BEIJING — An overflow crowd of some 500 young Chinese packing an auditorium in Beijing’s prestigious Peking University clapped and cheered loudly as if they had just come face to face with the world’s biggest movie star.
Dozens of others who arrived minutes late for the talk last week had to contend with waiting in the corridors outside in the hope they would eventually be let in through the locked doors.
But it was no film celebrity that the mostly undergraduate crowd culled from various “anime” clubs in the Chinese capital’s major universities had turned up to hear, but renowned animator Yoshiyuki Tomino, who in 1979 created the hit animation series “Mobile Suit Gundam.”
The television series is credited with introducing the “real robot” genre into mainstream anime, which had previously concentrated on “super robot” fare targeted at young viewers.
More than 30 years later and after numerous sequels and spinoffs, the original series is still popular with anime fans around the world, from the United States to China.
To the crowd spilling into the aisles of the university lecture hall, the 69-year-old writer, director and novelist was more than just a celebrity.
He is the “Father of Gundam” and they hung onto every word of his hourlong lecture, in Japanese, on anime.
If any of them had shared in the wave of anti-Japanese sentiment expressed by many Chinese youths in the wake of the September ship collisions near the Senkaku Islands, it wasn’t apparent.
Instead, many in the audience pointed out that animated films in general promote the concept of an idealized world without borders.
“Animation films often carry the message of a united world and they go beyond borders regardless of language,” said Wang Jing, a 23-year-old undergraduate who managed to secure a front row seat to hear her idol speak.
“The first time I watched ‘Gundam’ a year ago, I was awestruck by the setting and the world view,” Meng Linglin, 21, of Beijing Jiaotong University said. “I think it is trying to depict a perfect ideal of people-to-people connection and I was very moved.”
Tomino appeared to feed off the adulation and appreciative hoots of the students, cracking inside jokes that were met with laughter by his fans but slipped by those less familiar with the “Gundam” series.
The unfortunate latter group included his Chinese translator, who dared trip over what were apparently names of characters in the series and was in turn heckled by the Chinese audience, who seemed to understand Japanese to a surprising degree.
At one point, Tomino turned to her after she tried with some difficulty to translate what he had just said, asking, “Did you get that right?”
This was met with much appreciative laughter from the students, cementing the relationship between the director and his fans as privy conspirators against ignorant outsiders.
By the time the question-and-answer session came around, the animator could do no wrong in front of his Chinese fans, even when he confessed he was not impressed with what he had seen of Chinese animation on television during his visit.
“Don’t clap! You shouldn’t be happy over this!” he teased the applauding audience.
“What you need is to nurture and create an animation enterprise here that is not only popular but also breaks new ground. I hope there are those among you who would do this,” he said in concluding his talk to more loud applause, before being presented with a bouquet of flowers by a student donning a robot mask.
Wang was full of nothing but praise for the director.
“I’ve read his novels, but hearing him speak and seeing him in person is so great. He has so much substance!” she gushed.