Location: Anime Expo 2016
Interview Date: 7/2/2016
Editor’s Note: We’ve been in contact with the folks in charge of Amano-sensei’s accounts, and were unable to receive permission to use samples of the artist’s work in the article. We apologize for the inconvenience. -MJF
I am sure many of you are familiar with the work of Yoshitaka Amano, but before we talk about that, I’d like to start at the beginning.
Shizuoka prefecture, Japan. The early 1960s, also known as the Silver Age of comics. A young Amano is engrossed not only by the work of Osamu Tezuka, but also the American comics of DC. Specifically, Batman and Superman. I am not going to bore you with a long discussion of the Silver Age, but I’d like to point out that Batman was still fairly fairly camp back in those days. He was a hero of the age of pulp stories. If you want to get a sense of the kind of stories I’m referring to, I’d recommend The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps.
Batman was a serious hero, but neither he nor Gotham were as dark as they are portrayed in the current movies. Then again, even in 1966, it was understood that Adam West was playing the character for laughs:
When Amano was engrossed in these comics, he became a fan of the artwork of Neal Adams. Adams has drawn more than a few iconic covers, but I’ll limit myself to three:
You may have seen that in the news recently, in honor of Muhammad Ali. It was a shocking image at the time.
Batman 251 is important in the Batman canon, as it marked Joker’s turn from humorous sideshow to the malevolent force we recognize today. It’s also just an amazing cover. See if can notice the artistic similarities between the Joker and one of the better Final Fantasy villains. Amano has said that Batman is still his favorite hero, due to his emotional struggles between his dark side and his humanity.
This cover was run nine months before it was revealed that Superman gets his powers from the sun. I like to think that Superman is blushing in this image because he is struggling to keep that secret.
If you’re curious about Silver Age Superman, the Superman Super Site can give you some background.
I don’t want to give the impression that Amano was focused on western comics to the exclusion of Japanese works. He stated that the series that had the most influence on him was the anime Space Ace. In fact, he visited the studio that produced the series when he was 15 years-old and met President Tatsuo. That must have been a tremendous experience. Tatsuo decided to hire Amano, and so the teenager began his career at Tatsunoko Production Company. He was immediately put to work on the anime adaptation of Mach GoGoGo (also known as Speed Racer). He joked that he is thankful that computer graphics animation wasn’t available at the time. He also admitted surprise at how popular Speed Racer still is.
“My roots lie in the works I created for Tatsunoko Production… My work for Tatsunoko paved the way for me to enter the world I live in now. It all started there.” -Yoshitaka Amano
One of the most important things Amano learned while working on Speed Racer was how to sketch movement. As some of you may be aware, Speed Racer is famous for its ability to create a genuine feeling of speed with as few animation frames as possible. That requires each frame to well designed and executed, and it’s a skill that would later come in handy for Amano. (Note: Amano was doing character design on Speed Racer. Very little of his work made it directly onto the screen).
Amano would later work on Yatterman and Gatchaman for Tatsunoko Production. Eventually, the workload got to Amano and he decided to stop showing up for work. The studio sent him a telegram that convinced him to come back, and he ended up staying until 1982. I dearly wish I had access to that telegram to know whether they brought him back with kind words of praise and support, or with something a little saltier.
Late in his career at Tatsunoko Production, he began working on his personal artistic style. It was a mixture of the comic art he loved growing up, ukiyo-e woodblock printing, and art nouveau.
(For those curious about art nouveau, this was perhaps the greatest exhibition of it:
Although this might be a better introduction to it:
Amano was attracted to the surrealist nature of the art nouveau movement, and it heavily influenced his work. As for Ukiyo-e printing, there are too many great options to list, but my recommendation would be a collection that flew under the radar, and is one of the best I’ve seen:
Amano was not interested in being trapped doing the same job forever, though. He had begun drawing cover art for science fiction novels, which led to four straight Seiun awards for best artist for his work on Vampire Hunter D:
He illustrated numerous works during this period, including Michael Moorcock’s Elric and Yoshiki Tanaka’s The Heroic Legend of Arslan. He also handled the art direction for Mamoru Oshii’s 1985 OVA, Angel’s Egg. For most artists, these would be career highlights. For Amano, though, it was merely an interlude before he entered the industry that would make him a household name across the globe.
Hironobu Sakaguchi created Final Fantasy for Square in 1987. As the popular legend goes, Squaresoft was effectively on its deathbed at the time. Final Fantasy was meant to be a last gasp for the company and a labor of love, all in one package. The team within Square that put the game together wasn’t particularly well-liked (Sakaguchi was considered a tough person to work with). Despite all of that, though, they were able to band together to produce the masterpiece that saved the company:
The series was a tremendous hit, and Amano’s character designs were beloved by fans. As the console technology advanced, Amano was able to update his characters to evolve with them.
He had some interesting thoughts on the subject. Amano explained that, while it was his job to create the character designs, it was the job of other artists to translate his designs into what we see on the screen. He said his original designs were 700 [pixel] lines tall and they had to be translated into chibi. He was very happy with the results. The one thing he wants from people translating his art into the game is to keep the essence of his work. He felt they succeeded very well, despite the technological limitations. As the console technology advanced, he created a “70-30 rule.” He wanted 70% of the final product on the screen to capture his vision, while 30% of it could be what the other artist added to make the design work.
By the time Final Fantasy VI was in production (also known as Final Fantasy III in America), he was fairly well-versed in video game design. He explained that one of his techniques for character design was to imagine the characters from behind. He would then create the profile and get rid of whatever didn’t belong. His wispy style for Final Fantasy VI (his words) was designed with action in mind. Amano also said he was rooting for the Octopus (Ultros).
In 2000, Amano won an Eisner Award, which he shared with Neil Gaiman for Sandman: The Dream Hunters. It was well deserved, and even better, it gives me a reason to link to my favorite Will Eisner work:
In 1997, Amano had his first solo exhibition in New York. He made the most of the opportunity and set up a studio in Soho. Moving to New York was a big change, and it gave him a chance to expand his portfolio. He had begun working on lithographs and wanted an opportunity to create larger works. Looking back now, his fine art collection is rather extensive.
Finally, We must talk about Deva Zan and the movie that is currently stalled. Amano explained that the 2011 earthquake hurt the electric utility company that was funding the movie, and right now the film remains in development Hell (industry technical term). He hopes the project eventually comes to fruition. For now, we can enjoy the novel:
He went on to explain that movies are a medium he’d love to do more work in. When asked about what different kind of process he would use in movies, Amano explained that his process and style doesn’t change from medium to medium. He trusts the people he is working with to modify his work to suit their needs.
If you would like to learn more about Yoshitaka Amano, or just have a keepsake of his works, Viz has you covered.
The those of you who would like to see more of his work, Tumblr’s a great place to start.
Editor’s note: Images for Deva Zan and Vampire Hunter D are promotional images from Dark Horse and Viz Media, respectively. The Final Fantasy boxart is copyright Square Enix. Their use are protected under North America’s Fair Use doctrine for journaistic use. Yoshitaka Amano’s photo provided by Anime Expo.