The artist and designer, Kazutaka Miyatake.
One of the design studios that often comes up when discussing classic anime and games is that if Studio Nue. I was lucky enough to sit down with one of its four main founders, Kazutaka Miyatake and discuss his extensive career and creative process.
Miyatake is a fascinating figure in anime and games, not least for his prodigious and hugely varied creative output. However, this variety was something he felt stemmed from where he grew up and now still lives.
“I was born in Yokosuka, which is a port, and grew up watching the ships. When I was 7 years old, I managed to get on to a Navy frigate and I went to Yokohama. It was done to commemorate the anniversary of the frigate, held by the Self Defense Force.
“To get onto the ship, it was my grandfather who took me there. We took a bus and arrived at the naval port and 2 meters from me, was the frigate. All I saw was an iron wall. So that was the starting point for me. I couldn’t draw it because it was too big. So from that point, when I finally drew Yamato, I really struggled. I think, in a way, I was always meant to draw something huge in scale.
“I wasn’t just interested in ships though, I was actually initially interested in nature. So something more biological than just mechanical. I was also interested in insects and plants as a child.
The Arms Fort Stigro from ‘Armored Core For Answer’ as designed by Kazutaka Miyatake.
“When it comes to ending up working in anime, that was due to a very specific event. Up until then, I was meaning to become some kind of scholar or academic. A biologist maybe. However, I came across a poster by Robert McCall for 2001: A Space Odyssey, it really shook me looking at it. At that time there were only two cineramas, but I went to see the film. This was when I was 18. It really changed the direction of my life.
“Following that, for the first time in my life, I tried to draw the Discovery from the movie. Just for fun. In a way, this was the first proper drawing I ever drew. Until then, of course, I did draw animals, plants and nature in general but that was the first time I seriously tried to draw something mechanical like the Discovery. I had no intention at that time to do this kind of thing professionally. However, I just pursued it.
“In 2001: A Space Odyssey, under Stanley Kubrick’s direction, the music Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss is used, I looked into it and learned about Zarathustra’s story. There was a part where the dragon becomes water and that water becomes the dragon. It was as though the movie itself told me to follow it, so I followed.
“After seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, I wanted to capture that in illustrations. I started off with the main image, that of the Discovery but coming from a biological angle, I wanted to analyze the Discovery and with my attempt to illustrate it, I wanted to first try to draw a structural plan of it. So a detailed and accurate structural plan of the Discovery. In the end, I watched the film more than fifty times. I did this so I could memorize the correct proportions, even taking into account the curvature of the cinerama’s screen, in order for me to draw up the most accurate structural plan of the Discovery that I could. In the end, I did a fully three-dimensional structural plan of the Discovery.
“I also had a group of friends that were interested in science fiction, one of them was actually involved with tokusatsu films. So I sent my structural plan of the Discovery to this friend. My friend then asked me if I could do the same thing for Kamen Rider’s motorbike. Later on, I did do designs for the bike in Kamen Rider but at this point, they just wanted an illustration. My friend intended to have this illustration included in a children’s magazine. After that, Go Nagai saw my work and said to me that if I could do something like this for Kamen Rider, why not also for Mazinger Z. Following that, then this became my work. One thing led to another and here I am now.”
Zero Tester, Crystal Art Studio And The Formation Of Studio Nue
During the early to mid 70’s, Miyatake worked on all manner of anime series but his first foray into the world of mecha design was for an anime called Zero Tester when he worked at Crystal Art Studio. It was this studio that would later become the famous Studio Nue and while I already spoke with Shoji Kawamori about Nue’s origins, I wanted to hear what one of the four main founders had to say about it.
“My first design was for an anime called Zero Tester. This was for a TV series in the early 70s and things took off quite quickly. Around that time, the four founding members of Studio Nue, including myself, were about to graduate from university. We all knew each other for a while before this, as we were all very active members of a science fiction fan group. We started off as an independent company called Crystal Art Studio.
“When we were university students, those that were very keen on science fiction we created a club called SF Central Art. Within this club, we created a doujinshi called Crystal and the members who were involved were Kenichi Matsuzaki, Naoyuki Katoh, Haruka Takachiho and myself. There were also five to six other people involved, but we were the core members. At the same time as our graduation, we founded Crystal Art Studio. The reason why we did this was that we didn’t follow the set schedule of job hunting during our final year at university. Unlike in the U.S., in Japan, the final year students at university look for a job following a specific schedule but all of us just followed what we wanted to do and didn’t get involved with this program of job hunting. That meant at the end of university, none of us had a traditional job and so we started our own company instead.
“So we started a company but to sustain it as a business, we needed projects for the company to work on. The first thing that came about was from Fuji TV. Within the science fiction group, there was a guy that loved illustration. In those days there were things like Sesame Street, as an educational series for children. At Fuji TV, they wanted to start something like Sesame Street, so an educational program for kids but different. The title of the program was going to be Hirake! Ponkikki. This was a thirty-minute program to be shown five days a week. The producer for this was Koichiro Noda. Anyway, through this guy that was involved with Fuji TV, the Hirake! Ponkikki team needed a constant flow of illustrations. This was then our key source of income. However, we were asking everybody if there was a job for us to do, so another thing that happened was the sempai of Naoyuki Katoh was working for an anime studio and they were looking for someone who can draw the mechanical objects to be used in a new series. This turned out to be Zero Tester.
“I went to this interview with 200 pages of my illustration work, which I had drawn over the years. Now there sat a guy who looked like some kind of examination officer. He was, in fact, the head of the animation studio. He got my book of illustrations and opened the first page, pulled a strange face and then went through the whole book in thirty minutes. After that, he put the book down and gave me the job for Zero Tester.
“On the same day of the interview, not only did our company get the job the studio head also placed an order for me to design, with the brief being of whatever I wanted. That night I finished drawing at the studio and then gave it to Takachiho, who contacted the anime studio to say that the work was done. Takachiho then delivered it to the studio for use in Zero Tester.
“As for Space Battleship Yamato, the project itself was being considered at Office Academy Publications, which was a planning company behind the series. At the initial stage, Matsuzaki was visiting them for meetings to discuss the potential new project. Matsuzaki was making the various ideas in those meetings into illustrations. He usually brought back those drawings to our office, so we were all looking at them. One of the drawings had the deck from the bridge and we were commenting that this didn’t look like the Yamato. In fact, the drawing looked more like the bridge from the Imperial Battleship Nagato. If we were doing a Japanese battleship it had to be the Yamato and not the Nagato. So Matsuzaki told Office Academy Publications that at our end we were calling this project Space Battleship Yamato. Then Yoshinobu Nishizaki liked the name a lot, so this project was then named Space Battleship Yamato. Together with that name our studio got the job to work on Yamato. In a way, Matsuzaki and I came up with the title but Nishizaki said that this was now his naming and we accepted that as the producer’s prerogative.
“When it comes to how we changed from Crystal Art Studio to Studio Nue, back then Crystal Art Studio became very busy with work from Hirake! Ponkkiki, in fact, we became too busy. The program required an endless amount of colored illustrations, in those days, studios felt that using many colored illustrations and accompanying with music you could almost show something similar to animation. Around this time, we could also utilize blue screen and you could change the background and make the foreground illustration move. If we made two-dimensional puppets with arms and legs that moved, it really ended up looking like an animation. That meant Crystal Art Studio got an assignment to make these puppets and we ended up making incredibly detailed robot-like puppets.
“When we presented these puppets to Fuji TV, they were absolutely ecstatic. The puppets were so carefully made that they could even look like they rode bicycles in a really smooth way. After that point onwards, the work for Hirake! Ponkkiki exploded in terms of demand. To make this whole animation setup work, you had to cut quite a thick card to the desired shape, paint it and assemble it all together. It was effectively two-dimensional puppetry. That meant we needed an enormous number of people to help us make these. Luckily, Katoh was an art school graduate and he got us some help from a bunch of art school students, that meant Crystal Art Studio soon became filled with art school students. They were all artists and painters of one kind or another, so they weren’t really very sporty and full of stamina. In short, the students would collapse and sleep on the floor from all the work. You couldn’t even walk around the studio, as people were asleep on the floor. To add to this, Masahiro Noda, the producer of Hirake! Ponkkiki, was also a translator of science fiction and wrote his own science fiction stories. As such, when we wrote his own science fiction stories he wanted Katoh to do the illustrations. However, Katoh and the studio were already swamped with all the work from Hirake! Ponkkiki, that meant that Katoh was unable to take on this illustration job. Meanwhile, Takachiho was worried about Katoh being overworked, so Takachiho began to think that Katoh should be moved away from Hirake! Ponkkiki.
“We then went to consult with Noda about what to do. As it happened, although Noda was a producer for Hirake! Ponkkiki and a member of Fuji TV, he was well aware that for Crystal Art Studio that this project was a primary income source but not what the studio was founded for. In that, we founded Crystal Art Studio to work on science fiction projects and Noda knew that because he was originally top of science fiction fun. So we discussed what to do. The solution we came up with to refocus on science fiction and yet not to upset Fuji TV was to close Crystal Art Studio and found another one instead. That meant we closed Crystal Art Studio six months before we opened Studio Nue in the middle of 1974. While this was happening, we were all working on Yamato as well.
“That meant Studio Nue was founded by the four core members that remained from Crystal Art Studio. The mascot came about from the physical features of the four core members. Matsuzaki had oily skin, so he called himself cockroach with an antenna. Takachiho back in the day called himself a beast with snake-like eyes, so he became the snake. Katoh was very pale incredibly thin and had double teeth, so he was like a vampire and therefore a bat. As for me, I had a big belly, so I am a tanuki. That created the four animals and combining those made what is known in Japanese folklore as a nue, or in the West something similar to a chimera. Takachiho was also good at naming things, thought it would be better to write nue in hiragana, as it had a greater visual impact, therefore we became Studio Nue rather than Studio Chimera.
“The other reason we named the company Studio Nue was that four very different creatures formed one entity, it also represented the fact we all did very different things from one another. There is a Japanese proverb that goes “when the dog turns West, the tail turns east”, that means the head and tail may not know what the other is doing despite being part of the same animal. Taking the cue from that, our nue animal would have “the head turn West and the snake turns East”. We wanted to express our almost unquantifiable organization.”
Starship Troopers And The Start Of Real Robots
For anyone that has read Robert Heinlein’s incredibly influential novel Starship Troopers, you’ll know that it features powered suits for the soldiers to fight the alien bug menace. When the book was eventually translated into Japanese back in the 70s, Miyatake and Katoh were hired to bring these powered suits to life through various illustrations, something that had not been properly done previously. The result was a design that would go on to shape anime and games for decades to come.
“When it comes to my designs for the novel version of Starship Troopers, the book itself doesn’t come with much in the way of illustrations. Although Robert Heinlein is a very good writer and creates interesting novels, it is true his descriptions in his novels do not describe all that much in the way of imagery. In some novels, such as Arthur C. Clarke’s books, I can visualize things from just reading it. Each page I turn I can see new images in my head. However, with Heinlein, it is not so clear. Moreover, it is not just my own experience with this but many who read Heinlein’s novels commented on the same thing. Just to give an example of how difficult it was to create imagery from Heinlein’s novels, as far as I know in the U.S. there were almost no images accompanying the original book of Starship Troopers.
“The process I took was to write down all the descriptions in the book related to what the powered suits looked like. Among them, there was one description related to its shape and it called the powered suits something like an “iron gorilla”. To me, the key shape of a gorilla is long thick arms and slightly bended knees and when you combine that with the idea of a powered suit, the suit needs to be something wearable. So if a man cannot wear it, there is no point, that means I needed to come up with a wearable iron suit.
The power armor design for the Japanese novel translation of ‘Starship Troopers’ by Kazutaka … [+]
“I started off by drawing a person and then put the powered suit on. We then took a look at the arms. Arms obviously come with hands and if you think about it, these hands are very delicate. In fact, one of the most delicate parts of the human body. In a battle scene, if the hands are destroyed, you cannot do anything. Hands, therefore, need to be protected, so we decided to hide the hands inside of the armor and instead mechanical hands attached at the end. With this, we were able to get a gorilla-like silhouette, as a gorilla has hands lower than its knees. So that’s how the arms were designed.
“Having done the arms, we focused on the legs. Like hands, we thought to put the tip of the feet into the leg armor and the actual foot, as we did with hands, is expressed with a mechanical foot. By putting the feet inside the armor and covering the front toe with armor, the knee will automatically bend somewhat. This was in line with the gorilla-like shape we wanted. So all we had to do after that was to just change the shape of the powered suits a little.
“When it comes to where the idea for the visor came from, it is an expression of my devotion to 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the film, the cockpit windows are framed in black. These black frames make the artwork look tighter somehow but I wanted to do the same. In the real world, these black frames prevent glare from the pilot’s viewpoint. The whole idea of doing this comes from the military technology, so it makes sense to use this black frame around the powered suit’s visor. In fact, the reason why the cockpit window frame was black for the Discovery was to allow to the composite internal image of the bridge more freedom, so it didn’t have to be so tightly mapped to the model.”
From Mobile Suit Gundam To Macross
If you remember, back when I spoke with Kunio Okawara regarding his original designs for Mobile Suit Gundam, and how Studio Nue was involved. However, talking with Miyatake he remembered how it happened somewhat differently.
“Moving onto Mobile Suit Gundam, Studio Nue has always been an outsider. However, Matsuzaki was involved as one of four main scenario writers. He also had a responsibility to check the story and illustrations from a scientific point of view, to confirm whether these were believable or not. Due to his involvement with the project, various information and references were provided to Sunrise from Studio Nue. However, in terms of the mecha design, Studio Nue’s influence was always indirect. Yes, there were drawings of the powered suits we designed in amongst the materials that became an inspiration for the mobile suits but we didn’t design anything specifically for Mobile Suit Gundam in terms of the mecha.
“To clarify, I didn’t do any designs of the Gundam before Kunio Okawara’s version and I do not know what the ideas were at Sunrise during the planning stage. I think, however, they wished to keep some elements from our powered suits design. Following that, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko used our design as a reference for the early Guncannon. I don’t think Okawara was involved in the design of the Guncannon.
“I suppose you could say our powered suit design influenced the mecha designs in Mobile Suit Gundam but you need to understand I was not involved directly. For me, the most wonderful design in Mobile Suit Gundam is the Zaku. I think this is the best and one of the most original designs from Okawara.”
It’s here we finally get to Macross and while Shoji Kawamori is one of the original creators of the show, as well as the designer of the hugely popular variable fighters within it, it was Miyatake that actually designed the titular SDF-1 Macross battleship as well as all manner of other ships and craft. So I felt it only fair to hear his side of the story.
“With Macross, I didn’t have to pay too much attention to make everything look unique. It came to me almost automatically. If I take a look at Yokosuka’s port, there is always a major U.S aircraft carrier, and even now there is an aircraft carrier called the Ronald Reagan. It tends to be stationed there. Inside this aircraft carrier, there are bombs, cars, aircraft and all the things you would need for military purposes. Most of those are mechanical objects obviously but they don’t look the same. So they are all unique items but they are all mechanical. They all carry a function that is unique to them. So all of the elements that comprise the Macross, can be distilled from the same kind of principle within this aircraft carrier.
The SDF-1 Macross from the original TV series of the same name.
“The reason I designed so many varied things, when you hear Macross, as someone who experienced Yamato, you need a lot of varied designs. However, we only had two designers, Shoji Kawamori and I. Yet, Kawamori had to design the variable fighters. I was fully aware of how difficult it would be to do this work. Effectively, I trained him and this work requires three-dimensional thinking to resolve some of the issues. You cannot just do this on paper. That meant it would take Kawamori about a year to design the variable fighters, that much was obvious to me. I said to Kawamori to focus on the variable fighters and I will do everything else and I did literally that.
“So to design a variety of mecha comes naturally to me, as I said earlier before I was a mecha designer I was interested in nature. I grew up looking at the sky, to the sea, to the ships, as well as insects and all sorts of animals. To me, all of these are already designs in and of themselves. All of these things fill our world and serve as reference material for me.
“The concept for the SDF-1 with the fact that a ship sits horizontally whereas a person is found standing vertically. So making something that is normally horizontal switch to something vertical, such as humanizing the ship, so details are adjusted as that fundamental idea is applied to the design. The basic idea was as simple as that.
“This ship was also 1,200 meters long. It’s huge. The largest ship in Yokosuka’s port is approximately 300 meters. So around four times larger than most ships. That meant I had to make it clear to the viewer how big the SDF-1 actually was. I decided to showcase the contrast using something everyone knows the scale of. Then I came up with the idea to attach ships to the arms, such as an aircraft carrier. I then went back to the Yamato design, Japanese imperial navy engineering was extensively used. In that, the ball-shaped bow controlled the wave flow. I came up with the idea to use two aircraft carrier catapult above this horn-like bow that had come from Yamato. So for the other arm, we could use something like an amphibious assault ship as the front gate that opens up. The result of this is that these battleships emulate an arm with a hand and I thought nobody would come up with something like this but I did. As I designer, I feel I have a responsibility to explain how I thought about this and the idea I came up with. I have to show it to people to share it. So things like this will help create a new kind of animation.”
Aura Battler Dunbine And Naturalistic Fantasy
One of the earliest and most influential isekai, or alternative world, series is arguably Aura Battler Dunbine. When I spoke with Yoshiyuki Tomino about its creation he downplayed the influence of European fantasy and mythology but Miyatake sees it differently and he is still very proud of the work he did on building this series to this day.
“When it came to Aura Battler Dunbine, the main mecha design was inspired by a Japanese rhinoceros beetle. The idea of insects came about from a meeting with Yoshiyuki Tomino. He wanted something new. Thus far, for the mecha series that had adopted super robots that either combined or transformed, these were designed in such a way to help with merchandising. However, even if these new mecha didn’t combine or transform, as long as it had a unique shape or design surely that would also appeal to fans. If that was the case, what was new and unique?
“To come up with something new and unique, it’s difficult to do this without understanding the world that these objects reside in. Tomino said that I should do it, so I started off with creating the world setting of Byston Well.
“I started to work on the world setting and that Tomino wanted to see my ideas. I did all sorts of designs, such as castles floating in the sky as well as people riding on the back of giant cicadas and flying around. When Tomino saw the man on the back of a cicada, he said that was it. From that point, we decided it was a world of insects. Except for cicadas, most insects have a hard shell, so let us use the idea of the shell and the pilot’s aura to control the power.
The Dunbine’s design was inspired by the Japanese rhinoceros beetle.
© SOTSU • SUNRISE
“Following that conversation, he posed the question saying that this is the idea but how does it become a mecha? Then within two weeks, I made them into mecha. In those days, that was about it. The first aura battler design was of the Drumlo and then followed by the Dunbine.
“I know that the design is unique for sure and whatever I do, the characteristics of the design tend to be strong. In that respect, designs like Dunbine are still not ubiquitous. The bottom line is I try to design things from scratch, I don’t like to use a format or formula that already surround us. This is because these pre-existing formats and formulas belong to other people. As Studio Nue, including Kawamori, we don’t use the pre-existing formula or format. Sometimes people ask me how do you explain mecha design, I reply to such questions by saying I want to create a new format. I realized this the most when I worked on Aura Battler Dunbine.
“To be honest, Macross didn’t require the same kind of newness and uniqueness that was needed for Aura Battler Dunbine. With Dunbine the need for originality was paramount, on the other hand, Gundam and Macross were quite complex in terms of the setting whereas Dunbine is simpler. However, Dunbine is full of interesting characters but I have to say that kids are often afraid of it. Also, parents often dislike insects. When they are crushed it makes such a mess and our designs were pretty real. Having said that, there are kids who adore insects as I did, so I loved drawing insects as a kid and I can still draw them happily. Perhaps, that’s the dividing point on whether you like the series or not.
“The fantasy world angle, for instance, such as knights, was important for Tomino but for me, it is from a different world view, so I said I didn’t want to incorporate knights armor and other fantasy elements and I subsequently didn’t use them in my designs. However, as a story, the European fantasy elements were clearly incorporated in the foundation of the series.”
Influences, Creative Process And The Future
Finishing up we talked more about Miyatake’s extensive influences as well as some of his creative process. He’s still keen to keep on working and it’s clear he still has a lot more he wants to offer.
“In terms of influences, Stanley Kubrick is someone I greatly admire. With 2001: A Space Odyssey there were three producers but Kubrick was the one that set the concept for the film and the other two pretty much followed his direction. As I studied the Discovery design, I came across many early concept ideas for the ship. In amongst them, I came across the first artist’s impression and it had wings, or rather heat radiating plates. I understood that it was Kubrick who removed these wings, to me that is design work. As a result, in the film, there is no space ship that has a heat radiation plate like this because Kubrick wanted it that way. I think he is amazing because at that time and point the decision to remove this kind of thing was almost prophetic. This is because the majority of the spaceships in science fiction movies had wings in those days. So his decision really stood out. In that removing these wings it made the Discovery look more sophisticated. I learned a lot from this.
“When it came to working on the designs for Sayonara Jupiter, to differentiate the designs from things like the Discovery, I actually attached rather big heat radiation plates.
“Another person I learned from as an artist was Robert McCall and Syd Mead. As you know, Mead is someone who was involved with Gundam in the past. Studio Nue also had a part to play in that, as Shigeru Morita provided coaching to for Syd Mead. He explained to Mead the general trend of Japanese animation, where it was going and also what Gundam is and what it isn’t, in terms of design at least. I heard a lot about Syd Mead from Morita, he said that Mead and I were apparently quite similar.
“In that when Mead was told that something wouldn’t work, he got quite happy. That’s something I do as well. The reason for this is that as a designer, it means your job doesn’t finish when you submit your work. Once the client looks at your work and gives the feedback, you need to listen to these points and take them onboard and expand your horizon further. When you receive feedback that your designs do not work, this is actually an opportunity and is a good thing that consequently makes me happy. That’s also how a good product is made. Between Kawamori and I, there has always been this approach in terms of our design work.
“As a result of all this, the designs in Macross were of a high standard I think. For the Zentraedi and Meltrandi enemy designs, if there wasn’t Kawamori and he didn’t have me the designs would have been of lower quality. We needed to bounce off each other. However, every design meeting was like a fight but Morita was surprised at that. Especially as after the meetings, neither Kawamori or I were on bad terms.
“Finally, I just want to carry on working. For me, working is just like breathing. It comes naturally. Of course, as I grow older from time to time when the project doesn’t work out I might get a little bit despondent but Studio Nue always has a project for me to do. Some get canceled, some work out. That is how it has been, so I am used to it. At the age of 69, I will carry on. But what makes me most engaged is a project like Dunbine, where I could create from the world setting to the rest. That’s exciting.”
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