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Otakon 2012: "Gundam Unicorn" Focus Panel

Saturday evening at Otakon 2012, the spacious panel 3 room was mostly filled for a two-hour event focused on Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn. After a screening of the fifth and latest episode, The Black Unicorn, fans were treated to a focus panel featuring four guests: Sunrise producer Shin Sasaki, production manager Yasufumi Kobashi, Japanese voice actor Tatsuya Kakihara, and American actor and voice director Michael Sinterniklaas. Kakihara and Sinterniklaas play the role of Angelo Sauper, the loyal underling of the masked Neo Zeon leader “Full Frontal”.

After introductions, Sasaki started things off by briefly explaining the basics of Gundam Unicorn’s distribution and its beginnings in 2010, going on to remark that Gundam was now 30 years old and that they wanted to create something with a very deep, engrossing story this time around. The moderator then turned to Kobashi, asking him to explain his role as production manager. In that position, Kobashi works to keep everything on schedule and organizes the animation team to begin work on the following episode once storyboards are finally complete. The topic then turned to cast auditions, which begin after the basic scenario and story for an episode is conceived and while the ADR script is being written. The auditioning actors record specific lines and all recordings make their way back to the production committee, which listen to the performances and decide on their ideal choices for new roles.

Kakihara was then asked what the auditions were like and whether everyone was nervous. Kakihara commented that he was very excited that the audition was for a Gundam title, further revealing that at first he tried out for protagonist Banagher Links thinking “I could pilot a Gundam, I really want this role!” After putting everything into playing Banagher he was asked to read a line for Angelo, ultimately getting that part instead. Kakihara remarked that when he was asked to read for Angelo he figured he wasn’t going to be Banagher, and made sure to be clear that he was very happy to learn he had earned that role. “I told myself I was going to be the bestest, brutalist rival ever!”

After this anecdote, the panel played an impressive clip from the fifth episode where Full Frontal and Angelo do battle in their mobile suits in a pivotal moment, after which Kobashi was asked to explain the story behind the scene. Kobashi revealed that animator Ryuji Shiromae (Big O) worked on some of the scenes there. “He has a tendency of giving us scenes that weren’t in the original storyboard. But the thing is, everything he gives us is really amazing.” For an example, Kobashi cited a detail where Angelo’s Geara Zulu poses and bows to greet Full Frontal and his Sinanju after clearing the way for him to attack his target. This flourish was not in the storyboard at all, Shiromae came up with it on his own. “He just delivered it to us, and we said ‘wow'”. The audience was amused and delighted at that tidbit, and even happier at the next item on the panel’s agenda: detailed illustrations for mecha designer Hajime Katoki’s rendition of the Full Armor Unicorn Gundam, adapted to carry an overwhelming array of weaponry. Fans were told it would appear in episode six, where “There will be a huge battle between it and the opposition,”.

After that, Sinterniklaas was asked to discuss English cast auditions. He remarked that because Gundam Unicorn is a simultaneous dub, NYAV Post can’t see what the show is like, so the studio requested the recordings of the Japanese auditions and based their own auditions off of them. Sinterniklaas also determined it would be best to not let auditioning actors know what they were trying out for at first, so they changed names and terms to keep things ambiguous at first. Sinterniklaas also commented on the narrow window for a simultaneous dub and remarked on value of NYAV Post being established in both New York and Los Angeles, which allows actors based in both cities to record for a show at the same time. Sinterniklaas also told a brief story about how Suberoa Zinnerman’s voice actor is a high-ranking flight choreographer and was away training others in North Carolina, so the NYAV Post staff had to make an effort to promptly find a recording studio in the state that could handle ADR recording.

The panel discussion then turned to much lighter matters, as Sinterniklaas and Kakihara were asked to discuss their first meeting at Otakon. Sinterniklaas revealed the pair had stumbled upon a realization that they had a completely different acting role in common besides Angelo in Gundam: Leonardo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Kakihara noted that when he auditioned for the role in Japan, the English audition tapes were sent for them to reference just as NYAV Post had reviewed Japanese auditions for Gundam Unicorn. Kakihara further quipped that theirs was a relationship that “transcends time and space”, to the audience’s amusement. After this five volunteers were picked from the audience to act out a short scene featuring Angelo in the first episode, with the panel choosing two top performers in the contest to receive Gundam model kits as prizes.

After that, the panel opened up for a Q&A session. In response to a general question about what would happen for the distribution of current and past Gundam titles like Gundam AGE and Turn A Gundam, Sunrise’s Shin Sasaki responded “I’m really sorry about Turn A Gundam” and asserted that they were working their hardest to keep bringing Gundam to audiences in the United States. He also reaffirmed that Gundam Unicorn would continue to come out in the U.S. at the same time it does in Japan, after which he stated again that they were working to bring over Gundam and thanked the fans for their support. Sinterniklaas was asked about how he chose his role as Angelo, to which he responded that he had to audition for the part like everyone else – in fact, like Kakihara, he also tried out for Banagher. It was the Japanese team that approved him for the part. Sinterniklaas also remarked that he often doesn’t try out for his own productions, but in this case he was asked to and was proud to do so. The next questioner asked about the panel’s favorite tracks from Gundam Unicorn, prompting Sasaki to single out a short piece of music that played when the title first comes up and remark that sports programs in Japan have used it. Another fan asked Kakihara how it felt to see Angelo “come out of his shell” in episode five even though he didn’t have a speaking line. Kakihara answered that it was extremely fortunate, noting that the cast was friendly with each other and were talking about what was going to happen as they went in to record the episode. Kakihara divulged that he’d been assured that he’d have plenty of lines and action in episode six, and asked the audience to look forward to that. The next questioner asked if Kakihara and Sinterniklaas had any plans for doing anything jointly regarding Leonardo, prompting the two actors to shout “Cowabunga!” in unison into their microphones to enthused applause. Another fan asked about the panelists’ favorite Gundam series, motivating Kakihara to promptly name Gundam Unicorn and ask everyone to look forward to episode six.

Finally, each of the panelists were asked to offer a parting message and they all thanked the audience for coming. Beyond that, Shin Sasaki remarked “I’d like to continue forming strong bonds of friendship between the United States and Japan with the series Gundam” and remarked “Never before have I thought such a strong bond could be formed between the English and Japanese Angelo Sauper.” He ended by referencing the 7th Gundam Unicorn episode in production and commented ” I hope you continue to love this series as much as we do.” Yasufumi Kobashi joked that “I’ll have to make sure when I go back to Japan, I’m going to work hard on episodes six and seven so I’m not dumped like Riddhe!” Kakihara expressed his happiness that a voice actor like him can travel hundreds of miles to meet fans, going on to say that “I plan to do my best in any and every series I’m included in so I have the chance to come back and meet you again.” Sinterniklaas expressed gratitude for all those who have supported Gundam over the years and continue to support Unicorn now, describing it as not only “an incredible series of features” but also “…a very new kind of experiment between Japan and the west”. He hailed the project as “important to the future of production”, expressing excitement at the opportunity to have a closer relationship with production staff in Japan.

With the panelists’ respective farewells given, Kakihara and Sinterniklaas saw off the audience with a hearty cry of “Sieg Zeon!”

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