Talking Yamato with Hidetaka Tenjin

One of the highlights of Yamatour 2012 was our face-to-face interview with master mecha painter Hidetaka Tenjin. As we learned there, his extraordinary career in painting box art for model kits and other products earned him the attention of publishing giant DeAgostini as they began production on the weekly Yamato Fact File magazine, published from 2009-2011. The followup to this 81-issue encyclopedia was a deluxe art book collecting all the mecha paintings, most of which had been done by Mr. Tenjin.

An extra feature in Yamato Mechanical Illustrations was this discussion between Tenjin and the editor of Yamato Fact File. Painting by its nature is a meditative art, and the conversation explores some unique philosophical ground, mapped out by the responsibilities and pitfalls of visualizing SF anime’s most iconic spaceship.

Translated by Tim Eldred with support from Tsuneo Tateno.

The first step, to draw Yamato with no correct answer

Interviewer: First of all, thank you for a year and a half of hard work.

Tenjin: Thank you. Now that the work’s over and I look back at it, painting illustrations for Yamato Fact File was a challenge in various ways. First, there is a gap between me and the “Yamato generation.” I saw Farewell to Yamato in a movie theater, but I didn’t watch the TV series in real time and I had only a vague recollection of the other works.

On the other hand, there are many people in their late 40s and early 50s that have strong feelings about Yamato. Therefore, I was worried about what I should do when I started on Fact File. Even if I, as a younger person, watch Yamato and paint illustrations, there could be a gap somewhere in my understanding since I did not share the experiences of the core fans. For example, even if I talk about the movie, could I talk about it in the same way and on the various levels as a core fan? If that’s true of talk, it’s even more true of illustration.

It’s not enough just to trace the shape of the ship to make a picture of Yamato. Yamato both is and isn’t a battleship, and it has a strong character. People who are attracted to the mecha and become fans of the Yamato series value the nature of that character. It’s an element you can get out of it only if you shared in that era. I don’t have that foundation. I didn’t know if I could paint Yamato under that condition.

So, after thinking about it, I decided to assume a defiant attitude in a positive way (laughs). If I was forced into a position, I would never be able to accept it. I thought it would be better to draw Yamato my way as an image from my own mind, rather than a Yamato that had never been seen before. That was the first step toward painting illustrations of Yamato.

Interviewer: Because in the heart of every fan is their very own Yamato.

Tenjin: When I got the request for this project, I specifically mentioned my concerns. I was worried about it, since I hadn’t yet assumed a defiant attitude. However, no matter who painted it, it would probably never be the absolute Yamato. (laughs) The image in a fan’s imagination is the greatest common denominator, but it only adds up to an indistinct illustration in the end. This is already an annoyance for an illustrator.

Interviewer: But if that’s your expectation, can’t you just concentrate harder on the painting?

Tenjin: No, no, it’s a whole new problem. (laughs) Yamato‘s form is different in every scene and every work. Even the overall silhouette is different, including the shape and number of the pulse lasers. For example, when you look at Yamato from the bow, doesn’t the figure that emphasizes the Wave-Motion Gun appear in the mind of a fan? It doesn’t take that form in the model sheets. But both are Yamato, and neither can be said to be wrong. That’s very fuzzy. They gave me a lot of material and I also watched the entire Yamato series a number of times, but still I had no idea. In a nutshell, it’s like saying “go with God!” There is probably no correct answer.

Interviewer: Sure, but various people have drawn Yamato before now. Though they saw and considered the same source material, the shapes are different depending on who drew it.

Tenjin: The purpose of Fact File was not merely to add one more picture. My illustrations had to live up to the name “Fact File” on the cover, so with respect to that it was difficult. I entered this industry through box art on plastic models, where the objective is to paint something that has been precisely decided beforehand and the job is to “paint this product” for the box art. But Yamato is founded upon ambiguous material, and depending on my interpretation in Fact File, I could influence the value of the product.

Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t share that era. There’s no correct answer and there’s no direction from which an answer can be found. I fell into such a dilemma.

Interviewer: So unlike when you do box art, you had to grope for an approach this time.

Tenjin: I learned a lot from talking with the masters who shared the era. My conversations with Mr. Kouichi Tokita and Mr. Kia Asamiya, both of whom worked for Fact File, were the same. Both of them were of the generation that lived with Yamato in real time, and both had actually done Yamato illustrations before. When I look at their works, they drew in their own art style and it’s hard to believe they drew the same mecha.

Paintings from Yamato Fact File by Koichi Tokita (left) and Kia Asamiya (right)

The nice thing about this kind of illustration is that my job was to absorb the best points in particular. But it’s difficult even if I draw it from there. In the beginning I drew it from different angles in various ways. If I draw it from another angle, it looks like a different mecha. (laughs)

Interviewer: Without knowing it, we placed an order for you to paint from an unreasonable angle. (laughs)

Tenjin: Yes, that’s right. (laughs) Well, when I analyzed it overall, the ideal angle to view Yamato was found unexpectedly. It is almost never seen from unusual angles, such as just to the side or just above us. It’s fun for an illustrator to find a place where it’s pleasant to draw. I’m just one of many artists who have been involved with Yamato so far, and I think my job was to follow in the footsteps of famous veteran artists and do my own work at the same time.

Interviewer: Besides, it means that you were one of the artists who participated this time.

Tenjin: Conversely, the spirit emerged that said I could do it in the present day. It’s kind of a resignation, but I understood that I shouldn’t think I could find an absolute right answer. Though I have to admit, I wondered how my work would be accepted. It was both a pleasure and a worry for me! (laughs)

Reviewing the Yamato series and thinking…

Tenjin: When I look at the designs for Yamato, I can understand how much respect there is for Yamato in the history of SF anime in Japan. You can particularly feel the direct connection to Macross through [Studio] Nue. It’s like with a cast of voice actors and the basic setup of a character, there are many things that branch out from the Yamato series. Naturally.

Interviewer: After growing up with the Yamato series, a lot of people yearned for it and jumped into the anime scene.

Tenjin: If Japanese anime is analyzed systematically, it is also true of Gundam, but it’s better to base it on the Yamato series first. When you see the Yamato series it becomes clear where the roots of modern anime techniques were born.

Interviewer: Like what, for example?

Tenjin: The composition of a story and how to show large mecha was borrowed a lot. One clear example is the color of a crewmember’s pilot suit. Susumu Kodai’s is white and red, close to Hikaru Ichijo of Macross. Saburo Kato, who was played by [voice actor] Akira Kamiya, wears black and yellow, a color in common with Roy Fokker [also voiced by Kamiya]. And someone is certain to be sacrificed later. It’s like, oh, this character will surely fall victim…the self-sacrifice that Japanese love the most, that sort of thing was inherited. The special spiritualism of Japan, which is an island nation, comes oozing out in the work.

Interviewer: It is certainly so. I think the Yamato series could only have been made by Japanese.

Tenjin: This is just a story I heard, but when people in Europe saw Yamato, they seemed to form a very harsh opinion.

“It’s an SF work, but somehow I don’t understand it at all. What can I do about that?”

There are many such opinions. It’s an extreme theory, but maybe they just can’t understand a sea vessel flying in space.

Interviewer: That’s a place you just shouldn’t go. (laughs)

Tenjin: There are intentional idioms, you know. Each time, the Earth is facing a crisis and Yamato goes on a voyage. It always returns without fail, even if it comes back in pieces. That’s the foundation of the Yamato series. Romance and adventure fighting scenes are added to it, and each tale is derived from that. This is also a traditional Japanese structure.

I mean, there’s a sense of security, that we’ll win in the end by all means. The last scene of Farewell to Yamato is shocking. The surprise overcame the Japanese sensibility about returning home without fail.

Interviewer: It’s also different from overseas works.

Tenjin: Return safely without fail. That element isn’t in many Disney titles.

Interviewer: Besides that, returning home by a deadline.

Tenjin: Also the love of self-sacrifice seems like an element that’s difficult to understand abroad. For the Japanese, death is a very noble thing. If a bad thing dies, or even a good thing, life will be better afterward. I don’t think foreigners understand that thinking at all. Japan is unique for referring to the dead as Buddha. Therefore, Japanese people respect the dead because a certain kind of beauty is felt for the act of laying down one’s life in trying to help others. If it wasn’t that way, they wouldn’t honor the relief sculpture of Juzou Okita or gather every time at Hero’s Hill.

Interviewer: That scene surely shows a Japanese-like virtue.

Tenjin: Therefore, I hoped that I could put such a Japanese sensibility into my Yamato illustration. I thought about it. Yamato always goes off with a strong soul, while suffering great damage. But it tends to limit the scenes I could draw, scenes like being defeated or being on the verge of death. Whether I want them to or not, illustrations of Yamato tend to become such scenes.

Interviewer: Because it’s a highlight of the Yamato series to fight a formidable enemy and take damage.

Tenjin: Most mecha are destroyed. There is no mecha that appears without taking damage. Andromeda is a state-of-the-art ship of hope; it takes a hit and BAM! The tri-deck carriers in the Rainbow Galaxy are hit by the reversing drill missile and BOOM! I wonder if it’s all right to end up like that, but I think it’s great to find aesthetic value in being defeated. Of course, a scene of defeat may be sad for someone who likes big mecha. It’s a “coffin of the soul” from the standpoint of an illustrator. A scene like that is very easy to put soul into.

Interviewer: It’s easier to paint a key moment like that.

Tenjin: But as I’ve said repeatedly, the Yamato series is difficult, after all. Maybe there’s some kind of law of nature for how to fill the soul.

Interviewer: That reminds me, for Fact File you dealt with the aircraft in addition to the vessels.

Tenjin: I kept the Valkyrie in mind even though the approach was different. When painting a Valkyrie in motion, such as in a battle scene, making an inanimate object look beautiful is the easy part. I change the lighting to devise a composition and there’s a moment where it comes to life. I enjoy capturing that moment. But it requires precise design drawings.

On the other hand, even though the Yamato series has design drawings, in fact the color and shape varies by scene, and in many cases the impression of a fan is a picture unlike the design drawings. The important thing was, when there was a picture on the cover of Fact File, it had to be a mecha that a visitor [non-expert] knows. So to that point, I couldn’t choose a composition that made a show of its eccentricities. Of course, I could paint it logically, but I think my role is different from that. My job was to create an illustration that made you want to pick it up with your own hands.

Interviewer: Box art also has that in common.

Tenjin: It may be so. Maybe I have an occupational disease, but I think about its worth as a product while I paint it. As a box artist, I have to draw illustrations to enhance the sales of the model. From that point of view, being cool is not enough. Sales depend on giving a good impression to as many people as I can, especially at a glance in a storefront. Box artists must train themselves to find the way until they reach perfection, so it’s inevitable that it becomes their way of painting.

Personal favorite illustration, this and that

Interviewer: If you were to choose an illustration from this project that was especially interesting, which one do you like?

Tenjin: The robot horse of the Denguil Empire was interesting, even though it’s not a warship or a plane. Besides, I got to paint a character. (laughs) After publication, we received comments from a lot of people saying it was an amazing illustration. When I do a painting, I never think about how many compliments it might get me. (laughs)

Interviewer: There’s a painting of a samurai up on your homepage. Looking at that, I would not think you’d have a problem with horseback riding.

Tenjin: But initially you asked me not to paint a person other than Lugal as the rider. Were you worried about how I would portray him?

Interviewer: No, I was worried that there might be trouble if you painted someone recognizable and I had to ask for copyright clearance.

Tenjin: I’m sorry about my willful behavior. (laughs)

Interviewer: No, no. (laughs)

Tenjin: The robot horse is a mecha with a very interesting method of operation. Instead of reins, it’s controlled by a stick. I’d like to ride on such a mecha. That one made the greatest impression on me for that reason.

Interviewer: Which one comes next?

Tenjin: Ah, well, that would be Dessler’s new battleship. Isn’t that possible? It’s a space battleship more than 1,000 meters long, about the same size as Macross. Besides, it carries two large-scale missiles underneath so as not to lose to a bigger ship. Why such huge missiles!? That’s my impression as an illustrator. (laughs)

And so big, but very little detail. It’s hard to give it a sense of scale because it only has a little detail and its surface is so flat. I was filled with wonder by the big-hearted, big-scale feeling of the Yamato series, and then I asked myself, well, what should I do?

Interviewer: You could put Yamato next to it.

Tenjin: If the size is not known, there is no candidate for comparison. Foreign SF movies show a sense of scale with huge detail, but Japanese anime doesn’t do that very much. Yamato was my last resort, but it would be tiny if the new Dessler ship is too large. (laughs)

Interviewer: Besides that, do you have any special comments about other illustrations?

Tenjin: Sure. I like this Yamato quite a bit. This is the one I was able to draw at an angle to make it like a battleship. Looking down on it from the front, it has a lot in common with the Battleship Yamato. So I could directly show my image of it as a ship for battle. Rather than emphasizing the Wave-Motion Gun like a more common illustration, it’s still faithful to the design drawing. I think this Yamato is pretty cool, don’t you?

Interviewer: It certainly looks like a battleship.

Tenjin: The Yamato you see on screen and the Yamato in the mind of the fans is the one seen passing in perspective. The angle with a big bow that emphasizes the Wave-Motion Gun is a prime example. So when I paint it to match the design drawings, it parts from the illustration everyone wants.

Interviewer: When I talked to Kazutaka Miyatake about designing Yamato at the beginning, it seemed that he drew it from the front and Naoyuki Katoh drew it from behind. But it didn’t work when they tried to stitch it together. It took a lot of forced fine-tuning to reach its present form.

Tenjin: That explains why I got completely different impressions from the front and the rear. For better or worse, through collaborative work at the time of production, I think Yamato resulted from the gathering of a lot of things. But that’s good. As I said before, Yamato has no correct answer. It’s a correct answer that there is no correct answer, and Yamato is an image that’s in everyone.

It’s strange if I call it elusive, but I think the appeal of Yamato, in short, is that there is no correct answer. Conversely, therefore, I can say that it’s easy to give it a soul. The kind of soul it gets depends on the ability of the illustrator and the strength of their thoughts. (laughs)

Interviewer: Since you continued all the way to the last issue, I think you had some strong thoughts.

Tenjin: I’m thankful that you would say so. Because I did the Fact File illustrations with an approach and a way of thinking different from other works, I was able to face it with fresh new thoughts. I also came to understand the difficulty and the pleasure of painting a motif without a correct answer.

Oh, yeah, there was another important illustration. The one with Yamato returning to Earth. In fact, that Yamato is not damaged at all, which means it was not done in reference to any scene. That Yamato symbolizes the faith that it would return to Earth without fail. So this is the only Yamato illustration where I never want to say what scene it comes from.

Interviewer: It’s an illustration suitable for the successful conclusion of the series. You “launched from Earth” in the first issue and returned in #80. Maybe it’s an illustration that brings Fact File to a quiet close.

Looking back at the Yamato series, a production of bygone days

Interviewer: This is a little off-topic, but please humor me. You’ve been involved in anime production as well, working as an illustrator. Do you feel a difference between the original Yamato series and present anime production?

Tenjin: That’s a tough question. I think there is a difference. When the first Yamato was broadcast [in 1974], TV anime started its growth and it was a time when various technologies and techniques were born. Without those technologies and techniques, I think it would be very difficult to make TV anime by groping around.

A 30-minute anime is completed at a pace of one episode per week. When comparing new and old, I think there is a great difference in the amount of work each staff member has to do. I mean, in the old days it often happened that an artist in charge of layout was also an animator, or an effects artist also did storyboards or was a director themselves. I think it was common practice to have such wide-ranging skills. It’s not that way now. (laughs)

Although I said before “there is no correct answer to Yamato,” if a lot of people are responsible for it, the work becomes more difficult. I think both the good and bad points of Yamato‘s design sheets resulted from the working method of those days.

Interviewer: When I hear a story from those days, scenes of bloodshed leading up to a TV broadcast seemed to be a daily occurrence.

Tenjin: I really admire the effort of the people on the spot back then. The division of labor had not yet been established, and although they were very busy, some were able to create an efficient work system. That expanded our profession. In a work like Macross that actively uses CG, that professionalism is essential.

Interviewer: Then, has the confusion of those times been reduced?

Tenjin: Well, in the end it is the work of human hands and the style of communal work has been the same since ancient times, so confusion has not disappeared. For example, when I do a certain design [for an anime] and turn it in, it must be commonly understood by the staff. It’s my feeling that the design will be the basis for the animation. But when you consider the people who will really draw it based on the design, I’m just one person in 100. (laughs)

Interviewer: Is it a problem if it has too many lines, or is too complicated?

Tenjin: Yes. But also, maybe not. (laughs) Actually, especially with mecha, it depends on the studio. I think the people who can draw it are decreasing. Animators study human motion very hard so it’s possible to smoothly draw someone walking and stopping. Because of that, they may never study how to draw mecha.

Interviewer: Makes sense.

Tenjin: I think it’s important for an observing eye to draw mecha. Also, I think sometimes the staff is tied down by CG. It’s a harmful side effect of specialization and a very typical problem nowadays. Originally, the purpose of bringing CG to anime was to reduce the on-site burden. Once you build a model, it can be reused as many times as you like, and it’s easy to make it into something else if you change the texture. Therefore, you can increase the density of a battle scene. We did all the cockpit images in Macross Zero with CG because it would reduce the on-site burden as well.

But then, it may take away the job of an animator who can draw precise cockpits. Those who can draw mecha properly can’t also draw characters very well, so the number of excellent animators has decreased. I think the current problems would be unbelievable to those staff members of Yamato who held multiple posts.

Interviewer: This is certainly a problem of today’s specialized anime production.

Tenjin: But this is just an opinion from the back seats. The passion of the Yamato series overcame the on-site difficulties and lead to a successful strategy, and I think that passion can also be brought forth in the present scene. We not only cherish the Yamato series, we inherited what was born from there and distill it into a new phase. It may be the mission of the anime production scene even now.

Instead of a conclusion…

Interviewer: Finally, please state your message to the fans who have this book of paintings in their hands.

Tenjin: Yamato is one of the few anime that still has many fans 30 years since its broadcast debut. I am very proud to be involved in such a great series as an illustrator. If you can get a sense of drama and excitement flowing with romance from my illustrations, that would be best of all. Although it is a “Yamato of no correct answer,” it’s the figure of Yamato that I felt, and I intended to depict the appeal of the Yamato series in my own way. I hope you feel this when you see it.

Interviewer: This collection of pictures is the culmination of Fact File. You feel a sense of achievement, don’t you?

Tenjin: No? I don’t know. A new Yamato series may still be born. [Translator’s note: this interview was conducted just prior to the first official news of Yamato 2199.]

Interviewer: If it is, please do illustrations for it again.

Tenjin: Then please let me paint it with a different approach again then. If it turns out that there is still no correct answer on that side, then anything can be a correct answer. If we don’t forget the feelings at the foundation of the Yamato series, I believe I can draw a new Yamato.

(June 2011, in Maihama)

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