Nobuteru Yuuki, Character Designer

Some people are born to do what they do, but it might take them a while to find their way into it. Born in 1962, Nobuteru Yuuki grew up with TV anime, drawing everything he loved, publishing fanzines, and taking part in his school’s “anime/manga study group,” but when he later took a job with a health insurance company, it told him everything he needed to know about what he really wanted to do.

He got into anime at just the right time to land some of the biggest credits anyone could ask for, working as an animator on heavy hitters like Super Dimension Century Orguss (1983) L-Gaim (1984), the Macross movie (1984), Fist of the North Star (1984) Dirty Pair (1985), Megazone 23 (1985) and Wings of Honneamise (1987).

He first showed his character design chops on Battle Royale High School (1987), the OVA for his close friend Mamoru Nagano’s Five Star Stories (1989), and others. His design work commanded international attention with Record of Lodoss Wars (1991) and Vision of Escaflowne (1996). Over the next decade he climbed even higher with Captain Herlock Endless Odyssey (2003), Last Exile (2003), Xenosaga (2005), and the TV series for Toward the Terra (2007), which solidified his working relationship with Director Yutaka Izubuchi. As everyone now knows, that was the key to both of them collaborating again on Yamato 2199.

With such an impressive resume (which also includes numerous videogame titles), Mr. Yuuki would be entitled to a big head. Instead, he keeps his noggin discreetly parked under his signature working-man’s cap and blushes at the notion that he’s earned an army of devoted fans around the world. That’s precisely how it’s supposed to work for someone who is dedicated to his craft above all else.

The Interview

Conducted by Tim Eldred with Nobuyuki Sakurai, translation by Rina Lee
Tuesday, May 8 2012

What was your first encounter with Yamato?

I first saw it when I was around 10 years old, in fifth grade. Back then we didn’t have the word “anime,” it was called “TV manga.” Yamato was more realistic than robot animation like Mazinger Z. They had to leave the Earth and go to another planet. At the time, the most popular anime was Heidi, which ran 52 episodes. I wanted to watch Yamato instead, so when Yamato finished I watched the second half of Heidi afterward.

What was the first episode you saw?

I didn’t see it from the beginning. I started with episode two or three when Yamato launched. I don’t remember exactly when I first watched it, but I remember the launch.

Did you know then that you wanted to be an artist, or did you decide afterward?

I wasn’t thinking about my future when I was 10, so I decided that later.

Did you draw as a child? Was it your hobby?

I loved to draw. I drew Yamato characters a lot. We didn’t have the internet or video or DVD recordings, so to draw something from Yamato, I had to memorize it and that was really hard for a 10-year old. So I kept watching Yamato on TV and I saw the name of a magazine [in the credits] called Bouken-oh [Adventure King]. I went to the store to find it, and it had the manga drawn by Leiji Matsumoto. So most of my Yamato drawings were imitations of his manga.

Then would you say then that you were a student of Matsumoto?

That’s right. Everyone my age loved Matsumoto. When I was in junior high and high school, he did Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 and everyone was a big fan. As for me, I didn’t draw mechanical things like robots, but any time others drew mecha it looked like Leiji Matsumoto’s work.

Did you have to work to build your own style so it wouldn’t look like Matsumoto’s?

I followed his work, but I had my own style so I didn’t need to concentrate to develop it. When I was in high school, it was the biggest anime generation, when the word “anime” was established. I followed Yasuhiko Yoshikazu and other artists. Not to copy them, but just to watch them. I had many different influences.

As a character designer, most of your work is done before the series begins, so what is there for you to do after that point?

Usually a character designer finishes their work before the series, but sometimes they can’t. Right now I’m working as an animation director. There aren’t usually mistakes [to correct] but there are so many people drawing cels that sometimes their work is not close to the original character design, so when that happens I have to fix it. That’s what an animation director does.

Then, when someone draws “off-model,” you put it back “on-model”?

Yes, I do it myself. I check the key frames, and if a drawing is “off-model,” I fix it.

As of now, the first Yamato 2199 movie has been seen and the second one is two months away. Where are you in the production at this moment?

I’m not an animation director on 2199, but right now the production is pushed back a little because there are a lot of “off-model” drawings, so I’m helping out. I’m currently working on Episode 4.

Is it like the original series where they were always in an emergency, or is it not that bad?

It took three years to start up 2199, and there were many ideas that were deleted. It’s not as bad as the original, but it’s still going pretty slow.

Then it will uphold the Yamato tradition. (Laughs) Maybe there will be a day when you finish something the night before it has to be shown on a movie screen.

2199 has to be on the screen and we have to sell the blu-ray at the same time, so we can’t get that close. With the original, they could work longer and go right up to the night before. 2199 can’t be done “Nishizaki style.” (Laughs)

How do you feel about the reaction to the first movie?

I think the reaction was really good, and I’m really glad about it, but 2199 is different from Resurrection and the live-action movie. Those two films are for the older fans. But we wanted to make 2199 as a new version of Yamato, so I changed the character designs to match the feeling of a new generation. Every time I talk about Yamato with someone in the younger generation, they say they’ve heard of it before, but maybe just as a song. I tell them it’s a really good anime and they should watch it, but they might think of it as dull.

The heart of the original Yamato hasn’t been changed in 2199, and the story is really good, so I thought maybe we can recreate these things for the new generation. I wanted it to be seen on TV first and then go to the theater, but it’s the opposite, so only the older fans came to watch it. But my character design is for the younger generation. So everyone from the older generation watches the new 2199 with characters of present day design. I’m not uncomfortable with that, but I wanted the new generation to watch it first.

Were any of the characters especially difficult or especially easy to design?

For some of the original characters like Okita and Hijikata, there was no need to change them for a new generation, so in that sense they were easy. The hardest ones were the new characters. Harada Makoto in particular made me think a lot, about whether this completely new character would fit in the Yamato world or not. [Note: Makoto is the girl in the pink uniform.]

Are you happy with the result of all that work?

I say this a lot, but for 2199 I designed the characters for the new generation rather than the older fans. But in fact the older fans are watching it before the younger ones, so they’re complaining about the characters a lot. So I’m sort of thinking I can’t satisfy them.

What about the hair flips? Was that your idea?

It’s my style, but a lot of anime has that now. When we did the brainstorming, Mr. Izubuchi said we didn’t need that, but Mr. Morika and I said we did need it if we were going to target the new generation, because it’s the latest style.

Nobuyuki Sakurai (left) and Nobuteru Yuuki

Sakurai: going back to the original Kodai, his hair was really hard to do in the real world. But the hair flip is a little easier for real people to make for cosplay.

Some of the main characters in 2199 are a little older than their original counterparts, but they look a little younger. What’s the reason for that?

The main reason is that when I designed them at first, they were actually the same age as the originals. But once we started writing the scripts we thought more about the reality of it. The original Kodai was 18, but this seemed impossible so we increased the ages. It’s nothing to do with “mo-e” culture.

This time there are many more crew members than in the original. Will they all have their moment in the spotlight?

I only designed them, so I’m not sure, but I think some of them will. Others might stay in the background.

Are there any characters you created personally, from scratch?

For 2199 I didn’t get a script or a description ahead of time. I participated in brainstorming with the writers and everyone and we talked about things like, “there should be a girl with two pony tails.” And we started creating from that point. So the characters were everybody’s idea. When it came to the hair flip, Mr. Morika said we definitely needed it. If Mr. Morika wasn’t there, Director Izubuchi would have said we didn’t, and I couldn’t have disagreed with him.

What can you tell us about the design origin of the new Dessler?

There’s a rumor on the internet that it was based on a Russian guy named Anton, but it’s a hoax. After I heard the rumor I saw a photo and it was really similar, but it’s just a coincidence. My first design for Dessler had curly hair, but I made it straight.

This may be difficult to understand in America, but in Japanese culture when you address someone older than you, you have to use polite words. You can’t talk to them like a friend. In the original TV series, Dessler is much older than Kodai and they are rivals, but when they come face to face, Kodai addresses him like a friend. He calls him by name without an honorific [such as -san], and it’s very casual. Their age should make a big difference. So for 2199 I thought we could put Dessler a bit closer to Kodai’s age. That’s why I changed the hair style and made him younger.

So now when Kodai speaks to him in a casual form of language, it seems more natural?

He looks younger and more casual, but there’s no talking between them until later, so we’re not sure yet. But we also thought if we made Dessler younger, he could be cooler and more “beautiful.”

We’ve heard there will be many new Gamilas characters in 2199. What can you tell us about them?

Basically, the Gamilas characters haven’t changed. We didn’t see Domel’s wife in the original anime, but in 2199 she’ll be really important. There’s another one who [SECRET].

In closing, what would you like to say to your many, many English-speaking fans?

As you can see, I’m getting older with a few grey hairs. When I went to the Japan Expo I did an autograph session and everyone in my line was older, with their hair going white. Next to me was someone else signing autographs, and everyone in his line was a young cosplayer.

Among people my age, the name value of Yamato is really high, and it’s one of the good things in their life. There are many people working in the anime industry, and I think I’m really lucky to have the opportunity to work on 2199. I want everyone to know I’m a regular fan just like you, but the character design is for the new generation. I accepted the challenge to create a new thing and I’m going to do my best, so I want everyone to enjoy it!

The End

Related links

Mr. Yuuki’s Wikipedia entry

Mr. Yuuki’s Anime News Network encyclopedia entry

Blog site for a Nobuteru Yuuki fan club

Selection of Mr. Yuuki’s art via Google images

Bonus: the World of Mo-e

Loosely translated as “Fetish,” the term Mo-e (pronounced mo-ay) has become rather notorious since it creeped around the Pacific Rim to become a curio of Japanese subculture. You can read a much more detailed explanation of what it represents here, but for our immediate purposes, “fetish” will do.

From the first appearance of Nobuteru Yuuki’s character designs for Yamato 2199, the spectre of Mo-e closed in over the heads of fans who preferred to keep a permanent wall between the two. But with changing times come changing audiences, and as Mr. Yuuki hinted in our interview, this was not a decision made lightly.

Our intention here is neither to condone nor condemn, merely to observe how Mo-e elements manifest in Yamato 2199 through the new female characters. That info comes from an article in the May 2012 issue of Megami [Goddess] magazine, which caters to a very specific subset of fandom. The issue openly put Yamato and Mo-e together for the first time with a foldout poster of Yuki Mori (above left) and a single-page overview of 2199‘s female characters (above right). An enlargement from this page (below) and the translated text should provide some enlightenment on how Mo-e trends in anime are observed in the land of their birth.

Mo-e Recruits

The women of the new crew shine with mo-e elements different from the conventional heroine. Since they each have different duties, they are likely to be seen working in a variety of scenes.

[1] Clumsy Girl?

Makoto Harada

Yamato‘s hygienist. 21 years old. Bright and cheerful personality, sensitive to rumors. Handles work quickly, but can also be a scatterbrain.

Absolute Domain
Her uniform is unique, unlike that of other crewmembers. The thighs peeping out from the domain are spectacular!

[2] Intellectual Older Sister

Kaoru Niimi

Yamato science & technology officer, intelligence division. 27 years old. An intelligent woman whom technical chief Shiro Sanada acknowledges as superior in technical aptitude and data analysis of enemy technology. Also responsible for psychological counseling.

An intellectual woman with glasses and long-slitted eyes. Please counsel me while gazing at me with those eyes!

[3] Junior Younger Sister

Yuria Misaki

Yamato cadet, operations division. On the ship, she works as a backup to Yuki, who is her senior. Has an intuitive ability to see what cannot be seen.

Twin Tail
At 17, a particularly young member of the crew. The twin-tail hairstyle further emphasizes her innocence.

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