The Miyagawa Legacy
First the facts. Maestro Hiroshi Miyagawa, the award-winning pop music composer and creator of the score for Japan’s famous anime series SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO (Uchû Senkan Yamato, 1974) died on March 21, 2006 of heart failure. He was 75. Anyone who has ever listened to his work knows that those words barely scratch the surface.
It’s a really unpleasant task to sit down and try to write about a world that no longer has Hiroshi Miyagawa in it. I can’t pretend to have known the guy personally, never even having set foot in his home country, but his Yamato music has been one of my closest companions since the first time I heard it. I don’t think a day has gone by in those 26 intervening years when one of those riffs hasn’t surfaced inside my head.
Miyagawa had a career before Yamato came along, but I have to be honest and say that I haven’t paid much attention to it. As a jazz/pop musician in the swingin’ 60s, he won a passel of awards and accompanied a long string of Japanese vocalists including “The Peanuts,” a pair of proto-idol singers who rose to international fame as the fairy sisters in Toho’s early Mothra movies. I¹m sure that in this capacity the maestro set many a toe to tapping. But for me his career begins with Yamato.
Yoshinobu Nishizaki was a music producer and promoter in the 60s, and for one reason or another he made the jump into anime production in the early 70s. Through artistic connections that must have seemed trivial at the time, he brought Miyagawa on board to write music for his first original creation, a TV series about a WWII battleship being brought back to life as a mighty space vessel to save mankind from extinction in the far future. Nishizaki’s sensibilities ensured that music was going to be a strong component of the series, but not even he could foresee what a vital role it would play over the next ten years.
We have to keep in mind that this was a time long before home video, when you had one chance to watch a TV show and then it was gone for good, unless it proved popular enough to come back in reruns. Yamato’s early audience wasn’t huge, but it was fiercely loyal. Unknown to Nishizaki at the time, fan groups sprung up overnight, eager to compare notes and document as much trivia as they could to keep Yamato in their lives during the seven day abyss between episodes. There was almost nothing official in print then, so they had to content themselves with what they could remember from week to week.
Nothing stoked that memory more powerfully than the music. The moment Miyagawa’s Yamato theme hit the stores as a 45 rpm single the fans swarmed in to scoop it up. This lead to the strange dichotomy of the music outperforming the show it had come from. In the dark days before the ratings picked up, Miyagawa was Yamato’s savior.
Music has always seemed sort of magical to me. I understand the process of stringing words together and putting images in the right sequence to express a thought, but the alchemy of composing music to capture and express an emotion is beyond me. No matter how many times I listen to the SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO theme, I’m always transfixed by the delicate nuance of the ascending and descending scales behind the bold sweep of the primary notes. And it’s almost as if they’re designed not to be heard. You have to concentrate on them to catch how eloquently they build and release tension, never failing to rouse the spirit. How did Miyagawa know that those particular tones in that particular order would tap into something so universal in the human spirit? Or am I just over-thinking it?
Either way, that spirit was tapped so effectively and so universally that the Yamato theme quickly seized the attention of millions of Japanese fans, and in a very short time Yamato’s music began to rival the popularity of Yamato itself. Endless concerts and albums followed as the series moved through its many phases. Even after movie screens went dark when FINAL YAMATO (Uchû Senkan Yamato: Kanketsuhen, 1983) closed the saga in 1983, the music would continue to have a life. 23 years on, its popularity shows no signs of abating.
The anime music industry today is massive, and it has become common practice to get themesongs and soundtrack albums onto the store shelves almost as soon as a TV series or film makes its debut. Yes, that industry existed before Miyagawa, but it was never the same after his arrival. Yamato music was so popular and penetrated Japan’s consciousness so deeply that was soon a foregone conclusion that if you produced an anime series you would also release the music for it. In short order, music even became a part of the stories themselves when such programs as MACROSS and MOSPEADA made idol singers into premiere characters.
Only one word can describe someone whose work revolutionizes an entire industry: genius. They come along once or twice in a generation, and we’re incredibly lucky that Miyagawa came along in ours.
He wrote the Yamato score to provide an emotional portrait for the characters in the series. He was never afraid to get sentimental, to spotlight an instrument you wouldn’t ordinarily hear in a science-fiction show, or to repeat a riff in endless variation. The main theme proved so versatile that it could be made to communicate either victory or tragedy with equal impact. And it turned out to be only one of many such riffs in his repertoire. I haven’t even mentioned the “Infinity of Space” theme, the one with the single female vocalist that opened most of the TV episodes with so much melancholy that it irrevocably married the vast reaches of outer space with the infinite depths of the human heart.
What I discovered in the years of my youth was that Miyagawa could also underscore the adventures of my own life. Yamato music cassettes would accompany me on many a road trip, bringing grandeur to even the most mundane vistas and turning an ordinary drive into pure melodrama. My most vivid memory is of hearing the Trelaina theme from YAMATO 2 (Uchû Senkan Yamato 2, 1978) in my car after a highly emotional weekend and having to pull off the road until the tears dried. Moments like that never leave you.
It’s been a while since we’ve heard anything new from maestro Miyagawa. Yamato was very good to him after the saga ended in 1983. Revival concerts brought him back into the spotlight again and again. His lively presence and sense of humor, previously known only to his coworkers, could now be seen and enjoyed by huge audiences. His energy and passion were contagious, and it helped to complete the image many must have built in their minds about the person whose work had touched them so deeply.
In truth, everyone involved in a Yamato production had to be passionate about it. This would be vital armor against the long hours and brutal workload of an animated series. But the passion of an artist who draws is focused almost entirely into what they draw. Out of necessity, that passion ends up contained in the show itself, to be experienced only when you sit down and watch it. It’s different for a musician, especially one who then takes the opportunity to practice his craft in front of a live audience. The passion and product pour out together to become one.
I never had the opportunity to see Miyagawa’s magic in person, but millions of others have. It pains me greatly to know that such an opportunity will never come again. But I’m honored to say that I once lived in a world that had Miyagawa in it. As of March 21, we only have his legacy.
Tim Eldred is the web master for StarBlazers.com and a writer/director who has worked on many comics and animated series throughout the last decade.