Toonzone Interviews Gainax Co-Founder and Anime Producer Hiroaki Inoue
A bona fide veteran of the anime industry, Hiroaki Inoue began his career as an animator at Tezuka Productions and would ultimately go on to be a successful producer as well as a co-founder of the animation studio Gainax during the 1980s. In addition to producing Lensman, the first anime work to use 3D graphics, Inoue has been involved in such titles as Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories, Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise, Gunbuster, Armitage III, Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040, “Macross II” and many different Tenchi Muyo anime including the first two OVAs, all three feature films and the TV anime Tenchi Muyo GXP and Tenchi Universe. During the weekend of Anime USA September 13-15, 2013, Toonzone was able to sit down with Mr. Inoue for a conversation about his career and his experiences working with the founding members of Gainax and directors Katsuhiro Otomo and Satoshi Kon.
TOONZONE NEWS: I’d like to start off with a question about when you first started your career as a producer. You were a co-founder of Gainax and a producer for Royal Space Force. During that time you were part of a studio that was composed of very young creators. What sort of environment existed at Gainax as it was exploring this frontier of bringing a full-fledged animated film to life?
HIROAKI INOUE: Originally those guys, as amateurs, were making animation films for the Japan SF Convention. I was producing Lensman at the time and they came [to me] with their ideas for the new animation. At first, they were saying that the toy company Bandai was going to fund them. Since they were still university students creating amateur animation films, their budget was very limited, somewhere between 200,000 to 300,000 yen. So when Bandai proposed a budget that was 100 times more than what they used to use, they thought that they could do anything that they imagined. At that time I was already working as a professional, so I realized that their proposal wouldn’t fit into the budget proposed by Bandai. So I changed the numbers, we negotiated with Bandai and the production budget turned into 360 million yen. That negotiation eventually led to the development of Gainax. To make Bandai feel comfortable, I organized lots of experienced staff members around the amateurs. Back then, I was only 26 years old while the other veterans were around 40. At first opinions clashed between the different age groups, but eventually the older people took interest in what the young kids were doing.
TZN: From your perspective, what were the lessons learned from Royal Space Force from a business and creative standpoint after the fact? My understanding is that it didn’t make a profit in theaters, so what did you take away from that going forward?
HIROAKI INOUE: From a creator’s viewpoint, I learned what you need to do to help inexperienced young creators make a debut. Because they are young, they tend to go out of control. But I’ve learned ways to explain that behavior to important people and make them understand what they were trying to do, and to support them as much as I can. The producer from Bandai, Mr. Watanabe, took the effort to do so as well. He got some good comments from Hayao Miyazaki that what they were doing was the right thing. As for the business viewpoint, it took me a decade to collect what we spent on the budget.
TZN: Earlier this weekend you were talking about the OVA format of anime as a way to bring original creations to life. That seemed to be something very prominent in the 80s and 90s that has since died off a bit. What do you think accounts for OVAs being as common as they were back then?
HIROAKI INOUE: First of all, the VHS tape being introduced into households. Before this there were only two ways to watch anime: on TV or in the cinema. But as VHS was introduced and the price of it was lowering, we were able to create animation works for video. Right after VHS, the Laserdisc came out, and fans supporting that helped the OVA to gain its position in the 80s and 90s. There is one other reason: young creators had more ambition to jump over their predecessors. Because the OVA was a new format, it blew up the image [of animation] manufacturers held and they were able to accept that market. Unfortunately, recent creators don’t have the sort of spirit that they had back during the rise of the OVA, so the movement is dying out. And of course, the manufacturers are being more conservative. They’re more reluctant to accept new challenges.
TZN: Related to that, you were talking about how the the business model for anime needed to be reexamined given the decline in home video sales. You brought up the theatrical approach of debuting anime in the theater first. Do you see that succeeding going forward as it has for Yamato 2199 and Gundam Unicorn? These are for established properties, but the quality is also very high. Can that approach apply for new works as well?
HIROAKI INOUE: Well-known series like Gundam can make decent sales because the name value is very high. But as for new series, it would be difficult to make multiple installments in the way that Gundam Unicorn and Yamato have been doing it.
TZN: Returning to what you’ve worked on in your career, you were involved with Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories. As an anthology that involved different animation studios and creative staff, did that present a different sort of challenge for you as a producer?
HIROAKI INOUE: The difficult part was when others were doing the script or plot that was written by Katsuhiro Otomo when he was the producer. Before that, Katsuhiro Otomo had directed Akira. With a work as long as Akira, I thought if Otomo was to produce the whole length of Memories it would be too time-consuming. So I decided to have his part shouldered. At that time, I decided that was the best approach relating to the cost and scheduling issue. But looking back now, I’m thinking that it might have been better if Otomo had done the whole thing. There’s something that I found was good in producing Memories: meeting with Satoshi Kon. Perfect Blue started because he was involved in Memories.
TZN: Can you tell me more about that, your experience working on Perfect Blue? Back in those early days, what was your impression of Kon as a creator?
HIROAKI INOUE: I had an impression that he was a very rebellious creator, and very sharp. But for him, it was his first long feature film length production, so he himself didn’t know how much he could do. It was a very low-budget film to begin with, so it was originally scheduled to be completed in a short amount of time. But Satoshi Kon put in an enormous amount of effort so that he could extend the scheduling. Kon once published a book relating to the time when he was creating Perfect Blue, and within that book he’d written so many complaints about the producers. But my decision to choose him to work on Perfect Blue became the gateway to his work on other animation. For that, I am proud to have worked with him. No one would have believed that he would die at such a young age.
TZN: What was the origin of Perfect Blue? Did you come to Kon and ask him to come up with something, or did he come to you with a pitch?
HIROAKI INOUE: It was originally based on a novel and the author of that original novel brought the original idea to me. He said “I found a sponsor already, and I want you to produce it.” But the original novel, from my perspective, was too graphic and gory to be turned into a film. The plot was about someone who wants to become more like an idol, and it gets to the point where she kills a child and tries to wear the skin of the child. So that’s why I gave him one condition, that I could change the story. We left the basic frame of the story and we changed the story in discussions with Kon and Madhouse producer Maruyama. And at that point, I found a scenario writer, Mr. Sadayuki Murai. He was originally working in an advertising company, so he understood about the show business. The story that became what we know as Perfect Blue came from him. The four of us got together and wrote the story. So in that way, it was a very memorable work that I was involved in.
TZN: In closing, what do you look back on most fondly in your career, and is there anything you’re working on right now that you’d like to talk about?
HIROAKI INOUE: Founding Gainax and making Royal Space Force is one of my exciting moments in my career. Because I was in the same age group as the others, I enjoyed co-producing. I am not currently producing anything, but I hope to produce something that is targeting viewers outside of Japan and in Japan that either targets kids or is a theatrical animation film. I’ve actually started getting ready for producing the next Tenchi Muyo.
TZN: Really. Any idea when that might premiere?
HIROAKI INOUE: Not yet. That is to be announced!
Toonzone News is grateful to Mr. Inoue for his time and would like to thank the staff of Anime USA for their efforts in arranging this interview.