Hidetaka Tenjin stands by the window of the Novotel Hotel in Custom House watching airplanes on their approach back down to earth, London City Airport only a mile away. There is a look of childlike wonder gracing his face, the likes of which are seldom seen in an adult. As one of Japan’s top mechanical artists, it is endearing to see him so fascinated by the products he illustrates on a regular basis for anime franchises such as Macross and Gundam. It is only a brief respite for him, though, before he settles down to discuss his life and career in the world of mechanical animation.
The 41-year-old is charming and friendly, making jokes and often alternating between English slang and Japanese during the conversation. Here a day ahead of his appearance at MCM Comic Con as the anime guest of honour, he is flattered to be part of this year’s event – even surprised that his work is being recognised outside of Japan. On more than one occasion he asks if I have heard of Gundam and Macross, his most famous projects, and this modesty can only be a result of his humble beginnings in the anime industry.
“I was writing and drawing for a Macross fan website when a Kyoto gaming company approached me and asked if I would do the visuals for their games. At the time I had no career so I just thought that it was a stroke of luck for me.
“Things took off when I met the director of Macross. When they asked me to draw the box art for the model kits they got popular, and I got fans so I began to get more work from that.”
Born in Nishinomiya in Kobe City, he has always had a love for robots – designing and building them from as early on as eight years old. This adoration for mechanical creations followed him into his adult life, and he soon graduated from the Shibaura Institute of Technology with a degree majoring in mechanical control systems. It was here, though, that Tenjin learnt the hardships of working within the Robotics industry, and realised that he preferred drawing rather than creating robots.
“Robotics was really difficult, it was all these calculations and the process of designing them was quite repetitive and not very exciting. All the researchers are sitting there doing sums on the computer, it’s nothing like the robot designers that you imagine or see in an anime. So I thought I was more suited to drawing images of robots instead.”
His education still has an influence on his animation work, though, despite his own misgivings with the industry, and provide a base for his designs of robots in anime. Tenjin’s work consists of a mixture of video game and DVD box art, illustrations of robots and Valkyrie planes, and designs of the two for anime. But, for him, each medium is rewarding.
“They are each interesting in their own way, so with the box art your aim is to sell the product so it is a question of how attractive a picture you can draw.
“But with Mecha design you are creating something from scratch, and it might become a toy later on, or it will have to move in an anime or a movie, so there is a different enjoyment to be had from that.”
When asked which of his designs were the most fun or challenging to draw, he struggles to pick a single robot. He takes a moment to find an example of art on his phone, asking me to “hold on a sec” as he scrolls through thousands of images. He soon reaches an intricately designed piece from the Blu-ray box art of Patlabor for the latter. The scene, which depicts a robot fight in the heart of Tokyo, is equally beautiful as it is chaotic – buildings and cars are destroyed and characters are taking photographs and arguing over the wreckage.
“There are many different people, buildings, and squashed cars in this image of Tokyo, and that’s challenging. There’s so many objects to draw so it was difficult, but also satisfying.”
For the former he chooses a design of the Valkyries from Macross Plus, which he has become synonymous for illustrating.
“That anime was the most fun to draw, although the designs of the planes themselves come from Kawamori-san.”
Shōji Kawamori is the co-creator of the Macross franchise that Tenjin works on, and he is one of Japan’s leading innovators of mecha anime. As well as being at the helm of the series, Kawamori is the lead designer of the project, but he does give his artists some creative freedom with their designs.
“For me it is important that the mecha should actually be functional, and should work. But at the end of the day it is what the director says that is the most important thing. Kawamori is my current director so what he says goes, I guess I listen to him about 50% of the time.
“Dreams and ambitions are vital in anime so it is more important to give people that dream rather than something that can actually function.”
He speaks fondly of his director’s passion, and while Tenjin is given some liberty on his designs in Macross, he prefers to talk about his other designs when asked about his creative process, out of respect for his elder.
“A client who asks me to do a design will have their own impression of what they want, but I will choose what is going to be the motif for the design, such as an animal or another existing mecha that I will then redesign into my own mecha design.
“People can latch onto what they have seen somewhere before, or something that is exciting, so it is important to work on that.”
Our insightful conversation ends far too quickly, and this seems to be because of Tenjin’s warm nature and infectious smile. As the interview comes to a close, Tenjin reveals that he is working on the upcoming Macross anime series, and his return to the franchise will be wonderful news to fans around the world. His attitude towards his work and those around him makes it clear to see why he so loved within the industry, and this will only continue in the years to come.