YAMATO REBIRTH: An Eyewitness Account of the New Beginning
A SciFi JAPAN EXCLUSIVE
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
SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 11: The Leiji Matsumoto Renaissance, SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO in the 21st Century
If you give an older anime fan a chance to wax poetic, you’ll hear wistful stories of what it was like before the internet came along. Don’t get me wrong, the internet is a perfect tool to follow the hobby and it delivers exponentially more than we could get in the “old days.” But at the same time, the internet makes it too easy. It requires less of you. When your only search engine was your own brain and email had to be hand-delivered on paper, the demands of being an anime fan were intensely challenging.
All my fondest memories of that time resulted from rising to that challenge, and when I learned that SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO: REBIRTH CHAPTER would open in Japanese movie theatres on December 12, 2009, the challenge had been issued anew. YAMATO was what got me into anime in the first place. Seeking it out in all its forms has been a steady preoccupation for me since 1980. I could’ve continued to do that online and waited a few months for a DVD, but that just seemed wrong. Here, at last, was a chance to see it the way it was meant to be seen, on a big screen with big sound and surrounded by a big merchandising campaign. Going to Japan to see that in person was a new opportunity not just to relive the challenges of yesteryear but also to experience them in real time as Japanese fans did. I knew I’d regret it if I let the opportunity pass. And now I regret nothing.
As recounted here in an earlier segment, the concept for the film was first developed way back in the early 90s. It would bring back the Yamato crew 17 years after their last adventure. Kodai and Yuki had a daughter in the interim and now Earth faces a new threat: a traveling black hole is on its way to devour the planet and all of humanity must emigrate to the stars. (That was sort of the plot for YAMATO III, but no suitable planet was found for emigration. Good thing they kept looking after the crisis abated!) Yamato is rebuilt and powered up, a new crew is selected, and we’re off to outer space.
The only information that ever got out for this project was in a 1994 video documentary titled THE QUICKENING. It spent most of its time on other things, but the fleeting glimpses we got of REBIRTH were more than enough to get the blood pumping. And then it abruptly went south. A companion project titled YAMATO 2520 was a commercial failure and Producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki had to shut down West Cape Corporation. YAMATO REBIRTH was stillborn.
Flash forward to 2005. That spring I finished work on a documentary of my own for Voyager Entertainment titled SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO: THE MAKING OF AN ANIME LEGEND (first profiled on this very website) and I wanted to start another big project to mark the 25th anniversary of STAR BLAZERS. Believing that YAMATO REBIRTH would never be made, I spun my own story ideas out of its premise and turned them into a webcomic for starblazers.com. It took two years to make (it’s still there now to be read anytime) and gave me a chance to write my own love letter to the series that put me on my career path toward comics and animation.
When the comic ended in 2007 I felt as if I’d finished a 10-course dinner. Naturally, I started right in on another one, trading my comic artist cap for that of a journalist. I set out to expand starblazers.com into a research project that would investigate every facet of YAMATO history. That put me into news-gathering mode, and you can imagine my shock when an unexpected announcement came from Japan in the summer of ‘08: YAMATO REBIRTH was back in production!
Nishizaki had cleared away all the detritus of previous years (some of which were spent behind bars) and zeroed in on the one thing he could always count on: YAMATO. He gathered together some of his fellow anime veterans of the 70s and 80s, including character designer Tomonori Kogawa, mecha designer Makoto Kobayashi, and director Toshio Masuda. Development restarted exactly where it had left off and the formation of Yamato Studio pulled the trigger on the starting gun.
In keeping with the long-standing traditions of the first YAMATO movie, the film would be the centerpiece of an entire campaign with new products and events. The big difference this time was that it had the internet at its disposal. One by one, new websites popped up over the course of the production. By December 2009, three major sites were tracking news and numerous support sites from sponsors and licensors could be found in every corner.
A mouth-watering 9-minute hunk of finished footage premiered at the Yamato Party fan convention in early May and was released as a promotional DVD from one of the major websites a month later. It quickly became obvious that Yamato Studio hadn’t quite assimilated the reality of an internet presence, since YouTube postings of the footage were taken down sometimes mere hours after they went up. Eventually the studio relented and left them alone since they added up to free advertising.
Plenty more promotion followed, most visibly from Jusco, a department store chain that helped to sponsor the film. They created the first official line of Yamato apparel (from jackets to underwear) and scheduled it to roll out with the movie. Another big-time participant was Circle K Sunkus, a convenience store giant that plastered Yamato all over the nation in the form of customized snack foods such as a “wave-motion dog” and a “black hole roll” in addition to selling advance tickets. Think of Jusco as Wal-Mart and Sunkus as Seven-11 and you get some idea of the cultural penetration we’re talking about.
News about the film itself was hard to come by until the first interview with Nishizaki was published in the November Animage magazine. It was chock full of surprises about the music (which would combine existing scores with classical tracks), plans for a sequel (already), and most significantly, the ending. Nishizaki had always been a genius at finding ways to get the fans involved, and here was an entirely new twist: he made two different endings and the fans would vote on their favorite. This happened in a series of preview screenings in late November/early December. In one ending, Yamato would save the Earth and in the other it wouldn’t. But either way, the film would finish with a title card reading, “end of part 1.”
When I’d first heard the announcement that a film would be made, it gave me a moment of apprehension. Sure, everyone wondered if this would live up to its potential or go down in flames with 2520, DAI YAMATO, and various other also-rans. But for me it went to another level; how would it compare to my version? Of course, I wanted it to be better, but did I want it to be THAT much better? Honestly, I didn’t expect Nishizaki to go the way I did with the story, to plant its emotional roots so deep in the past that viewers required encyclopedic brains to get it at every level. But practicality required a certain amount of that in order to make this a true YAMATO story. Starting with a blank slate would run counter to every expensive lesson learned since 1983.
George Lucas put multiple generations of STAR WARS fans through similar anxiety and let them all down with EPISODE 1. All I could hope was that Nishizaki wouldn’t do the same. My faith was still strong enough for me to buy four advance tickets; three for the movie and one for the flight to Japan in December.
As the weeks ticked away, evidence rolled in to support that faith. The official website put up one trailer after another and the more I saw the more I liked. Product announcements arrived at a steady pace, just like in the old days (though now we have to infer that through the historical records). There would even be product fairs in department stores, a direct throwback to the beginning of anime merchandising as we know it today. Yamato started this trend in 1977 and sweetened the deal with personal appearances by members of the production staff.
I reported all the news I could find in the December 1 update at starblazers.com and boarded the plane 10 days later. By then so much was going on that the movie almost seemed like an after-thought. But when I joined the line outside the theatre on the morning of December 12 it loomed large again, suddenly becoming the driving force it was meant to be. Show 1 of day 1 packed the house. The line at the gift shop was even longer than the one outside, and the shelves were quickly cleared of books and collectibles I didn’t even know about until that moment. Excitement was palpable. Passion unified us all.
Two and half hours later…?
Nishizaki came through. Found exactly the right balance between old and new, gave us just enough of what long-timers wanted to see without alienating newcomers. By far the most impressive factor was the CG space battles, which were equal to anything that’s come out of American cinema. Watching them vividly demonstrated to me how much of YAMATO we’ve been missing all these years. It’s quite a different experience when the pictures are bigger than you are and you can feel the sound vibrate through your body. My one and only regret is that those who only get to see this on DVD will miss that dimension.
Taking that a step farther, one of the film’s unexpected surprises is a flashback to FINAL YAMATO with original footage. I’d re-watched it on the small screen a week earlier, but now I was seeing it as originally intended. At that moment I felt connected to the Japanese side of the phenomenon as never before. It made me think I would have evaluated the film differently if that’s how I’d first experienced it. It would have done a much better job of living up to its own legend.
By the way, I was greatly relieved to find the story of YAMATO REBIRTH to be very different from STAR BLAZERS REBIRTH. That said, a few lucky guesses on my part matched up surprisingly well with Nishizaki’s story. I won’t spoil anything by describing them here, but I’m looking forward to comparisons that others might make down the road.
Upon leaving the theatre and hitting the streets (stopping briefly at the hotel to drop off ten tons of loot from the theatre’s gift shop), I got on with the business of being a fan. The next four days were happily spent zipping around in Tokyo and Osaka, scouring stores for all the new stuff I’d heard about and making a few surprise discoveries as well. (Spotting something you hadn’t heard about but instantly like is the greatest joy of anime collecting, at least for me.)
The final lightning round was spent rushing from one shop to the next in search of the four (FOUR!) Yamato CDs that were released on December 16, the last day of my visit. That’s when I truly re-lived the challenge of the pre-internet era. Sure, I could have just clicked the “Save to Cart” button at Amazon.jp, but anyone with a knobby appendage can do that. I came to Japan for the thrill of the chase, and YAMATO gave it to me all over again.
What’s my end analysis? YAMATO REBIRTH is a great film, but perhaps not great enough to supplant your favorite YAMATO story. At the same time, it easily scores well above your least favorite. After a hiatus of over a quarter century, I don’t think we could have expected more than that. The Region 2 DVD is due in May, and early reports indicate that it WILL contain the alternate ending as a bonus feature.
And I’m happy to announce that an off-the-record discussion I had in Japan (with a member of the sponsorship circle, no less) revealed that the movie WILL come to America. Just keep your eyes on the internet, that perfect tool to follow your hobby. And hey, we’re now just one year away from the live-action SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO movie! Who wants to go with me?
Read a more detailed report of YAMATO REBIRTH at starblazers.com on February 1st.
Read much more about Yamato and find STAR BLAZERS DVDs at www.starblazers.com
STAR BLAZERS is ©Voyager Entertainment, Inc.
SciFi Japan would like to thank Tim Eldred for his extensive history of the YAMATO/STAR BLAZERS saga. We hope fans enjoyed reading this series of articles over the past year. Look for more in the future!