SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 1: the Anime Classic that Nearly Wasn’t
Anyone who’s been paying attention over the last twenty years or so knows that Japanese cartoons (“anime”) have pretty much changed the world forever with their dynamism, variety, and impossibly eye-catching visuals. Anyone who’s into anime now probably had a “gateway” program that got them started. In the 1990s there was POKEMON, SAILOR MOON, EVANGELION, and COWBOY BEBOP. In the 1970s there was SPEED RACER and BATTLE OF THE PLANETS. But for my money the rubber really hit the road in the 1980s with AKIRA, ROBOTECH, and the greatest of them all: STAR BLAZERS.
Why so great? Part of it was timing. STAR BLAZERS hit American TV in 1979, when science-fiction movies were on a dramatic upswing and the appetite for more was never greater. It was a genre that American cartoon companies showed little to no interest in exploiting, but Japan had fully embraced many years earlier. And if you wanted to see daily SF on TV that matched what was happening in the movie theatres, you could do no better than STAR BLAZERS.
The other, much greater part of it, was the simple fact that STAR BLAZERS was way ahead of the curve in its mix of design, drama, action, and sophistication. The characters had dimension and nuance. The production design was loaded with detail and realism. The animation, while definitely a product of its time, was still a cut above anything on Saturday morning. The music was outstanding, shoulder to shoulder with anything John Williams could come up with. But most importantly, the story didn’t talk down to you or slow down for you; it knew exactly where it was going and it was your job to keep up. In short, it was a welcome challenge.
For those of us in the target age group (10-25) it was life-changing. It either gave us everything we always wanted to see in TV animation or it showed us a standard we should live up to if we wanted to go off and tell stories of our own. Today, anime fandom in America has finally reached a saturation point where we can take a lot for granted. What isn’t well known is that many of the important steps that got us here were first taken by members of the STAR BLAZERS generation. Watching that show moved us to open up the world for more things just like it.
What we didn’t know at the time was that this had already happened in the show’s country of origin. The first signal that something unusual was afoot could be seen in the end credits: Originally created in Japan under the title SPACE CRUISER YAMATO by Yoshinobu Nishizaki.
That was actually something of a misnomer. SPACE CRUISER YAMATO was the international title for a feature film compilation that had made its way to Europe in 1976. Reportedly, Nishizaki chose that because he liked the sound of it. The original Japanese title, which took some time to gain traction elsewhere, was SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO and it first left the launch pad all the way back in 1974. The first 26-episode TV series started a revolution that lead not only to more YAMATO, but also jump-started an entire industry and modernized the way it was merchandised. It’s not an exaggeration to state that the world of Japanese animation is a worldwide juggernaut today because of SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO. It’s also not an exaggeration to point out that it almost didn’t happen, and that’s going to take some explaining.
From Asteroid to Icon
In the beginning, the title vessel of SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO wasn’t called Yamato and wasn’t even a ship. It was a massive chunk of rock that had been hollowed out and machined-up for a crew of young people from around the world to fly into battle against alien invaders called the “Rajendora”. That was the basic concept behind ASTEROID SHIP ICARUS, the brainchild of animation/music producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki and his writing partners Eiichi Yamamoto and Aritsune Toyota. Over time, the rock was whittled away and the ship underneath began to emerge. It also got a much more interesting name: “Yamato”.
Nishizaki had long been a fan of science fiction and fantasy, and after producing a trio of children’s anime programs in the early 1970s he was ready to try something different. Lamenting the fact that kids were no longer reading the fairy tales and adventure stories that were so meaningful to him as a youngster, he wanted to create something equally important for the TV generation. Having taken the concept as far as he could with his writing partners, he thought it was time to bring in an artist to help flesh it out. This turned out to be the first in a long line of fateful decisions, because that artist was precisely the right guy for the job.
Leiji Matsumoto had been writing and drawing popular manga for almost twenty years by the time Nishizaki drafted him into service for YAMATO. After a gestation period working on girls’ manga in the 1950s, Matsumoto found his own voice in the 1960s with action/adventure stories such as Submarine Super 99 and Lightning Ozma, then went on to an interesting dual career that bounced between far-ranging SF and Earthbound soap opera. Of course, it was his science-fiction work that earned Nishizaki’s attention, fueled as it was by a passion for science, technology, and lovingly-rendered space mecha. He hadn’t worked in animation yet, but by all other criteria, Leiji Matsumoto was eminently qualified to get Yamato ready for launch.
What they might not have known about him then was that he was also a fanatic about World War II mecha. He’d spent his childhood doodling airplanes, jeeps, tanks, guns, and all the rest—especially battleships. This was a man who knew all the stats of the original Battleship Yamato by heart…and what he saw in the early concept art was nothing like it. Even though the asteroid had been carved away, what remained owed far more to the era of art-deco pulp sci-fi than the icon of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The characters weren’t much better, cut from the cloth of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers rather than the down-to-Earth men and women of a Matsumoto manga, who ate, drank, bled, and struggled just like real people.
Matsumoto asked if, in addition to redesigning the ship he could rework the story as well. Fortunately for all of us, he got the right answer: “do whatever pleases you.” In short order, everything that would have made Yamato ordinary was thrown out the window. The story was enriched by a much more serious enemy that had fire-bombed the entire Earth (now called the “Gamilas”) and the image of a beautiful, exotic space goddess that called from across the galaxy with the promise of salvation. The earthlings that would answer that call were loosely based on people in Matsumoto’s own life and/or characters derived from his other manga.
The Yamato itself got a much-needed facelift, redesigned into an idealized version of the original, which in itself was already considered a work of art. Part of what made this process work was Matsumoto’s respect and reverence for the subject matter. As a child of the war, he was highly conscientious about the wounds that could be re-opened if the surviving families of Yamato’s 3,000 lost sailors got the wrong idea about an attempt to revive the ship as a cartoon. He intentionally avoided playing up militarism or nationalism, instead emphasizing the idea of a grand space voyage and the romance of youth.
There was some friction in the writer’s group, which now included veteran scriptwriter Keisuke Fujikawa, when Matsumoto presented them with a wholly new scenario. But none could dispute the quality of his work. This was obviously the way to go. Eiichi Yamamoto worked up Matsumoto’s story treatment into a 51-episode plotline and animators were quickly hired to produce a pilot film that would sell the series to a network.
This is where the team picked up some more MVP’s, most significantly artist Noboru Ishiguro. He brought to the table a tremendous enthusiasm for SF and a burning passion to explore new ways of visualizing it. He had a kinship with like-minded artists in Studio Nue (pronounced Noo-ee), a cadre of designers who were particularly good at turning Matsumoto’s sketches into fully realized model sheets. Matsumoto himself didn’t have the time or experience to oversee the animation (since, among other things, he would be drawing the Yamato manga on the side) so Ishiguro became his liaison and soon found himself the de facto animation director.
Between them, this perfect storm of talent pulled together a 10-minute pilot film that grabbed the attention of the Yomiuri TV network. They agreed to a 39-episode commitment (three arcs of 13 episodes) and pulled in some sponsors to get a merchandising campaign started. In 1974, this meant children’s books, toys, and candies. Anime then wasn’t quite the all-ages phenomenon it is today. In fact, it wasn’t even called “anime” yet; it was “TV Manga.” And this would turn out to be a nearly fatal flaw.
With only a few weeks to get episodes into production for an October debut, Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s Academy Studio suddenly buzzed with activity. The next vital player on the team, composer Hiroshi Miyagawa, got to work writing the score—which included the single greatest opening title song in anime history, destined to become a top 100 karaoke favorite though no one could possibly have known it at the time. Nishizaki, Matsumoto, and Miyagawa were all strong advocates for a symphonic soundtrack, one that drew from the best traditions of classical music and would update them for a new audience. Over subsequent years this would prove to be just as vital a decision as the hiring of Leiji Matsumoto as YAMATO music smashed one barrier after another…but that’s another story.
As the October 6 premiere drew ever closer, the animation staff worked harder than they ever thought possible. The first episode was taking far longer to make than anyone thought, the cel count was rising beyond all expectations, and the sheer amount of labor kept everyone in the studio for days on end. Tempers flared and nerve endings frayed. One key staff member vomited blood and had to be hospitalized for an ulcer. The first show was finished the day before broadcast, putting the next several episodes on a similarly precarious schedule.
Outside this hothouse, licensors were preparing launches of their own. Three different manga publishers had commissioned three different versions of the story (only one of which was drawn by Leiji Matsumoto) and elementary school viewers would soon have a deluge of colorful products to choose from that looked almost nothing like the program they were about to witness.
SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO episode 1 hit the airwaves on schedule: Sunday night, October 6, at 7:30 pm. And in one stroke, the string of good choices was trumped by just a single bad one. 7:30 happened to be the timeslot for a ratings colossus called GIRL OF THE ALPS HEIDI. It had already been on the air for many months, gaining a stranglehold on the very audience Yomiuri coveted: elementary school children. The entire merchandising campaign was based on them. And when they (predictably) ignored YAMATO for their Sunday night favorite, the doomsday clock started ticking.
To their credit, Yomiuri gave it a month…but when it became obvious the ratings weren’t going to increase any time soon, they made a fateful decision: Yamato would be cut short. The series would now have to be told in two 13-episode arcs rather than three. In a flash, a third of the story was sliced off, which meant (among other things) an original Leiji Matsumoto character named Captain Harlock lost his role completely.
Naturally, the entire crew was devastated by this turn of events (except those who were now relieved that they would only have to endure the killer pace for five more months) but they remained determined that they would give it only their best. If it was indeed true that SF anime had no audience, this was likely to be the only chance they’d get to pour their passion into one. This more than anything else would plant the seeds for Yamato’s eventual salvation, because when it vanished from the airways (seemingly for good) in April 1975, it left a small but fanatically devoted following to fend for themselves.
As it happened, YAMATO’s target audience had been watching after all…and like Nishizaki, Matsumoto, Ishiguro, Miyagawa, and the others, they were exactly the right people to meet the next challenge. They were going to bring SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO back from the brink.
Next time: the fans come to the rescue and the movie changes everything forever.
Keep watching SciFi Japan for more installments of Tim Eldred’s look back at the classic SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO!
Read much more about Yamato and find Star Blazers DVDs at www.starblazers.com
Star Blazers is ©Voyager Entertainment, Inc.