Ultimate Mark

Production Reference:
Z Gundam Ace 001
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Translator's Note: Z Gundam Ace 001 was a special issue of Kadokawa Shoten's "Gundam Ace" published in July 2005, to accompany the launch of the Z Gundam: A New Translation movies. It included a long interview with mechanical designer Mamoru Nagano, which I've translated here.



Mamoru Nagano worked on Z Gundam as a main mecha designer, on the personal nomination of chief director Yoshiyuki Tomino. What kind of vision did he have for "the sequel to Gundam"? Why did he leave the scene of Z Gundam? Now, twenty years later, we'll hear from Mamoru Nagano himself about his relationship to Z Gundam.

Photographs: Junichiro Nomi
Text: Makoto Ishii

Just before the production of Mobile Suit Z Gundam began, Mamoru Nagano was drawing attention as a designer. Particularly when it came to the design of mechanics, he had distinguished himself by expanding the scope of thought about the entirety of mechanical design, with his details backed up by knowledge of existing real-world weapons, and careful depictions that paid attention to everything from the internal mechanisms to the manufacturing methods of the armor materials.

These strengths were highly regarded, and Nagano went on to demonstrate his talents when he was selected as designer for Heavy Metal L-Gaim, a work directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino that aired in 1984. The following year, the production of Mobile Suit Z Gundam, the sequel to Mobile Suit Gundam, began. He went on to be deeply involved in the production together with Director Tomino.

Right after Z Gundam began airing, however, Nagano suddenly stepped down as a designer. Leaving behind some striking designs, Nagano vanished from the scene of Z Gundam, only to return as the designer of certain mobile suits that appeared in the second half of the story. Once again, he presented the fans with striking designs. After this, it was announced that Nagano would be working as the main designer on the sequel Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ, but once again he ended up withdrawing.

This extraordinary series of designer comebacks and replacements led to widespread speculation among fans as to what might have happened with Nagano and the Z Gundam production site. Twenty years later, Mamoru Nagano tells us about the process by which his mobile suits were created, his reasons for leaving the Z Gundam production site, and his thoughts about the work itself.

The foundational design for Z Gundam born from the search for a new robot image

—Did you first become involved with Z Gundam while you were working on the previous program, L-Gaim?

Nagano: That's right. I drew this model sheet around the halfway point of L-Gaim, but in fact I'd been secretly drawing Zeta Gundam designs with Mr. Tomino even before that. (1)

—Had the plan been completed when you drew this setting, or did you have any orders from Director Tomino?

Nagano: No, it was truly the initial stage when we had nothing at all, so Mr. Tomino didn't give me any restrictions. I drew this because he said I could draw whatever I liked. At the time, the sponsor Bandai had tremendous influence on the design of new mobile suits, and there must have been pressure and demands from within Sunrise as well. But it seems Mr. Tomino had a very strong desire to create a completely new kind of mobile suit.

This is what I drew when he asked me to create a new robot, not just a Nagano version of the Gundam. It's very nostalgic, but when I look at it now, it's terrible! It cracks me up to think that I was calling myself "the greatest mecha designer" back then. (laughs) Still, Mr. Tomino told me "For now, you're all the staff I want," so I went ahead and started with the mecha design.

—Speaking of Z Gundam, I believe the element of "transforming mobile suits will appear" was there from the start of planning. Did you have that in mind when you were drawing?

Nagano: Mr. Tomino was utterly obsessed with transforming and combining, but I complained that I didn't want to do it. The Valkyrie designed by Mr. Shoji Kawamori, which appeared in Super Dimension Fortress Macross, already existed. I didn't want to be a copycat. Why do something like that, I asked, in a work with Gundam's hard-earned name value? I couldn't persuade him, though. So, for the time being, I started working by designing non-transforming mobile suits.

—Was this design the springboard for the first mobile suits that appeared in Z Gundam?

Nagano: That's right. The Rick Dias I designed was born from this, and Mr. Kazumi Fujita refined this design to create the Gundam Mk-II. I think elements extracted from it are reflected in various mobile suits from the start of Z Gundam. In that sense, it's gratifying that this became the springboard for all of them.

Zeta Gundam original design sketch
The first design drawings done for Z Gundam were the two reproduced [here]. As you know, these design sketches later appeared onscreen in the form of the Hyaku-Shiki, but they are also filled with elements that would become idea sources for the mobile suits that appeared in Z Gundam.


▵ An early sketch on which the artist himself wrote "rejected." Its silhouette is completely that of the Hyaku-Shiki. The exposed frame of the legs, the shape of the shoulders, the mounting of the skirt armor, and other gimmicks of the parts involved in movement were inherited by the Gundam Mk-II.

▵ Another version, redrawn by Nagano based on the sketch to the [left]. The shape of the chest and arms was transferred to the Rick Dias, and the form of its shield was the basis for that of the Nemo. You can see the method for mounting the shield on the arm was also based on this. There are also gimmick indications in the written notes that assume it transforms.

The birth of the Rick Dias, and the backlash to the new mobile suits

—When the Rick Dias was first announced, what was the reaction like?

Nagano: Nowadays the design of the Rick Dias is completely accepted, but at the time the backlash was quite spectacular. (laughs) At any rate, there was terrific pressure from the staff, sponsors, and people outside the company, all saying "This has to be a mistake!" So I think Mr. Tomino really had no choice but to calm things down by putting out a pair of mobile suits, the Gundam Mk-II and the Hizack, that inherited the look of the previous work.

—When you were put in charge of Z Gundam's mobile suits, what were you trying to do?

Nagano: Personally, I'm not that fond of the machine called "Gundam," but I really love mobile suits. Not so much the Zaku, but things like the Gelgoog. There are also the mobile armors with monstrous images, like the Zakrello, Bygro, and Grublo. I like those kinds of monstrous things, so I had no intention of leaving them out. But despite my intentions, my hand ended up drawing designs as if imagining their manufacturing process and functionality as weapons.

Of course, Gundam previously wasn't just an anime, and it was partly the existence of Bandai's Gunpla that had made it so popular. To address their dissatisfaction with the fact that Gunpla wasn't at all realistic, the modelers had gotten excited about recommending customizations, but when you're doing that with a new design you have to fix it from the skeleton up. I initially designed the Rick Dias as an image for correcting the mobile suit's skeleton. That, too, was derived from the Gundam I'd first created.

I was doing all of this in absolute secrecy, but around the time the Rick Dias's design was completed, it became public knowledge that the production had been decided, and I started designing as part of a trio with Mr. Okawara and Mr. Fujita.

—In the first half of the TV series, in addition to the previous springboard Gundam and the Rick Dias, you were also responsible for the Galbaldy Beta. Did you have a concept in mind when you were drawing that design?

Nagano: It's just as you'd think from looking at it. They showed me a mobile suit design called the Galbaldy Alpha, and the Galbaldy Beta was designed based on that, while keeping the look of the Gelgoog. The Rick Dias completely follows the image of the Dom. That's about it. No matter what, we couldn't create something that seemed dubious from the start, so of course I put on the brakes and the result was the Rick Dias and Galbaldy Beta. In short, they were designed to retain the image of the previous work.

Nonetheless, there was a strong backlash, and people said "These aren't mobile suits." But Mr. Tomino persisted and gave the designs his OK, saying "If we get them out there, we've won." But after that, there was problem after problem related to the designs, and in the end I left the Z Gundam team practically on the eve of the broadcast. (2)

Mamoru Nagano Design 1: Rick Dias
The first of Nagano's designs for Z Gundam mobile suits to reach the cleanup stage. Based on the Zeta Gundam design sketch on the previous page, it was designed by interweaving a form inspired by the Dom. Thought it looks like a stocky design, the thighs and arms are actually quite slender.

Mamoru Nagano Design 2: Galbaldy Beta
A machine that was supposed to be a successor to the Galbaldy Alpha, a Gelgoog-series mobile suit from the lineup of the MSX series, which was meant to be turned into models. While it honors the Gelgoog's design, you can see that it's exploring new lines for Zeon mobile suits.

Mamoru Nagano Design 3: Hyaku-Shiki
Based on the Zeta Gundam idea sketches originally drawn by Nagano, the Hyaku-Shiki was cleaned up by Kazumi Fujita for its onscreen appearance. Though this mobile suit isn't a pure Nagano design, it faithfully inherits the image of the form and details drawn in the idea sketches.

Mamoru Nagano Design 4: Argama
In addition to mobile suits, Nagano also designed the AEUG flagship Argama. Based on the design of the White Base, it was designed to combine elements of both a cruiser and a carrier for mobile suit operation.

Enemy mobile suits are characters, not weapons

—After that, you returned to design the Hambrabi and Qubeley in the second half. Since you'd left the production at one point, how did they come to request you again?

Nagano: At the time, I was preparing The Five Star Stories as well as serializing Fool for the City in "Newtype." I'd already been away from Z Gundam for about half a year, but the producer Mr. Uchida came to me and said, "We have a lot of designs now, but we're having some trouble. Mr. Tomino says he'd like you to try one more time, so would you care to participate?" He said I should just do whatever I wanted, so for the time being I drew the Hambrabi and Qubeley. I think I must have finished the designs in a day or two. They're really terrible designs.

—Did you have any new orders from Mr. Tomino when you drew those two?

Nagano: Nothing in particular, aside from "We'd like you to design enemy mobile suits." They just told me to draw them any way I liked. While the Galbaldy Beta and Rick Dias also reflected Mr. Tomino's intentions, he didn't have any input into the Hambrabi and Qubeley. They said they'd unconditionally use the designs I created, with absolutely no orders at all.

—What kind of image did you have for the Hambrabi and Qubeley?

Nagano: When it comes to enemy mobile suits, I have a strong sense that they're characters, not weapons. Aren't the Zaku, Dom, and Gelgoog, one-eyed robots which you'll never forget one you've seen them, characters with strong personalities? I think that's what mobile suits are about. Up until my Qubeley and Hambrabi, and Mr. Makoto Kobayashi's The-O, their personalities as characters were weak. I felt that most of them weren't really mobile suits. And from a design standpoint, they were all things where you'd say "This one is slightly different." They weren't characters, and they weren't weapons.

That's why, when I thought about enemy mobile suits with strong personalities, with the Hambrabi and Qubeley I thought I should at least make them flashy. For example, while the Zaku is a little difficult, the Dom and Gelgoog are designed so that even when you're doodling you can mimic them just with the shape of the mono-eye. That's one of the things I was conscious of. So I deliberately didn't draw in any details, and they're designed with a drastically reduced number of lines.

—What kind of reaction did people have to the Qubeley and Hambrabi at the time?

Nagano: Oh, they didn't support them at all. They reacted to the Hambrabi by saying "Is it a squid?" and to the Qubeley by saying "What is it?!" There were a lot of anti-Nagano fans back then. But I think they used me well. Twenty years later, when today's fans look at the design of the Rick Dias, Galbaldy Beta, and Hyaku-Shiki, or even the Qubeley and Hambrabi, it seems they don't think anything of it because they're already existing things. Even the people who complained at the time have probably forgotten all about it.

Mamoru Nagano Design 5: Hambrabi
A mobile suit which appeared in the second half of the story, for which Nagano once again served as designer. It was newly cleaned up based on a design rough originally drawn for the transformable mobile armor Messala.

Mamoru Nagano Design 6: Qubeley
Though it appeared in the second half of the story as Haman Karn's machine, the basis for this design was actually completed before the broadcast began. It was initially being designed as the Marasai, but was later cleaned up and reappeared as the Qubeley.

The agony of the production site that began with the fantasy of First Gundam

—I have the impression that, when Z Gundam was broadcast, there was quite a backlash from First Gundam fans. Did that have a big impact?

Nagano: At the time, Mr. Tomino was rambling about "people whose souls are pulled by gravity..." In other words, it was a backlash from people drawn to the old Gundam. I wanted to rebut them by saying that Nagano, Mr. Fujita, Mr. Okawara, Mr. Yasuhiko, and Mr. Tomino all deeply loved the previous Gundam. We were creating Z Gundam based on careful consideration of it... that's what I wanted to proclaim at the time.

I had my pride, and I also had the willpower not to go around saying stupid things like "This is the Gundam I wanted to do, heh heh heh." But people around me were telling me I'd gotten something wrong, and that I was trying to change the designs. The modeler Mr. Masahiro Oda was around at the time, and he was delighted with the design of the Qubeley. That leaves an impression even now, but at the time I had only the satisfaction of being in such a small circle.

—I think the Rick Dias and Hyaku-Shiki were popular among fans...

Nagano: It felt like there were a variety of reactions, from young people who thought Z Gundam seemed realistic, to people who saw it from the viewpoint of the previous Gundam. Nowadays it feels more uniform, but at the time, new fans and traditional ones were completely divided. And the modelers were focused on the mobile suits, while other people were looking at it from the standpoint of the industry and the staff. So there were various points of view, but maybe that's the difficult part of doing a sequel.

There were also opinions from the Bandai side, which had spearheaded the boom by selling Gunpla, so Z Gundam was an anime in which many things were intricately entwined. That was my job, including what I was supposed to be doing afterwards on the work called Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ. That time, I was hired as the lead designer, and I ended up getting fired again. (3) Based on everything up to that series of events, my involvement with Gundam came to a conclusion.

From Gundam ZZ to Char's Counterattack, a farewell to Gundam

—You're talking about the ZZ Gundam and Hamma-Hamma designs that were announced during the second half of Z Gundam?

Nagano: That's right. They're basically successors to what I was trying to do with the Hambrabi and Qubeley, and they were part of the rejected setting for Gundam ZZ. After that, I was once again called in as lead designer on Char's Counterattack, and I was supposed to do everything. But they fired me again. (4) (laughs)

It's not in the model sheets, but it's all connected. I also did designs for the Hi-S Gundam (the prototype for the Nu Gundam) and Nightingale (the prototype for the Sazabi), and I drew the Nightingale as the final form of the Rick Dias. But I wasn't able to get those things out. I also drew a Jagd Doga and Geara Doga, but when they those, I was told "What's this? A kaiju?" and "That's too much!" At that point I completely severed my ties to Gundam.

I probably can't talk about my Z Gundam without continuing that far. Three or four years passed between the prototype Zeta Gundam I initially drew, which became the Hyaku-Shiki, and the Jagd Doga that was the concluding point. But that's the evolution of the mobile suits I invented.

—Based on this history, what kind of image do you have of Gundam?

Nagano: In today's world, the popular belief is that all of Gundam's mobile suits were created by Mr. Kunio Okawara, and that's the image that rightly persists. More knowledgeable Gundam otaku will remember that this was done by Nagano, and this by Makoto Kobayashi, and this by Kazumi Fujita. But to the general public, they all came from the hand of Mr. Okawara.

I think that's fine for a work like Gundam, though. I was certainly the one who created the design lines, but when you ask for a final decision on who created the mobile suit itself, it was Mr. Okawara. That was Gundam's original form, and even now, I think Gundam Seed is doing very well with Mr. Okawara at its core. There were various twists and turns back then, but we're now in an era when we can be calmer about it, since mobile suits are accepted as normal even by young people.

Likewise, the works with the Gundam name are now in a situation where you can rightfully say "who knows who made it?" In the extreme case, it's fine if people think Gundam Seed is also created by Mr. Tomino. But that's a problem from the standpoint of the anime staff, because it makes it seem pointless to work on Gundam. If they keep making works that are all about Mr. Tomino, Mr. Okawara, and Mr. Yasuhiko forever, it will reduce the motivation of the staff making them. That's the dilemma of Gundam.

—It's a difficult problem.

Nagano: In that sense, it's almost impossible to tell the story of my relationship with Gundam by limiting it to Z Gundam. Of course, if you remain on film you're a winner, and if you don't you're a loser. For me, talking about Z Gundam is like doing a loser's interview. (5) I'm not saying that to be humble, but it's what I think based on calm analysis. Nonetheless, I keep on drawing the Qubeley and the others because of my ultimate stubbornness as a designer. That's all. So I drew this poster to make everyone think "It would have been better if they'd stuck with this." (laughs)

From "Monthly Newtype," January 1994
An illustration drawn by Nagano to commemorate the release of the Z Gundam LD box in February 1994. It depicts the Rick Dias flying in two team formations of two machines apiece, a more Gundam-like arrangement of the Hyaku-Shiki painted in light grayish-white colors, a red-painted Hambrabi, and a rejected Hamma-Hamma design that was drawn for use in Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ. The image shows this mobile suit force after an anti-ship attack, and was published along with text by Nagano himself explaining this sequence and situation.


Born January 21, 1960, in Kyoto. He joined Nippon Sunrise (now Sunrise) in 1983. After working as a mecha designer on Round Vernian Vifam (1983) and Giant Gorg (1984), he drew attention as the mecha designer and character designer for 1984's Heavy Metal L-Gaim. In 1985, his serial Fool for the City was serialized in Monthly Newtype magazine, and in 1986 the serialization of his life's work, The Five Star Stories, began. He also contributed design works to the Yoshiyuki Tomino-directed Brain Powerd (1998).

Translator's Notes

(1) Since the name isn't printed in quotes in the Japanese text, I assume Nagano is referring to the mobile suit Zeta Gundam here, rather than the TV series Z Gundam.

(2) In this context, the Japanese term 抜けた suggests something like "dropped out," "slipped away," "withdrew," or "quit."

(3) The terminology used in these situations is usually a little ambiguous, but the Japanese phrase クビになる clearly indicates that Nagano was fired from Gundam ZZ rather than leaving voluntarily.

(4) Once again, Nagano uses the Japanese phrase クビになって.

(5) I think "loser's interview" is intended as a sports analogy.