A few weeks ago I was treated to a rare anime convention event: Hiroyuki Yamaga, President of studio Gainax (Evangelion, FLCL, Gunbuster), presented a panel about the studio's upcoming film, Uru in Blue (Aoki Uru). Intended as a direct sequel to Gainax's acclaimed debut film, Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise, the movie has been a pet project of Honneamise's director Yamaga for decades. In 2013, Gainax announced the revival of the project and at this year's FanimeCon in San Jose, CA Yamaga presented rare preproduction artwork, showcasing a film still very much in the planning phase, but fascinating nonetheless.
The following text is a full transcript of the panel, not counting a minor editor's note and some contextual parentheticals. Some wording has been cleaned up and the translator's third-person translation of Mr. Yamaga's words has been restored to first-person to make the text sound more natural. Mr. Yamaga allowed photos during the panel, so I snapped as much as I could. Apologies for the poor-quality photos.
Big thanks go out to Fanime's guest and panel staff for organizing this event, to Nik Kamachi for translating, and of course, to Mr. Yamaga for being such a gracious, forthcoming creator in an industry full of zipped lips.
Yamaga: The history of this project is possibly older than Fanime itself. That’s why I am very happy that today I can start to explain what Uru in Blue is to the attendees of FanimeCon. The project just finally got off the ground. We are now finally able to put together a coherent story and some additional character designs to get the initial scope of the project.
The image you see here [see above] was drawn by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (Evangelion, Summer Wars) himself back in 1992 and it is indeed of Uru in Blue.
Actually, between 1992 and 1993, the production of the Uru in Blue movie was underway, but unfortunately it had to be cancelled. Right after this illustration, Mr. Sadamoto began working on Evangelion, and Uru in Blue had to be put on pause all the way until now. I would have liked to have started this project earlier, but the insane popularity of Evangelion spanning across two decades has kept delaying this particular project.
These aircraft designs were made in the same era. They're the designs for the aircraft the main character will be piloting in the final project. The mechanical design for this aircraft was done by the creator of Ghost in the Shell, Masamune Shirow.
Up until this point, all of the designs you’ve seen were made back in 1992. Everything from here on out will be from the rebooted project.
In order to get all the staff on the same page with regards to the story of the movie, a 6-minute short film will first be made. It was originally going to be called a “pilot," but the term “pilot" implies that there will be multiple episodes, so instead it’s going to be called “Overture."
I drew these storyboards. They’re not contiguous but I've drawn several of them. This one is a dogfight scene.
These sketches are just initial mockups. They’re not necessarily going to lead into a finalized character design but I’m working a lot with Mr. Sadamoto to get a final look that we both want for the character designs.
This sketch is the initial result of me approaching Mr. Sadamoto and saying “this is the kind of story we want to tell.” Mr. Sadamoto took that and produced the initial mockups.
The main character has changed dramatically since the original conception back in 1992. This character you see here comes from a very desolate desert town, and he has certain complexes he has to deal with. He was raised to be a knight for his people, so he’s definitely a very powerful character.
These sketches were the result of me asking Mr. Sadamoto “How would this character react in this situation? What about this situation?" Mr. Sadamoto wasn’t quite sure so he just drew a bunch of different expressions to show what the character would look like under different circumstances.
The one thing to point out: I wanted the character to have a very particular appearance, which is why his hair looks a little curly and disheveled. That was definitely the vision I had for this character.
This is the sword that the main character will be wielding. I drew this one.
While we’re not entirely certain how the final designs will look, I wanted to make sure that the characters in the movie don’t necessarily look like fighter jet pilots, which is why they’re wearing these long, flowing robes.
I just realized, I probably need to explain the general plot line of this movie! This story takes place on a different planet, not Earth. The level of technology on this planet, though, is roughly the same as Earth’s. One way it differs entirely from Earth is it’s a very peaceful planet, but there’s a very strong culture of “dueling” in the planet’s social structure, although this dueling culture is something that occurs more on the darker underbelly. It’s not something that’s popular or advertised.
Back in the days of yore, you had these two honorable knights dueling for honor. But obviously if all the knights got to dueling like this, all the knights would be dead. Once all the knights died off, all that was left were the rights to the knighthood, and there was obviously monetary value attached to those rights. So you have more devious, sinister organizations, basically mobs, buying these rights and turning dueling into a gambling operation. All the main characters in Uru in Blue are not noble knights; they’re ruffians and thugs that come from pretty poor backgrounds. The core of this plot is these thuggish knights piloting fighter jets and dueling in the jets. That’s a core concept.
The way that we see this character dress in the current era on his planet is kind of unusual and antiquated.
This little model we see right here in front of me is a mockup of one of the jets that will appear in the movie. It kind of looks super high tech and fancy, but it’s based on current-era technology. These jets were basically used in the planet’s military. The knights purchased them and tuned them for their own needs, and now use them for private duels. So the original planes weren’t this bright red color. One notable feature is there is no eject feature on the jets. In a duel, there’s a very high possibility that one or both participants won’t walk away from it.
Nevertheless, these young knights want to prove their honor in these ver lethal duels. Obviously this is a very risky line of work so most of the participants don’t live past 30. But the main character is particularly adept, so he’s somehow managed to keep winning duel after duel. And as he kept winning, he eventually turned 32. When you’re in your 20's it’s all well and good to be reckless and not care too much about your life, but as you start hitting your 30's you start to think about more than just winning and being cool. You start thinking about your life beyond these duels.
Believe it or not, the model that I used for this character is the current-era Japanese animator, because many of them sacrifice a lot in their youth and 20’s. They break their bodies trying to make anime, and once they start hitting their 30’s, they reconsider if it's really worth being paid such a pittance and committing their life’s blood, if it's worth doing this for the rest of their life.
The plot is going to revolve around this 32-year-old main character who has to go to a major city, kind of like a New York, for business, and ends up meeting a girl and falling in love.
These pictures were drawn maybe two days ago. I’m still kind of wandering and unsure about where we’re going with the designs.
The character on the very far right with the long hair is probably going to be the dueling opponent of the main character. Unlike the main character who grew up poor and destitute, this character grew up very wealthy and in a very noble house, so he’s the polar opposite of the main character.
Right now what the production team is primarily focused on is producing the 6-minute “Overture" as well as finalizing the character designs and the script. I’m pretty sure that by next Fanime we’ll actually have some animation to show you guys.
This is all the actual content I have, but I’m more than happy to open the floor to questions now.
Do you feel like the gap between the initial concept and this current reboot gave you time to mature the story of Uru in Blue?
I definitely think it was beneficial. There’s a big difference in perspective when you’re a 30-year-old trying to portray a 30-year-old versus a 50-year-old trying to portray a 30-year-old. In the latter case, you have all those experiences from having been 30, so you can more accurately portray it.
Uru in Blue was the very next project I wanted to do after Wings of Honneamise in 1987, so I’ve obviously been thinking about it for quite a lot of time.
You could almost say the the longest part of this process was me finding myself in order to produce this movie.
Typically when you’re producing anime, for your first project, you can kind of just take all the components and mix them all together, and you can usually make something complete and serviceable. But once you move onto your second project you start asking yourself, “What do I want to achieve with this animation?" You have to start asking yourself these internal questions if you want to improve. At least that’s what I think.
While many people have told me “you’ve taken way too long on this project,” I feel like i’ve put in the perfect amount of time to make the best possible project.
Evan Minto (Ani-Gamers): You’ve showed a lot of the creative aspect of Uru in Blue, but I’m curious: Where is this project at in terms of funding? Do you know if you’ll be doing this through a production committee, crowdfunding, or something else?
Around this time last year we made a secondary studio level “B” and that’s when we started doing our initial round of funding for this work.
The traditional means of acquiring funding for anime has always been really unprofessional. It’s been a lot of face to face meetings and nodding and “oh hey i remember you.” It’s really not very well standardized, so those methods definitely aren’t working as well these days.
Since trying to find the money through these means in Japan is just not working, we’re actually intending on getting a lot of funding from Singapore.
This is a completely different experience for me, so I’m spending a boatload of time studying how to make contracts.
Around this time last year I was just starting to write up these contracts, and I finally got them to a point where I can submit them. So I suspect that we can start requesting the funding sometime around July or August this year.
Originally the plan was for this to be a sequel to Wings of Honneamise. Is this going to share any characters or elements from the previous film, or is it its own thing?
It’s a sequel, though Uru in Blue takes place 50 years after the events of Honneamise and it’s a completely different nation. The characters from Honneamise might make cameos, but they’re definitely not going to be featured characters.
How does the sword factor into the fighter jet duels?
On this planet, dueling isn’t just limited to planes. You can beat each other up, you can use swords, and you can use any sort of fisticuffs or vehicles. It’s not written in stone.
I’m under the impression that the sponsors in the movie (the characters funding the duels) probably feel that dueling in jets is a lot more attractive as far as bringing in an audience.
Actually the sword that you saw earlier belongs to the main character, and he acquired it when he was 14. He slew his opponent and took the sword from him. He took it because it's the physical representation of the knight, so that’s all he took after he won the duel.
Due to its original planning in the early '90s I’m sure Uru in Blue was originally going to rely more heavily on traditional animation, but now due to the technology gap, do you think it’s going to rely more heavily on CGI or traditional animation techniques?
Actually even back in '92 I was intending on using CGI, but the CGI technology wasn’t really well understood, so I also did a lot of research on CGI techniques. I’m pretty sure that in the Japanese anime industry I was the first to do a lot of study of CGI.
EDITOR’S NOTE — This is a bizarre claim that is likely untrue (the first Japanese CG studio, JCGL, was founded in 1980, 12 years before Yamaga presumably began his research). The nuance of what he's saying may have been lost in translation. For example, he may be referring to TV anime as opposed to feature films.
I do feel that a lot of anime studios misuse CGI in anime. In my opinion, one of the best features of Japanese animation is lines drawn by human hands where the audience can actually sense the passion of the artist through the hand-drawn art.
Even when you have original designs for the jet drawn by human hands, when you do a 3-D mockup, a lot of the organic feel of the original lines can’t be represented 1 to 1, so you’re bound to lose some of that from putting it into 3-D form.
An unfortunate side-effect of that is that these days in the anime industry, you’ll have 3-D modelers who look at the 2-D hand-drawn sketches and say “no, these lines are all wrong, let us fix them for you,” so the 3-D people are sort of changing and augmenting the original art. And it’s at that moment that hand-drawn animation is dead.
What we want to do isn't trying to get the art to fit the CGI, it’s trying to have the 3-D image match the original 2-D as closely as possible. What I want to do is make sure that when we're drawing the keyframes, you see the organic movement, the bending and the bowing.
One reason I’m opting to use CGI is because of certain tricks, certain technical advantages that 3DCGI has, specifically with lighting, that you can’t really mimic with drawing by hand. I feel that even up until now, anime movies have not really been able to achieve them very well.
For example, when the cockpit first closes, the way the light refracts through the glass of should create a halo effect around the pilot's head in real life. In hand-drawn animation you don’t see that because it would be be preposterous to draw it by hand. 3-D allows animators to represent the real world the best in scenes like that. Another real-world application: when the light is behind the subject, replicating the way the light shines down by hand is very hard.
You don’t normally see something like that in a TV series, but in a movie, I want to make sure that everything is represented as accurately as possible. I still want to keep the 2-D animation as far as the audience being able to see the effort of the hand drawn animation, but I want to use CG technology to enhance rather than replace the 2-D animation.
Evan Minto (Ani-Gamers): In addition to yourself and Mr. Sadamoto, who else has been involved in this project thus far, and who else might you get involved in the final project?
It’s a little early for that, but I have definitely contacted certain individuals. Especially because we need to design an entire city, so we’re going to need a lot of designers! As far as names that you guys would recognize, I don’t have any more.
You talked about the differences between making a story about a 30-year-old when you’re 30 and when you’re 50. What else has changed as the decades have passed? Have you reapproached the story you wanted to tell? What would have been different if Uru in Blue was made in 1992 as opposed to now?
After the initial concept for Uru in Blue in 1992, I wrote three short novels regarding the plot. I’m not intending to change the plot from those original novels.
Obviously it takes more than just me to make this full product, so I need a production team of some kind. Twenty years ago when I was in my 30's, it was MY project that I wanted to finish. Now it’s “what can this team make” 20 years after the original conceptualization of this project.
Also, simply put, it took about 20 years for the production team to understand how to use CGI correctly.
Have those novels been published?
It was actually originally intended to be seven short novels eventually compiled into a single full novel, but the project stalled and slowed down, and I didn’t want to release them incomplete, so I just stopped writing them at three. Instead of finishing the novels, I’m trying to finish everything up with the movie.
Each knight in this world has his own story to tell. What I’d like to do is once the movie is complete is write a light novel revolving around each knight.
With all of these details about Uru in Blue, can we finally put to rest the rumor that it will just be a retread of the American film Streets of Fire?
Back in 1992, the producer for Uru in Blue, Mr. Takeda, hadn’t the foggiest clue of how to produce anything. So I said “Well what’s your favorite movie?” and he said “Streets of Fire.” And I didn’t necessarily suggest that he use it as a direct model, but I thought he should understand the timing of scenes and figure out how to make the movie by watching a real movie. So Mr. Takeda was talking up Streets of Fire and I went and watched it and said “if this is the kind of movie he wants to make, let’s go for it."
Mind you, this was back in 1992. It’s quite a different story now.
One last thing! There’s a TV series we’re also working on in tandem with Uru in Blue, with character designs from Mr. Sadamoto. It’s about a female free diver. This is going to be a TV series, so expect an announcement about it sooner or later. Since it’s a female main character, maybe more people will enjoy this project than Uru in Blue.
EDITOR'S NOTE — According to Anime News Network, this title is tentatively called Akubi o Suru ni wa Wake ga Aru (There Is a Reason That We Yawn) and was showcased at the 2013 Tokyo International Anime Festival.