Maybe you grew up with anime like Gatchaman (G-Force,), read Vampire Hunter D or The Sandman: Dream Hunter, or played Final Fantasy? These are just some of the many dark and at the same time handsome and mysteriously romantic character designs that master Yoshitaka Amano created – in the last forty years! PingMag saw the fine lines of his new aluminum works at the recent 101Tokyo Art Fair and went by the opera lover’s elegant studio in Moto Azabu for an inspiring chat.
Written by Verena
Translated by Natsumi Yamane
Let’s start with the very beginning of your extensive career when you were still a teenager in 1967…
I got my first job in anime [at Tatsunoko Productions]. Actually, I’m from Shizuoka. So, in my third year of junior high school, I visited my childhood friend in Tokyo and there happened to be an animation studio near his place. I visited the studio with my drawings – and they decided to accept me. That’s how I joined the animation company… I mean, I received the job offer by mail and I was astonished. I couldn’t believe that I got it!
The industry in the 60s must have been quite different from what it is today… Tell us a bit of that time, please!
First of all, it was a cutting-edge industry, like today’s gaming business. It was simply cool! I always loved to draw but I had never thought of actually making it my business. So I was delighted to know that I could keep on drawing there. And unlike before, it was nice to get credits for drawing.
With animation, you’re given a task – unlike when you work in the world of art. How would you compare these two processes?
In my case, it is a given work. However, character design is a process that you start from zero: You are given a theme and then you watch movies and all sorts of other things, then think about it yourself to create new characters. Meaning it reflects the era too. There were times when I was also inspired by art forms like pop art. I think that it’s all connected.
Beautifully dark! Vampire Hunter D – half human, half vampire. © Yoshitaka Amano
Again, that was similar since I didn’t know very much about video games before. When I received the offer, I first had no idea of how to go about it. The quality of video games back then was rather poor, that is why I initially thought that I had to draw like that – but that wasn’t the case. I thought it was definitely bang-on for me as an illustrator, not so much because of the video game itself but probably because their fantasy and science fiction world was similar to my illustrations.
What did you think about the finished game?
With animation, I’m only involved in the original drawings and the actual anime is done by animators based on them. The first game I did had miniaturised graphics and, as you know, my drawings were much more realistic. However, the players were playing the game with my drawings as images and that was the reality for them. That’s the whole point of it.
Interesting! How about your current video game projects?
That’s secret… But since titles are re-released every time a new platform comes out, it is getting duplicative. The unique characteristic about games and its industry is that, with advancing technology, the platform changes completely which in turns changes the content of the title. It has to come up with new ideas each time, so, in that sense, it will probably keep on improving – although that’s not going to change what I am doing.
By the way, you don’t draw digitally with a computer, do you?
No, I draw on paper using my fingers.
That’s wonderful! Younger artists often draw with PCs and that seems to change the feel somehow.
I would like to try using computers, but I just don’t have the time for it.
… and your illustrations have an extremely romantic atmosphere….
Thank you, although some of them are quite far from that. (Laughs)
Full on romance, cover commissioned by Shishi-O mag (1985-1992).© Yoshitaka Amano
Still, they convey something very emotional…
There are some that are horrifying or feature scary monsters too! I draw after the images I have in my mind. But because these other images are so distant, I often feel that I want to try something different. [Flips through his thick illustration catalogue.]
Are you visualising your own dreams…?
Not exactly my dreams, but I do draw the images I come up with while lying down and lounging, or when I see visuals while awakening. Sometimes that works really well. Recently, my dreams are rather grim, where I get scolded or chased by someone (laughs,) so my dream images are definitely not romantic…
What would be the term for the images you see just after waking up or the moments before you fall asleep? It’s not exactly a ‘daydream’…
It is the moment when I am lying down and feel kind of unrestricted. Actually, one work, “Tori no Uta” (“A Bird’s Song”) is a picture I drew based on my dream. It was a series about a boy and a girl in a small room and that eventually became an anime.
You also did the CD jacket design for the Japanese metal band Galneryus. How came that collabo about?
I have done two or three record covers, but that was through a label. Actually, I have also been involved in a music clip for JUDY AND MARY. Music and drawing is quite close, you see.
Amano designed the costumes for the Kaijin Besso play for famous Kabuki actor and director Bando Tamasauro. © Yoshitaka Amano
Kaijin Besso has incorporated Japanese folklores that might have originated from ancient China; costume design by Yoshitaka. © Yoshitaka Amano
Speaking of music: I read in an interview that you are a fan of opera and ballet – what exactly do you find appealing? The stage design?
The stagework is identical to drawing – the stage is like a frame in three dimensions, and I noticed that it is the same with pictures. I was intrigued by to the fact that it is taking place inside a frame that is its visual as well. Even with Wagner operas, the music and the scenarios are always the same but its interpretation and representation change. When you have different costumes, stage sets and perhaps some contemporary interpretation, for example, of the Rhine river waters, then it suddenly gets visually dramatic. The music also varies with different performers, so it’s both traditional and yet modern. That’s what I find really interesting. Actually, I will soon be working on an opera poster…
You created costumes for Kabuki – would you like to try designs for an opera too?
Very much! I never had the chance for an opera yet. Once, they designed costumes based on my drawings, but I haven’t had the opportunity to make costumes from zero by myself. When I visited Bayreuth, it was interesting to see the costumes for the Wagner operas. Opera stories seem like fantasy novels – but if you visit Germany, you see the real Rhine river and the actual settings and folklore from the opera, a place filled with great legends. However, I had something different in mind, so I decided to come up with my own story. The result was “Hero.” But then, I can only create the visuals and there isn’t anyone to compose the music. (Laughs) It would be fun if someone like Björk did it…
Since 1982, Yoshitaka illustrates the “Chimera” novels… © Yoshitaka Amano
For sure! So, you’re fascinated by the timelessness of the opera stories with the surrounding situations changing…
Yes, it’s more innovative than drawing. Also, the spatial feel is another nice thing about stage performances, being three-dimensional when seen from above. On the other hand, Japanese Kabuki lacks in depth and is much flatter. Then again, this is perhaps the difference between Western and Japanese culture, and probably it’s the same for art as well as stage performances. It might even be the same for anime as well…
A bra on his head! Amano’s characters for the Time Bokan TV series from 1975. Inspirational for all younger artists… © Yoshitaka Amano
Something else – going back to your character designs and the art works you create now, what do you think of the style of today’s Japanese movements like Takashi Murakami’s Superflat?
I have been creating original anime characters for a long time and he has been inspired by anime… In the 60s, many including myself were influenced by American pop art for our animations. In the meantime, Takashi, who was influenced by our works, entered the American art scene and calls his style Japanese pop culture. That’s really interesting…
More of the latest aluminum works at 101… courtesy of Art Statements Gallery, Hong Kong.
… created with Sumi-e, ink and wash paintings, and then transferred. Courtesy of Art Statements Gallery, Hong Kong.
Indeed. Do you think people appreciate your art works because they are aware of your background?
I don’t think that the background is all that important. The art scene has very little to do with your career. For example, illustrations for video games have to help the sales of the title. But with a work of art, I can devote myself entirely. I like the fact that it’s one hundred percent your own responsibility.
Amano’s spatious studio on several levels in Moto Azabu…
… filled with giant aluminum plates and paints!
Finally, what matters most in life?
We all have to die at some point – and life goes on until the very last moment. So be prepared and have no regrets! In my case, I’ll do my best for this week rather than for my life. (Laughs) You go through the past and the present, but no one can tell you anything about the future. All I can do is keep pushing on.
Sensei Yoshitaka Amano…
… standing in front of his desktop crammed with beautiful drawings!
Wisely answered! Thank you, Amano sensei!