Nobuteru Yuuki interview, February 2020

Special feature: Thorough dissection! Nobuteru Yuuki

Drawing the “soul” of Yamato characters

From Star Blazers/Yamato fan club magazine Vol. 6, February 24, 2020

When talking about the new world of Yamato, what is essential is characters full of individuality. While inheriting the essence of the original series and incorporating patterns and details that match the present, the “soul” of Yamato was successfully transmitted not only to the longtime fans but also the younger generation.

The character designer is Nobuteru Yuuki. From an encounter with Yamato that changed his student life to returning to Yamato again as a pro, he decided to pour his heart into the new series. In this special feature, we thoroughly dissect the deep relationship between Mr. Yuuki and Yamato.

10,000 word long interview interpreted from 30 questions

Character Designer
The world of Nobuteru Yuuki

As the character designer for Yamato 2199, which was the restart of the series, Nobuteru Yuuki continues drawing new Yamato figures that are full of appeal. Needless to say, he is also a super animator who has worked on many masterpieces so far. In advance of the next work, Yamato 2205, The New Voyage, we approached Mr. Yuuki’s original appeal and worldview with 30 questions, including some from members of the Yamato Crew fan club.

Text by Shinya Ohira

The starting point as an animator

Q01: How did you get into the animation industry?

Specifically, I first decided to work in anime when I was a junior high student. After graduation, I went to talk to studios. Of course, a teacher tried to stop me. (Laughs) I wanted to go to Toei studio, and I remember being told, “You can’t eat as an animator.”

When I graduated from high school it got a little more real, and I got a desk job. But I still felt that I wanted to get a job in anime. A friend of mine who liked anime knew a guy who came and went to a studio, and I started to get part-time work on animation he was doing. When I look back on it, I’m shocked to realize that I was doing key animation.

Then I met the animator Masahito Yamashita, who was working on Urusei Yatsura at the time. He told me, “If you like it that much, you should go into a studio. If you don’t, you’ll probably regret it.” That was the opportunity that got me into the anime industry.

Q02: Why did you choose to start your career at Artland studio?

You’d think I’d want to start at the studio Mr. Yamashita recommended, right? But for some reason, I thought I wanted to relearn everything from the beginning at another studio. So, in order to dive in, I made a list of studios and one that looked particularly bright was Artland, which had just finished production of Macross.

Noboru Ishiguro [Yamato’s first supervising director] was the representative who picked me up. When I showed him the key art I’d done in my part-time job, he liked it and asked, “Would you like to do key animation?” I had chosen a studio with the intention of going back to the beginning, so wouldn’t it be awkward to suddenly be drawing key animation? But Mr. Ishiguro said, “I don’t care about that.”

That was certainly the time of Macross and Hideaki Anno, when people who were college students went to work in studios during summer vacation, and when I settled in and took a look around, it seemed to be common for them to be drawing key animation. I guess the stance was that if you could do it, Mr. Ishiguro would give you a hot job regardless of where you were in your career.

However, Mr. Ishiguro was an unusual person, and I was worried about my age. I thought, “I’m a little too young to be in charge of key animation at the age of 20.” I was born in 1961 and for some reason I decided that I had to be 21. (Laughs) Though I still don’t know what the rationale was behind just one year’s difference.

This hung over me like a curse. Isn’t everyone who was born in 1961 treated as the same generation? I was always apologizing in my heart, “I’m sorry…I’m actually one year younger…” (Laughs) I wonder if some people still think that I was born before 1961.

At the time, I thought Mr. Ishiguro was a really unusual person. Now I think that people who have such unusual thoughts are better suited for the anime world, more or less.

Q03: What was your impression when your own art became anime for the first time?

Properly speaking, Super Dimension Century Orguss (1983) was supposed to be my debut work in terms of key animation, but as I said, I was working at a part-time anime job before I entered Artland. So the first time I saw my art moving on TV was before Orguss.

What was the name of the work? I can’t say, even if my mouth is torn off. (Laughs) It’s a black mark in my history. (Sweat) However, no matter how bad the picture was, I thought that anime was amazing. To some extent, the in-betweens amid my key animation seemed to work properly. The quality of the timing was another story, but it moved and it seemed to work. So when I first saw my art on TV, the impression was strange. “Ah, it works okay.” That sort of thing.

[See Mr. Yuuki’s credit list at Anime News Network here. The only title on the list with the correct vintage to be the “black mark” is this one, but no guarantees.]

Q04: How old were you when you started drawing, and what kind of drawings did you do back then?

I don’t really remember how old I was. (Laughs) When I noticed it, I felt like I was drawing a masterpiece. Every child draws, don’t they? While drawing trains, drawing flowers, and all the things I liked, I was drawing anime from the beginning. I remember learning from the black and white Tetsujin 28 and Gegege no Kitaro. My mother and grandmother gave me a lot of praise, so I got comfortable with it. From that point on, I started to draw like crazy.

Q05: When you aimed for the anime industry, did you study art professionally?

I didn’t do that at all. If I wanted to work in anime or manga, I had to study art in high school. I thought I’d join the fine arts club, but that didn’t last long.

Somehow the teaching advisor changed it around to where I was doing oil paintings, and I would have to draw over older peoples’ art for some reason.

There once was such a technique, and in that case I would have to properly undercoat it and erase the original picture to some extent. But it didn’t work out at all. No matter how much I drew over it, I could see through to the picture beneath. Didn’t that feel like a wasted effort? What was I doing? That’s all it was. (Laughs) I quit because I didn’t think I would fit in.

After I started working, I taught myself with reference books such as artist’s anatomy. Since I didn’t get a specialized education, it was still complex after all. There were a lot of recent art school graduates among the animators, and even if that wasn’t the case there were still many people who eagerly did study sketches.

Q06: What artists and works influenced you as a creator?

I’ve been feeling that again recently. Fundamentally, I think it’s Go Nagai. His work touched my generation when we were in elementary school, and as you can expect it had a huge influence.

After that came the anime boom and the world of manga changed greatly. There were a lot of influences, but nothing could top Go Nagai. Even if I did do oil paintings in the art club, his influence would have come out. I’m not conscious of it at all when I’m drawing, but if I look back at it later I think I’m often influenced by it.

The appeal of his work is that, in addition to the patterns and designs, there is his style. I think it’s most attractive in its rougher places. Some fans may see something similar to that in my style, but it may not be prominent. Especially when making original works, I like something that’s sort of tacky in a good way. In the end, that’s Go Nagai’s influence.

Q07: What artists or works influenced you in genres other than anime and manga?

I’ve often said this in other interviews, but outside of anime and manga I especially like horror writer Stephen King. And I’ve especially liked Phillip K. Dick since I started reading foreign SF as a student. When it comes to movies, I often see zombie things. I don’t generally like B-movies or splatter movies, but I especially like works that depict the actions and choices of human beings in extreme conditions, such as George Romero’s work. Come to think of it, that’s not limited to zombie things, but also pandemic things. Go Nagai’s work also contains such elements.

Thoughts on Space Battleship Yamato

Q08: What is your favorite work or episode in the original series?

Many works were born over a long time with the original Yamato, weren’t they? In my case, I encountered the first TV series in elementary school, and if I have to choose one favorite, it would Farewell to Yamato (1978). Since I saw it when I was approaching puberty, I wonder if its impact was especially big. When I saw it again when I got older, I think I had a different impression, but when I look back at it now it’s my personal favorite as a sequel that surpassed the previous work.

Q09: Which previous character designer are you conscious of while working on the new series?

Of course, I have the greatest respect for the original character designers, but other than Leiji Matsumoto who provided the foundation, there’s no designer that I’m actually “conscious” of. To some extent, you can copy an animator. For example, when 2199 started up I tried making prototypes that were conscious of Toyoo Ashida’s style. But I reached the conclusion that when rebooting Yamato for the present day, I was too conscious of the past.

Before I worked on 2199, I came to that same conclusion on the remake of Toward the Terra (2007), which also had a strong presence. At that time, I was drawing based on the work of the original author Keiko Takemiya and I had a desire to reproduce it faithfully. But in discussions with the staff, we thought that if this was going to be a remake the designs should be handed down to today’s younger generation.

Therefore, I took on the challenge of departing from Takemiya’s art with a method that incorporated a modern essence. Specifically, I lifted the heads a little on the bodies and added a more three-dimensional effect. In a nutshell, I made it more “real.” The line work is simple in the mainstream of recent anime, but with a three-dimensional effect. I tried to incorporate those elements. The attempt was successful, and 2199 adopted the same methodology.

Q10: What was the hardest part of character design for the new series?

At the beginning, the hardest part was Kodai and Yuki. If I couldn’t pin them down, I couldn’t design any of the other characters. I struggled with them and redrew them a lot. But once the policy was decided, I didn’t have much trouble. After that, the only difficult one was Neredia in the movie Ark of the Stars (2014). Yutaka Izubuchi’s image of Neredia and my drawing of Neredia didn’t match at all. He got impatient. “It’s like this.” I drew it again, but I just couldn’t pin it down. (Laughs) It took a long time to come up with a convincing design for him.

Q11: What was the overall challenge of character design for the new series?

In the end, the presence of the original series is strong. Of course, it was necessary to inherit the original designs to some extent, but on the other hand there are a lot of new characters, too. Getting the new characters to fit in was a big challenge at the beginning. Furthermore, even if we inherited designs from the original series it wasn’t just a copy, I wanted to play with certain things in my own designs.

Q12: What were the challenges of designing characters that first appeared in Yamato 2202, like Keyman?

Continuing what I said earlier, I decided to go with my own designs at the time of 2199, so when designing new characters such as Keyman, Gairen, and Captain Todo, I don’t think there was any particular difficulty. Needless to say, what I’m most conscious about is that it starts with the order of the director, and I think about what I want to draw while satisfying that order. But since I’ve established my own rules there, it doesn’t feel uncomfortable.

Q13: Which character is your overall favorite in the new series?

That’s a really hard question for me to answer, because it’s difficult to choose. I love something about each character, but if I have a special attachment to any original character from 2199, I think it might be Makoto Harada. In terms of characters who impress me, it would be Neredia who I mentioned a while ago. (Laughs)

In terms of characters from the original series, I think it might be Sabera and Zordar. I’d been thinking about how to expand the image of those two since the very beginning of my participation in 2199. Looking back, I think I was able to make those characters my own without breaking the original design.

Q14: What is your favorite scene in the new series?

It’s not my work, but it’s the scene of breaking through Planet Balan in Episode 18 of 2199. When they go through the subspace gate in the end, you can see the Large Megallanic Galaxy ahead. There’s a great sense of excitement about reaching unknown space. I think that sense of romance, which is connected to the old series, was beautifully expressed.

Q15: What is your favorite mecha in the new series?

I’m sorry, I’m very ignorant of mecha, so I can’t say anything that would be very helpful, but of the mecha that comes out in the new series, my personal favorite is the Deusula. I also naturally like the mecha that follow the design of the original series like Yamato and Analyzer, but what surprised me about Deusula is that it’s just cool and I thought, “This isn’t based on an earlier concept!”

Q16: Which CV [character voice] attached itself most to one of your character designs?

That would definitely be Domel and Sanada, Akio Otsuka and Houchu Otsuka. I think they were exactly the right choices. I don’t want to praise Yutaka Izubuchi too much, because he doesn’t like praise, but I think it was his unique achievement. (Laughs)

When choosing a voice actor, I think quite a few directors just pick people they’re familiar with, but Izubuchi isn’t like that. We all value the image of the original very much, so we thought about casting on the assumption that it wouldn’t disrupt the world view. Therefore, we thought about choosing voice actors from genres other than anime.

About the production of 2205

Q17: How do you feel about returning to Yamato a year after 2202 finished?

Yamato 2202 was able to reboot the world of Farewell to Yamato. For myself, I had the feeling that I was finished with it. But I finally came back after all. (Laughs)

My personal impression of 2205, including a comparison with the original series, is that I think it will be centered around the next generation of the crew. I don’t think the original series was able to depict this very well, so I think there are a lot of expectations for this work. I think Director Yasuda, Mr. Fukui, Mr. Oka and others feel the same about that point.

Early roughs for Ryusuke Domon and Tasuke Tokugawa. See more 2205 development art here.

Q18: Is there anything you’re particularly conscious of in the overall chara design for 2205?

At the moment, I’m most conscious of a “sense of unity.” The original series that is the equivalent of 2205 had a mixture of character designers, and I think the work pushed forward without a mutual consensus. There were many parts that seemed to be like that. Therefore, when remaking original characters, I think the most important part is how to blend different characters into one world rather than being faithful to the original.

As I mentioned earlier, in terms of “realism,” which is necessary for modern anime, there are a lot of points I really want to devise in this chara design. Even in the original Yamato III (1980), so-called “TV Manga”-like exaggeration was mainstream until then, and isn’t it awkward how it’s become really old-fashioned? That was the time when Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) had already started.

On the other hand, because the Yamato series had run for so long, it was hard to get out of the world of “TV Manga.” That was a strong feeling in my generation, which watched it in real time. How do we solve that problem and bring out the charm of the original characters? Speaking as someone who knows about those days, it may be something like homework that can’t be avoided.

Q19: Will there be any changes to the characters from 2199 and 2202?

It’s been five years since 2199. In that time, I think young people in their late teens and early twenties will have settled down a little, and I want to give it that feeling. Tasuke Tokugawa, who was a junior high student in 2199, will become a crew member this time. I designed him from the beginning, making assumptions about his future growth, so I’m looking forward to it.

Q20: Why are Sanada’s sideburns so long? Any plans to shorten them in 2205?

(Laughs) I actually put that in my doujinshi, and it’s a remnant of an image where I tried to draw modern young people with current styles. When designing Sanada for the new series, I actually wanted to get rid of the crew cut and give him a thin beard. To balance Sanada with the other characters, I thought maybe it would be OK to make him sort of a dandy, but it was unpopular with the staff for some reason. (Laughs) I still think it’s cool.

Well, in the new series Sanada is quite a science-based guy, and he’s depicted as a character who doesn’t fit into society, so maybe it’s best that he doesn’t have a beard. That means “only” the sideburns remain. (Laughs)

Personal things about Mr. Yuuki

Q21: What is the real pleasure and reward of doing anime work?

When I was drawing manga, I was very lonely. When doing lonely work, I had a strong feeling that I was just spitting out what was inside me.

But unlike manga, in animation we really work with a lot of people. Among them, I met people with skills and techniques I didn’t know about. Rather than just making only what’s inside of you, you make it in sessions with various talents. That way, 1+1 becomes 10 or 100. I think that’s the greatest pleasure of working in anime.

Q22: Do you sometimes take in opinions from fans?

For better or worse, I’ve come to vividly know the impressions and opinions of fans in the age of social media. The opportunities to see works drawn by amateurs has increased dramatically, hasn’t it? In a way, it feels like the production side and the fans are working together as one. It depends on the person, but in my case I think I’m sometimes inspired by pictures drawn by fans.

Q23: What do you think about the transition of the anime production environment from analog to digital?

In fact, in terms of animators including me, there are more people in production that do things in analog. I think it’s still a transitional period.

What I found interesting when I first started working on 2202 was that I drew the layout checks in analog, and when the key animation was returned to me it was in a printed state. You know I work on paper, but if I wanted to change the nuance a little, I couldn’t erase a printout with an eraser to fix it. (Laughs) That might be a trivial story, but it’s one way the times have changed. That’s what I think.

Q24: What art materials do you use?

I’m not very particular about art materials. For example, what I’m drawing with now is an ordinary sharp pencil you can buy at a convenience store. I’ve been using the same thing for the last ten years.

I think many animators use pencils and your taste changes as you draw. The line is too thin right after you sharpen it, and I’m the type who puts a lot of pressure on it, so the core breaks right away, doesn’t it?

I used a heavier sharp pencil in the old days, and if it’s heavy it might slip while you’re drawing. When you’re working on a drawing, your hands move pretty fast. You don’t have to worry with a lighter pen, and you don’t get tendonitis easily.

The thickness of the core within the wood of a pencil is 0.5mm. Using that, I can draw fine details and big images, so the thickness is just right. The trouble these days is that the standard for anime is a little finer than it used to be since the image quality is higher for high-def. So, inevitably, more detailed drawings than ever before are required. So these days I sometimes go from 0.5mm down to 0.2 or 0.3.

Q25: Do you listen to music while you work?

Most of the time I have a TV on. When I need to focus and cut off the outside world, I wear headphones and play music. When working on Yamato, I often put on a Yamato soundtrack and the feelings intensify. Akira Miyagawa’s soundtrack really raises the tension.

Q26: What genres would you like to work with in the future? For example, what about a period drama?

At the moment, I don’t have any particular desire to get involved with a new genre. I like to watch historical dramas, but it’s a different story when I draw. To draw properly, you can’t do it without considerable knowledge. I worry about details, like how to tie an obi, so it might be difficult to approach with concerns like that.

Q27: Are there any original works or manga artists whose work you’d like to make into anime?

Whenever I’m asked that question at an event, I always answer with The Poe Clan by Moto Hagio. That’s my earnest wish. However, when I think of the decline of my arm, I think it’s better to leave it to younger, better people. (Laughs)

Q28: Do you feel the limits of your age as an animator?

There it is. (Laughs) To be honest, I’m farsighted, so it’s getting harder. Rather than energy, physical strength is more important. I mentioned the decline of my arm in the last answer, which is really a physical story. My muscles and tendons are weakening, so the lines tend to waver. I used to train at the gym until I was about 40, but this isn’t something that can be recovered.

If people no longer ask me to be an animator in the future, I’ll retire gracefully at that time and draw manga as a hobby. (Laughs) The work I was doing before is in a suspended state.

Q29: Please give your advice to those who want to become character designers!

I’m not in a position to be able to advise people, but speaking from the standpoint of a designer, I think you should establish your own style.

It’s important training to refer to other people’s drawings and imitate their good points, but if you overdo it, I think there is a risk that you won’t know where you stand as a designer. There are surprisingly few opportunities to find individuality at a production site when it comes to original works, so I don’t think it’s a good thing not to have your own style. All those we refer to as legendary animators have their own style.

Q30: Finally, please say a few words to the fan club!

The next project 2205 is going to be a well-depicted work with the next generation of crew members. From the beginning of production on 2199, I’ve been doing character design while assuming they will be the next generation of Yamato, even in the treatment of secondary characters, so I’d definitely like you to pay attention to the growth of characters throughout the new series.

The End

Other interviews with Nobuteru Yuuki:

2012 Cosmo DNA interview

2012 interview from Yamato 2199 Chapter 2 program book

2014 interview from Yamato Pia

2020 round table designer discussion

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