Okada Mari on Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans
May 15, 2016 11 Comments
This interview is the 30th in Bandai Channel’s ‘featured selection of creators’, which is slated to continue until the end of this year.1 In it, (in)famous screenwriter Okada Mari talks about her work on Iron-Blooded Orphans before delving into some of her older works. It’s pretty long, so this post is the translation of just that first half on her experience working with Director Nagai Tatsuyuki on Gundam. (Edit: the second half can be found here.)
Bandai Creators Selection #30: Mari Okada
Interviews where creators reflect on themselves and the shows they’ve worked on.
This month, we speak with Okada Mari, who is handling series composition for Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans, and who will be working on Kiznaiver and Mayoiga—The Lost Village this coming season.
Her previous works with Nagai Tatsuyuki were shows about adolescence: Toradora and AnoHana: The Flower We Saw That Day. She then found a broader range of fans through Hanasaku Iroha, a show from P.A. WORKS that was steeped in the colours of the countryside. She’s known as a screenwriter that gives flesh and blood to characters drawn on the page. Here, we ask Okada not only how she arranges a story for the screen, but also investigate how she brings each of those characters to life!
Edit: Interview conducted and written up by Nagakawa Ryūsuke
The timing was right: I wanted to depict “boys that are covered in mud”
Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans (2016) is finally approaching its finale. Could you tell us how you came to doing the series composition for a Gundam series?
Okada: Planning was underway for IBO a few years before I came in. At that time, I was working with director Nagai on a different show, so I remember we had a little conversation about it, like “I’m going to be working on Gundam.” “Really? Cool!” He’s known for working on lots of stories about adolescence, and he’d often lamented that “I haven’t got enough ‘metal’! I want to do a mecha show!” So when he told me, I went “So you got your wish, huh? That’s great!”
So it was something that was completely disconnected from yourself at the time?
Okada: That’s right (chuckles). After some time had passed, when they were well into planning, the director asked me for advice, like “There are a few things I’m trying to work out, and was wondering if you could help me talk them through.” And that’s how I got involved. By that stage in the planning process, they’d already settled on the broad worldview and the ideas they wanted to cover. So I’ve basically been organising the story according to what Director Nagai wants to achieve.
And how have you been going about that, going about organising the story into a TV series (of its length)?
Okada: First, the director told me the ideas he had in mind, about what he wanted to do for the story, and I just started putting things on paper. Come to think of it, the pattern this time is the exact opposite of how we’ve worked together in the past. For example, with AnoHana (2011), I was the one throwing out the kinds of characters and stories I wanted to depict, and he helped me iron them out. Even for The Anthem of the Heart (2015), although we discussed the broad direction before hand, it was I who first put pen to paper in terms of setting out the story. But this time, it’s all based on what Director Nagai wanted to do. So it’s been a really different—and refreshing—experience.
|The Anthem of the Heart|
And what was it like when you actually sat down to put the story together?
Okada: When the director first told me in detail what he was aiming for, the feeling of “I want to do this” welled up inside of me. You could almost say that character feelings were too much at the forefront… For example, there weren’t really that many battle scenes in the first cour; there was even an entire episode on the characters going shopping. So I suggested things like “Perhaps we should do something like this?” and so on and so forth. I mainly added to the serious side of things. Usually, I’m the one who goes wild without really thinking about how to proceed, and Director Nagai is the one who steps on the breaks and stops me. But this time, he was the one who started dancing in the nude, so-to-speak (laughs).
Was there anything that changed because you’d joined the team?
Okada: Hm…well, I believe the impression that it leaves has changed somewhat from what it was at the start. But we built the show’s narrative around the skeleton of what the director originally wanted to do, so I don’t think that’s changed.
The story is basically about an armed group escort a princess to earth, right? Was that there from the start?
Okada: Indeed. Right around that time, I’d been thinking that I wanted to write a story about “boys that are covered in mud,” or “boys that are somewhat ‘clannish’,” so it was perfect timing, really. Stories built on “sweat!” and “mud!” just aren’t something that I usually get the chance to write (laughs). And there is also something like the mafia in it, as well as a sense that “I want to challenge myself to do something that I’ve never done before.”
Then, can you tell us about the kinds of things you proposed?
Okada: The Alaya-Vijnana System and the mafia flavour were ideas that solidified from idle chat between the two of us. So it wasn’t as if the story’s background settings or details were already set in stone when I came in. Rather, there were many bits that crystallised as we talked them through. Even with Mikazuki and Orga, whilst it had already been decided that their relationship would be the centre of this story, it was through our discussions that we fleshed out their personalities and other detailed character settings.
Orga and Mikazuki — a unique relationship
On that topic, Orga and Mikazuki are core of this story, but there are many surprising/shocking things about them.
Okada: I guess so. You could say that they have a strong relationship that goes beyond the notion of depending on each other… Right from the start, we already had “A genius mobile suit pilot named Mikazuki and a group leader by the name of Orga.” But what their characters were like, or what their relationship was like — we didn’t really understand a lot of it until we wrote it out. Especially Mikazuki — the director and I had lots of discussions about “Just what would a bona fide genius be like?” If we turned him into someone who simply loves combat, then he’d just be one of many, so I tried to be careful about the balance there.
Mikazuki is a character that seems pretty hard to grasp at first glance.
Okada: He prioritises protecting his comrades, his Tekkadan family, and he really stands apart from the norm when it comes to sniffing out when he needs to do that, so his actions in that regard are pretty straightforward. But he’s rather dense in other areas. As a person, he’s missing something. In terms of working out his dialogue, I try to give him words that are rather flat, but which also give a sense of this really deep darkness… I wanted to make it very clear that there’s a hole in him somewhere, so that’s something I paid a lot of attention to.
I see. So that’s why I felt so surprised/shocked. Turning now to Orga, can you tell us about him?
Okada: Orga is really respected by the genius that is Mikazuki, but Mika leaves everything up to Orga’s judgment. That’s the pressure he feels. Furthermore, Mikazuki gradually gains more and more clarity in battle, so Orga feels as though he himself will be killed, devoured if he shows any weakness… He carries that tension with him all the time. A story centred around someone like Orga might actually be really rare. The commander doesn’t actually pilot a mobile suit, so ‘how can we show that he is cool’? That’s something that we also discussed. And Orga’s judgment starts to show some cracks after Biscuit’s death—he starts down a somewhat more dangerous path. But the director told me that he wanted the finale to have something of a happy note, and I was like “what’s to be done with that?”
Are you talking about ending of the last episode (“Tekkadan”)?
Okada: Yes. I was really wondering how I could bring them to such an ending from that point. That part gave me a lot of anxiety.
|He really did rely on Biscuit’s judgment and advice…|
Were there things that you did in order to capture the essence of the Tekkadan characters?
Okada: Many of them end their sentences with “ja nē yo.” They’re all really rough around the edges, so I had to figure out how to give them all some individuality within that. With original anime, there’s a tendency to give characters really extreme lines in order to clearly show what kind of person they are. But I just didn’t think that IBO was a story that could be told if I just filled it with lines like that. Rather, it’s a story that I want to depict through the conscientious accumulation of character relationships, scenes and other elements. Due to these conflicting ideas, it was really difficult at first to differentiate them from each other. But because I had originally wanted to write these kinds of rough, young male characters, it slowly became really fun for me.
That’s important for this kind of work, isn’t it?
Okada: Take, for example, elements such as the relationships between characters like Yamagi and Shino. People tend to think that I’m the one who introduced that idea, but it actually came from the director himself. In fact, you could say that I’m responsible for adding more ‘macho elements’ (laughs). Many of the things that people associate with me are actually Director Nagai’s ideas, and vice versa. That’s something that’s been really interesting about working on this show.
It’s great that this combination of the two of you has broken new ground. Speaking of which, how long have the two of you been working together?
Okada: Toradora aired in 2008, and we started planning for it quite a while before that, so it’s probably close to 10 years now. There aren’t all that many anime that we’ve worked on together, though. (Toradora) character designer Tanaka Masayoshi, too, is someone that I’ve only worked with on three shows. But since we work together from the planning stage right through to production, there hasn’t been a single month when I haven’t met up with Director Nagai—we’re always working with each other. I really do feel blessed to have someone like that in my career and life, even though I’m working on so many different things.
And it’s interesting that, even though it’s the same people again, what you produce has a different taste.
Okada: Whenever I challenge myself to do something new, I tend to start thinking that “I want to do this with a new group of staff.” But even with the same staff, we always come up with new things. If we think along those lines, then it should also be possible to find something new even within the same genre. Just now, we were talking about the merits of character relationships. But in the creation of anime, in the end, I have really felt that it’s the relationships between the staff that bring a lot to the table.
The feelings enveloped in the keyword of “family”
But let’s not talk just about the boys—could you please tell us a little about the heroine?
Okada: About Kudelia, at first, I thought that what the director wanted was something like “the idealistic rich young lady, ignorant of the ways of the world.” But then he told me that he “wanted something like Hanasaku Iroha (2011), which had me wondering what in the world he meant. So I went back to look at the protagonist from that show, Ohana—she’s someone who really goes all out to give her best, and that just brings her a lot of painful experiences, right (chuckles)? But in watching her keep running around like that, the people around her then become infected by her enthusiasm. If that’s the case, then let’s just have her be like Ohana, running headlong into these painful experiences. The point is that “she’s a heroine who grows up.” She does have a lot of charisma and talent, but she doesn’t know how to use it, and that’s why she keeps writhing in agony. As a result, I feel that we probably made her a bit more of a punching bag (chuckles).
In some ways, it’s a bit like a road movie, albeit one about a journey from Mars to Earth.”
Okada: Director Nagai’s one line description of the story was, right from the beginning, that “They head to Earth from Mars, stopping by the Dort Colonies along the way.” But the details of the story changed steadily. The side plot with Ein and Lieutenant Crank, for example, was an element that was added later down the track. He also didn’t want to set up any particular actor as Tekkadan’s “clear enemy,” so I was careful to keep that in mind. Instead, they are approached and tossed around by those who want to make use of them. Through this journey, the world around them and the relationships within it change at blistering pace. But even then, Tekkadan doesn’t bend or break. That’s how it was all set up.
|The Tekkadan family…|
An important point in the depiction of Tekkadan is that it’s something like a pseudo-family, isn’t it?
Okada: According to the director, that’s something that came from me, but I was like, “It did?” I don’t really remember. Orga’s way of thinking—“Always together,” or “Let’s all find happiness, together”—might be considered idealistic, but on the other hand, they’re also shackles in a way. Rather than “wanting to be free,” perhaps what they want is something to bind and restrain them. They’re kids that have been brought up not as individuals, but as tools to be used and disposed of, so perhaps they feel that there are many things they lack. And that would be why they want to shoulder some heavy burden and fight for something.
Taking on some heavy burden in order to find value in themselves: that’s something that’s incredibly human, isn’t it? Though also rather twisted, in some ways.
Okada: A “family” isn’t something that only has positive sides. Come to think of it, there have been many dysfunctional families in the shows that I have worked on (chuckles), but I don’t mean that it’s all bad either. The desire to be bound by something that you cannot run away from is human. And the kids in Tekkadan have that desire in spades. For example, in episode 8 (“The Form of Closeness”), Naze tells Orga “That’s not what you call comrades. That’s family,” and he’s like “Family, huh?” We’ve chosen the word ‘family’ not just because it has warm connotations, but also because it’s something that fits that notion of wanting bonds that are there whether you want them or not. But the ‘family’ we’ve depicted is a little warped, we haven’t gone with something that you’d empathise with. So it’s definitely not a classic “family drama.”
The Gundam Franchise, which captivates viewers with characters that feel real
I also wanted to ask: what has your own experience with Gundam been up till now?
Okada: I saw bits and pieces of the original Mobile Suit Gundam when it was rebroadcast on TV when I was a kid, but otherwise, I’ve only come to it as an adult. Chasing after Director Tomino (Yoshiyuki)’s Z Gundam (1985) and ZZ Gundam (1986)… Oh, G Gundam (1994) is the only one that I saw as it was airing. Just watching the opening animation gave me the feeling that “Something incredible has began”—it was a huge shock to my system (laughs).
Like, “The Earth is the (Boxing) Ring”…
Okada: And it was really cool. But in the end, the image of “The First Gundam” is the strongest. I watched it again when I’d become a creator myself, and I just wanted to be involved in creating something like that. That’s how amazing it was. The battle scenes, too, but most of all, the way that the characters came across on the screen gave me goosebumps. Like, it really felts like they were alive on the screen. Many things have been said about them, but that’s precisely why (I loved them).
Do you mean that they felt real?”
Okada: That’s right. Their lines didn’t feel preordained,2 but more like words that flew out of nowhere. That’s something that’s completely normal in our world, but to hear them come out of a television show, to the extent that they’d even make me feel physically sick from time to time. I was completely blown away by how it had been made.
Was that something that you kept in mind for IBO?
Okada: It was. But I think that it was even more important for the director. When he talks about Gundam or Tomino, you can sense that he loves it from the bottom of his heart. Because of that, I think that all manner of Gundam ingredients were just naturally added to IBO—there are lots of moments where you’d think “This is Gundam alright!” It’s not about the settings or how it all looks, though, but rather in the flavour or impression that it leaves with you.
And through that, I do feel that IBO is expanding the possibilities of the Gundam series.
Okada: Thank you very much. That kind of praise makes me very happy.
The rest of the interview is about some of the earlier series that Okada has worked on, with a focus on the formative experiences in her career. Besides the directors of the series she started on, she lists Kawamori Shoji as someone who inspires her, and mentions both Kiznaiver and Mayoiga, the two series that she’s worked on for the spring season. There are a few other interesting details about how she works, but I have yet to decide whether I want to translate all of it…
This is the 5th post in my “On Anime ‘Writing’” project. If you liked it, I hope you’ll take a look at the others, too.
Disclaimer: Please do not post this translation anywhere else, though feel free to link to it if you wish. As always, the translation is entirely mine, as are any mistakes and misinterpretations. Please let me know if you spot any–though I hope there are none! –karice