Yutaka Nakamura is perhaps the closest thing an animator has been to a household name: His technical proficiency animating elaborate mechanical designs and kinetic fight choreography impress all who witness it.
An animation sensation, Nakamura has pushed the medium forward in new and innovative ways over the years and over the course of many shows. He continues to do so in his most recent work on One Punch Man, Concrete Revolutio, and Mob Psycho.
In this interview, Nakmura and head producer and president of studio BONES, Masahiko Minami, are interviewed by anime journalist and writer for WEB Anime Style, Yuichiro Oguro. Nakamura elaborates his origins as an animator and details some of the cuts he worked on in his early career. Part 1 of 3.
Part 2 | Part 3 (coming soon!)
Oguro: I thought I’d continue the coverage Masahiko Minami started with a list of works you’ve created, Nakamura-san.
Nakamura: Okay, W-whoa. You remember them huh? (laughs) I don’t at all.
Oguro: There are some works you weren’t credited for.
Minami: You just silently kept working, huh?
Nakamura: Yeah, there was that….Ah, wait, wait. That was only back when I was with Sunrise. When I joined BONES I didn’t do any secret work. I saved that for my free time. (laughs)
Nakamura: (Reading from the list) Man, this is really nostalgic.
Oguro: From the start you did mecha animation, yeah? During the Getter Robo Go and Tekkaman Blade era, it was your specialty.
Nakamura: No, I only came into Tekkaman Blade in the middle. It was while I was working on Cooking Papa.
Oguro: Ah, is that so? (laughs).
Nakamura: I was doing about the same amount of drawing for Tekkaman Blade. At the time I really admired Masami Obari’s portions (in regard to studio work) I said I’d only work on Tekkaman Blade, however at the time the president said to me “Nakamura-kun, if that’s all you’re doing, you’ll become an animator unable to animate anything else.” I had taken up Cooking Papa myself, thinking of it as encouragement, but I’m not really sure if it was or not. (laughs)
Oguro: I see. There’s another thing I was curious about in regard to action anime, for example Yoshinori Kanada, or Obari-san, have their own style when creating anime. No matter what title they’re working on, it’s easy to spot their style in many places. However I feel like for you it’s different…
Nakamura: Yeah, I see what you mean. From an objective standpoint, someone who’s looking at my work might think “this is Nakamura-kun” but for me, deep down I haven’t really pegged down what kind of anime I want draw.
Oguro: You said you’d do the action scenes for people in Cowboy Bebop, and after that you became accustomed to it then?
Nakamura: It wasn’t really like that, no. But after that when scenes like those would come up, I just drew similar action.
Oguro: So you started by doing your typical mecha animation during the Getter Robo Go era, then?
Nakamura: Yes, but I did very little on Getter.
Oguro: I heard that Hasegawa Shinya-kun said that during Getter Go that you were really enthusiastic in regard to your work.
Nakamura: Huh? No, That’s just Hasegawa-san’s exaggeration.
Oguro: Is that so?
Nakamura: I’m sure of it.
Oguro: So it wasn’t like Hasegawa-kun was your rival or anything like that?
Nakamura: Our seniors said that, “you and Hasegawa-kun are rivals” out of a sense of excitement, but before I knew it, his work had become incredible, and there was a gulf between us.
Oguro: Your work with Getter wasn’t like Obari-san’s ito no kerenmi system, but more realistic drawings, right? – (TL Note: Oguro is commenting on how realistic Nakamura’s style is compared to Obari’s. Nakamura shows every movement while Obari would be more likely to do a flash or quick sort of movement to ‘cheat’ the eye.)
Nakamura: Unfortunately I have a memory like a boomerang that goes and doesn’t return. (laughs) Getter Robo Go had something like a round flying coin that it fired out, and that became the boomerang saucer weapon.
Oguro: That’s a good feeling.
Nakamura: Nah, I mean I don’t really have a memory of it, so I’m not sure if it was good or not. For work it was absolutely no good.
Oguro: Seems the conversation has looped back.
Oguro: What made you decide to be an animator?
Nakamura: About that…when I was in high school, the recruiting magazines had fliers on them for vocational schools. My friend went and wrote my name on all of them and sent them out. (bitter laugh)
Oguro: So it was a prank?
Nakamura: It was. And so about 50 of these school entry forms came, and within that stack there was an informational guide for an anime school. Up until then I had scribbled a few things here and there, but that didn’t really correlate to “I want to be an animator” or anything like that. Though when I took a peek in the guide for the school, I did think “Hey, this is sort of interesting,” and figured I’d enroll. When I did get in, my first thought was of that scene from Zanbot 3 that Kanada-san did, so I did have some interest in drawing pictures. From there, I gradually warmed up to the idea of ‘drawing animation’. So it’s thanks to that prank that I ended up here I think. (laughs)
Oguro: At the time, you basically only knew about Kanada-san. Was there anything else?
Nakamura: Others… Project A-Ko, Urusei Yatsura helmed by Yamashita (Masahito ) and stuff like that.
Oguro: So you absorbed those works, huh?
Nakamura: That’s right… or no, I wasn’t able to absorb them, I think. However, I did manage to grasp straws from reality, and the system of other works…just taking tastes of odds and ends and coming up with things like that.
Oguro: After you left school, which production did you become a part of?
Nakamura: Ad Cosmo was doing work for Toei and Sunrise, so I joined them.
Oguro: At that time, Ad Cosmo was participating with Toei to produce Saint Seiya and Fist of the North Star, right?
Nakamura: That’s right. My senior was a key animator for Fist of the North Star and Sakigake!! Otokojuku. My first job was a inbetweener on Otokojuku, and the first key frame I was given was on Kariagekun.
Oguro: Kariagekun huh…
Nakamura: It was my first, but a lot of fun.
Oguro: Ah, is that so? Why was that?
Nakamura: The chief director was Hiroki Shibata-san. I thought often “Ah if I do this I’ll be a failure,” but he always gave me the feeling of, “Just work on it gradually and get better.”
Oguro: So it was a playful kind of work?
Nakamura: Yeah. “So I can do this and get away with it,” is what I started thinking instead. It was then I started first thinking, “Wow anime’s kind of interesting.”
Oguro: Ohh… Though you say Kariagekun was “playful” the incredible poses had to have a certain flair to them?
Nakamura: No, they were actually surprisingly action packed.
Oguro: Is that so? Then at that time you got to experiment a lot, huh?
Nakamura: It wasn’t experimentation, since the storyboard pretty much contains everything. Like if Kariage and his friends were running a health food stop, and the punchline is that they ended up needing it for their health, the storyboard might have them doing pushups till they collapse, or showing other fit expressions of health. That much might be indicated on the storyboard, and things like being healthy enough to dance might be seen too. The voice actors also get pretty pumped for that too. (laughs)
Oguro: After that, you did Getter Robo Go. Were you doing any other work during Go?
Nakamura: Moretsu Ataro (1990) and Kingyo Chuihou (Goldfish Warning) were two such works. I did a lot of work on comedy series. It’s not like I set out to do so, but gradually works where I could say “I’d like to do this,” came one after another.
Oguro: You were teamed up with Ikuhara (Kunihiko) during Ataro right?
Nakamura: Ataro was a mild one. I didn’t quite understand Ikuhara-san’s directing. Like, when the old man who bullied the pig was on screen, the pig would go for revenge, and kick his kneecap really hard. There were two original characters that forcefully joined in for the kneecap kicking in the artwork as well. (laughs) The camera is up on a bird’s eye view so you could clearly see the characters while it zooms out. Even now it’s a thing that’s unthinkable.
Oguro: Those original characters were there at the knee?
Nakamura: They rode on it.
Oguro: Dwarves, right?
Nakamura: They were dwarfs, yes. (laughs) Well they were characters who followed Atarou.
Oguro: So those times where the pig was bullied, the usual female pig would come out, since the two were lovers, it would make one cry when they were separated, right?
Nakamura: That’s right, that’s right.
Oguro: That’s Ikuhara-san for you. It was his second episode, right? (Episode 27B: The pig wants to be loved.)
Nakamura: Ah, so was that Ikuhara-san? If it was him, I wonder if he’d really give the okay to play around like that.
Oguro: I see, I see. That’s why you were drawing gag series at the time.
Nakamura: That’s right. It was the same for Kingyo Chuihou as well. The mecha part I did was Brave Exkaiser’s second half. It was my first time doing any cuts. After that I got into The Brave Fighter of Sun Fighbird. It was a about a half year after that that I left that company.
Oguro: I see. Then you were a part of Tekkaman Blade right? At first you were a key artist, and then halfway through you became a mecha director. How was Blade?
Nakamura: It was fun.
Oguro: That work was really detailed for it’s time. You were doing action, but to also have to draw the mecha parts it must have been…
Nakamura: I just went with how I felt. You can probably tell from just looking. (laughs) At the time that’s how I did it. Though in the end, it became something like ‘mecha action’. That work, despite being called mecha, had a really human feel to it didn’t it? It was there that I worked really hard on the action of the characters.
Oguro: That’s the Blade II part. Since there was a “II” there was a one right?
Nakamura: Blade II was like that. On the second episode of the second part, Oguro-san was the one who worked on Tekkaman‘s action parts. I was the key frame artist for the parts where Tekkaman was wearing his human armor, but Oguro-san still did the bodily expressions. In comparison to one I could see and understand the difference, he did seem sorta chubby when compared to one. I hadn’t looked hard enough at the mechanical settings Sayama-san had and got scolded for it. (laughs) Blade‘s most impressive parts had to be from Satou Keiichi-san and Oguro-san’s episodes. You could see just how much mettle they put into those. I figured if I pursued them, I could get to that level in about 10 thousand years. Though once I started it felt like I’d have to endure ten million years to get there. It was during the time of Getter that I believed, “Oh those people are amazing.” In the case of Blade II, it was Kizaki (Fuminori) who was assisting Oguro-san that made this work great.
Oguro: Sano Hirotoshi participated on an episode of Tekkaman Blade right? (Episode 41 “Evil, The Resurrected Devil”)
Nakamura: Ah, right right. That episode was all him. (laughs) There were several distinguished members of Mobile Suit Gundam: 0083 Stardust Memory on that episode, along with Sano-san as supervisor.
Oguro: We talked about this before, that Tekkaman Blade was primarily the work of Obari-san’s conscious supervision.
Nakamura: I’d say it was more like a collective of Obari-san, Satou-san,and Oguro-san. Whenever I saw an episode done by them, I’d think “Ahh, so there’s this way to draw things…” I’d take in a taste of their work too.
Oguro: You weren’t on 83 (Stardust Memory) were you, right? So when you watched it you were like “So cool!” right?
Nakamura: Yeah. “So cool!” (laughs) “I want to see them move like that!” is what I thought. Though I felt like, “Ah, but they probably can’t move.”
Oguro: They inclined differently than you thought, right?
Nakamura: Completely different.
Minami: Huh? You were on 83 (Stardust Memory).
Nakamura: I was not.
Minami: Is that so?
Nakamura: The first project of yours I was on was G Gundam.
Minami: Ahh, was that it? (laughs)
Oguro: Then, in the latter half of ’94 you did Tekkaman Blade and G Gundam…was there anything else?
Nakamura: At that time, I was affiliated with the company Anime ToroToro. I did a little work on Ninku for them.
Oguro: Oh! Ninku! That thunder punch scene was yours right? (Episode 21 “Hell’s Cave”.)
Nakamura: Thunder Punch?
Ogruro: Yes, he had sparks coming from his hand. It was part of the first act.
Nakamura: This was Anime Torotoro’s right?
Oguro: That’s right. I saw your name, and it was a pretty flashy action sequence.
Nakamura: I don’t really remember. What I do remember drawing is a guy named Genbu or something like that talking about legends. I was pretty interested in that stuff myself too… (Annotation: Episode 27 “Fuusui Valley”, the final part of the second half. This is a key area.)
Oguro: What part of G Gundam did you do?
Nakamura: The special technique in episode 1, and the special technique in the finale.
Oguro: You said that one straight out, (laughs) the special technique in the finale…That was when Domon and Rain acted together…
Nakamura: The part where they were dancing.
Oguro: Ah, that part? The two of them dancing? Burning Finger Love Love Tenkyoken’s release?
Nakamura: Yeah. When the King of Hearts popped up.
Oguro: Ahh so the King huh? It was so cool! I was impressed.
Nakamura: Were you? (laughs)
Oguro: It was an incredible 3D King.
Nakamura: That’s right. A heart suddenly pops up in the middle. Of course that was Imagawa Yasuhiro’s idea. Since episode 1 of G Gundam There were lots of stories unseen, and tastes not explored, so when I was told “Have the King come out,” I thought to myself, “Really?” (laughs)
Oguro: Perhaps the readers of this would want to know the details, so could you describe the part of the finale you were in charge of?
Nakamura: At the beginning of Domon’s speech, when he says “In our hands is a scorching red heat,” I mapped the layout, and Kuhara Shigeki helped me with half of the key art. Kuhara-san generally was the one drawing the characters.
Oguro: Then what about the part where the King appeared?
Nakamura: Up until the “boom” and explosion where the King appeared.
Oguro: Ohh, That’s impressive. I had always wondered who drew that.
Oguro: So you only did the part where things were decided with the special move in episode 1?
Nakamura: Right before the attack…the ten cuts there.
Oguro: That was banked for later right?
Nakamura: (To Minami) Here and there, right?
Minami: Yeah, here and there. Like the Shining Finger, right?
Nakamura: Yeah, the Shining Finger. It was drawn when they hadn’t settled on the particulars yet.
Minami: That wasn’t decided until Seki Tomokazu had acted it out, right?
Nakamura: (laughs) Was that really it?
Oguro: That was the “My—My hand!” part?
Minami: That’s right. After that when we all got together to draw, it escalated to the point of overacting.
Nakamura: Man, I’m not sure if that was a good thing.
Oguro: At that time, mecha anime were really a lot of work. How much of the Brave series did you work on?
Nakamura: Up until Firebird.
Oguro: After G-Gundam was MS Team (Mobile Suit Gundam 08th MS Team) wasn’t it?
Nakamura: I only helped out a little on that one. Maybe only about three to four cuts. Now what did I do after G-Gundam?
Minami: It was Escaflowne, right?
Nakamura: Right, Escaflowne.
Oguro: I see. It (08th MS Team) was on TV in ’96, but the preparation took a long time, and it was actually drawn sometime before that.
Nakamura: That’s right. It took so long that it started to become an annoyance to everyone.
Oguro: Evangelion and Escaflownewere worked on at around the same time, right?
Nakamura: While Escaflowne was still being prepared. I was only able to work on episode 9 while working on that.
Oguro: Eva and Getter Robo were connected as that’s when Hasegawa-san called you?
Nakamura: That’s right. I had said “Please allow me to work with Hasegawa-san someday.” The first time we worked together was on Eva and it was extremely fun.
Oguro: The first half of the aforementioned 62 second battle scene was handled by Watanabe Keisuke-san, and the latter half by you. It was a passing kick between Unit 01 and 02 right?
Nakamura: Yeah that’s right.
Oguro: The attacks between 01 and 02 rotating and each avoiding each other were Watanabe-san, and…
Nakamura: That’s right. The attack where the missile explodes and Shinji and Asuka are piled up was Watanabe-san, and after that was me. (Addendum: From the cut where split screen occurs and 01 and 02 are punching each other.) Collaborating with Watanabe-san was a ton of fun.
Oguro: The angel exploding was you then?
Nakamura: The explosion was a cut done by Masuo Shouichi-san. I was the one who drew what happened before that.
Oguro: One other you participated in was Episode 24 “The Final Messenger” …what part was it? – (TL Note: English title of the episode is “The Beginning and the End, or ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”)
Nakamura: All I did for that one was a cut. Masayuki-san is the one who drew the layout. It was more like a clean copy to me though. It really felt like I was drawing second key there.
Oguro: Was it a mecha or human character?
Nakamura: Mecha. Did I draw people? For Eva it was the knife slashing…
Oguro: Ah! That part? The descended into Central Dogma?
Nakamura: That’s right. For Evangelion, I only did those two parts.
Oguro: Then next would be Escaflowne. You participated a lot in that one.
The Vision of Escaflowne Episodes Yutaka Nakamura participated in. Episode 2: The Girl From the Mystic Moon Episode 7: Unexpected Partings Episode 9: Memories of a Feather Episode 10: The Blue Eyed Prince Episode 11: Prophecy of Death Episode 20: False Vow Episode 24: Fateful Decision Episode 26: Eternal Feelings
Nakamura: As usual, I was too slow and the amount of cuts I was able to do was few in number.
Oguro: What part of the opening did you draw?
Nakamura: The swordfight on-the-ones.
Oguro: Huh? Is that right? That one had a beautiful finish.
Nakamura: It was Sano-san who gave me as specific image for that through his art. It did take me a whole lot of time, though. (Addendum: Sano Hirotoshi was The Vision of Escaflowne’s mechanical director.)
Oguro: At that time BONES was…Ah, there wasn’t a BONES back then…You were working with Sunrise?
Nakamura: I was bound to Sunrise, yes.
Minami: “Bound?” To me that sounds kind of bad. (laughs)
Oguro: That’s because he caught your eye from his work on Tekkaman Blade and you scouted him later, right?
Minami: Kuhara-kun introduced us via the intro and ending of G Gundam. At that time I thought “He’s awesome!” and came looking.
Nakamura: To test if you could use me or not, huh?
Oguro: On that point, it really does seem like robots are your thing, huh?
Nakamura: That’s right. At the start of Escaflowne the key art was done by two or three people on the first episode –that was the plan, and then Kuhara-san and I did 140 cuts.
Oguro: That was episode 2 (The Girl From the Mystic Moon) right?
Nakamura: Yup, episode 2. At the end we had everyone helping us though. (laughs) The B part was done by me. It took about half a year.
Oguro: As with all of your work, you were pretty enthusiastic weren’t you?
Nakamura: …you could say something like that. After all Sunrise was like the mecha animator mecca. And there I was…
Oguro: You were on 0083 and 08th MS Team too it seems.
Nakamura: That’s right. Sano-san was there, Osaka Hiroshi-san was there too. I felt like I had gotten into a work I couldn’t slack on.
Oguro: And it took half a year.
Nakamura: A half year went by all right.
Minami: At first everyone sorta did cuts on their own, and did various things saying that one cut would be done in about three months.
Nakamura: And soon six months passed for everyone.
Minami: “Ahh, this isn’t working,” (laughs) we all regretted it.
Oguro: After that you employed ordinary human infiltration tactics, huh?
Nakamura: I want to say during the series’s second half, it took three people about three months to come out with an episode.
Oguro: Ahh, they got accustomed to the work.
Nakamura: Yeah, the unique colors of Yamane Kimitoshi-san’s designs and the worldview…it took some time to get used to them. It was much different than robot anime that came before it.
Oguro: I see…
Minami: There was some digital work in it too, yeah?
Nakamura: That’s right. That was hard work.
Oguro: What do you mean?
Nakamura: Back then we were using O (overlay) cels.
Minami: It (Escaflowne) was one of the first series to go digital, so knowing how many masks (layers) to draw and whatnot was a thing of trial and error. We drew a lot but in the end it was like “We don’t really need masks do we?” (laughs)
Nakamura: Yeah (laughs) That happened often.
Oguro: One separate screen could have several different movements, so piling them up in an O (overlay) wasn’t possible huh?
Nakamura: Yeah. At the time we could only draw one scene at a time, so drawing things out took some time. For example, underneath a cape had different animations from above it.
Minami: Drawing like that had to be similar to being stuck in a swamp huh?
Oguro: Other than episode 7, how many cuts do you think you had to do? 7, 9, 10…you were participating quite frequently.
Nakamura: Episode 10 and stuff had about three of them I believe? The beginning of 7 had about twenty.
Oguro: You had to draw quite a bit. Which parts do you think they were?
Nakamura: Let’s see, there were a lot of cuts in episode 20 I think (“False Vows”). The flying dragon Escaflowne dogfight for example, or the crash landing part. After that I was a part of episode 24 and the finale.
Oguro: What parts of 24 and 26 did you do?
Nakamura: 24 was the one where they returned to Earth right? Huh? Which part did I do again? I have a feeling it was something I did that I don’t want to own up for. (laughs)
Oguro: You drew the everyday living part right?
Nakamura: Probably. I think it was the everyday living part. Episode 26 was the one with Escaflowne’s sword, right? A lot of people were on that one…but I was on the very last part.
Oguro: Which of the action scenes in Escaflowne do you feel were your best moments?
Nakamura: For the most part they’d involve mecha. Sano-san would indicate to me where things got thick and heavy. For example the part where the sword descended, just before it landed with a thud, the timing had to be just right, with an emphasis on quick and slow movements, especially the slow ones…
Oguro: Episode 2 of Escaflowne left a huge impression on me when I saw it. In contrast to people it’s size is quite handy.
Nakamura: Escaflowne is smaller than the average robot. It’s about 8m or so tall? It was interesting in comparison to others. I was warned about that specifically as I was working, but suddenly in episode 2 it got huge, so I wasn’t quite used to it yet…
Oguro: No, no. 8m is pretty huge in real life I think.