Everything We Learned From Otakon's Gundam Wing Panel

gundam wing the boys are back in town
The protagonists of Gundam Wing from the Japanese Blu-Ray inner box art. (c) Sunrise

Gundam Wing might be an old anime (it aired in 1996 in Japan and on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block in 2000), but it’s still got loads of fans, as a packed room at Otakon demonstrated this Saturday. Scriptwriter Katsuyuki Sumisawa and producer Hideyuki Tomioka spoke to fans about the process of making the iconic anime and took questions from them as well. Here’s what we learned.

Tomioka considers Wing his most representative title as well as the one he spent the most “blood and sweat” making. “I really appreciate how much the US fans love it,” he said, expressing his gratitude for the crowd’s lively reaction to an episode 1 screening.

Gundam Wing was Tomioka’s first Gundam series. After G Gundam aired, he was approached by the Sunrise CEO, who asked him to take on the project of a new Gundam series. At first, Tomioka didn’t much like the idea because he was asked to produce this project in June for an air date of the following year, which was a very rushed timetable.

His colleagues, Tomioka, Sumisawa and Gundam Wing director Masashi Ikeda were all working on the Lord of Lords Ryu Knight series as well as the OVAs at the time. To deliver Gundam Wing on schedule, Tomioka asked Sumisawa to focus on Gundam Wing even if it meant the delay of the Ryu Knight OVA. As soon as Tomioka received Sumisawa’s scripts, he’d ask director Ikeda to start production on Gundam Wing.

Sumisawa’s reaction to being asked to pen Gundam Wing was one of disbelief. “Mr. Tomioka, you said you didn’t want to do a Gundam series, so why are you doing one now?” he recalled. Sumisawa also noted how exhausted the G Gundam staff appeared around the offices. “They were all kind of somber and tired all the time. I was like, Gundam series are not meant to be made by humans.”

Tomioka said the most challenging part of Gundam Wing was the punishing schedule. “It was supposed to start airing in April and they only told us the June before. We had the bare bones of a concept, no stories, no storyboards, so we had to start with even the planning committee with less than a year out. I don’t know if that would even be possible today,” he said.

While they managed to do it, Tomioka noted, “Part of the problem was that Director Ikeda was very enthusiastic. He kept writing more and more episodes. But because he kept taking so much time writing the script, I was like, ‘Wait! We have to go into production now! We don’t have any time left!’ So I had to put on my producer hat and switch him out with other directors.”

Production was so challenging, Tomioka aired his concerns to Sunrise execs. “It was such hell,” said Tomioka, that he told the CEO, “‘Please, just fire me’...I really thought I was going to die.” However, Tomioka wasn’t going to get away from it that easily.

“It’s a piece of cake to fire a director, but there’s no precedent for firing a producer, so you have to stick it out, man,” responded the CEO. It comes perhaps as no surprise that Tomioka’s happiest moment during production was the feeling of overwhelming relief once it was over.

Sumisawa’s fondest memory of production was screening episode 1 in front of the executives, sponsors and other bigwigs. At first, the Sunrise execs were not especially impressed since Sunrise is known for producing a lot of mecha anime so battle scenes were no big deal.

“But then it switches to the academy scene,” said Sumisawa. “They were like, ‘What? What’s going on?’ They’re all fidgeting. Of course, there’s that last line — ‘ I’m going to kill you’ — and they’re like ‘Wait, what? What just happened?’ I so wanted to laugh, but of course, with all these bigwigs around, I had to keep a straight face and that was really hard.”

As far as challenges and painful experiences, Sumisawa recalled episode 10, the infamous episode where Heero self-destructs his Gundam. This unforgettable moment was not part of Sumisawa’s original story arc.

“In fact, I had submitted the script for that episode, and it came back for revisions and corrections, and it said, ‘Gundam self-destructs.’ I went to the director and said, ‘Um, excuse me, you wrote in “Gundam self-destructs.”’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, don’t worry, I’ll do the storyboards and we’ll blow it up to smithereens!’”

Apart from having the self-destruct story arc foisted on him, Sumisawa had already started writing more of the storyline that now could not be used as Gundam Wing was no longer present. This wouldn’t be the first time something was inserted into his script that wasn’t part of his original plan. The battle between Libra and Peacemillion towards the end of the show was also not in his original script.

Tomioka added more details on exactly how onerous the Gundam Wing production schedule was. “This is not typical, it’s very atypical for Japanese animation production,” he emphasized. “Normally, you’d have a meeting where you throw out plot ideas, and you have two weeks for the first draft of the script, and you have another meeting, and you have a second draft and a third draft. Usually it takes about four to five weeks to come up with a final draft and then you go into storyboarding and production of animation.

“With Wing, I’d have the meeting and say, ‘I need the first draft in three days.’ As soon as I’d get the first draft from Sumisawa, whether it’s midnight or morning, we would immediately meet and I’d say, ‘I need the second draft by tomorrow. So I feel really bad for Mr. Sumisawa.”

Sumisawa added that he was actually working on Inuyasha and Naruto at the same time. “So three days on Gundam Wing first draft? No problem,” he said with some jovial sarcasm.

Next, Tomioka and Sumisawa shared their favorite scenes from Gundam Wing. Tomioka’s comes from the very end of the series, where Quatre recognizes Heero as the Heart of Outer Space. “I love all of the scene, all the animation. It’s from the last episode. When we were finally getting to the point of dubbing the voices with the original Japanese voice cast, I was so happy that we were so close to finishing it that I actually got very misty-eyed. I also said to myself, ‘ Mission Accomplished.’”

Sumisawa’s favorite scene is the notorious cafeteria scene, where Quatre, Duo and Wufei are hanging out in the lunchroom on the Peacemillion. “This is a pretty weird scene too, isn’t it?” said Sumisawa. “Wufei’s this naive guy, who’s really blue because his feelings got hurt and he’s sensitive, and here you’ve got Quatre going, ‘Dude, I realize that you’re sensitive, but you’ve got to realize that women’s feelings are even easier to hurt.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’”

When asked to give a message to American fans who may not have seen the show yet, encouraging them to give Gundam Wing a chance, Tomioka said, “You’ve got these five terrorist Gundams — but I think they’re stylish — and of course the five pilots are also very stylish. And as you can even tell from the first episode, it’s a very fun story,” Tomioka said.

Gundam Wing ’s not really canon Gundam ,” Sumisawa explained. “It’s not orthodox Gundam; it’s definitely not in Japan. But I feel you guys are lucky if you started watching Gundam with Wing . For those of you who hadn’t seen Gundam Wing before, don’t you want to know what the rest of the story is? Each episode is a nailbiter at the end, so I encourage you to watch through the rest of the show,” Sumisawa said.

Finally, there was a Q&A portion with fans where we learned a few more anecdotes about the making of Gundam Wing.  

In response to a question about Heero’s backstory, Tomioka explained the only concept Gundam Wing had to go by early on.

“To tell you the true story about how Gundam Wing was made, we actually had a request — really an order — from the sponsor,” said Tomioka. “The purpose of Gundam was to sell merch, specifically the plastic models. So we were told, you have to make a TV series that has five Gundams in it. The first one has to transform and fly. The second one has an extending arm. The third one’s got to shoot lots of things out of its chest. The other two we’ll leave up to you. So that was what we got.

“And then in terms of characters and their names and personality, that was all decided by Director Ikeda, including Heero Yuy. Then those concepts were given to Sumisawa and he was the one who fleshed them out to be real people.”

Sumisawa added, “This is something that Ikeda told me at the time. These five characters, they’re very unique personalities and also distinct personalities. Let’s say in school you have a class of about 40 kids. There’s always that one kid in that class that stands out. He might be ostracized, he might be bullied, but in any case you have that one stand-out kid. Here you have five of them.”

One fan asked about the possibility of any follow-ups or sequels aside from Endless Waltz . “I would love to make more Gundam Wing, but as you can see, I’m getting really old or gray, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to,” said Tomioka.

“Actually, there is sort of a sequel called Frozen Teardrop, it’s a novel that I wrote,” said Sumisawa. “Unfortunately it has not yet been adapted into anime. I really want to make it, but we’re busy with Origin right now too… so hopefully one day…? I mean, I’m not a spring chicken either.”

As far as character and mecha design inspiration, Tomioka had proposed several character designers, but Ikeda ultimately went with Shuko Murase, whom he had worked with previously on Samurai Troopers. Tomioka liked Murase’s work. Mecha design was left up to Sunrise’s in-house team of talented mecha designers, though Tomioka and director Ikeda had final pick.

Tomioka added, “In Japan, especially in anime, the producer’s job is to make sure that the schedule is kept on schedule, so timekeeper, and also budget keeper. While the director has more of the quality control role, I still oversee the quality control as well. Unfortunately, I don’t necessarily influence the character design or mecha design.”

Sumisawa spoke about the difference between writing for an adapted series versus an orginal series. “For me at least, it’s fundamentally the same process. I don’t feel like I do things differently and I feel like you need the same abilities as a screenwriter whether you’re doing adaptation from an original work, whether it’s manga or not, or you’re working on an original script. In fact, I have to say, the interesting thing about Gundam Wing was I was able to rush through and do the script because it was original. On the other hand, even manga-based anime, you are on a deadline, so you have to do it really quickly. It’s the same theory no matter what.”

In response to a question about the influence of war history on Gundam Wing, Tomioka said the themes of war and sacrifice were Ikeda’s intent. “There is no right about war, there is no justice in war. Those who end up being sacrificed most are the young people,” said Tomioka. “I recently had a chance to speak with Director Ikeda again. At the time, he was considered forward-thinking for reflecting on the past and looking towards the future. It’s scary how timely the story is now. It’s an example of history parroting and informing art.”

Both Tomioka and Sumisawa learned very quickly about Gundam Wing ’s popularity overseas.  While Tomioka said every twist in the scenario was a surprise to him, he shared an anecdote about the show’s first opening theme, “Just Communication.”

“When the recording producer handed me the song, and I heard it for the first time, it didn’t have that opening jangle. It just started, ‘Just one beat,’ and I said ‘nuh-uh, no way. You have to add an intro.’ And that’s why you have an intro now.”

Finally, Tomioka and Sumisawa addressed the issue of time. If production hadn’t been so rushed, what might they have done differently?

Sumisawa said, “The question is, if we had more time, would we have come up with a better story. And the answer is actually no. Because, just because you have more time doesn’t mean  you come up with a better product. A cornered mouse will bite the cat, and I feel like we came up with a better product because we were under such pressure so we really had to crank out our best thing right away. In the industry we call that a lucky happening.”

Sumisawa also talked about what might have happened if the episode 10 self-destruct hadn’t been part of the story. “If the Wing Gundam hadn’t self-destructed, it would have had more battle scenes and more action. I believe the story was supposed to be that they would go to Antarctica, but of course they couldn’t because there was no Wing Gundam. And then I had to write about having to rebuild the Wing Gundam, and that was even more work.” (Heero does eventually end up going to Antarctica… to rebuild Wing Gundam.)

Tomioka said, “I would have made sure that the animation was better quality. Both the individual cels, but also overall. I feel bad with so many passionate fans out there to have disappointed you with what we did end up putting on screen.” (The crowd hastened to reassure Tomioka that it was fine.)

Did you learn anything new from the Gundam Wing panel? What would you have asked Tomioka and Sumisawa? Feel free to let us know in the comments section below.


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