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Gurren Lagann: the most talked-about, high-quality TV series of the 2007 anime world. A series into which Gainax poured all its might with the catch phrase, “the biggest robot anime of the 21st century,” and which became a new masterpiece under first-time director Hiroyuki Imaishi. Even after its initial run, the series is continuing to build its fanbase with impressive DVD sales and late night reruns. With that in mind, Anime Style presents a 27-part Gurren Lagann ‘various talk commentary interview’ web series. We were joined by both director Imaishi and assistant director Masahiko Otsuka for a frank discussion of their memories.
Episode 1: “Bust Through the Heavens with Your Drill!”
The memorable first episode of Gurren Lagann begins in the underground village of Giha. The episode depicts the first encounter of the bashful master digger Simon and the reckless, brimming-with-bravery Kamina with the girl from the surface, Yoko. The intense battle action of the mysterious mecha “Gunmen” begins right from episode one. Another highlight of the episode was the exciting climax, when the three climbed into the head-mecha “Lagann” discovered by Simon and blasted above ground.
Script: Kazuki Nagashima
Storyboard: Hiroyuki Imaishi
Episode director: Masahiko Otsuka
Animation director: Atsushi Nishigori
Animation: Ken Otsuka, Takashi Mukouda, Shinji Suetomi, Eiji Suganuma, Katsuya Yamada, Daizen Komatsuda, Tsutomu Suzuki, Masaharu Tomoda, Chie Nishizawa, Toshiharu Sugie, Takeshi Ninomiya, Akira Amemiya, Satoshi Yamaguchi, Ayumu Kotake, Hitomi Hasegawa, Kikuko Sadakata, Haruka Tanaka, Hanako Enomoto, Sayaka Toda, Yukihiro Kobayashi, Yoh Yoshinari, Atsushi Nishigori, Hiroyuki Imaishi
Let’s get right into it. Please tell us some stories from the production of episode 1.
Otsuka: Well, let’s start with when the script got ripped up. (laughs)
Imaishi: No, “ripped up” isn’t right. (bitter laugh) As I recall, in the first draft, there as a battle with a giant earthworm. The episode began and ended underground, and the main battle had to do with defeating an earthworm many times bigger than a human. (laughs)
Otsuka: Yoko didn’t appear.
Did the Gunmen not appear either?
Imaishi: Nope. I think Lagann appeared, though…? I can’t remember. (laughs)
Otsuka: Originally, the idea was to have a kind of gloomy feeling.
Imaishi: Right. At one time we had that same atmosphere going for about two episodes, but it didn’t quite feel right, so we said, “let’s have the Gunmen appear from episode 1.” Then the idea became Simon and Kamina struggling to reach the surface, which was controlled by Gunmen.
Otsuka: The Gunmen didn’t come crashing in from above.
Imaishi: Yeah. The idea was like, “wow,” finally escaping from the cramped underground world to the surface and suddenly right there joining forces with a robot companion. I wanted to make it so the place they emerged was like a battleground. But if I did that, I realized the story would become incredibly long, and thought, “there’s no way we can have such slow development in episode 1.” I talked to (Kazuki) Nagashima, who suggested the Gunmen come falling in from above. Then for some reason, that turned into the idea of escaping by riding Boota. (laughs)
Imaishi: Even though I didn’t say a single word about anything like that. (laughs)
Otsuka: At one point, you wrote a lot of important points up and handed them to Nagashima, right?
Imaishi: Ah, yeah. But if I just wrote “fix it,” no one would get it, so I actually wrote quite concretely, “I want to do it like this,” and included a decent amount of dialogue, so it was more like a script than just plot points, but at the same time, less like a script than a storyboard with dialogue.
Otsuka: That was before you talked with Nagashima?
Imaishi: Yeah, I think I wrote it and passed it to him before we had our meeting. Maybe? Either that or Nagashima told me, “I don’t really get it, so write it yourself.”
That was the so-called “script-ripping incident”?
Imaishi: Right, that’s it. (bitter laugh) As I recall, that day I went to Nagashima’s office for the meeting, then afterward we decided to have a more frank discussion, so we moved things to a chain restaurant and talked until 2 at night about Ashita no Joe. (laughs)
That came up in a previous interview too.
Imaishi: Yeah, late into the night at a chain restaurant, discussing stuff like, “that part when Wolf Kanagushi borrowed money from Joe was great!” It made us both say, “okay, we really understand each other.” (laughs) That story really doesn’t have to do anything with episode 1, though.
Can you tell us something that has a little more to do with the episode? (laughs) Were the storyboards tough?
Imaishi: It felt like I spent two to three months trying with all my might to really portray that narrow, cramped environment. Figuring out how that giant robot would perfectly fit the size of the village and move around in that space, going up and down and around underground. I thought about nothing other than whether I could portray the feeling of fighting that thing as tall as three stories underground. But the Gunmen’s size really varied, didn’t it? (laughs). Depending on the shot it sometimes looks about 10 stories tall.
Otsuka: There was talk at one point about just how tall it should be. But by the end of episode 1, we realized the answer was “whatever!” (laughs)
Imaishi: We realized there was no sense in approaching it so seriously. (bitter laugh)
Otsuka: But quite early on we talked about really showing a massive scale.
Imaishi: Right. This was right around the time Shadow of the Colossus was big. But doing something that huge was impossible, so we decided it to do it within certain limits.
Otsuka: With the storyboards for episode 1, did you think you should change the style you’d been using up to then a little bit?
Imaishi: Hm… good question. I wanted the massive scale of the robot to come across, so I tried to show the reality of the situation. I wanted a sense of realness – not necessary in the drawings or movement, but in the space and situation. For that reason, I worked really hard to portray the lighting. Up until then, I’d only concentrated on my drawings, and had used lighting in a fairly straightforward 2D way. This time around, even though I knew it would be a burden for the compositing division, I decided to leave some space in the drawings to portray the atmosphere and space. I wanted to be in control not just of the illustrations, but also the compositing, so that I could separate a single frame into three levels of shading. For example, in the first half, the pond in the center of the village is done so the lighting comes from below. In the latter half, there’s sunlight shining in from the ceiling, so there’s strong light bouncing in from above. I wanted to leave a strong impression with things like that.
I see. What about the animation?
Imaishi: (Takashi) Mukouda’s key frames in episode 1 are really great. The key frames in the scene where the Simon and the other two go through the cave were done by Mukouda, who is the animation director for episode 9. Like the part where Yoko’s breasts rub against the rocks while she walks. I think we had him do another part, too.
Otsuka: When they boot up Lagann and take off.
Imaishi: Right, right from the point-of-view shot where they take off from the cave to where it appears above ground and tumbles around. Mukouda really did a great job on both of those difficult parts from episode 1.
Otsuka: He really saved us. (laughs) Animation director (Atsushi) Nishigori only had to clean up the faces.
As director, did you check the key frames as well?
Imaishi: No, but I did check the layouts. Our system for episode 1 was that first the layouts would go to Otsuka, then to me for “director check,” then to Nishigori.
Otsuka: You also did some roughs for the movement.
Imaishi: Yeah. So I have the sense I took a proper pass at episode 1.
Otsuka-san, how was working as episode director on episode 1?
Otsuka: When it came to the episode direction, it was actually pretty easy. This ties back to the story just now about the storyboards, but I had discussed with Nishigori before we started about “doing something different from what Imaishi has done up until now.” The result of that talk being “adding a little bit more realism.” For Imaishi’s part, he also considered the lighting and gradation in the storyboards, so the episode direction was easy. I guess it was a bit hard for the key frame artists because the drawings are quite different between the characters’ heads and bodies. But until the whole thing was complete, no one knew how it would turn out.
Imaishi: I didn’t know either. I just relied on the image board drawn by (Daisuke) Kikuchi. “It’ll probably turn out like this.” (laughs)
Otsuka: In that sense, I feel like it was a new challenge for us. Working under conditions in which we couldn’t foresee the end result was both scary and fun. It’d been a long time since I was in that situation, and it was interesting.
Imaishi: Gurren Lagann wasn’t a foreseeable “if we do it like this, it’ll turn out like this” so much as a “let’s see if we can push this to places we can’t foresee.” There’s no point in doing something if you can already see what the result is going to be ahead of time. I think it’s more fun to work in a state where you can’t guess how the end result will turn out.
Aside from the animation, what other elements were you particularly involved in?
Otsuka: I asked the compositing department, “can you make some fragments?” We can do it in animation, but maybe we could do it a bit in post, too.
Imaishi: We said that from the beginning. The compositing department added a lot of fragments when the Gunmen falls from the sky and rises up. They spent an enormous amount of time experimenting with those dirt pieces.
You added those dirt effects, which used to be done with a brush in the cel anime days, in the compositing stage?
Imaishi: Yes. It’s a particularly huge burden, so we left it to the compositing department. They spent an endless amount of time working on it, so I went and asked, “how’s it going?” and it was looking great. It looked as if it had been beautifully animated with in-betweens and everything. I was like, you guys went overboard, this might as well have been done in animation. (laughs)
What about that opening sequence?
Imaishi: As for that sequence, this was Nakashima’s idea, not mine, but he said it would be a good idea for it to show the viewers – “this is how far we’re going to go.” Not a spoiler, exactly, more like a “light explanation.”
The first time I saw it, I thought, “this is really gripping.”
Imaishi: Well, certainly, we wanted start the first shot with a real “Yoshinari explosion.” (laughs) That was pretty gripping, wasn’t it?
Otsuka: Yeah. As for its role in the series, it shows some of the upcoming twists, doesn’t it? In that sense, it gets you excited for what’s to come, or, rather, makes you think, “whoa, what is this?!” But on the other hand, it makes you interested in finding out how the series progresses from here to there. In the end, it was right to make that opening sequence. We as the creators understand what’s happening, but viewers who see the series without the opening might be anxious, thinking, “what kind of anime is this?” In that sense, Nagashima did a great job with the opening, as always.
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Reporting days: 11/9/2007, 12/11/2007, 1/16/2008, 2/20/2008.
Reporting place: Gainax. Reporters: Yuichiro Oguro, Atsushi Okamoto.
Composition: Atsushi Okamoto. First published: 1/4/2008.