Interview with Painter Hidetaka Tenjin

Artists in any field tend to fall into one of two categories: they either knew from the beginning that art was their life’s purpose and embraced it fully, or they ignored their calling only to be swept back into it–seemingly by accident–but when they look back they realize it was inevitable. And nothing annoys somebody in category 1 more than when somebody in category 2 turns out to be a virtuoso.

Hidetaka Tenjin is a member of category 2, and when you see his exquisite work, you wonder how he could ever have drifted away from category 1. Soft-spoken and humble as anyone can possibly be, he is nevertheless in Japan’s elite category of go-to painters for package design and anime production art. Best known for his professional association with Macross (he has certainly painted more Valkyries than any living human, except perhaps those who painted cels for the anime), he also set a record in the world of Space Battleship Yamato when he signed on as the primary mecha artist for the weekly Yamato Fact File magazine (profiled here).

Our meeting was initially meant to take place in Mr. Tenjin’s studio, but his daughter had recently caught a flu bug so we relocated to an ornate tea pavilion in a nearby hotel. (Fortunately, he was generous enough to provide photos of his studio afterward.) While the norms around us partook in tea and crumpets, we filled the air for two hours with talk of robots, model kits, and what it’s like to be Tenjin.

Interview conducted January 30, 2012 by Tim Eldred, Sword Takeda, and Gwyn Campbell.

Let’s start with your age and where you came from.

I’m 38 and was born in Nishinomiya, Kobe. I’ve moved 15 times, so I’ve lived here and there.

Sword: Japanese artists who speak English are becoming more common, but they are still quite rare. How did you learn your English?

Since I moved around a lot, the culture surrounding me changed frequently. So I took an interest in words and dialects, and tried to communicate with a variety of people. No matter how you look at it, America is the home of the entertainment industry, and I wanted to be able to enjoy a movie in English. So I actively made a lot of foreign friends and learned English in a variety of ways.

Many artists began drawing in their childhood. Is that also true for you?

I heard that I started to draw when I was three. My parents gave me pens and paper when I was a child, so I didn’t need a lot of looking after. I drew pictures all the time.

What influenced you most as a child?

Probably it was anime, such as Mazinger Z or Great Mazinger. One of those Mazingers. (Laughs) They were made two years before I was born, but in my area the reruns were everywhere.

Is that the first one you remember?

I don’t remember which anime it was, but I remember that it was in a theater. It might have been Space Battleship Yamato. My big brother was eight years old and he watched it, so I did too.

What do you remember about seeing Yamato as a child?

My first memory of Yamato was being forced to stand in line for hours to see Farewell to Yamato in a movie theater in 1978. I couldn’t sit down. Moreover, when I finally got inside I couldn’t get a seat. I had to sit on a step in the aisle. It was painful. Every theater was like that.

Did you cry at the end like everyone else?

In my case, I cried because it was so hard to watch the movie. (Laughs)

Did you watch the later movies and shows?

I watched Yamato 2, but not Yamato III. The style of SF anime moved on, and I switched over to Gundam.

What were your hobbies as a child?

Drawing pictures, of course.

Did you build plastic models [plamo]?

Yes, I did. I remember that I was particular about color in those days. I didn’t have much time for it, and I don’t do it very much these days. Because most of my friends are pro modelers, and they give me their treasures.

Did you have any other hobbies besides drawing?

No, but I liked airplanes and was always looking up at the sky.

Did you buy books about airplanes?

Yes, a lot. It’s like a mountain, even now.

Now I see the connection to Valkyries.

Yes. (Laughs) Besides planes, I love painting skies, even now.

Planes and skies. Is that what you like to paint the most?

I also like painting portraits. And I love cats!

Were you trained as a painter, or was it self-taught?

It’s completely self-taught.

You didn’t go to school for art?

Not at all.

What was the point when your hobby became your career?

I wanted to be a regular employee, but the job-hunting didn’t go well. Although Tenjin is my real family name, it is also the name for the God of Learning. But I failed my exams and employment tests, so I don’t remember having any divine favor. (Laughs)

What kind of jobs did you look for?

I wanted to be a designer for a game company, such as Sega or Bandai-Namco. But I had no sense of direction and couldn’t find the right place. I couldn’t find the testing center for employment.

So how did you become a professional artist?

Since I couldn’t find a way to turn my hobby into a job, I thought if I introduced my work on a personal website I might get work little by little that way, and my first job was to help with books on building 3D CG models.

So obviously that was after the internet became available to you.

Hmm, it was back in 1994, 18 years ago now. Mosaic was mainstream at the time. I was able to use an Amiga 2000 at a university, and the software was Lightwave 3D. I made animation with editing software called Video Toaster. The first movie I ever made was for Asahi TV, and it was shown on the news program CNN Daybreak as a student film.

What kind of work did you do before you started getting offers through your site?

I was a college student. I made robots.

You mean, designing them?

It was development study. Real-world mechanical engineering. When I was about to graduate, Asimo appeared. When I was in college, it was said that a robot with bipedal locomotion would take another 30 years, but Asimo appeared in only a few years, and it was a big surprise. That’s when I thought I didn’t have the mind to be a robot developer, anyway. (Laughs)

Was Asimo the proof you needed that it was time to find another job?

No, I’d already given up before that. Robot technology was too complicated. But I still liked robots.

So you decided to paint robots instead of making real ones. You switched over from science to art.

Hmm, sort of, but I didn’t have the intention to be an artist.

Even after you drew pictures since your childhood?

Yeah, everyone told me I couldn’t make a living at it.

But you proved them wrong.

There was nothing else I could do besides that. It was the only thing left for me.

How did you begin your work as the famous Valkyrie artist?

I used to be a fan of Macross when I was in college. When I managed my personal website, I had a fan site for Valkyries. At the time, I only did 3D models.

Was it based only on the first Macross series, or did you include subsequent shows, too?

The name of the site was VF-1 Valkyrie Mechanics, so it was limited only to the VF-1 from the first Macross.

Did you ever publish your online work in a book before you became a professional artist?

At that time, I had an opportunity to meet the mecha designer, Shoji Kawamori, and only showed my work simply as a fan. Therefore, it was only ever on a computer screen, not on paper.

The website version of a doujinshi [fanzine]?

Yes, it was like that.

Do you think any of it could ever be published, maybe as a collection of your early work?

No, never. (Laughs)

Who are the artists who inspire you today?

It is still Yoshiyuki Takani, even after many years. Then it would be Noriyoshi Ohrai, the famous Godzilla and Star Wars artist. Mr. Ohrai has great power, and he’s a magician of layout.

In the West, we see box art on Japanese model kits and it’s always magical to us, but we don’t know the names of many of the artists who paint them. Other than you, there are only three really famous artists we know about. As I say their names, please tell me the impression you have of their work.

The first is Shigeru Komatsuzaki.

He’s quite old. To me he’s not a box artist. I think of him as yesterday’s painter of cover art for boys’ magazines.

That’s how he started, right?

Yes. I heard a story once from Yoshiyuki Takani, since Komatsuzaki was his mentor. Komatsuzaki once said, “I am not an illustrator. I’m a painter.” But Mr. Takani insisted, “I am not a painter, I’m an illustrator.”

The next name is Yuji Kaida.

Kaida-sensei is from the generation before mine. We’re close friends, we get along very well. He was one who was in the middle of changing times. He was part of the transition from analog to digital painting.

You already mentioned the third name on my list, Yoshiyuki Takani. What is it about his work that impresses you?

His rough touches and strokes. They create vibrant feelings. To me, he’s on top of the pyramid. I imitated his brush technique for the 1/20 Armored Trooper Votoms box art from Bandai. I especially love his work because he did the first box art for Macross model kits.

That art is famous in America too. It was used over and over in different ways. Many people know that art, but they don’t know who created it.

It was similar in Japan. He did a huge amount of work. [Showing a photo on his ipad] This is Mr. Takani’s studio in Takasaki. You can see his art supplies; brushes, knives, pens, pencils. He also has a gun mania. There are air guns all over his workshop. He has a lot of horizontal canvases because he is always painting ships.

Komatsuzaki would always sign his work, usually in both Japanese and English, but I don’t remember ever seeing a box that had Takani’s signature on it.

He always signed his paintings on the back, really big. TAKANI YOSHIYUKI!

That’s no way to become famous.

It was prohibited in those days to put a signature on the art.

So Komatsuzaki was the exception to that rule.

Yes. He’s a god! (Laughs)

Was he the Osamu Tezuka of painting?

Ah, that could be.

Is there anyone else we should all know about?

Tsuyoshi Nagano is one. He did the package art for the Ambition of Nobunaga game from Koei and covers for the Japanese Star Wars novels. In the later novels, Luke and Han get older, and he specializes in older faces.

I’d like to ask you about the history and evolution of box art. In every art form, there are always historical highlights and stages they go through. Could you say the same about box art?

The field doesn’t matter. It was the artists who changed it. Komatsuzaki-sensei, Takani-sensei, Kaida-sensai, or Masami Onishi-sensei, who did the white-backed paintings for Tamiya…

If you were asked to create an exhibition for a museum showing the most important box art, what would it be?

Those sorts of exhibitions are held quite often. From Takani-sensei, the representative works would be the Type-3 Tank, and the Tiger-1. He painted the Tiger-1 many times, so it’s hard for me to say which I would choose. In my case, I’ve painted many, many Valkyries, so it’s hard to tell. If you lined up a row of photographs it would be easier to choose.

If you were to go through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, what do you think are the highlights of box art in each decade?

I don’t know about the 60s, I wasn’t born yet. (Laughs)

In the 80s, the most representative one would be Mobile Suit Gundam, the 300 yen kit [below right]. The highest seller is always Gundam. The history of plamo in Japan goes back 54 years. It started with the nuclear submarine Nautilas from Marusan. [below left.] Gundam models appeared around 32 years ago, so Gunpla [Gundam plastic models] have been around for more than half of that history. Since 1980, Gundam is the best.

Did Bandai have a team of artists in house to do the box art?

No, I think most people came from outside the company. I am one of them. I did paintings for the MG [Master Grade] Version 2.0 series. Since they are from the first series, it was very enjoyable work.

Do you use plamo as art reference?

No, I create the box art before the product appears, and I don’t paint it again after the finished product is received.

Sword: When you work on a Gunpla painting, how do you create box art that is faithful to the product if you do it before the product is made?

These days, it’s because I am given CAD data. I am offered elements from the prototype production, so there’s no problem.

Today we can do a lot with Computer Graphics. Is there any pressure in the industry of box art to move away from painting and into total CG?

No, the opposite is true. It’s not a threat. The reason I am still an artist is that years ago 3D models came first, then texture-mapping, then they were released to the public eye. When you see CG these days, it’s too easy to do it now. It looks photo-realistic. There’s no room for Japanese artists in that world. Anyone can do it.

I paint with Photoshop with a brush-stroke technique. My choice is to keep the manual touch. Then you can’t be beaten by high-tech.

So you stay ahead of the CG curve with your own techniques. Was there ever a time when, for example, Bandai wanted to go to CG since it might be cheaper?

It’s becoming common in some of their lines. But box art should remain visible on the model store shelf for years. A cheap-looking alternative can’t keep that status or position for long. It will disappear in a short period of time because it is quickly-made. Long-lived historic things with drama behind them should be made with care and concentration to last for years. So I don’t worry about high-tech, quickly-made things. Only an artist can take care to put time and a deep concept into it.

We see the same thing happening in anime now, especially mecha anime where a lot of the robot animation is done in CG. It usually doesn’t look as good, but it’s cheaper to do, and as a result a whole generation of artists have been trained to do it that way instead of drawing by hand.

In Japan we never have much time, especially for complex mecha, since TV anime has to be broadcast every week. Furthermore, specialized mecha animators are getting old now, and mecha anime are less popular.

Gwyn: when Sky Crawlers was made, the director wanted to have all the airplanes drawn by hand in 2D, but they literally couldn’t find anyone who could do it. The skills are being lost to history.

Plus, drawing by hand costs a lot of money.

Could the same thing eventually happen to box art?

Box art doesn’t matter. Plamodels themselves are disappearing. They don’t sell well at all. Building them isn’t part of children’s culture any more, since the finished versions are sold at low prices. [editor’s note: this refers to sophisticated action figures.] Retail stores that sell plamo are decreasing considerably.

Does your career depend on the sales of plamo, or do you do other kinds of illustration, too?

It’s going that way. Box art work is decreasing. In my case, I work in anime production, doing posters and illustration of main visuals, like the teaser poster for the Starship Troopers TV series now in production by Shinji Aramaki. So I’m not stuck in box art.

Gwyn: there was an explanation you gave at the launch of the second Valkyries book, about how your work is used in CG as opposed to model box art. Could you repeat it?

I get the CG model from the studio, and I gradually apply artwork to it. It’s sort of like matte painting for animation, but I add all the details. I’m a huge fan of Do You Remember Love [the 1984 Macross feature film], so I try to add that amount of detail to the flat surfaces, to add the “Macross” to the art in CG. That’s how my art is used in animation. I specialize in mecha.

I also do box art for DVD cases, like the Macross Blu-ray set or renewal art for movies on DVD such as Gunhed.

How did you become involved in Space Battleship Yamato Fact File?

I was working on Macross Chronicle [Editor’s note: another weekly publication], where I did the mecha pinup illustrations for every issue. The Yamato assignment was proposed to me at that time, but Yoshinobu Nishizaki put a stop to it before it went forward. I don’t know why, but three years ago, after six issues were made, I suddenly lost contact with the editing room that had been hired by DeAgostini [the publisher]. There was no contact for about half a year, then I got the word to restart. There was a huge gap from the experimental six issues to the main series.

The first city to get Fact File was Hiroshima. It started there in late 2009, then it went nationwide in April 2010.

I started more than two years before that, in 2007. It was in parallel with Macross Chronicle. I normally spend ten days on a plamo box art painting, but in the case of a weekly magazine, the most I can spend is one or two days. I narrowed down the range of work I could do in that time. I couldn’t do a background at all. For Macross, the backgrounds were plain white. For Yamato I sometimes put the same background on different paintings.

That’s why there are no painted backgrounds.

Right. At first I did plain white backgrounds, but the editing room added space photographs to augment it, and it looked terrible. I was shocked to see it, so I decided to do it. Then I was hooked. (Laughs)

And once you started, there was no way back.

It’s the weakness of an artist. (Laughs) The work restarted in 2009 when the Hiroshima version went on sale, so the touch changed after issue 6. Once it resumed, it was a tight schedule. A painting was published four or five weeks after it was done. I quickly started to fall behind and lost lead time, so I was grateful for the special guest artists every ten issues.

My original idea was to only use veterans. I thought classic Yamato artists should do the paintings, but it went a different way. Some of the big fleet paintings near the end would take up to a month. The price per piece was always the same, so I agreed to do the final painting of Yamato returning to Earth, but I didn’t want to be involved in any of the fleet pictures.

Yamato has a complex shape. Its image was worked out by many people in the model sheets, and there’s a lot of argument about how it looks in animation cels compared to the design sheets. The problem was that if I did a new angle, it wouldn’t look like Yamato because it wouldn’t be familiar. I couldn’t intentionally create something entirely new. It had to be a familiar image. So it took time to work out which one to use.

I’m not from the first Yamato generation, which is in their mid-40s to early 50s. So whenever I painted Yamato, I worried about matching their image of it.

Which was the easiest painting, and which was the hardest?

The Black Tiger was very simple, but the 2520 Yamato by Syd Mead was a hard one. It was difficult to grasp its shape. I didn’t understand it at all. There was no distinctive design sheet, and the information was lost. I could only use video images captured from VHS, and every time it was drawn, the details changed, so I couldn’t get the exact shape.

What about the Comet Empire Dreadnought?

It was hard, to be sure, but not as much as I anticipated. There was no exact answer for what was right or wrong about it, so I didn’t mind it much. The silhouette alone is enough to identify it as Zordar’s ship.

I was glad to see mecha from Yamato Resurrection start to appear about halfway through Fact File‘s run, because I didn’t think it would ever get that much attention. There weren’t many books on the film and no toys or models, so I didn’t think we would ever get paintings like that.

At first I heard that it wasn’t scheduled to appear, but that changed at the midpoint.

You came to the rescue, so thank you very much!

It was actually really tough. Because there are CG models for Yamato Resurrection, I suggested that they should just be re-rendered for Fact File, but the charge for that would have been higher than my fee. The Super Andromeda was particularly hard. The bow is long, so it didn’t easily fit inside the frame of the picture.

Was any retouching done for the book collection?

Not in my case, since I was burned out. There would have been too many points to correct. (Laughs) But I was given permission to do the cover. [Editor’s note: some of the early space-photo backgrounds were upgraded]

The weekly Fact File was okay to do, but the book was a heavy burden since it was a complete gathering of every image including the ones done by my seniors, like Mr. Kogawa and Mr. Miyatake and Mr. Naoyuki Katoh, the people who actually made Yamato. They were all going to see my work.

Are you happy with the result?

Yes, but I don’t want to remember it, so I won’t have any regrets. (Laughs)

I’d like to end with the Time Machine question. You have a time machine that operates on 100 yen coins, and you have three coins. Using the first coin, which point in history would you visit?

The moment when the universe was born. But there was no air, so I’d die when I get there. But I’d still like to see it.

Using the second coin, what would you say to your younger self?

That’s a hard one. The reason I’m here now is because I lost my way, so if I gave him the right answer to something, he wouldn’t get lost. Then the “now” point would be gone. I wouldn’t want to see my younger self, because he was worthless.

How would you use the last coin?

Well…if I could purely follow my hobby, I’d visit Michaelangelo and help him paint a fresco. I want to see what kind of man he was and experience the highest point of art. I’d want to learn pure painting in a time before photography or video.

The End

Related links:

Images from Tenjin’s Valkyries books on Halcyon Realms

Google image collection of Tenjin’s work

More work by other artists mentioned above:
Shigeru Komatsuzaki Source 1 | Source 2, Yuji Kaida, Tsuyoshi Nagano Source 1 | Source 2

Bonus: Art Books by Hidetaka Tenjin

Valkyries (2005) and Valkyries: Second Sortie (2011) collect the majority of Tenjin’s Macross illustrations.
Both were published by Kobunsha.

The Art of Hidetaka Tenjin (Ascii Media Works, 2010) and Yamato Mechanical Illustrations (DeAgostini, 2011).

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