The Story of Space CRUISER Yamato
It’s easily within the realm of possibility that many folk find this website, look at the name Space Battleship Yamato and think, “isn’t it supposed to be a Cruiser?”
This is the legacy of the little-known, seldom-seen, yet stubbornly persistent “international” version of the first movie—the only one actually titled Space Cruiser Yamato. Prior to its 1977 release, the name had rarely been rendered in English. But in that pivotal year, in which the story filtered outward into a suprising number of countries, the inclusion of English text on Japanese posters and products proudly trumpeted the new prestige of the Yamato franchise. Japanese viewers read “battleship” while English speakers saw “cruiser” right next to it. This would persist all the way to the late 80s when the mis-translation was officially laid to rest.
But there’s an interesting story behind that name, and an entire Yamato production to go with it. To best understand that story, it’s necessary to lay out some context. For that we’ll set the time machine to early 1975, when the future did not exactly look bright for the world’s greatest SF anime saga.
The first TV series was plagued with trouble right from the beginning. Japan’s Yomiuri network had programmed it for 7:30pm Sunday, conventionally a low-ratings block, which placed it in direct competition with another anime program called Heidi, Girl of the Alps. Sweet and charming, Heidi was nevertheless a ratings juggernaut that could effortlessy smite all challengers to the ground with her cute little hand. Nevertheless, the plan went forward to debut Yamato as a 39-episode series on October 6, 1974.
One month in, the ratings were stuck well below 7% and it was decided to cut the losses by reducing the 39 episodes down to 26. Production concluded on March 25, 1975. Most of the animation staff was let go on the 25th, but the directors hung on until March 30 to shoot retakes for episode 22, which had been broadcast with a few NG (No Good) scenes owing to the tight schedule.
This patch-up was done with the hope of turning episodes 21 and 22 (Yamato‘s battle with General Dommel) into a 40-minute featurette that could be sold to film rental agencies. At that time, Japan was dotted with independent movie clubs that would rent 16mm prints along with the requisite projecting equipment, and it was during the preparation of this program that the concept of a Yamato feature film was born.
Work on this feature began in May, 1975. The assistant producer’s first assembly of the film was over 5 hours long. Director Toshio Masuda supervised the second assembly, deciding to focus more on the story arc of Captain Okita. He cut all the material culled from episodes 13-19, which turned episodes 22-24 into the natural climax of the film, culminating with Yamato‘s arrival at Iscandar. This shortened the movie by almost two hours.
It was then further condensed by a rewrite in which Starsha had already died (and now spoke to the crew only as a 3-D hologram, as shown above) and Dessler did not return to attack the ship as in the final TV episode. Animation director Noboru Ishiguro storyboarded the revised footage, which cut another 13 minutes from the movie for a new running time of 2 hours, 8 minutes. Animation for the sequence was done by Toyoo Ashida, and it can be seen on Voyager Entertainment’s DVD of the Yamato movie. (Or click here to view it on YouTube.)
All TV footage had been shot on 35mm film, but there was only enough money left in the budget to shoot the new scenes on 16mm, which is why they look grainier than the rest of the movie. During the final approach to Earth, two scenes were mistakenly shot pointing left instead of right, so they had to be reversed in the final print to preserve screen direction.
The existence of this feature-length version of Series 1 was announced to the world on September 24, 1975 by the private fan club “Yamato Laboratory” in the information column of their club newsletter. It was explained that the funding had been obtained from Tohoku Shinsha (“Northeast New Company”) when producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki sold them the re-broadcast rights to the first TV series.
The first rerun commenced on the Sapporo TV network on September 10, 1975 and the second began on Yomiuri January 22, 1976. Other reruns followed in subsequent months, giving everyone a chance to re-evaluate this revolutionary series. A rerun in Kanto was particularly successful, earning a very impressive rating of 20%.
Alhough private fan clubs like “Yamato Laboratory” were popping up everywhere, a critical ingredient was still lacking: there was no single rallying point that would bring them all together. But steps were slowly being taken to remedy that.
By this time, Nishizaki’s Office Academy had found work in handling the overseas sales of Japanese films, and since he now had a Yamato movie ready to go, he added it to his catalog. With the elimination of the Alpha-Star Orion footage from episode 12, the running length was further trimmed to 1 hour, 38 minutes to increase its saleability. But another decision would prove far more important: it would be dubbed into English.
Already fluent in English himself, Nishizaki could bring the necessary resources together…and thus came the first-ever meeting of Yamato and Hollywood, USA. Producer Bernard Tabakin (whose next project would be a Chuck Norris film titled Breaker Breaker) hired fledgling director Gino Tanasescu to write the English script, in which many names were changed to protect the innocent. But far fewer than you might think; Dessler, Stasha, Captain Okita, Domeru, and Yuki and a couple others were still in. Susumu Kodai became Jason Kodai. But from there, all resemblance vanished.
A group of nine actors assembled to record their parts in October 1976, lead by veteran character actor Marvin Miller, who had established his sci-fi street cred as the voice of Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet. Since this version of Yamato would be swept aside by bigger things in the coming years, little to no production documentation survives. But it is interesting to note that Gino Tansescu would go on to a thriving career of film and TV directing, the highlight of which seems to be the 2002 action thriller Red Serpent, starring Roy Scheider and Michael Pare. (Yet another Streets of Fire connection to the world of anime!)
Space Cruiser Yamato was screened at the Cannes film festival in May, 1977 accompanied by an English promotional flyer (above) and deals were made with several different distributors in the United States, Mexico, Canada, England, and France. From there, the history of the film is largely one of individual experience. Although it most definitely played at some cinemas (ads from an April 1978 Wisconsin newspaper prove the point below), it also found its way to TV in America—almost certainly as UHF fodder in the dim days before cable—and anyone who thinks they once saw a Yamato movie on TV that wasn’t called Star Blazers isn’t making it up.
Additional proof of its cinematic presence could be found in the very first English-language magazine to write about Yamato: Starburst issue #2, a British periodical devoted to “science fantasy in television, cinema, and comix.” Published in March 1978, it featured a brief review that sliced the movie into bloody ribbons. Writer Tom Crawley, who was far more impressed with Star Wars at the time, disqualified himself early in the review with this uninformed sentence: “considering that Space Cruiser must have been in the creation stage at the same time as Star Wars…” and tied everything up in a smug little bow with: “America has the force, Japan has the farce.”
Click on the pages below to read this article in full.
Yet, Starburst lavished great attention on the visuals, awarding it a cover and five interior pages which included a “free” poster: a genuine, one-of-a-kind piece of Yamato history. It is the only known Yamato movie art created outside of Japan, an unsigned masterpiece commissioned by British distributor Enterprise Pictures. Numerous details are flat wrong but nevertheless imaginative, gorgeously painted in a striking style reminiscent of then-contemporary SF artist John Berkey. The original must still exist somewhere. It’s too good to have been destroyed.
Japan saw two curious bits of Space Cruiser merchandise, both on vinyl from Nippon Columbia. With the Japanese Yamato movie now a monster hit, a highly-edited Space Cruiser LP was released in November, 1977 in an inexplicably deluxe package. It was a keepsake box containing a poster of the “Studio Nue” Yamato, an LP with the English-dubbed soundtrack cut down to 54 minutes, and a bilingual script book with which Japanese listeners could read along.
Side 1 of the LP got Yamato off the ground and ended with a very wooden goodbye to Earth. Side 2 picked up in the middle of the battle with Domeru’s fleet and lurched its way to the end. It was strangely disconnected from its source material, which had now been reduced down to the bare minimum of music and sound effects. If the LP were long enough to include the end title music, it would have been divorced from Yamato completely; instead of a Miyagawa score, it was a track called “Legacy” from a new-agey electronic group called Synergy. The same track was later used in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series on PBS.
The Space Cruiser voice acting ranged from acceptible (Marvin Miller) to robotic (almost everyone else). Dessler’s voice was strongly modeled on Boris Karloff, which is an interesting coincidence given what voice actor Eddie Allen would do a few years later in Star Blazers–intentionally channeling Karloff in an entirely different and much more interesting direction. In the end, the acting in Space Cruiser goes a long way to make one appreciate what a tour de force of acting prowess Star Blazers would be in comparison.
Below: sample pages from the bilingual LP booklet. Click on each one to enlarge.
The other bit of Japanese Space Cruiser merchandising also came from Nippon Columbia, but the line isn’t quite as easy to draw with this one. In late December 1978, a 45rpm single was released called simply Space Cruiser Yamato, which contained Isao Sasaki’s English renditions of the opening and closing themes: Space Cruiser Yamato and The Red Scarf.
It’s entirely possible that both were recorded long after the Space Cruiser movie had gone off into the wide world, but it’s equally likely that they were done for the film itself, giving foreign distributors the option of ready-made English recordings. Both songs were already monster hits in Japan, so it must have seemed a natural step. Regardless, there is no evidence that the songs were ever coupled with the movie, and any number of explanations could be brought to bear…but without the movie, would English-language themes have served any other purpose? It’s worth a ponder.
The closing note on Space Cruiser would come a few years later with two known releases on home video, both British PAL VHS editions. The first was ©1980 Derann Film Services Ltd. and the second ©1986 Enterprise Pictures (with the additional title of Guardian of the Galaxy). Packaged as a “video gem full-length cartoon spectacular,” it says much about the lonely fate of a forgotten stepchild. As a tangent to the plot of Yamato‘s rise to smash success, there was no reason for it to require another moment of Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s attention, especially after Star Blazers opened a much bigger door into the English-speaking world.
But as obscure as the film may have become, Space Cruiser Yamato will endure forever…in name alone.
See the entire movie RIGHT NOW on YouTube:
AMERICA, EUROPE, AND JAPAN–BOLD SIMULTANEOUS DISTRIBUTION!
So reads the blurb atop this ad, which ran on the back cover of a 1977 Japanese magazine titled Fantoche.
To pick up where this story leaves off and read about the astounding rise of the Space Battleship Yamato feature film, click here.