SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 3: Arrivederci Dark Ages, Hello Global Village
When we last left our heroes, SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO had gone through an honest-to-gosh Cinderella story. From the depths of obscure early-70s TV animation, the great ship rose again to blindside all of Japan and turn into the biggest thing to happen to anime since… anime began. The movie scored boffo box office, the tone was set for a future of prodigious commerce, and the door was wide open for a sequel. Producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki had, in fact, already expressed an interest in making one a month before the YAMATO movie premiered.
In the July 1977 issue of OUT magazine, he toyed with the notion of a movie that would expand on the existing story by reviving all the material that was lost in the network cutback. By the middle of November, he was thinking bigger. Flush with success, he was now keen on an entirely new story that would, in his words, depict “the end of Yamato.” He’d had a vision of the ship disappearing into infinite space, taking all the characters with it, and worked the idea backward from there. In hindsight, it seems a bit ridiculous to end your franchise just as it was beginning, but franchise thinking wasn’t yet in vogue at the time. In fact, ARRIVEDERCI YAMATO itself was going to get it started.
As the writing team got busy with early drafts for YAMATO PART 2 (its working title), Nishizaki took the next major step toward the future by founding the official Yamato Fan Club. It was up and running by the end of the year, and the first issue of its monthly magazine appeared in members’ mailboxes in February 1978. From the very beginning, it gave the fans two things they never had before: a networking opportunity for all the private clubs and a means of keeping informed about the new movie as it was being made.
Nobody in the internet age of realtime reporting gives this sort of thing a second thought, but thirty years ago it was utterly new. Japan didn’t even have a true anime specialty magazine yet. OUT was on the road to becoming one, but the debut of Animage was still five months away. (Fittingly, its first two issues carried Yamato cover stories.) By all counts, the Yamato Fan Club Magazine was the first continuing source for news and feedback anime fans had ever seen. It was, quite literally, the birthplace of the anime global village.
Despite the newness of this tool, Nishizaki worked it like a pro, letting out just enough artwork and story bits to keep fans riveted, and promoting events for club members to participate in. With the popularity of YAMATO music ever expanding, he hit upon the idea of a symphonic concert tour that would feature both old and new score. This took place throughout the month of July as movie production reached fever pitch.
Right from the start, ARRIVEDERCI YAMATO was an enormous project. The first script draft, completed at a breakneck pace in January, had timed out at an unprecedented (for anime) three hours. There were two options for dealing with this; either shorten the story or drop the film stock from 35mm to 16mm so that a standard film projector could accommodate it. Nobody wanted the film’s visual to be compromised, so half an hour was cut from the script—which still made for one of the longest animated movies ever produced.
Whereas the original TV series had been parceled out to half a dozen small studios for animation, the new film was going to be treated like royalty. With Toei as the new production partner, some of Japan’s most experienced animators would be unleashed on the project. Even then, they would be pushed to their limits by the astonishingly complex mecha design, supervised by Leiji Matsumoto and engineered by Studio Nue. (They would later go on to make a little thing titled MACROSS.) All the voice actors returned to reprise their roles and the incomparable Hiroshi Miyagawa delivered a musical score that instantly won the hearts of everyone who heard it.
Nishizaki was also already thinking past the existing fan base, wisely looking for ways to expand the movie’s reach into the larger culture. The sophistication of the symphonic score was already making some headway, but further media attention swarmed around the choice of pop star Kenji Sawada to sing the ending theme and a trendy fashion designer, Yukiko Hanai, to create some costumes for the characters. It was enough to make even non-anime fans believe cartoons were becoming respectable.
The very best time to be a YAMATO fan was the week leading up to the August 5th premiere when a new symphonic LP was released, the first movie made its debut on TV, and a complete ARRIVEDERCI radio drama was broadcast on ALL NIGHT NIPPON in the early morning hours of the big day. In a repeat of the previous year, fans had already lined up at movie theatres the night before, and anyone who thought to bring a portable radio along would have made instant friends. What could better fill the long overnight hours than a radio drama of the very movie you were about to see?
The experience was less enjoyable for theatre owners who had booked the film and suddenly found themselves with a much bigger crowd than they could accommodate. In an inspired move, some of them quickly rented out neighboring theatres and turned them into makeshift waiting rooms as a means of crowd control. Everyone who had been paying attention the year before might have guessed what was coming, but they couldn’t possibly imagine that it would surpass its predecessor with sales of over half a million advance tickets and a turnout of a quarter of a million viewers on opening day. The most important part of all this was that the film proved worthy of all the attention.
For those who came to YAMATO via the Americanized STAR BLAZERS, the experience was different. We saw it only on TV, and for the majority of us the Comet Empire series was the mind-blower. What we couldn’t have understood at the time was that we were just absorbing the aftershock. The YAMATO 2 TV series followed in the wake of ARRIVEDERCI YAMATO, and to the Japanese fans it was decidedly a coattail rider.
There is a sizeable number of Japanese fans who, even today, feel the saga should not have continued outside the cinema. Seeing ARRIVEDERCI was such a sublime and satisfying emotional experience that it could only be diminished by more YAMATO. Seeing those beloved characters bravely face their individual fates and sacrifice everything for love was a definitive ending. Captain Okita’s final ghostly words, “you have one weapon left to fight with…your life,” should go down in the history as one of the best speeches in science fiction.
Finding a way around that ending so that YAMATO could continue lead to the saga’s first genuine schism; now there would be the ARRIVEDERCI purists and everyone else. Americans who didn’t see ARRIVEDERCI until after fully digesting STAR BLAZERS had no choice; they would be in the ‘everyone else’ category for the rest of their lives. But so far, none of them has complained. The TV version of the story was made to please.
Looking back from 2009, the impact of ARRIVEDERCI YAMATO is nothing short of historic. The 1977 Yamato movie was where the modern age of anime began, but everything that happened around the sequel showed the anime world how that modern age worked. The new breed of fans wasn’t a bunch of little kids. They were passionate about their hobby and they actually had some money to spend on it. They had an enormous appetite for news and images. They were no longer just ratings figures on a bar graph now that their faces had been seen in movie lines. They’d been ready for active participation all along, and it was YAMATO that opened the door to them.
The long-term benefits are still with us. Out of the fervor of ARRIVEDERCI came anime magazines (Animage was just the first; others would soon follow), anime-themed concerts, and blueprints for how to market a movie and run a fan club. The phenomenal amount of merchandising even made it possible to open the first anime specialty stores. And you bet there was merchandising. By the ton.
It’s difficult to overestimate the number of products spawned by this movie. Virtually any trinket you’d care to lug around in your daily life could be found with a YAMATO image on it. There were even a couple of giant-size sponsors along for the ride, Japan’s oldest candy company (Glico) and a soft drink manufacturer you might have heard about (Pepsi). The book and magazine world exploded with nine different publishers doing something for the film. 1978 was the busiest year for YAMATO publishing and ARRIVEDERCI still has more ink devoted to it than any other part of the saga.
These days, the only thing about the movie that has changed is the international title. It was officially renamed FAREWELL TO YAMATO in 1988, when it was marketed at the Cannes Film Festival. A year later it became the only other YAMATO movie to be dubbed in English. The dub was only slightly better than the 1976 edition of SPACE CRUISER YAMATO, so don’t go out of your way for it, but the mere fact that it was singled out for that treatment is enough to close the case.
Saraba, Arrivederci, Farewell… whatever you choose to call it, there’s only one word that can sum it up: Classic.
Next time: We’re off to Outer Space: YAMATO 2 and STAR BLAZERS!
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.