Update, August 22, 2006: Taku Sato passed away suddenly at his home on August 21st. The world has lost a wonderful human being and a prodigious talent. My sincerest condolences to his friends and family.
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of meeting Taku "Professor Robo" Sato (pictured above), the designer and sculptor of Fewture Models' new series of diecast metal Getter Robo action figures. The first, Getter One, stands nearly ten inches tall, making it quite possibly the heaviest mass-produced portrayal of the robot ever created. It's also one of the most expensive: set to be released on July 13 at 25,800 yen ($225), this is a toy for serious Getter-maniacs. For more information and photos, take a look at Fewture's websites for Getter One and Getter Two and Getter Three.
Matt: First of all, please tell me a bit about your own personal "robot history." When did you first become interested in robots, and what's your favorite Japanese robot character?
Sato: I've liked robots ever since I can remember. I've pretty much been crazy about robots ever since Mazinger Z aired! (Laughs) I like all sorts of science fiction robots. Gundam, the Transformers, you name it. But my all-time favorite, as you may have guessed, has to be Go Nagai's "Getter Robo." Studio Nue's illustrations for the Japanese language edition of Robert Heinlein's novel "Starship Troopers" left a deep impression on me as well, and they continue to influence my design work today.
M: Can you give me some background as to the original concept for the EX Diecast Getter Robo?
S: The dates on my earliest sketch, which I just made for fun, is June 2000, so I suppose that's when the design work started. Initially, the idea was to make a totally normal PVC action figure rendition of the character, but then about two or three years back, it was decided to make it in diecast metal rather than PVC so we'd have a product with a real feeling of weight. That's how the EX Diecast series started. To be honest when I initially designed it I never expected to see it in metal, but the president said, "let's just do it," and here we are today.
M: Did you study sculpture in school, or are you self-taught?
S: After graduating from high school, I planned to attend art school but didn't pass the entrance exams. So I became a "ronin" (a student without a school) and took a part-time job at Kaiyodo to tide me over. It turned out I had a flair for sculpting prototypes, and they ended up hiring me on as a full-time employee. The senior sculptors there taught me a lot of modeling techniques. After working there for about three years I decided to quit and work as a freelance prototype sculptor.
M: Can you tell me about some of your previous projects?
S: The majority of my work has been on resin-cast models called "garage kits." At Kaiyodo, I sculpted their Patlabor "Helldiver" kit, the live-action heroes "Space Sheriff Gavan," "Sharivan," and "Shaider," and "Kamen Rider V3," among others. I also sculpted the "Evangelion Unit 01, 02, and 00" kits. I sculpted the "God Gundam" (which I believe is called "Burning Gundam" in America) for Bandai's B-Club, and a "GaoGaiGar" kit for a company called Pla-guild. I also worked on a "Gunbuster" for the company General Products (now Gainax). Most of these were fixed-pose figures designed to evoke a single moment from the shows. Recently, I worked on Yamato's "Ideon" action figure. And while it isn't a physical product, I oversaw the 3D CAD modeling and motion design of the "Apharmid" character that appeared in Sega Enterprises' arcade game "Virtual On 2: Oratorio Tangram."
M: On to the toys! Your take on the Getter Robo design is very sharp and industrial, like a piece of construction equipment. What was the original concept for the series?
S: You're right. I deliberately tried to work themes of heavy industrial machinery, like power shovels and bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment, into the design. In the original Getter Robo animated series, the robot was basically engineered for peaceful purposes, as an industrial machine for deep-space exploration. It was only equipped with weapons after the "Dinosaur Empire" launched an invasion of the Earth. I wanted to emphasize the power and weight implied by the original design in my portrayal. That's how the concept came about. I think of it as Getter Robo in high-definition! It's what Getter Robo might have looked like if the old "cameras" the show was "filmed" in had better resolution. (Laughs)
M: Getter Robo's face is quite grotesque when you remove the faceplate.
S: I wanted to portray it as more cybernetic than disgusting. I mean, if you could look under the skin on a human's face, it would look pretty "grotesque" too. Go Nagai is famous for portraying oni (Japanese demons), in his work. Devilman is the most obvious example, but Mazinger Z is one too, and there are others. So I wanted to give the Getters oni-like faces.
M: Incidentally, has (original Getter Robo creator) Go Nagai seen your design?
S: I'm not sure, but I suspect he probably has. I hope he likes it!
M: It seems to be pretty posable for a diecast toy.
S: I did my best to make it as naturally posable as possible. Here, look at the arms. A robot like Gundam's can only rotate along a plane, but I designed the Getter One so that the shoulders can roll inward, like a human's.
M: So was Gundam an influence on you as well?
S: I built the models and stuff as a kid, but I actually have some resistance to the whole Gundam concept and ideology, because it's basically a weapon. I think the pilot's personal sense of justice is more important, so I prefer the 1970s "super robot" genre. Remember, Getter Robo was originally designed for peaceful purposes.
M: That's interesting. I've noticed that Japanese and Americans tend to view the role of technology in society quite differently....
S: Yes! I was talking to a friend of mine in America about this recently. So many American portrayals of robots are negative, like the Terminator, or the big two-legged robot in Robocop, while very few are benign, like the droids in Star Wars.
M: Perhaps that's because in America, a lot of high technology is directly connected to military research? I do think the Japanese seem to have a more benign take on the role of technology in society. So why is it that Japanese are so great at designing these massive war machines?
S: Right. Why do so many of us like massive, sharp things, like military aircraft and battleships and tanks? Or guns. They're basically tools for killing people. I'm fascinated by that sort of thing, but I'm not pro-war or pro-violence, so it's a dilemma for me.
M: Getter Robo and the other super robots never felt like weapons in that sense to me, though. They were symbols of power.
S: Yes! Exactly! Japan is a polytheistic society. We have many kami (gods), neither good nor bad, just powerful. I think of Getter Robo as being like that. It's incredibly dangerous but in the hands of the person with the right spirit, it's a very useful tool for humanity. There's a concept called yase-gaman in Japanese. It's a fundamental aspect of bushido, the Japanese art of war, and is a form of stoicism in the face of adversity. That's the kind of feeling I wanted to portray with my Getter Robo design, indirectly.
M: Very Japanese. I've always liked the fact that you used the old kanji characters for one, two, and three on the backs of your Getta Robo designs.
S:: On the reactor coils, yes! Here, check this out (pops one off the back of the Getter One and puts it in my hand): they're diecast, too. I put a lot of thought into the numbers, actually. I chose the old kanji characters because I wanted to emphasize the fact that it was made in Japan.
M: Can you tell me a bit more about the recently-announced EX Diecast Getta Three? It looks beautiful.
S: I'm afraid I can't let you photograph this prototype, but I can show you this: the surprise gimmick! I put it in for fun. The tank treads fold down and feet fold out like this... See? It can stand up on two legs, like Getter Poseidon. I call this the "standing mode." It's a little like a Transformer. I love Transformers.
M: Are those caterpillar treads rubber?
S: Yes! And they work! See? Br-r-r-r-m! (Makes robot sound as he drives it across the tabletop and laughs.)
M: In "standing mode" it looks like a sumo wrestler!
S: In the show, the pilot is a judo master. So I wanted to portray the Getter Three as having a lot of power.
M: Do you have any words for foreign fans of your Getter Robo designs?
S: It's an honor to know that people outside of Japan are appreciating my work. I love sculpting things that are as faithful as possible to the original designs, so it's been difficult to inject my own personality into my work until now. I feel very lucky to have gotten the chance to design the EX Diecast Getter Robo, and very fortunate to see it get so much attention both here and abroad. There are a lifetime's worth of robot characters that I'd like to sculpt, and I have my own original robot characters as well. I really appreciate everyone supporting me and cheering me on.
M: Will the EX Diecast line continue?
S: Definitely! We don't have any formal plans after Getter Three but we definitely intend to continue the series.
M: Any chance of seeing the Getter Robo G ("Starvengers") designs get the EX treatment?
S: I would love to do that! I've been working on the designs in my spare time, privately, but there aren't any official plans to move ahead with them. If in the future the president of Fewture decides to make them, the set of Dragun, Ryger, and Poseidon, I've got the designs ready to go in my sketchbook! A Grendizer would be great, too...