any problem with it.
So I let them go to it when I was in charge of the animation, and there was an episode where the number of drawings was more than twice as many as usual. I thought, “That’s a bit much, guys.” (Laughs) This was not something that was specified by the director. With the director, we only discuss direction to a certain extent. After that, it goes scene by scene.
And then the young people compete with each other. Other members of the production staff also compete with each other. I think that’s a good thing. Nowadays, there are general directors who work over the [episodic] directors, and they fix things. That’s the worst. The character pictures are all there, but I think it’s more interesting to be able to tell at a glance whose work it is. Maybe that’s just a problem from an artist’s perspective.
Interviewer: Did you find it easier to draw the characters in the second half?
Taniguchi: The main character Eiji was only in the Layzner, and the character drawing was really limited. I was a little concerned about that, so I talked to Ryosuke and he said, “Let’s change it a little bit and make him a broader, more active character.” After that, we decided to make a complete change, and it became easier to draw.
We decided to set the second half of the story three years later. I felt at the time that it was definitely better that way. There was a lot of movement in the content, so it was fun. In the first half, everyone was basically in space suits. I felt that Eiji, in particular, was too simple. In the second half, perhaps as a reaction to that, there was more variation in the clothing.
Interviewer: Do you have a favorite character?
Taniguchi: I like Simone. The other day, I had a chance to draw Layzner for another project, and I drew characters. Naturally, I put the most effort into Simone. (Laughs) I like David, too. I think my touch was right for the character and it was a good fit.
Interviewer: It’s been 28 years since Layzner started airing, but it’s the first of Takahashi’s works to be released on Blu-ray.
Taniguchi: Oh, is that so? I’m glad to hear that it’s so well-loved. I remember getting a letter from a high school girl who said, “My mother is a fan.” (Laughs) I’m grateful for that.
(Interviewed on July 16, 2013)
Interview with Kunio Okawara
Robots are characters, so they need to be assertive. (Okawara)
Mr. Okawara has a strong image as a designer whose work has a sense of stability. But in fact, he is also an innovative designer who is always looking for new ideas. We asked him to tell us about the new innovations he aimed for with the SPT mecha.
Interviewer: First of all, please tell us about how Layzner and the other SPT designs were created.
Okawara: The direction of the SPT design concept was solidified when it was decided that the cockpit would be located on the head from the neck up. The intention was to let the viewer judge the size of the SPT. I also thought it was futuristic and interesting. Since the design highlighted the canopy, Bandai asked me to include the idea of changing the color of the canopy for play value.
Just for myself, I did it because I wanted to try something new, but the concept of “cool” was already fixed in one direction. Even if I tried to venture out, I’d get pulled back. It was the same with Votoms. Layzner, as depicted in the illustrations, is an ordinary silhouette, except for the fact that its head is a cockpit. It’s a very normal silhouette. The big head is the heart of SPT, but everyone hates it. (Laughs) The animators must have had the idea that it was better to make the head smaller.
Interviewer: The SPT looks like a more battle-ready version of the Armored Trooper from Votoms with the antenna on the side of the head.
Okawara: I think I felt that way because I thought it would be lighter than an AT. The reason only the Layzner has eyes is because I wanted the main character’s mecha to have a human-like face. The lines on the head and the placement of the eyes were cleverly swiped from Ryujinmaru in Mashin Hero Wataru (below left). (Laughs)
Interviewer: In an interview at the time, you said that you designed seven main mecha in a very limited time. Is that possible?
Okawara: I’m sure I designed them all at once. If you ask me if it’s possible, it’s possible. (Laughs) In order to make a good design, it’s essential to keep brushing it up, even if the time is limited, but anyway, I was very busy. When you have a lot of mecha to design, it’s a good idea to take the Gundam approach, a team effort with multiple designers at the same time.
But for me, it’s easier to build a world with just one person. That’s why it’s not so hard for me to design seven figures at the same time, even if each of them is required to be unique. In fact, in terms of Ryosuke’s works, I’ve done them all myself with the exception of Galient, which I was unable to take on alone due to family reasons. When you’re on your own, you have a lot more freedom than with a team.
There’s an unmanned SPT called the Skullgunner, right? The original idea was to use that design as the main mecha in a show called Hybridizer, a followup to Votoms. In the end, though, the project was cancelled after it had progressed to the drawing stage. I didn’t want this design line to go to waste, so it was adopted for Ryosuke’s project Stealthwise.
Ryosuke put a lot of effort into that project, but it competed with Gredos (later renamed Layzner), and was dropped. However, when Ryosuke decided to direct Gredos, he revived the big-headed design line with a cockpit on the head. However, since it wasn’t a robot with a hero-like style, there was a controversy with the sponsor, just like the Scopedog in Votoms.
As for the backpack exchange system, Bandai requested it, but Eiji Yamaura said, “Can we add a running gimmick?” I was very enthusiastic about that, and I put a lot of effort into it. I made a backpack with tires attached to the tip, and made a model to see if it would actually run. After all, we were asked to come up with a new mechanism to replace the roller dash of the AT. That was used for the Earth-made SPT Doll, but it didn’t become an explosive hit. It never became a product.
Interviewer: You offered various variations of SPT coloring as well as design.
Okawara: Color is not in my scope. The colors are decided after I hand over the design. I hear it’s still popular with fans, so I have to insist that robots are characters. In the end, it’s all about characterization, isn’t it? I think it’s very difficult to reach this point unless you’ve done a lot of work. And character is about “where the play is.” I usually play with the chest and head. That’s the most important part. But overall, the most important thing is “how to make the character grab you.” If you don’t have that, no matter how many details you draw, it won’t work.
After all, we are making images, and toys are separate from that. There is no need for them to be equal, and anime can just be anime. You can detail-up a toy and market it. There is no need to add more lines to make them the same thing. Anime is not about detail, it’s about silhouette. When it comes time to market it, Bandai can add a lot of detail. That way, we can have both. It’s a bit annoying to put the same details in the anime as in a product. The sense of size disappears. It makes it harder for designers, and I think it’s better to have more fun.
Interviewer: Lastly, I’d like to ask you about your compatibility with Director Ryosuke Takahashi.
Okawara: In terms of the number of shows I’ve worked on, the most for Tatsunoko were with Hiroshi Sasagawa, and the most for Sunrise would have to be with Ryosuke. I think we have a similar sensibility toward mecha. In the case of Director Yoshiyuki Tomino, my sense of mecha is completely different from his, so he requires a completely different world. In that case, I have to put in a lot of effort to produce what the director is looking for.
In Ryosuke’s case, I don’t know what he thinks, but I can present a design with a sensitivity close to what he’s looking for. In that sense, it’s easy for me to work with him. I’m asked to include the parts that are necessary for the project. He doesn’t care as much about the appearance as those details. That’s about it, so my mental health suffers relatively little. (Laughs) I think it’s mutual.
(Recorded July 1, 2013)