It’s Turn A Gundam‘s 22nd anniversary! To celebrate, I’m unveiling something big.
Welcome to a series of blog posts detailing the history and production of Turn A Gundam! My goal is to provide an accessible source of context and knowledge for reference purposes, and to improve discourse. This is the culmination of research I’ve done over the past decade. It’ll be divided into four parts for easy reading as follows:
- Part I – Victory Gundam & Battling Depression
- The 1980s
- Victory Gundam
- Part II – Influences & Inspiration
- Part III – Prelude to Turn A Gundam
- Part IV – The Era of Turn A Gundam
Without further ado…
Turn A Gundam effectively served as therapeutic recovery for director Yoshiyuki Tomino, so to truly understand it we have to dial back to the 1980s and mid-1990s to briefly establish some context.
Let’s revisit the 1980s, the decade in which the mecha anime boom was at its peak. Tomino’s Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) had reached new heights with the success of its TV re-runs and movie trilogy, and the plastic model toy industry was booming as well. Between 1981 and 1986, Tomino directed a slew of mecha anime in succession—Ideon, Xabungle, Dunbine, L-Gaim, Zeta Gundam, and ZZ Gundam, all shows marked by his now-trademark style. Sunrise—the studio responsible for producing these anime, and Tomino’s employer—was ultimately beholden to its sponsors, most notably Bandai who had launched its plastic model industry at the cusp of the decade. Bandai had one goal in mind: to sell model kits. Tomino’s anime were popular, and Bandai demanded that these shows continue to introduce new robots and battleships so that they could then manufacture toys to generate sales. This corporate-controlled environment is what gives credence to the idea that mecha anime are “toy commercials”, so to speak.
This inevitably trickled down to Tomino who, as the director, would be forced by Sunrise producers to introduce new elements into his plots to satiate the higher-ups. This phenomenon was most prevalent with Zeta Gundam, given that it was the follow-up series to the massively popular Mobile Suit Gundam. The Gundam brand was selling model kits (“Gunpla”) like crazy, and Bandai used Zeta and the subsequent ZZ‘s popularities to catapult its own industry. While this undoubtedly benefitted Gundam as a whole, it left a sour taste in Tomino’s mouth and caused him to detest working on these anime. This suffocating domino-effect fueled by a toxic environment all came crashing down with 1993’s Victory Gundam.
Victory Gundam was marred by unreasonable demands from Bandai and other sponsors. By Victory, Bandai’s stranglehold on a show’s actual production process had reached unprecedented levels. For instance, they decided that the titular mobile suit must appear in the first episode, despite Tomino’s planned scenario; this resulted in the first episode being slightly at odds with the introductory narrative. It consists of a future event that’s then explained via flashbacks in the following episodes, all for the sake of Gunpla marketing and promotion. Tomino had dealt with Bandai for over a decade, and at this point in his career he could not take it anymore, so he found ways to retaliate. One time in a meeting with Bandai executives, they demanded that he include battleships into the show in an effort to further appeal to younger audiences. Tomino lashed out by saying he’d make ground-based battleships with wheels on them (the Adrastea-class). To his surprise they accepted his preposterous proposal, and the TV station found no qualms either as long as ratings stayed the course. Tomino continued to make irrational decisions like this and grew to dislike Victory‘s mechanical aesthetic, and it’s a Gundam title generally recognized for its outlandish designs—the infamous Einerad comes to mind. He was also disgusted by its “ugliness”; it’s a very chaotic anime with a high character death count, almost as if Tomino was airing out his frustrations on-screen. That said, despite being demoralized he put in effort into each episode, doing his best to pay attention to the themes and topics and including comedy-elements where appropriate. The TV stations and sponsors were satisfied, but he was prepared for Gundam to be eternally ruined. To make matters even worse, in 1993 Sunrise merged with and was later acquired by Bandai, against Tomino’s wishes.
Halfway into Victory Gundam‘s run, Sunrise executives approached Tomino about the next Gundam title. They had no choice but to continue the franchise due to sponsor demands and TV ratings. However, Tomino had no interest in carrying on with directing duties and declined to be involved in the planning process, believing that the franchise’s decorated history was coming to an end. His motivation was at an all-time low. He instead recommended his protégé Yasuhiro Imagawa be the new face of Gundam. He valued Imagawa’s free-spirited directing style and wanted him to make something with wrestling-like elements. He figured Imagawa could breathe new life into the franchise. [Note: this would eventually lead to the creation of G Gundam. It’s long been rumored that Tomino himself was unofficially involved in an advisory role of sorts, but I haven’t come across anything to validate these claims.] This is all worth noting because G Gundam is the only Alternate Universe Gundam series and non-Tomino-directed title that Turn A Gundam references in a direct manner, clearly a conscious decision.
At a Victory Gundam afterparty, a member of the photography team—who are responsible for composing animation cels & backgrounds and then filming it to film—approached Tomino to apologize for the camera-work in the final cut of the last episode. The original shot was meant to be much wider than it ended up being. This gutted Tomino because he viewed it as his own error. As the director, it was his responsibility to review and revise storyboards as needed, so someone else covering for his mistake was a final blow to his confidence level. Tomino apologized to the staff member, saying it was not their fault. He wanted to go back and fix the scene for home release but never had the opportunity to do so.
Victory Gundam exposed Tomino’s mental state and resentment towards reality. It was the lowest point of his career and the straw that broke the camel’s back. In fact, many years later for the Memorial DVD box Tomino would include a facetious message reading “Don’t buy these DVDs because you should not watch them!!”, and in the decades following its conclusion Victory Gundam has become an almost taboo topic in the industry. Tomino was fed up with everything—Sunrise, Bandai, Gundam in general. Shortly after it finished airing, he fell into depression and began to socially isolate himself, suffering from uncontrollable bouts of dizziness and ringing in the ears, essentially a post-traumatic bodily response.
Tomino’s symptoms were fierce. He’d feel intense anxiety if he left the house. He couldn’t stand the vibration sounds of a car, especially when in the passenger seat. He couldn’t walk without a cane, and the asphalt roads made him feel sick. He’d often fall asleep on his office floor without realizing it. He even contemplated suicide. Basically, he was miserable. Tomino consulted ENT doctors and even psychic mediums to ease his pains, however it was acupuncture that allowed him to begin to stabilize. He relied heavily on his wife Aako [note: this is a pseudonym] to take walks, rush him to the hospital as needed, and schedule all his acupuncture appointments. He has credited and praised her nonstop. Despite his conditions, he was a fighter; he figured if he was going to live he wanted to be healthy, so he took steps to heal himself. He played a lot of Puzzle Bobble for the Super Famicom as a stress and anxiety reliever. It was one of the few games he enjoyed because he could play it endlessly and rarely ever win. This allowed him to take his mind off things and relax. He also wrote a handful of novels : “Look for Avenir”, “King’s Heart”, and “Garzey’s Wing” (which was also adapted into a 3-episode OVA). This was a habit Tomino had and continues to have; he’d air out frustrations by writing to prevent himself from internally collapsing.
Sunrise continued to churn out Gundam titles even after G Gundam had concluded: Gundam Wing (1995), The 08th MS Team (1996), Gundam X (1996), and Endless Waltz (1997). Tomino was not consulted for any of these productions, and this did not sit well with him. He felt neglected, as if his long years of hard work and dedication had meant nothing, and he often had evil thoughts of getting “revenge”—thankfully nothing came of it. He noted what he called the “curse of Gundam” as an inescapable disease for Sunrise staff & producers. They had no choice but to continue making Gundam, despite it regressing as a franchise and slowly being rejected by fans. TV ratings were steadily dropping with G and Wing, and Gundam X‘s reception was so low that it was forced to prematurely end at 39 episodes. Tomino saw this as an inevitable end-result of the downwards spiral caused by Victory Gundam. He also contributed it to the fact that Gundam had no meaningful challenger in the real-robot market, which led to complacency and collapse. Tomino would return to Sunrise later in the decade to direct Brain Powerd (1998) [discussed in detail later].
In the mid-late 90s Tomino began a partnership with Marigul Management, a company funded by Nintendo and Recruit to provide a safe haven for creative minds to focus on original game design and other projects. They offered to provide him mental health assistance and to protect his rights. He was assigned a personal health assistant who was very understanding of Tomino’s situation and was a good listener. He was moved by the company’s mantra of working together to build a better tomorrow—it was in stark contrast to the people he had interacted with in the animation industry. His time with Marigul Management was a significant step forward in his rehabilitation process, as it allowed him to move on from his bitterness with Sunrise and Gundam, and his petty thoughts of “revenge” subsided. He even had the opportunity to dabble in video game design, though those efforts never yielded anything substantial. It’s also because of this partnership that Tomino was introduced to Akira Yasuda from Capcom, who’d go on to become Turn A Gundam‘s character designer and a staunch ally.
During his years of depression Tomino looked inward, particularly to the women in his life. His mental health assistant was a woman and he regularly relied on his wife for moral and physical support. Raising two teenage/young adult daughters also proved to be an influence. The Tomino household was predominantly dominated by women, and his previous patriarchal mindset began to change as his eyes opened to the challenges young women faced in modern society. His daughters’ likes and dislikes and their forays into the performing arts—dance and theater—had tremendous impact on him. He began to find interest in all-female theater troupes and his views on gender and sexuality evolved.
In the next post, I will cover many of the items which influenced and inspired Turn A Gundam.
This series of posts is made possible by the following main sources of supplementary material: Turn A no iyashi, both volumes of the Newtype 100% collection, both volumes of “The Memory of First Wind”, “Mead Gundam”, various Newtype and Animage magazines, Ring of Gundam plot details, Akiman’s character artbook(s) & Twitter feed, Turn A Gundam Blu-ray audio commentaries, the Brain Powerd Spiral Book, publicly published interviews with staff, and my own personal industry contacts and individual research.