SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 2: From Valley to Peak
From the privileged vantage point of time and distance, it’s easy for us in the Western world to forget what an enormous struggle it is to make a successful anime series in Japan. The stuff just seems to gush out in an endless flood, the only limit being the size of the pipe it flows through. But hidden in that flood are many near-death experiences. Programs that we recognize as monster hits today–YAMATO, GUNDAM, EVANGELION and more–all narrowly avoided fatal blows. Ratings failed to spike, network support evaporated, and only by sheer blind luck did later circumstances come to the rescue.
The onscreen story of SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO is loaded with drama, action, and sacrifice. The offscreen story, as it turns out, is exactly the same.
After the premature cancellation of the TV series in spring 1975, it looked for all intents and purposes like Game Over. Except for a tiny skeleton crew that stayed behind to clean up some episodes for reruns, the production was shut down and the world kept turning. But there were two factors still in play; (1) Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s refusal to let his creation die and (2) a handful of fans who unknowingly shared that determination. Without one factor, the other wouldn’t have had a prayer. And though they began the next phase in complete ignorance of each other, they would prove unstoppable when they finally united.
Nishizaki, for his part, actually steered YAMATO away from Japan into international waters, intending to turn his TV series into a feature film that could be dubbed and sold to foreign distributors. This wasn’t as hard as it sounds; Nishizaki’s Academy Studio was already importing and exporting other films on the side, so the resources were already in place. The real work was going to be editing down twenty-six TV episodes without losing the best parts of the story. It was quickly decided to create an alternate ending that would burn up less screen time than the final episode, so the skeleton crew got to work on this while director Toshio Masuda started the daunting task of slicing and chopping in the editing room.
The fans had actually gotten a head start in their efforts. A few of the early adopters were teenagers, exactly the right age to appreciate what a leap forward YAMATO was in terms of SF on TV, and they had the gumption to actually find the studio where it was being produced. The animation staff welcomed them with open arms (which says something about how rarely they got to interact with their audience) and rewarded their devotion with whatever was headed for the trash heap: scripts, storyboards, model sheets, and cels. It was an unbelievable gift, and one that would pay dividends for years to come.
Having access to inside information put these fans in the same position as the staff when the word came down from above to end the show early. The animators had no choice but to work through the pain and make the remaining episodes as good as possible, assuming that it could very well be their last chance to work on a pure SF series. The fans were free to do more with their outrage; they could band together and see to it that YAMATO would never be forgotten. In other words, they could start up a private fan club and share the treasures they were fortunate enough to rescue from the inner sanctum.
Who were these fans? Individually, they were Asami Kushino, Hideaki Ito, Tatsuya Nakatani, and the mysterious “Mr. W.” Collectively, they went by the name Cosmo Battleship Yamato Laboratory (CBYL), and as soon as they put the word out, applications for membership came pouring in. And they weren’t the only ones. Yamato Fan Club and Yamato Connection were two similar groups who had managed to piece together archives of their own, and the race to produce the best YAMATO fanzines was on.
By October 1976, Nishizaki’s movie was put together. Now titled SPACE CRUISER YAMATO, it had been cut down to a shade over 90 minutes and dubbed by American actors. (Only one of whom, Marvin Miller, had SF street cred after voicing Robby the Robot for FORBIDDEN PLANET; all the others were eminently forgettable.) Nishizaki was happy to have a crack at another audience, of course, but still felt that the grand prize was waiting for him at home. He was sitting on Toshio Masuda’s un-dubbed cut of the film, but only had enough money left to make a single print. He saw just two options: consign the YAMATO movie to the late-night art-house circuit, or find a way to get a domestic distributor interested in backing it. The second choice was the better one, obviously, but there was still a missing ingredient: popularity.
Fortunately, this problem was slowly starting to solve itself. In order to raise funds to make SPACE CRUISER, Nishizaki had bundled the YAMATO TV series with another of his earlier shows (LITTLE WANSA) and sold rerun rights to Japanese networks. The first had begun in September ’75, and the second followed in January ‘76. The staff of CBYL benefited enormously from this, signing up a flood of new members with each viewing.
If they had just one problem, it was that they’d become victims of their own success. They were the best place to go if you wanted to take your YAMATO experience beyond the TV screen, and their fanzines only got better issue by issue. Thus, they soon found the requirements of the fan club intruding on their personal lives (they were just students, after all) and had to make a dramatic decision: to shut everything down and reboot in a more controlled manner. That’s how they became Yamato Association in February ‘76 and capped their membership to a manageable number.
This turned out to be the best decision for all concerned. Remember, this was quite literally a D.I.Y. era for anime fandom. There were no magazines, no specialty stores, no conventions, and certainly no internet. If you wanted more YAMATO, you had to seek it out in the form of fanzines or make your own. And that’s precisely what many fans did after they were cut free of CBYL. Other fan clubs popped up to fill the void and activity increased exponentially. Thanks to the resources created by the CBYL, fanzines could step past the data-dump phase and move on to original material.
1976 drew to a close with the first sign of convergence when the word somehow got out that a YAMATO movie actually existed, was ready to be seen, and that Nishizaki was looking for a way to get it into theatres. This was true; he’d succeeded in getting Toei Movie Co. interested, and they were open to the idea of a limited run.
Meanwhile, the mysterious “Mr. W” was working his own little miracle. He’d made contact with another individual known only as “Mr. K” who was preparing to enter the world of magazine publishing. He had cooked up a periodical titled OUT that would cater to fans of underground music, weird comics, and B movies. Basically, if it didn’t have a home in some mainstream publication, it could find space in OUT. In March 1977, W and K worked out a deal whereby Yamato Association would produce a major feature for OUT’s 2nd issue.
YAMATO had made scattered appearances in previous magazines, but they were nothing like this. The gang would fill up an unprecedented 60 pages with all the resources at their disposal, even generating some original material in the bargain. It would also include an interview with Yoshinobu Nishizaki himself–finally putting YAMATO’s two greatest supporters on the same path.
Rumors of fan groups had reached him before, but now he was meeting them face to face and was amazed to learn what had really been going on over the last two years. It was a moment he would count among his favorites for decades to come; undeniable proof that he wasn’t wasting his time trying to bring his beloved cartoon back to life. Suddenly it seemed there was an entire army ready to fight for YAMATO, and that’s exactly what he asked them to do.
Toei was still on the fence about how deeply they would commit to a YAMATO movie. The improved ratings of the TV reruns were encouraging enough to book a handful of theatres, but nothing like the nationwide release that Nishizaki longed for. The solution was a down and dirty grass roots campaign. Fan club reps were called in to the home office and given their marching orders: to hang flyers, pester TV and radio stations, and letter-bomb local media to demand Yamato coverage.
The arrival of OUT #2 on newsstands in April gave the campaign another boost; the issue was an instant sell-out everywhere. This put the writing on the wall for Toei. The fans were out there after all. In short order, a plan was made to put SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO into wide release starting August 6, 1977. With that decision, the dominoes started falling hard.
This moment marked an important transition; stewardship of YAMATO passed from the fans to the pros.
A merchandising plan was put into place, new products appeared—then rapidly disappeared—from store shelves in July, and when August 5th finally arrived, the people of Japan was treated to something they’d never seen before. It stopped pedestrians in their tracks. Reporters jumped on it in time to make the evening news.
What was it? Kids gathering out of nowhere, forming massive lines in front of movie theatres. And here was the strange part: they were there to see a cartoon. Such a thing had never happened before, and the mere fact of it was enough to cause a national sensation: Yamato Fever!
Even Nishizaki was taken by surprise, seeing it on the evening news and grabbing up his few remaining staff members to rush out and see it for themselves. SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO was alive and well. The frustration, the waiting, the careful planning, and everything else they’d endured had been worth it after all.
As we know now, the dividends of this singular event in anime history have paid off many times over.
First, of course, the doors were opened not just for more YAMATO, but for more and better anime that was no longer purely aimed at children. Now that studios and licensors actually saw who their audience was, they could do a better job of giving them what they wanted. Thus, the quality of merchandising improved in lockstep with the quality of anime. Books became more comprehensive and sophisticated. Toys and model kits more closely followed animation designs. And as of December 2nd 1977, music took its rightful place as an artform unto itself.
That was the date of the YAMATO radio drama on a program called ALL NIGHT NIPPON, an audio-only version of the movie. The music heard behind it, though based on the original score for the TV series, was new and revolutionary. It was released on Christmas Day under the name “Symphonic Suite Space Battleship Yamato”, and is still remembered as a masterpiece to this day. This single album more than any other demonstrated that anime music could break boundaries of its own.
Fanzines (or “doujinshi” in the local tongue) became so widespread that they gave rise to an event of their own called Comic Market, known more commonly as “Comiket.” The first event was held in December 1975 and drew 600 attendees. Today’s Comiket is held twice a year and regularly draws nearly half a million. Not every doujinshi of the 1970s was devoted to YAMATO, but it was certainly the engine that got the train moving.
The members of Yamato Association stayed together for another year, after which they could comfortably lay it to rest since the rest of the world had finally caught up with them. Their legacy is still with us today in the form of anime specialty magazines. Mr. W, the mastermind of their fanzine activities, took the reigns of OUT magazine at the end of 1977 and remade it into the first all-anime monthly, forging the path for Animage, Animedia, and many others.
Another member, Hideaki Ito, kept the fires burning and eventually became a contributor to special YAMATO projects at Bandai, including several music and video releases over the past 10 years.
Between them, Yoshinobu Nishizaki and this core group of dedicated fans laid the foundation for the entire multimedia world of anime as we know it today, all because of their love for YAMATO.
And after they set the stage in 1977, it was time for the REAL show to start.
Next time: The Age of ARRIVEDERCI
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
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