Military Uniform and Equipment Designer

Takuhito Kusanagi

For the production of “MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM THE ORIGIN” (hereafter referred to as "THE ORIGIN"), the design and setting of soldiers’ equipment, and Earth Federation Forces and Principality of Zeon rank insignia, were even further refined. The person who handled these designs was Takuhito Kusanagi, a designer who is well versed in military uniforms and equipment. We spoke to him about the process of coming up with intricate military designs the likes of which have not been featured in Gundam works before.
- How did you come to be involved with "THE ORIGIN"?
Kusanagi: I worked with Mr. (Takashi) Imanishi on a Gundam plastic model series sold by Bandai Hobby called “U.C. Hard Graph”, made up of military-style 1/35-scale models. That was the first time I was in charge of giving Universal Century military uniforms a realistic design. After that, I continued to be involved in similar work on “MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM MS IGLOO 2: The Gravity Front,” and that led to them approaching me again for "THE ORIGIN."
- The military category is quite large, but within it, design specializing in equipment is quite rare, isn't it?
Kusanagi: I have an overall love of military matters, including the mechanical things, so I don't necessarily specialize in equipment. But the area of uniforms and equipment has a direct effect on whether a soldier lives or dies, so I feel an attachment to them, a kind of humanity. I feel a strong attraction to those parts that humans deal with directly. The shape of each part exists with a sense of functional beauty. When military uniforms pursue functional beauty, they become cool and take on interesting forms. And after going over them once, questions come up, like, “Is this really functional beauty?” I love that sense of it being pushed too far. Unlike ordinary apparel, military gear goes in a different direction from “cool enough to sell.” That said, in terms of design, military gear is overly standardized, so in "THE ORIGIN" we returned it to an even more military uniform style. It was a unique design job.
- On this project, how did the work proceed?
Kusanagi: I was involved with "THE ORIGIN" from the planning stage, and at first I did some designs to search around and see what direction to go in. When we put military designs into the anime setting, there were indications we would get more details in a realistic direction, and the artwork would also have more realism. I had doubts about whether we could really work on artwork and setting that was so highly detailed and dense. At first, I didn’t know what the destination point was and just worked away. And as the plans for the series progressed, somehow it was like I could see the style of it all at once. That said, I didn’t know how realistically to draw things, so at first there was some trial and error. In animation, basically it’s easier if you reduce the number of lines, and it wasn’t being done in 3D like “MS IGLOO” or “U.C. HARD GRAPH.” I did the work keeping in mind that I was making 2D versions of realistic military uniforms.
- In "THE ORIGIN," Mr. (Yoshikazu) Yasuhiko’s manga is being made into animation, so I guess you must have started by checking out the uniform designs in the original manga, right?
Kusanagi: Yes, that was very important too, so I spent a lot of time with that. Basically, I figured the job meant looking closely at the comics, and adding more realism. Also, another element was that I had to look at the original setting of the first “MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM,” and that took the most time of all. If you look at it a different way, "THE ORIGIN" is a big box, and inside are the “MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM” designs which we now have a chance to refine from a present-day viewpoint. So, if we want to, we can change things and improve their specs, I think. That potential was there. So while exploring those possibilities, I certainly did design the styles while maintaining the importance of the atmosphere of the first “MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM” and the "ORIGIN" source manga, keeping it analog in a good way, and preserving the hand-drawn feeling. That’s the direction it went in. That said, Gundam works are about mecha, and if we’re doing it now, I think it’s necessary to refine the uniforms and clothes and other small details to the level of the mecha details, so there’s nothing off to modern eyes.
- Certainly, “MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM” is 36 years old now, and compared to the military uniforms at the time, modern ones have changed greatly in form and functionality.
Kusanagi: And I think the audience has seen a lot of different things now. Gundam takes place in the future, but our present-day military is making great advances, and lots of SF-like tech already exists, so it’s like reality has surpassed some of the designs in the series. And if we’re in a position where it’s almost like we can redo those aspects of “MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM” one more time, then I thought maybe those could be put in as additional elements. So at first I drew it lots of different ways, and I was searching for the level of expression that would be ideal. Of course, even then I would draw roughs and have them checked by Mr. Yasuhiko and Mr. Imanishi as I progressed. That didn’t change.
- Did you do a lot of rough drawings to get at the vision for the project?
Kusanagi: I myself was looking for the best options, and I needed to know what would feel comfortable to Mr. Yasuhiko who drew the base versions and the staff who would actually be drawing them, so I drew a relatively large number of roughs. Personally, there were parts where I wanted to try out a more high-tech, futuristic approach, but they didn’t match the style, and if I overdid it, it would end up deviating from the world of Gundam. When I actually worked on it, I realized anew the unique balance that makes up that world. The ground forces have a classic feel in some ways, and in terms of equipment it’s like they’re in that militaristic category we can imagine from the Vietnam War era up to the present. Also, since the setting is in space, when you add in normal suits the SF level instantly increases. Compared to the space suits presently in use, they’re smarter and more like sportswear for a space suit. In that sense, the balance between futuristic and contemporary feelings is unique.
- On this project, you weren’t only in charge of the uniforms, you also handled the weapons and equipment, didn’t you?
Kusanagi: My credit is “Military Uniform and Equipment Design.” I drew lots of different things. But, what exactly does the job of “Military Uniform and Equipment Design” mean in the first place? Even I’m not really sure. (laughs) When I joined in the planning, I signed up without there being any particular job description, but as work progressed on the project, that description became necessary. If we just said “Military Design” then that would cover everything including mecha. Mr. Imanishi suggested “BDU Designer,” but then we’d have to add an explanation that BDU means “Battle Dress Uniform,” plus I was designing things besides that as well. Normally, anything related to clothing falls under the category of character design, and things like knives, canteens, and shovels are handled by the prop designer. But I drew all those things, and also designed artistic and unique military tents and antennas and things, so we arrived at “Military Uniform and Equipment Design.”
- So your designs covered a broad spectrum.
Kusanagi: That’s right. I also handled the rank insignia on this project. That was a very difficult process. I was the one who proposed that I should make proper rank insignia for both the Earth Federation Forces and the Principality of Zeon for "THE ORIGIN." With rank insignia, a few things had been set down these past 36 years, but they’d never been drawn under a clearly defined set of rules. However, on this project we were going to be depicting Char from his youth on up, so we had to pay attention to his rank insignia. As Char progresses steadily from military academy up through his career as a soldier, his rank goes up too. Even in “MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM” there was a bit of variation in how the rank insignia was drawn. This time around, the intention was to establish firm rules and draw them under that standardization. That took an incredible amount of time and hard work. In the end I came up with complete rank insignia for both the Zeon and Federation Forces, so I think you might see them used effectively in future Gundam works as well.
- We’ve seen the rank insignia designs, and they’re very detailed, aren’t they?
Kusanagi: That’s the result of really thinking them through. They were needed as a guideline for the project. I felt like if I didn’t do it, things couldn’t move forward, so I spent a lot of time on them. Gundam is SF and it’s anime, but the military quality of it is one of its attractions too. To reinforce that military quality, I thought about the insignia as representing the hierarchy inside the military, and as evidence of the tightness of those armies and the strictness of that world.

- Which was harder, the Earth Federation Forces or the Principality of Zeon?
Kusanagi: The Principality of Zeon was more difficult. The Earth Federation Forces are fairly simple. The higher you go in rank, the more stars and stripes you add, and the regularity of it is relatively easy to understand. In comparison, the Principality of Zeon is like something out of the past, truly like space aristocracy. There’s not really any rationality behind it. I figured maybe beauty was more important than logic in the Principality of Zeon. I felt like that different way of thinking would come right out in the armies’ rank insignia. If the insignia don’t have any regularity, they can’t be made, so I closely examined the feeling of the insignia that had been drawn so far, and somehow came up with a system that fit, or was just in line. Also, Zeon has ranks that the Federation doesn’t, so I thought maybe we should do them just like real countries have different ranks.
- For the army uniforms and rank insignia, did you refer to ones in the real world?
Kusanagi: Based on everything that’s come before, the Principality of Zeon Forces are obviously quite German. That’s probably Mr. (Yutaka) Izubuchi’s doing. (laughs) So making Zeon Germanic is fine, but then we had the problem of what the Earth Federation Forces were based on. You might safely say the American army. The fatigues give you the impression of the post-Vietnam War U.S. Army style, I think. But, with the so-called ordinary Earth Federation Forces uniforms and those stand-up collars, Mr. Yasuhiko had the old Japanese army in mind. They were named Standard Dress Type 1 and Standard Dress Type 2, but they weren’t just ceremonial. They have those stand-up collars even on regular duty uniforms, which makes them similar to the old Japanese army uniforms, and the way the epaulettes are placed is similar too. So, I measured the sizes of actual old Japanese army uniform lapel badges and epaulettes and used that as reference. Only, compared to the real thing, we didn’t put them on the shoulders, so we actually made the best size on cardboard and used that as a base. Although it’s an imaginary military, I paid close attention to the fine details. However, since the setting is a future world, we needed to be careful to balance it so the old Japanese army elements didn’t stand out. Also, even the differences in colors of the uniforms had to match up with the insignia, and we were able to determine differences in use depending on the time, place, or occasion, so I think it’s developed a very large scope.

- So it was a large workload, but what did you enjoy about the process?
Kusanagi: I did the work trying to maintain the overall vision while making it futuristic, but the process of reinterpreting and designing the landmover worn by Char and others in the latter half of Episode 3 was fun. It’s interesting to apply logic to an existing idea and update the design.

- What did you discuss with General Director Yasuhiko and Director Imanishi?
Kusanagi: When Mr. Yasuhiko said they were going to divide up the task of designing the clothing, I think there were lots of ideas. Mr. Yasuhiko himself is incredibly aware of the workload at the time of making the art, and considers the on-site workload of something that requires a lot of lines or is hard to shape. I heard this later, but apparently when he himself drew his character model art, he relied on the designs that I drew, so it was worth my working so hard on them. With Mr. Imanishi, we had a lot of back and forth from the very early stages about what kind of style we should go for. If the designs I showed were too SF or too futuristic, he instructed me to shelve them. Then he’d give me various pieces of advice, and he’d gather further material himself, and say, “How about like this?” Those suggestions and explanations helped me out. It was like I was responsible for Mr. Imanishi’s interest in the military and its animated representation on this project. He said there are characters and mecha, all completely there, but there are other important aspects which we haven’t really had before.I think that’s in the uniforms and rank insignia, and the variety of detailed artwork and equipment spans numerous fields.
- Did you read "THE ORIGIN" before you became involved with the project?
Kusanagi: Yes, I read it while it was being serialized. I loved reading Mr. Yasuhiko’s historical works from before "THE ORIGIN," too. In that sense, it’s nice how the images echo his past historical works. The scene where Kycilia appears riding a horse is like the appearance of the female bandit chief in “Rainbow Trotsky.” There was nothing like that in the anime “MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM.” In Mr. Yasuhiko’s “Star of the Kurds” and “Rainbow Trotsky,” you see so many of the themes Mr. Yasuhiko is interested in, and often some slightly antisocial protagonists get swept up in events. You can catch a glimpse of that style in this work, too. The atmosphere of the bar that Ramba Ral and Hamon haunt also feels like the hideouts of people involved in antisocial activities in his past works. I like interesting things that aren’t in simple comic adaptations. I’m very interested in watching Gundam in a socially activist way.
- Based on that, how do you feel about the finished anime?
Kusanagi: Personally, I want to see the mecha battles soon. The "Chronicle of Char and Sayla" takes place before the development of mobile suits, so it can't be helped, but I’m looking forward to it. As a whole, Mr. Yasuhiko’s analog feel has been reproduced faithfully, and I think it’s amazing. It’s like the artwork has been made to closely resemble Mr. Yasuhiko’s linework. Recently people call things that are stylish “kuru” (cool), but it’s not cool, it’s stylish, and it heats up the screen, so we should be calling it “hot.” You can feel that kind of stylishness. These days, people with an affinity for mecha feel futuristic, and the era is stylish and smart. But I feel like instead of following the current of the times, this is pursuing a new stylishness instead. There are going to be more depictions of mecha, so I feel like there are going to be more discoveries on that front. And that’s why we’re putting in so much attention to things like uniforms, even at the level of soldiers. So the vehicles and mobile suits, and the warship emblems and the model numbers will be rich with information, I think. That’s something I’m personally really looking forward to.