Shigeto Koyama sits in a small interview room above a bustling MCM London Comic Con. He’s wearing a shirt of the ghost girl featured in his latest animation Obake-chan, and is friendly and talkative as he discusses his career in the Japanese animation industry with MCM Buzz.
It is not often that an animator who works for the infamous Studio Trigger, the company behind mecha-anime giants Gurren Lagann and Kill La Kill, can be seen on British soil, but here Koyama is. The illustrator, who made his debut in 2004 with Kazuya Tsurumaki’s Diebuster, is the anime guest of honour and, if his filmography is anything to go by, it’s clear why he was chosen. The man himself, though, argues that he has very humble beginnings in the industry: “I used to do illustrations and draw manga, but I wasn’t very good at storytelling.
“With manga you have to do everything – from the story to the illustration – by yourself so it was quite boring and solitary, and I didn’t think I was suited for it.
“Then one day the character designer of Evangelion, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, got in touch and asked if I’d like to help out with the anime Diebuster.
“I thought I might learn something about storytelling so I did it. At first I had no idea how to go about designing for anime, I just didn’t know anything, and I remember I spent four months designing one character.
“It was a real learning experience, and I discovered that design suited me so I carried on doing it.”
After his work on Diebuster, Koyama became a part of Studio Trigger, working on animations such as Inferno Cop – which the animator happily refers to as his life’s work – before joining the team for arguably one of the most famous anime in the west, Kill La Kill. For the project, Koyama is credited with not only working on the key animation, but also the storyboard for the series ending theme. For him, though, it is still hard to see himself as an animator: “In terms of the key animation, I’m not really an animator.
“I can’t do much, and I’m not very good at actually animating and rendering the characters. For me I think of it as an extension of drawing illustrations.”
The most famous character that Koyama has worked on, though, is Baymax, the loveable healthcare robot in Disney’s Big Hero 6. Having not originally been a part of the project, it seems like it was luck that led to Koyama becoming the designer of the iconic character: “The director Don Hall came to Japan to do a lot of research, and he went to Akihabara to buy a lot of toys to do that.
“It turned out that one of the robots he bought was one that I had designed. So I told him, and he asked if I could help him out with his new project.
“It turned out that all the other characters in Big Hero 6 had been designed by staff in Disney or external staff, but they were missing the design for Baymax. It was there that Don Hall needed some fresh ideas, and that’s why he turned to me, and said Baymax was up to me.
“He had an idea of some of the aspects he wanted to incorporate in the design — he wanted it to be white and soft – and it was meant to be a medical machine so that it wouldn’t hurt people.
“I like round white things as a rule – mochi, nikuman pork buns, baby polar bears – but I thought that if this soft white thing put on armour and turned into this tough robot then that would be a really cool idea, so that’s what I went with.”
Having worked with both Studio Trigger and Disney, Koyama is in a good position to tell us the differences between working for the two. But according to Koyama, there’s a lot more in common with the two than you may originally have thought.
“On the creative side there is not that much difference between them and Studio Trigger. In terms of style it’s the same, and when the Trigger staff have been over to America and have talked to the staff at Pixar there has been a lot of understanding.
“It’s a bit difficult to compare, though, because Disney and Pixar aren’t just animation companies, they’re film companies, so they’ve got a lot more people and money to play with. There’s a huge difference there.
“The framework is different, the budget is different, but the aims are the same. Although, I think that Japanese staff tend to want to make things that are a little weirder!”
Speaking of weird and wonderful anime, Koyama himself has worked on a number of bizarre productions. The latest of which is Panty And Stocking, a show about two angels, Panty and Stocking, who were kicked out of heaven for bad behaviour and sent to Daten City to defeat ghosts in order to earn their way back into heaven. The two characters, who have the ability to transform their lingerie into weapons, are constantly side-tracked, though, by their love for food and men. It is a very unique animation, and it is one that Koyama talks very animatedly about.
“I wrote the script for the sperm episode. The word in Japanese is seishi and seishi kojo is a factory where they make paper – it is the same pronunciation but it is written differently. So I wanted to use that play on words and set it in a sperm factory.
“I also tend to get quite a runny nose and I use tissues all the time, so I wanted to get tissues into it. You don’t really get Japanese anime that have these crude jokes.
“We had just finished making Gurren Lagann which was very serious and that people enjoyed watching, and we just wanted to make something that was completely bonkers so that people would think we had gone mad.
“We were just messing around the entire time, and even though it is a proper anime we wanted it to be as silly as possible!
“When the staff at Trigger make something a bit daft it’s usually in response to something else. So when Hiroyuki Imaishi, the director of Kill La Kill, finished the series, he wanted to make something with no people in it, because he had spent the whole of Kill La Kill just drawing people.
“So for Animator Expo he came up with Sex & Violence With Machspeed, which features a shark and a gorilla as the main characters. He also needed a heroine, and he didn’t want her to be a person either, so she ended up being a blow up doll.”
This brings us back to the shirt that Koyama is wearing, which features a design from his short film Obake-chan which will have its debut at Animator Expo. The story, about a young female ghost and her misadventures as she tries to interact with people around her, was first shown in Japan in March of this year. The event was created by Evangelion’s Hideaki Anno, and began streaming on 7 November with the aim of finding a new way of distributing anime to fans.
“This is just my personal opinion, but in Japan sales of anime DVDs and Blu-Rays are falling because people are watching everything online. Animator Expo is trying to find another way of distributing animation, and it features work from top creators in Japan.
“I don’t think it’s going to change anything hugely but I do think it is a worthwhile experiment when no one else is doing anything about it. So, for me, it was a very interesting project and something I really wanted to be a part of.”