by Tim Eldred
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 died of heart failure on March 21, 2006. 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, 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 intervening years when a Yamato riff or two (or ten) hasn’t echoed 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. While researching these articles on Yamato music, I learned that his first major hit single was a 1964 song called Una Sera De Tokyo [One Night in Tokyo] which sounds remarkably like The Scarlet Scarf, though it was written ten years earlier. (No kidding! Listen to it here.) But for me, and probably most other Star Blazers fans, his career begins with Yamato.
Miyagawa’s various collaborations with The Peanuts: Una Sera De Tokyo 45rpm single (1964), an LP with the same name, and a posthumous collection from September, 2006.
Yoshinobu Nishizaki was a music producer and promoter in the 60s, and 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 an all-musical anime series called Wansa-Kun [Little Wansa]. Shortly afterward, he got started on an 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.
Miyagawa in 1978 with his live album,
The World of Hiroshi Miyagawa. Read all about it here.
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 sprang up overnight, eager to compare notes and document as much trivia as possible 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 Yamato became a household word, Miyagawa was its 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 overthinking it?
Miyagawa at a 1980 press conference for
Be Forever Yamato.
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 closed the saga in 1983, the music would continue to have a life. 30-plus years on, its popularity shows no signs of abating.
The anime music industry today is massive, and it has become common practice to get theme songs and soundtrack albums onto the store shelves almost as soon as a TV series or film makes its debut. A primordial version of that industry existed before Miyagawa, but it changed forever because of him. 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 milk a melody for all it was worth. 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 Endless Expanse of Outer Space theme, the one with the single female vocalist that opened most of the TV episodes with so much melancholy that it irrevocably bonded the vast reaches of outer space with the infinite depths of the human heart.
Two books by Miyagawa:
Sound Anatomy (Chuokoron Co., 1981) and
Pride of Voice (Mainichi Shimbun, 2000).
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) 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.
Yamato was very good to Miyagawa 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 channeled almost entirely into what they draw. That passion ends up in the show itself, to be experienced only when you sit down and watch it. It’s different for a musician, especially one who practices 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. Now it only contains his legacy.
Above left: The Hit Parade, a 2002 album featuring three generations of the Miyagawa family covering the maestro’s favorite tunes, including a Boston Pops-style Yamato medley (Columbia, COCQ-83616). Center: Master of Pops, a posthumous best-of collection (Teichiku, TECH-22652). Right: a Yamato fan’s tribute doujinshi titled Thank you, Miyagawa-San. (The music bars are cleverly made of Cosmo Tiger contrails.)
A year after Miyagawa’s death, Sankei Shimbun published his autobiography, It’s Wonderful to be Young. Like the man himself, it was loaded with funny and fascinating stories about life in the golden age of Japanese pop music. Presented here are his comments on the Yamato years, translated by Michiko Ito and edited by Tim Eldred.
Comeback of the Loser
Yamato is one of my representative works, so I have stronger attachment to it than anyone else. I had written several anime songs before Yamato. I am quite fond of Aoi tori [The Blue Bird] and Wansa-kun. Since the same producer would do Yamato next, I was called up for it.
The theme lyrics were by Mr. Yu Aku. Mr. Leiji Matsumoto had sent me a request regarding the style of music, so it was ready to start. But I had very hard time. When the lyrics are written before the music, they don’t always match well. “Would you revise this phrase” was a common request in our business. But Mr. Aku never allows any revisions, so I had to write the notes to exactly matches the lyrics. But now that I read the lyrics again, I see that this is an unrivaled masterpiece. If such wonderful lyrics were revised at the composer’s convenience, I would never have be able to make such a good work. So, despite the difficulty I wholeheartedly appreciate Mr. Aku.
One thing and another happened, so composing music for Yamato was quite hard, but a lot of troubles happened in the program as well. Yamato could not get good ratings at all and ended as a complete failure, so all the staff members felt disappointed. But the rerun flared. It was the comeback of the loser. Though it failed at the beginning, it could continue to the sequel, so everyone was very happy about that.
Whenever a new sequel was produced, I was forced to work all night, day after day. It was the same as working on The Hit Parade [a 1960’s Top-of-the-Pops-style TV series]. I could do this at younger age, but now it was a real strain. I was even unable to go home, so I stayed in my office. When my wife visited, she was amazed at the amount of scores piling up.
For Yamato I had to write a variety of themes for every occasion; battle, suspense, romance, love, and sorrow. At the beginning I received storyboards and composed music to them, but as it went on I didn’t even know how the story would end. Still, I had to satisfy such requests as “somewhat frightening,” or “soft and comfortable atmosphere.” Ultimately there were a few hundred pieces. To be honest I felt exhausted, writing all the possible melodies of a lifetime. I was completely dried up. When I received requests in later years, I was often asked, “something like Yamato, please.” I have been unable to compose any melodies which surpass it. It’s frightening.
Thanks to the publication of the score arranged for brass band by my son Akira, the music is still played in junior high and high schools all over Japan. It has been more than 30 years since the score was written, but the music is still loved by many people. As a musician, nothing else can bring me such joy. I never want to go through that again, but now it represents my life as a composer. So I do appreciate Yamato.
Above left: The Miyagawa family in 1981; daughter Naoko and son Akira in the background.
Right: Miyagawa and his wife Reiko relax at home in early 2006.
Forced to Eat in the Bathtub
Writing Yamato was the busiest time of my life. This is no joke, I really didn’t have time to sleep. I kept writing until I needed to leave for the office. Inside the car was the only space I could sleep, so I kept a pillow and blanket there. Moreover, since I kept working until the last minute, I had to have the car wait for me outside of my house. When I went out, my appearance was rumpled and I left in a panic. Others who lived in the same apartment building watched me and wondered why Mr. Miyagawa was always rushing.
I was so absurdly busy I couldn’t even take time for food and a bath. But my wife would be upset if I didn’t bathe, so I forced it into my schedule. Then I thought I could make use of the time, so I asked her to bring my dinner to the bathroom, and I ate in the tub. I could not think about manners or etiquette at all. I had to meet the deadline. But I never want to have such a life again; I’m fed up with it.
Miyagawa in his final years, still master of the baton
Thanks to such things as dining in a bathtub, Yamato was a big hit. The producer said he was thinking of a way to reward me, so I made a request.
“Well, would you take me to Ginza? I want to go to ‘Hime [The Princess]’ managed by Yoko Yamaguchi.” [A songwriter who worked on Be Forever Yamato.]
“Princess? That’s an expensive place. But that’s OK, let’s go!”
I dressed up nicely; a better shirt, better tie, better pair of socks and better trousers. I also wore a better underwear just to be ready for anything. All the hostesses were beautiful. The producer introduced me to them.
“This gentleman is Mr. Miyagawa, the composer of Space Battleship Yamato.”
“Wow! Are you kidding? Really? Young! Handsome! Cute!”
Since Yamato was a big hit then, I was surrounded by two or three layers of girls, and I had never felt so popular in my life. I was in the best mood when I went home. Since then I kept babbling crazily, “I wanna go to Hime, I wanna go to Hime,” and I every day I sighed at sunset while looking in the direction of Ginza.
Seven years later, I had a chance to meet the producer again, and I aggressively begged him, “please take me to ‘Hime’ again!”
“Yamato has been worn out. Do you still wanna go?”
I visited the place I had been dreaming of after an interval of seven years. Few of the same girls where still there, so I was introduced again.
“This is Miyagawa of Yamato.”
On our previous visit, I was introduced as “Mr. Miyagawa,” but this time, last name only. Seven years changes a person so much! But it’s OK. As long as the girls spoil me, I don’t care.
“Hi ladies, I am Miyagawa of Yamato you know!”
“Wow! You’re kidding! Really?”
This is what I wanted! I had been waiting for this moment for 7 years.
“Yes, it’s true! I am Miyagawa of Yamato!”
“Yamato the ship?”
“Yes, the big ship.”
“Amazing! It’s the first time I’ve met someone who was on the Battleship Yamato!”
How old did I look??
I did my best to explain about Space Battleship Yamato, even singing the song. But the girls were not interested at all, saying “oh, yeah? Hmmmmm…” And all they did was spoil the producer. Daaaamn!
But I had not given up. I may not look it, but I am quite tenacious. I just cannot forget the great feeling I had from the first time. Several years later, I again begged the producer, “please take me just once more!”
“Again? You never learn.”
They say ‘third time’s the charm.’ This time, I should get my revenge.
But Yamato has totally disappeared. Will I make it? With a little anxiety, I opened the door of ‘Hime.’ It started with another introduction by the producer.
“Hey, kore [this is] Miyagawa of Yamato.”
I’d gotten used to being introduced without an honorific title. But using such a material pronoun as “kore” is not right. The girls said, strangely, “what? Yamato?”
Well, I have to work harder…
Visit the Memorial website for composer Hiroshi Miyagawa
Japanese Wikipedia listing for Hiroshi Miyagawa
Program book for an NHK Memorial Concert, March 2007. Click here to read Leiji Matsumoto’s tribute from the book.