The Leiji Matsumoto Renaissance: SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO in the 21st Century
SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 1: The Anime Classic That Nearly Wasn’t
SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 2: From Valley to Peak
SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 3: ARRIVEDERCI YAMATO Goodbye Dark Ages, Hello Global Village
SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 4: We’re Off to Outer Space
SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 5: THE NEW VOYAGES Plural
SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 6: BE FOREVER YAMATO…and the Kitchen Sink.
SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 7: SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO III: The Ground Shifts
SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 8: FINAL YAMATO: The Legacy Begins
SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 9: Dessler’s War and More: SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO IN THE 80s
SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 10: The Rollercoaster: SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO in the 90s
When we last left our heroes, YAMATO was in need of rescuing (again). The ship’s captain (Exec Producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki) had critically misjudged how far he could take his vessel and ran it aground in the year 2520. This left the ship stranded in the year 1997 when the office of West Cape Corporation closed its doors forever. Twenty years earlier, Yamato had made a monumental cinematic comeback from the brink and now a similar victory was crucial. It was time for a new captain, and his name was Leiji Matsumoto.
Of all the superstars to emerge from the YAMATO stable, none were more successful than Matsumoto. He was already recognized as a king of SF adventure manga even before Yamato, and once he broke through into animation there was no stopping him. The hits kept coming even as YAMATO was in its heyday: CAPTAIN HARLOCK, GALAXY EXPRESS 999, QUEEN MILLENNIA, and more. He conquered TV, the cinema, and the fledgling OAV format, combining cutting-edge visual techniques with stories deeply rooted in the spiritual psyche.
He had a special affinity for the number 9, which became a thematic motif across many stories. He explained it as the last point before a paradigm shift. The last step before a crossover. This is why so many of his heroes are boys on the edge of becoming men. Their adventure is one last chance to tap their limitless potential. This made the approaching year 1999 especially poignant for Matsumoto, and a perfect time for him to bring YAMATO back from the brink.
Poetic drama aside, there were other forces at play as well. Japan’s Tohokushinsha Film Co. was the owner of the property and Bandai was already generating products to keep it visible. But what they lacked was a creative figurehead with the history and street cred to develop and endorse new projects. With Nishizaki out of commission, at least for a while, Leiji Matsumoto was the de facto go-to guy. And he definitely delivered.
The first signal that a renaissance was coming happened in 1998, which (through a lucky bit of timing) marked YAMATO’s 25th anniversary. Bandai took the opportunity to reissue the entire saga on both VHS and Laserdisc with the first DVD as a taste of what was to come. The revolution was announced in two places in the same month: an issue of Comic Gon magazine and the liner notes in the new laserdiscs. Matsumoto figured prominently in both, announcing his intention to bring Yamato back in a new form with new characters descended from the original crew.
Simultaneously, another project got underway to bring back the original crew in a new way: on the Sony Playstation. Matsumoto was heavily involved, re-imagining many aspects of the original story for this new interactive medium. What really caught the eye of the public was the work of character designer Keisuke Masunaga, who found a sweet spot between the Matsumoto aesthetic and the highly streamlined look of late-90s anime. The look was instantly recognizable as something new and exciting that preserved the core of the original.
Another principal player was world-class mecha designer Kazutaka Miyatake, whose credits went all the way back to the first YAMATO series and included such mega-hits as MACROSS. He did for the ships what Masunaga did for the crew, fans went for it like a dog on a steak, and a whole new franchise was off the launch pad.
This was the first big YAMATO event of 1999, but it was far from the last. New books, toys, live events, DVDs, and commemorative products rolled out at a steady pace throughout the year. One particular highlight was a CD Rom by NEC International that allowed users to walk through a virtual YAMATO and access all sorts of archival data in clever ways. Another was the unveiling of a beautiful collection of statuary in the port city of Tsuruga, 28 bronze marvels that celebrated both GALAXY EXPRESS and YAMATO. (They’re still standing today for tourists willing to make the trek.)
This made 1999 a true comeback year, but there was more to come. The onslaught of products increased in 2000 as Matsumoto made good on his promise to bring the saga back with a new manga titled NEW SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO (with the English subtitle of GREAT YAMATO). It was an even bigger jump into the future than Nishizaki had made, all the way to the year 3199. The approach of a black hole is heralded by the ghost of Queen Starsha, who awakens the distant descendants of Yamato’s crew to gather in an underground cave where an enormous new ship awaits, fully built and ready to fly. It launches, briefly encounters a sister ship named Maharoba, and wipes out the black hole with one shot of its wave-motion gun. The end.
As stories go, it wasn’t much, but it was supposedly just the opening salvo in an epic that was going to take Matsumoto 25 years to create and pull all of his famous characters together against a murderous galactic menace called Darqueen. The next step down this path was a GREAT YAMATO symphonic album for which maestro Hiroshi Miyagawa was called out of semi-retirement. This became the first CD in a landmark series called the Eternal Editions. It covered the entire saga and was heavily loaded with previously unreleased music tracks. To this day, it remains the essential collection of YAMATO music.
GREAT YAMATO carried on into 2001 when other new products appeared, including a series of typing games for Mac and PC. Like the Playstation games, they were filled with high-quality CG animation that offered a breathtaking view of where YAMATO could go next. With merchandising and fan interest at an all time high, Matsumoto announced his intentions to turn GREAT YAMATO into an anime project for 2002, but this is where the wheels started to come off the wagon. YAMATO’s comeback was going great guns by this time, and fans weren’t terribly interested in a far-future offshoot. If anything, they became less interested as the numbers got higher. 2520 had already been proven too big a step, and 3199 didn’t even register. Another complicating factor was that Matsumoto wasn’t the owner of the franchise, Tohokushinsha was—and they didn’t have any great interest in GREAT YAMATO.
Matsumoto attempted to claim ownership of YAMATO based on his pivotal role in the original creation of the saga, but when it didn’t stand up in court he did what he could; picked up his ball (in this case, some of the visual rights) and went home. While Tohokushinsha and Bandai continued the renaissance on their own, he retooled GREAT YAMATO into something else entirely: DAI YAMATO ZERO GO. Partnering with a game company called Venturesoft, he redesigned his characters, radically redesigned the ship, and developed plans to carry on in a different direction.
DAI YAMATO blossomed to life in 2003, first in the form of a highly visual series of pachinko games. These had come a long way from their beginnings as pinball-and-wood-panel affairs. Now they were an unholy mash-up of pinball, video game, and anime. Combining original footage with gameplay was a whole new artform and DAI YAMATO was at the leading edge of it.
The second edition of the pachinko game arrived in early 2004, followed immediately by the first episode of the DAI YAMATO OAV series on DVD. Five episodes were planned, and the first three were out by summertime. But then the wheels started to get wobbly again; Tohokushinsha was not amused by Matsumoto’s obvious attempt to cash in their chips. In their eyes, despite all the cosmetic changes, DAI YAMATO was still too close to SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO and the lawsuits unspooled. One more pachinko game popped up in early 2005, but that turned out to be the endgame.
Even if not for Tohoku’s intervention, DAI YAMATO probably wouldn’t have gone the distance anyway. The first three DVDs were sold online only, and the limited distribution combined with a (quite frankly) uninspired story lead Venturesoft into troubled waters. By 2005 they were bankrupt and it would be another two years before the last two episodes came out; another company named Godship (probably a descendant of Venturesoft) released a 5-disc boxed set in June ’07. It was basically the death-knell of Matsumoto’s grand 25-year plan.
Despite this, everything ended well for all parties. An enormous amount of merchandising had made YAMATO a household name again with a long run of Playstation games leading the charge. By 2005 the line had gone all the way through a re-imagined BE FOREVER game before calling it quits. That same year, Leiji Matsumoto partnered with a designer toy company called Zero Goods Universe (Zero is one possible translation of “Leiji”) and rolled out an exquisite series of high-quality character dolls designed by his wife. Over thirty of these have been produced so far, a large percentage of which are YAMATO characters. Matsumoto also kept plenty of non-YAMATO projects in the works, such as a highly-acclaimed GALAXY EXPRESS spinoff titled GALAXY RAILWAYS.
Over just a few short years, SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO had been safely course-corrected toward a bright future. In fact, this new heading would ultimately reunite the ship with its original captain and that future would become brighter still.
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STAR BLAZERS is ©Voyager Entertainment, Inc.
Next time: In only a few short days!! A SciFi Japan EXCLUSIVE!! YAMATO REBIRTH: an eyewitness account of the new beginning! Join Tim Eldred and SciFi Japan this weekend for an exclusive report on the brand new YAMATO REBIRTH straight from the premier in Japan!