Shuko Murase is a director and animator whose work has been a huge influence on many fans. He has been heavily involved in the Gundam franchise for many years, as an animation director on Gundam F91 and the character designer for Gundam Wing. His debut as a creator and director came 20 years ago with Witch Hunter Robin, and since then he has helmed many other projects including Ergo Proxy, Gangsta, Genocidal Organ, and most recently, the Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway’s Flash films. Murase’s directorial style and stories are known for being as contemplative as they are gritty, with a focus on realism in character animation, dialogue, shot choices, and lighting, taking influences from film noir. Shuko Murase’s work as a director and designer is seriously stacked and singularly stylistic; an interesting artist with an idiosyncratic approach and philosophy about his art.
Last year, Shuko Murase was invited as a guest to Anime NYC to promote his work on the Hathaway’s Flash films with a special screening of the first feature. We were honored to have the opportunity to interview director Murase in a press junket-style interview session alongside other outlets, asking him questions about his growth as a director and why he’s drawn to the animated medium. Throughout the interview, Murase not only explored his relationship with his work but also muses on the state of the animation industry and the future of traditional animation and the mecha genre, expressing a longing for a mecha resurgence and a steadfast belief in the artistic merits of traditional animation’s ability to compete with CG animation in evoking realism.
Before the interview started, I’d recognized the interviewer as Dr. Mari Morimoto, a seasoned translator and interpreter who Manga Mavericks listeners will remember us interviewing and having on our Saint Seiya retrospective in 2019. Coincidentally, I’d last seen Mari when she interpreted for Yoshiyuki Tomino at Anime NYC back in 2019, so it was serendipitous that I’d encounter her again at the con as she was interpreting for another Gundam alum on behalf of Sunrise. As we were exchanging business cards, Mari remarked “we’ve met before, right?,” recognizing me from when I interviewed Tomino, though understandably she confessed to me via e-mail a few days later while she knew I seemed familiar she hadn’t put it together who I was until after the con was over. Regardless, it was a delight to see and talk to her again after so long, and I hope we can have her back on the show sometime in a future discussion!
I was one of about a dozen outlets who were granted the opportunity to interview Murase-san in a round-robin interview at a round table, basically everyone getting to ask a question in clockwise order. Since I was the person sitting closest to Murase-san on his right I was able to ask the first question!
SHUKO MURASE INTERVIEW | ANIME NYC 2022
Manga Mavericks: To start off, it’s the 20th anniversary of your directorial debut with Witch Hunter Robin. I was curious, looking back at the project, what were your favorite experiences working on it, and how do you feel you’ve grown as a director in the 20 years since then?
SM: So, actually, it’s interesting that you’d ask that because I’m so busy, and I’ve been so busy lately, that I haven’t had to think back even on the fact that it’s the 20th anniversary of my debut. The only thing is that I heard it (Witch Hunter Robin) was popular in the states, but it unfortunately wasn’t as popular in Japan, it never quite hit. So, I don’t hear much about it, or even get asked about it much in Japan. However, you know, when I’ve usually [seen] when I come to the United States or when I’m here for one or two days that there are still many fans that are. Witch Hunter Robin is very beloved, and I’m very very grateful to know that.
Personally, what I had thought was that it might be not a one-shot, but I… it became very clear early on that it would be very difficult to continue the story. I always wanted to, and envisioned that it would not be just that one piece of work. So I hope that someday, in some shape or form, we can bring the next installment. But I don’t… I wouldn’t be able to say when or how.
MM: Oh cool, thank you!
Samuel from J-Cast Media & Productions: Hey, I’m Samuel from J-Cast Media and Productions. I want to say your character designs, your animation style, like it is legendary! Like I became a Gundam fan because of this style, this thing. The way that you create detail with 2D animation. So my question for you is about the new transition from 2D animation to 3D animation, and how there’s almost something lost at times with the details in 3D animation versus 2D animation. I mean, I think that even with your Hathaway films, you still do have those rich details there, and I was curious about your perspective of the details you don’t want to leave out. Because I was… to me, it allowed the emotion of the characters, it allows the story to progress much more richer and deeper, and I was curious for your perspective on that, and especially now.
SM: When you say “losing the detail,” what specifically do you mean?
JCM&P: Sometimes with the 3D conversion, you miss certain nuances of a person.
SM: I need some details.
JCM&P: Like sometimes with expressional aspects…
SM: So, as you know, I myself started out as a hand-drawn artist, and I still consider myself an illustrator and artist. So, this is kind of an opinion on the philosophical or personal, my personal beliefs on this. I do believe that no matter how advanced 3D technology gets that we do lose things in the art. How the art. There are certain details that are just more impactful and much more detailed when it’s drawn by hand. But, it’s kind of sad to sense this, to put it this way, that the creators of the traditional process of anime in Japan right now, the demands of it, unfortunately require us to use and have these 3D. But what I’ve been thinking more and more is that… is using 3D, though, also to help preserve the way that we used to draw 2D. And so, to use 3D to enhance 2D but also preserve 2D, and not necessarily as a substitute, per se. And there are a lot of young animators coming up the pipeline that are working very hard, so I think we’ll be able to go back to the time when we’ll be able to produce a lot of 2D. High-quality, good 2D anime works as well.
JCM&P: That’s great! Thank you so much.
Unknown Outlet: Yeah uh, I just personally want to say this, and I just want to give my roses. Gundam Wing was a series I watched when I was 4 years old, and I’m 25, so this is definitely a full-circle moment for me. So my question is, what do you think leads to this, like, constant wave of, like, new generations of Gundam fans? Like, apart from the amazing mech designs, and also just hitting on these universal themes of war. What do you think personally is the… the contributing factor?
SM: So actually even before Gundam Wing there was, of course, G Gundam and, I don’t really know if this is really something that I should be the one to be saying, but Sunrise, you know, has even from back then been very… has prioritized and treasured the fact that you don’t have the stories just set in the Universal Century timeline, right? It makes you kind of like… you can have all the original works where they’re still Gundam – part of the Gundam world, part of the Gundam universe – because you have the common tie of mobile suits, the Gundams. And so, whether it’s, you know, Gundam Wing, or even Hathaway, and the newest Witch From Mercury, we have that creative freedom. Each production team, we can come up with new stories because we still have that – the mobile suit, the Gundams – and then the war, and tie everything together, and so we can come up with completely original stories that still somehow tie back into the original, and so I think that’s also why we’re able to keep producing new Gundam series that can also appeal to and endeavor to draw in new fans because it doesn’t get stale.
UO: Thank you.
Stephen from Loading Snacks: I’m Stephen from Loading Snacks. First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time to sit down and meet with us today. Also, thank you for Gundam Wing. That’s what introduced me to the world of Gundam back when I was just, like, three years old. The question I have for you; Now you have all this history with Gundam, is there another franchise out there you’d like to do a feature film for that just you haven’t had the chance to get and why?
Mari Morimoto: So, specifically a feature film?
SM: So, actually, of course Gundam started out as just one of many of the mechs genre in anime, and unfortunately I feel that for the obvious that this robot anime genre has died out. There’s currently… it doesn’t really exist anymore, and that… I feel like Gundam may be the only one. I don’t want to say maybe that Gundam helped lead to the rest going away, but certainly Gundam’s one of the only ones I can think of now as part of this wonderful rich genre that has a rich history. But it’s also one of the things where I’m… it’s not that like I went out seeking to work on Gundam series or what I asked for. It really happened kinda serendipitously and that, not anything that I achieved or thought, you know “oh, I’m going to work on more Gundam.” But, on the other hand, I also really can’t imagine how… what other franchises are out there in anime in Japan, especially one that I would want to be part of, so I like… I never thought of it. But I can’t think of one on the spot either.
LS: Thank you.
Cody from Anime News Network: Yes! Yes, so there’s one thing you mentioned in the afternoon screening yesterday that I thought was interesting. That you said that some of the scenes in Hathaway were visually… in trying to essentially be do-overs and do better certain things that you had been trying to do but felt weren’t as successful in Gundam F91. Are there any other projects where you’d intentionally been trying to fix or do something that you regretted on a previous project?
SM: So actually, if you were at the Q&A yesterday you would’ve also remembered that I mentioned that in particular in terms of F91 and Hathaway, the other common tie between the two works was director Tomino, and so that also kind of helped me really work hard on correcting what I felt what I didn’t do well enough in F91 in Hathaway.
But this is universal, and it’s not unique to just the Gundam works that I’ve been a part of. I’m always constantly doing and trying to fix in my next and in my current production what I felt like I didn’t do well in the previous, and I’ve been doing his for several decades now. So this is nothing new, and this is nothing unique to Gundam. So, for example, to give you an actual example, I tried to fix in Ergo Proxy what I didn’t do well enough in Witch Hunter Robin, and so on and so forth. I feel like this is a continuous, constant, quest of avenging myself.
Seth Burns from Anime Herald: Just speaking of Tomino-san, for Hathaway, he said “don’t make this about newtypes, make this about youth.” How did you do that?
SM: So actually, those exact words are what director Tomino had told me, because when I first found out that I would be working on Hathaway, I went along with producer Ogata to see director Tomino and pay my respects, and that’s when he had said, you know, “oh, yeah, I don’t want this to be a newtype story.” But I feel that director Tomino himself has changed over the years from when this was conceived and written. He had written the Hathaway novels quite a while before, and I don’t mean to sound disrespectful, so I say this the most humbly, but I feel like he may’ve forgotten a little bit about the plot of the story, because when I myself read the novels…
You know, I think maybe deep down that that’s what he had wished for, what he had desired was to have a story that’s not about the newtypes. But it… when I read it, I was like “this was all about newtypes.” And I feel that if you remove everything about newtypes from the story that it’s not going to come together the way it actually does in the novels.
For, to give you a literal example, you have the scene between Gigi and Hathaway in front of the pool at the hotel where they just briefly contact and all this information gets exchanged and, you know, I think also there’s a central theme or a central background of the story is that this is not only a world where newtypes exist but it’s a world that has come to be because the Newtypes were needed. The past generation made mistakes, and it’s a world where the consequences of those mistakes are playing out.
So, you know I certainly took in director Tomino’s words and advice, but it’s one of those… with all due respect, I slightly disagree.
Question from Unknown Outlet: I saw the original Gundam series when I was in my 30s. I’m in my 70s and I’m still in love with Gundam. I like the stories, I like the themes, I like the giant robots. But what I was wondering about was will the characters from the original series come back or continue in new stories?
SM: So, I’m afraid that I’m not in a position to really talk about it much only because even Gundam Hathaway is the anime adaptation of the novels that director Tomino himself wrote… and then director Tomino wrote them as a sequel, to maybe not the “original” original series, but certainly they follow the events following Char’s Counterattack. And so, none of us I think have even, even perhaps director Tomino himself, have really thought about what a continuation of stories would be.
Are there a continuation of stories, and what will they be? No one has really written anything yet, thought of anything yet. I mean, perhaps part of the reason why others have not is because we’re all wondering if maybe director Tomino might come back and continue those old stories himself. So, it’s a very big unknown.
Question from Unknown Outlet: Hi, I’m also in a similar boat to what he is with Wing. I just want to say that I am… I grew up watching Gundam Wing. That was my first introduction to the franchise and it’s just an honor to talk with you, for you to chat with us about the franchise as a whole. My question to you is, what does the legacy of Gundam mean to you as a director and animator?
SM: So, it’s a bit of a difficult question, but I would say when I first entered the industry, it had been kind of at the back of my mind “wow, it would be kind of cool if I would ever be… have the chance to participate and/or be part of the Gundam franchise. And then, to actually have been able to achieve that, to not just take part in the Gundam franchise but to have been… to have the high honor of working directly with Director Tomino, and to be given the opportunity to design characters for Endless Waltz.
But I think also it’s because Gundam is such a behemoth that the franchise in general were… the Gundam itself is a character, right? And also, it’s allowed such a fertile ground to give rise to so many of these, like I said/mentioned before, all these other series that are not just part of the UC timeline but separate from it. Because in my mind the Universal Century timeline and Wing are very separate. And yet, it’s because of the Universal Century and the original series that something like Wing was able to take form. And not just Wing, but also something so… as a such a big challenge like bringing Hathaway into the moving image. So I’m very grateful to have had that opportunity and I want to say thank you to Gundam and the Gundam universe.
Honey’s Anime: I’m going to try not to embarrass myself with the pronunciation, but “tsuki Gigi” – I love Gigi! The character of Gigi Andalucia, to me as a fan, is always one of the best part of the film. The mannerisms, and even the voice acting, reminded me of Holly Golightly, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Reminded me of Audrey Hepburn. Was that intentional? Because she feels very much like that character to me.
(to Mari) Sorry to give you a difficult one!
Mari: No no, that’s ok!
SM: So, I would have to say that I didn’t conscientiously think of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in particular Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of Holly Golightly in that. But, now that I think about it, back when I was doing a lot of character design, I did have a Holly Golightly-like character in one of my previous works where I poured into the character design, and at the time I had watched a few of her movies, so perhaps there is maybe a lingering influence from then? But it certainly wasn’t anything deliberate.
Going back to Gigi herself, director Tomino definitely penned a lot of detail about her mannerisms, and character, personality, in the novel, and I definitely very carefully lifted that from the original work, but also the mannerisms of people around me, and I kept that in mind as well into creating what you see on screen.
Question from Unknown Outlet: Now you’ve spent a lot of time in New York City with the people, fans, and press, have you… how do you feel about this anime movement, you know, in general, passing from one generation to the other, expanding in the United States, and what would you like to see the anime go into in the future, Especially the… Gundama and the model/robot anime?
Mari: So, the first part of the question is about anime in general though, not just robot anime or Gundam?
UO: Yeah, how do you feel about right now?
SM: So, in terms of answering the first part of the question, I feel that maybe in terms of just US anime properties, but even in Japan, I’m not really at the center of the anime movement or the core of the anime movement, and I actually say this a lot to my staff as well that “hey guys, what we do is more of the old style from the early 90s, where we do anime that’s a little more realistic looking and thematically as well. But also the retail click – the connection to the retail. Whereas I think that what is more central to anime in Japan and perhaps in the US is something more intuitive, more cerebral. Yeah, Gundam Wing, I feel… back in the day of Gundam Wing I feel like maybe we were closer to that center, but right now I feel like I’m more on the edge or the fringe of the anime movement. But yet, I think that, you know, I think that’s what anime is. Maybe not should be, but is, is that it’s the simplistic 2D sense and I think that it’s still very entertaining, which is why I put my energy into that. But I certainly don’t think I’m at the core.
In terms of the second part of your question, I don’t necessarily really know myself where I think the anime industry is going to be going, but in terms of worldwide anime itself, I kind of mentioned this earlier too, but I really feel Gundam’s the really only robot anime left. And, I’m a little sad about that. I… I would like to see more robot anime. Not necessarily a resurgence, what’s already been done, but it would… I think it would be really cool to see new original stories involving robots. So I think that’s really how it ends with that.
Question from Unknown Outlet: How do you feel about the growth of anime culture in the United States? Are you surprised at all when you come over?
Mari: You mean the fan culture?
UO: Yeah, if that’s ok.
SM: So… anime, that is historically of course in Japan, came out in manga originally, and over a very long period of time. And so even though it may not seem new, it was a new genre, a new way of doing things in Japan. So then I think that part of the appeal in the US is because it’s coming over and it’s fresh, it’s different. And I personally don’t know if I could really predict how long Americans will maintain interest in anime. But, you know, it will certainly continue to be produced in Japan because that’s where it started. The roots… the roots are very deep.
And yet, I wonder if we’ll see more anime, even if it’s anime-like or it’s influenced by anime’s animation production and styles in the United States, and not just or limited to the United States but elsewhere in the world, and… and that would be a good thing. I mean, it may have started in Japan but it shouldn’t or not necessarily just be limited to Japan, and you know so in that sense I think if such things persist then that would be a good thing.
UO: Thank you.
Manga Mavericks: So, your directorial style has been described as gritty, realistic-feeling, and heavily influenced by film noir. I was just curious why you’re drawn to telling stories feeling like that, and what you feel your approach to animation has lent to your adaptation and interpretation of Gundam Hathaway?
SM: So, actually I would say it was shortly before I entered the industry myself that I felt like japanese anime had finally achieved more realism than it had before. So, in terms of being able to portray realism within the animated format, within anime – so when I entered the industry that’s what I felt I wanted to pursue, and I… that was before I was a director of course. So I pursued that as a key animator and as an anime animation assistant,. But then, I think that continued on in my career as I grew as to being a director, and so I think that’s where my directorial style came, it’s because that’s what the industry itself had achieved.
However, like I just mentioned, I don’t think that’s necessarily, you know, quite at the center of the anime movement now, and part of that is because I think is because of at some point in the last few decades, CG has advanced quite suddenly and quite far, and until then I think once of the biggest appeals of anime is that you have things that had not – do not – exist, or had not yet existed, or had not yet been developed or invented yet, or creatures that we on earth have not seen, but anime was able to make it, depict it, realistically, right? You would see and you would think that “oh, that’s not a creature that exists on earth” or “that’s not a technology that we would ever see.” And then, CG suddenly caught up. So there was… there’s a part of the industry who knows “well, since we can do that in CG, why do we have to do it with hand-drawn anime or hand-drawn animation anymore, and we don’t need to excuse, use, you know, the original anime style to depict that.
But I feel personally that I think that there’s still something to be gained by achieving something in 2D. Like, why do we have to use CG? Why can’t we still do it the old-school way? And I think that there’s something really special in that.
MM: I agree, thank you!
Honey’s Anime: If I can inquire a clarification?…
Mari: Yeah, sure.
HA: Uh is he… with the previous question he was asked, is CG gotten so realistic that anime in its handrawing is counter to that? Like how when photographs came out, it spawned Claude Monet and the impressionist movement?
SM: So, it’s not so much that… It’s not an exact analogy of what you said. It’s not so much about photography replacing…
SM: …artists, the hand painters. It’s more that I feel that in… in terms of the moving image it… you can create something photo-like with CG, but I think, like, producing something equally photo-like with hand-drawn 2D adds more to that.
SM: So it’s not so much one of the other thing. I think that being able to depict something that looks CG but isn’t…
SM: …is where I think adds a special something to it.
HA: Thank you.
After the interview, one of the interviewers asked if Murase-san could sign his Gundam Wing anime cel. Asking for autographs is generally considered an inappropriate interviewing faux-pas, and Mari and producer Ogata told them that no, he couldn’t and didn’t have time, as they had another engagement to attend immediately after. However, Mari invited everyone to visit the Gundam booth about an hour later, as both producer Ogata and Murase-san would be part of a very special stage event from 2:30pm to 4pm, the first part of which would be spotlighting The Witch From Mercury. Unfortunately, this event was at the same time as the Hajime Isayama panel, so I wasn’t able to go to it myself. ANN’s interviewer remarked how they saw producer Ogata at the screening of Hathaway the previous day, and Mari pointed out “he’s right there actually” – he’d been standing at the back of the room during the interview the entire time, which everyone had a good laugh about. We then quickly took headshots of Murase-san and producer Ogata without their masks on.
After the interview, me and another interviewer quickly caught up with Mari, asking about her experience returning to in-person interviews for the first time since the pandemic!
MM: It’s great seeing you!
Mari: Yeah, good seeing you.
MM: Yeah, it’s been a while…
Mari; Yes….Yeah, I… I apologize – I am very rusty.
MM: No, not at all, you were doing great!
Mari: I feel rusty, how about that? (Laughs)
UO: Doing any other translations or…?
Mari: This was my first since the pandemic in terms of industry. I’ve done a lot of webinars and that kind of some stuff.
MM: Ah, yeah.
Mari : I don’t think… a lot, anything related to some Tokusatsu-
MM: Oh, awesome!
Mari: Like with some of the suit actors. But this is my first in-person instance since the pandemic started.
UO: Any others for the con?
Mari: I don’t know, just this.
Mari: ‘Cause I mean, it’s pretty much the whole time.
Q: Thanks so much, it’s been great talking to you.
Mari: Alright, thank you.
Thanks again to Dr. Mari Morimoto, the Sunrise team, and Anime NYC for facilitating this opportunity to interview director Shuko Murase! His reflections on the state of mecha and how the genre and Gundam can stay relevant to modern audiences, and the artistic merits of continuing to create traditional 2D animation alongside 3D CGI, were incredibly thorough and thoughtful, and I could tell he is an artist who is deeply passionate about the medium of animation as and the genre of mecha as a vehicle for stories. I came into the interview with so many questions for Director Murase I didn’t get a chance to ask, and left with so many more, and I look forward to the next time I’ll have another opportunity to hear his answers to them. Shuko Murase is an an artist whose works bewitch and you should hunt down lest he ergo be robbed of the attention he deserves not by proxy but genuinely organically because he’s an original gangsta for Gundam who still has more stories to wing in an endless waltz!