MCM London Comic Con was thrilled to hear Shigeto Koyama speak on stage this weekend. An animator and character/mecha designer, it’s probable you’ve seen his shows even if you’ve not heard his name. Well known in the West for his adorable design of Baymax in Big Hero 6, he’s also responsible for Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, influenced Kill la Kill, Eureka Seven and its sequels, Gurren Lagann, and he’s worked on the rebuild of Hideaki Anno’s Evangelion movies.
Koyama and his translator were cheerfully welcomed onto a bright stage, commenting on his experience in London so far simply as, “I’ve had some fish and chips?” he teased, “Big Ben is very big.” He then joked that he must have walked into the wrong panel, since the audience was so packed.
He started his career in animation as a manga artist and illustrator. When the character designer of Evangelion asked if he fancied doing some animation work, he leapt at the chance and has gone from there. His inspiration is drawn from many sources, but a good portion of his inspiration also comes from American comics, such as Jack Kirby, Adam Huges, Adam Moore – he confessed in the panel that he actually prefers American comics to Japanese.
When working on the film Heroman, Koyama was asked if it was difficult integrating American ideas with Japanese ideas, and Koyama replied, “There were some cultural differences that were difficult. For instance, in America, wealthy people don’t take the bus, whereas in Japan they would. Just things like that, but I learnt a lot about American culture, which turned out to be very useful for Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, which I made later.”
An expert multi-tasker, he’s often working on at least three projects at the same time, such as (at the time) Eureka Seven, Panty & Stocking, and Star Driver. Sometimes, when it’s not possible to squeeze in one of his ideas for a show, he’ll sneak it into one of the others. “If I couldn’t do it in Eureka Seven, I’d do it in Panty & Stocking, if I couldn’t do it in Panty & Stocking, I’d do it in Star Driver. Having said that, the things I want to do in Panty & Stocking are not the sort of things I could do in any other anime…” The audience laughed, many having already raised their hands to say they watched the satirically hyper-sexualised and crass show.
“I was working on Kill la Kill at the same time as Inferno Cop,” Koyama said, continuing his story of juggling many projects at once. “But I could only spend an hour working on Inferno Cop as I only had an hour before the Kill la Kill meetings. So, I had to do everything, character designs and story, all in one hour. It’s an interesting style. Kill la Kill, we had about a year and a half worth of meetings and it took a year and a half to design the character of Ryuko.”
That’s a pretty long time just to work on one character’s design. In fact, there were five people designing Kill la Kill – not including Koyama – which meant lots of discussion and redesigning. The process involved pooling together all the design team’s ideas, checking the results, and a lot of colouring. The design took so long that director Yoh Yoshinari had to break off to make Little Witch Academia. “When he finished and came back again,” Koyama laughed, “and we still hadn’t finished the designs for Kill la Kill, he told us off, like, ‘You haven’t done anything in the time I’ve been away!’ So we handed a lot of the design to Yoshinari-san to do, and he came up with the scissor blade. No one touched the scissor blade because we wanted Yoshinari-san to draw it. Everyone was saying, ‘We don’t know how to draw scissors – we can’t draw scissors.’”
Bringing things back to the ever popular Big Hero 6, it’s been talked about a lot now that Don Hall went to Japan for inspiration and bought loads of toys, one of which – the Heroman figurine – Koyama had designed. When Hall found out, he asked Koyama if he could help him out with one of his latest projects. Koyama agreed, it was all very casual, just like helping out a friend until, “the pact with the Devil arrived from Disney. Disney may not be pleased with me for saying that… Don’t put that online!”
The idea for Baymax was already there when Koyama arrived, he had to be white, soft, and sort of made from silicone. When Don Hall had been to Japan, he’d seen a bell that he wanted to be part of the design. “Originally that bell design with two holes was meant to be the mouth,” Koyama said, “but I thought that was too normal – too standard. You don’t need a mouth to express, I thought it should just be the eyes. Just those round eyes would be enough to convey expression, and I wanted it to be as simple as possible.”
Partnering with Disney was a whole new experience for Koyama that involved a lot of Skype calls. The most nervous aspect for him was how strict Disney are. If they think something is going to be boring, they cut it, even partway through production. The strictness almost made him believe that, despite how exciting a joint project between Marvel and Disney could be, Big Hero 6 might never see the light.
When questions opened up to the floor, Koyama was asked to name his favourite show to work on (he simply couldn’t choose); would Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt get another season (hopefully, was the answer); and is he involved in localising the content (only with Kill la Kill).
Things wound down on a light-hearted note when an audience member asked, “How do you keep your designs consistent despite the varying sizes in budget given to you?” and Koyama replied, “The budget doesn’t change the design scale. Of course, I’d prefer a large budget – I want lots of money – but the design doesn’t change. All you can do is do your best. Having said that, there may be one where I didn’t produce such a high quality product, and that would be Inferno Cop. That was no money. No money.”
Be sure to keep an eye out for Koyama’s new studio currently in the making. We can be sure to expect even greater projects.