An Overview of Yamato Fan History, Part 1
Without the fans, Space Battleship Yamato would never have made it.
That’s a pretty obvious statement on the surface, but it goes far deeper than it would appear at first blush. Fans who watched the series on TV in Japan back in 1974–who watched it fade away, apparently never to return–were inspired to take action that would literally save it from that fate, although at the beginning they couldn’t possibly have known the magnitude of the outcome.
It is no exaggeration to say that most of what we now take for granted in the diverse world of anime media (books, magazines, conventions, merchandising, etc.) can be traced back to the actions of these specific fans, whose only wish was to keep Yamato alive.
Their first step was simply to be born at the right time.
TV manga: Just for Kids
Right out of the box, the black & white series Mighty Atom [Astro Boy, 1963] firmly established its audience in the tender years of elementary school. Its following was so great that children stayed in the crosshairs for practically every series through the rest of that decade. This time frame was later considered to be the first phase of anime as an entertainment medium. At the time it was categorized as ‘Terebi manga’ [TV Comics] since it was essentially manga made for television.
The second phase unofficially began with Lupin III in 1971, which attracted older audiences who were unsatisfied by earlier programs. It blossomed to include Super Robot anime with Mazinger Z, heroic fantasy such as Triton of the Sea, and the SF action series Science Ninja Team Gatchaman [Battle of the Planets]. All of these laid the foundation for Space Battleship Yamato and sparked the word ‘anime’ since they had begun to push past the boundaries of children’s entertainment.
But even in 1974, the stranglehold of children’s anime was tough to break. Starting in January, Heidi of the Alps was shown Sunday nights on Japan’s NHK World Masterpiece Theatre. A young Hayao Miyazaki, who would go on to an unprecedented level of international fame in later decades, was a key member of its production staff, and helped to make Heidi a hugely popular show. By the time Yamato debuted in October on the rival Yomiuri network in Heidi‘s time slot, children already knew who their favorite was.
Regardless of who it was written for, most of Yamato‘s sponsorship was locked into the just-for-kids model, and the ratings war against Heidi put it at a tremendous disadvantage. If that were the whole story, we probably wouldn’t be talking about Yamato today. Fortunately, its real target audience was paying attention, and a small but fanatical following was born.
Tokyo-based fans were already a familiar sight at voice-recording sessions for Triton and Gatchaman. They also turned up at anime production studios and often found their devotion rewarded with free cels or copies of model sheets. Office Academy and Sakuradai [Cherry Tree] studios, where Yamato was made, became regular hosts to fans who managed to find them while the TV series was still in production.
One such fan was a high school sophomore named Tatsuya Nakatani. Another was a female named Asami Kushino. Along with a very select group of their friends, they found themselves in the highly-privileged position of seeing their favorite anime from both sides of the TV screen. What’s more, they were handed stacks of scripts, animation cels and model sheets in return for their devotion. Whether or not they knew at the time what a valuable gift that was, they would certainly come to this realization a few months later when the series ended before it was meant to.
Despite a plan for 39 episodes, the network commitment dropped to 26 when it became obvious that the ratings war had been lost. The staff was devastated when an entire story arc was dropped, but perservered to make Yamato as good as it could possibly be with the remaining resources. Nakatani, Kushino, and the select few fans like them who had an insider’s view of this setback, were outraged.
And they weren’t about to take it lying down.
They formed their own private fan club called Cosmo Battleship Yamato Laboratory when the series vanished in April 1975. Their common purpose was to build a monument to Yamato, to ensure that someone somewhere commemorated and preserved it in some form.
There had been scattered articles in magazines like Terebi [TV] Land and Adventure King, along with multiple manga adaptations, but none of these held a candle to the treasure trove of documents this group had rescued from the production studios. Their course of action was obvious: it had to be published.
Doujinshi (fanzines) already existed in primitive form by this time. Most were mimeographed in stationery stores or photocopied at news services. But the advent of affordable offset printing took some of the strain off that earlier technology and improved print quality tremendously. This made it possible to for the CBYL to organize, copy, and package the production documents on a modest budget. But first they had to find an audience.
One posting in the letters column of an SF magazine was all it took. Fans from all over Japan couldn’t sign up fast enough to join the club and subscribe to whatever it was they were preparing to publish. The first offering was a newsletter called Astronaut that contained an opinion column, a synopsis of the series, and a parody manga. Animation art from the club archive was used throughout, and the first issue was an instant hit.
Three more ‘zines were added to the lineup as the year progressed; Yamato, Yamato Land, and Yamato Books. All were chock-full of artistic treasures that gave everyone a chance to see the enormous amount of passion and labor that had been poured into the series.
The timing was just right to create a groundswell of support when the first Yamato reruns appeared in September on local TV stations in Sapporo and Hokkaido. With the fearsome Heidi out of the way, ratings started going up. Other fan clubs were springing up as well. With CBYL’s work as a reference point, their ‘zines moved Yamato fandom into its next phase, made up of equal parts sophisticated analysis, fan fiction, and blistering parody.
(As an aside, the first known Yamato ‘zine actually premiered before the founding of the CBYL. Another group called the Yamato Fan Club launched Negal in February 1975, which was built on a similar archive of production materials. The group disbanded a year later to be replaced by Yamato Fan Club II and their ‘zine, Neo Negal.)
Without knowing it, American fandom followed the same pattern on a smaller scale. Early efforts such as the Star Blazers fan club newsletter and Space Fanzine Yamato were informational in nature, and later ones branched out into original territory.
As 1975 drew to a close, the first long-term payoff for all this activity arrived in December. Comic Market became the first convention dedicated to doujinshi. Nicknamed ‘Comiket,’ the first gathering brought together 32 circles (publishing groups) and about 600 attendees. The event would be repeated twice a year after that, and it continues today.
But not all the news was good. By the end of that year, the CBYL was in big trouble; they had become victims of their own success.
Yamato fan club, Reboot!
Membership roles were constantly on the rise, but they were the wrong kind of members: fans who lived outside Tokyo, too far away to help with the physical workload it took to create, assemble, and distribute the fanzines. It was too much for the core group to handle, and when it reached the breaking point…they broke.
Announcements went forth in January 1976 that the Lab was closing its doors. There were dozens of other clubs to join by this time, and many of the CBYL members who were set adrift doubtless took matters into their own hands. But there was still that massive archive of materials in the hands of Nakatani and Kushino, and it wasn’t about to go to waste.
The staff members who hadn’t burned out reformed in February under a new name, Yamato Association. The membership was limited to a controllable number, and the publishing started back up on a more manageable level. The newsletter Cosmonaut took the place of Astronaut, Yamato Land continued with wholly original content, and a new color ‘zine was added to the mix. Called the Mini Poster Book, it gave fans their first look at cels and background paintings at actual size.
YA’s first issue of Yamato kicked off 1977 with a collection of all the best material that had been created for CBYL’s Yamato. They followed up with two more issues. Yamato No. 2 was completely dedicated to episode 1, and Yamato No. 3 covered episode 18 in unprecedented detail. Both contained scripts, storyboards, model sheets, and extensive analysis that approached professional quality. It was the shape of bigger things to come.
And they would arrive faster than anyone thought.
Read more about this phase of Yamato fandom: