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Behind Godzilla vs. Kong’s frenzied reference to a legendary anime technique

Adam Wingard’s Kaiju epic took inspiration from the “Itano Circus”

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A hovercraft fires a flurry of missiles in unison in Godzilla vs. Kong Photo: Legendary Entertainment
Toussaint Egan is a curation editor, out to highlight the best movies, TV, anime, comics, and games. He has been writing professionally for over 8 years.

Godzilla vs. Kong has proven itself a rare beast among lesser prey. The movie is an unapologetically bombastic, loud, and thoroughly entertaining Kaiju blockbuster packed with cartoonishly hare-brained plot twists (Hollow Earth Theory! Hovercrafts! Mecha Kaiju!).

Our interview with director Adam Wingard revealed a ton of insight into the creative process behind the film’s largest set-pieces, as well as key detail about the director himself. For all the critical qualms over his 2017 Netflix film Death Note, the dude knows and loves his anime.

Aside from more obvious touchstones like Katushiro Otomo’s 1988 film Akira, as a key influence on the lighting and scale of the film’s final showdown in Hong Kong, Wingard cited two other anime as key influences on some of the Godzilla vs. Kong’s most noteworthy scenes: Macross Plus or Robotech. Pointing to these two is noteworthy: The relationship between the two anime has been fraught and entangled with one another ever since 1985 when Harmony Gold USA, the television production company which owns the American licensing rights to the Macross franchise, created the 85-episode Robotech by combining footage from the The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, The Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada. Harmony Gold USA has retained the licensing rights to Macross since, and has mostly prevented a home video release — or any release period — of the original Macross that would conflict with the company’s own Robotech series. Despite this, Harmony Gold has allowed a choice handful of Macross-related titles to be sold in the past, hence the availability of Macross Plus in the west.

Macross Plus is also notable, and an obvious-when-you-think-about-it reference for Godzilla vs. Kong, for featuring the work of one the most acclaimed effects animators of anime history. Ichirō Itano (Megazone 23, Mobile Suit Gundam) made such an impact with his style, he became the namesake for one of the most iconic tropes in animation: the “Itano Circus.”

A multi-colored barrage of homing missiles converging on a solitary fighter jet in Macross Plus. Image: Sunrise

Macross Plus, the 1994 military science fiction-drama OAV (original animation video) co-directed by series creator Shōji Kawamori and future Cowboy Bebop director Shinichirō Watanabe, is essentially anime’s answer to the 1986 American action drama Top Gun. A sequel to the original 1982 television series, Super Dimension Fortress Macross, the OVA (and feature-length re-edit) follows the intersecting stories of Isamu Dyson and Guld Bowman, two old friends turned bitter rivals who are selected as the pilots of two programs competing to develop their own experimental transforming fighter aircraft. As the two attempt outmaneuver and best one another, the pair also vie for the affections of their mutual childhood friend Myung, the producer behind a popular holographic pop Idol named Sharon Apple who harbors her own dark secrets.

The anime combines emotional drama and sci-fi action shot through breathtaking aerial combat choreography courtesy of Itano, who worked as the anime’s “special skills director” and one of the production’s assistant mechanical designers. Itano’s talents are apparent throughout each of the anime’s aerial combat scenes, particularly the film’s penultimate climax where Guld is pushed to the limits of his ability in a perilous, dizzying dogfight with the experimental Ghost X-9 flight craft, which is possessed by a malicious AI. The scene is chaotic and engrossing, crescendoing amid a cacophonous flurry of lasers and a heartrendingly heroic finale. Notably, Macross Plus’ script and score were penned and composed by Keiko Nobumoto and Yoko Kanno respectively, both of whom would later go on to collaborate with Watanabe again on the aforementioned Cowboy Bebop.

The sequence that Wingard cites as a direct inspiration in Godzilla vs. Kong, seen in the film’s first aircraft carrier set-piece fight, and the hovercraft Hollow Earth firefight during the film’s mid-point, is the so-called “Itano Circus.” The Itano Circus is a visual trope in anime, seen in any scene where a small, single character or object is shown attempting to outmaneuver a swarm of incoming projectiles, often illustrated as either a swath of lasers or whispering missile trails, darting and weaving in unison. Imagine an advanced stage of Galaga, or the classic “bullet hell” shoot-’em-up Ikaruga, only the action is framed from the vantage point of the missiles themselves rather than the lone starfighter desperately attempting to evade them.

First seen in the 1980 series Space Runaway Ideon (an anime which would later serve as an inspiration behind 1995’s Neon Genesis Evangelion), the Itano Circus would go on to attain an even greater reputation for his signature technique through his work on 1982’s Super Dimension Fortress Macross,” initially dubbed as the “The Macross Missile Massacre” before later shortened to the simpler Itano Circus. The origins and inspirations behind the trope reach back even further however when a then-20-year-old Ichirō, in a brazen youthful display of daredevil ingenuity, set off 50 fireworks strapped to the back of his motorbike as he sped along the beach of his hometown at 80 miles per hour. Why? Because it was dangerous and cool-looking, so why not! No surprise, the Itano Circus found its way on to Vulture’s recent list of the 100 most influential animation sequences of all-time.

The Itano Circus is nigh ubiquitous across the medium of anime, seen in everything from Cowboy Bebop: The Movie and Eureka Seven to SSSS.Gridman and FLCL Progressive, though Itano himself has said that only three other animators have managed to emulate his work successfully: Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno and Cowboy Bebop animators Yasushi Muraki and Masami Goto. The appearance of the trope in Godzilla vs. Kong’s own action sequences is one of the film’s loving nods to the medium of Japanese animation and indelible influences of the creators behind, an element that without which the film would be all the poorer.

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