As examined elsewhere on this website, one of the many things begat by the Yamato boom was the rise of monthly magazines dedicated to Japanese animation. They were presaged by a small handful of film & animation monthlies that covered international works as well, but the gates officially opened in the summer of 1978 with the premiere of Animage. Others followed, including the mighty My Anime. Its first issue in the spring of 1981 went deeper into the growing anime subculture, publishing historical articles in addition to the latest news and enlisting well-known personalities to write essays and columns.
In that timeframe, few were better-known than Yoshinobu Nishizaki, the producer of Space Battleship Yamato. Never one to hold back from an opportunity to speak, essays and interviews with him were ubiquitous. But My Anime had something a little different: My Anime Life, a space set aside every month for autobiographical essays. Nishizaki was the first to take up the invitation, and he wrote a very personal account of his early struggles in the anime business.
It’s a great snapshot in time and an unusually candid self-expose that can’t help but inspire. Here it is, presented for the first time in English.
My Anime Life
by Yoshinobu Nishizaki
My Anime magazine, April 1981
Translated and edited by Tim Eldred
The fans don’t let go even when the creator wants it to stop
The producer of Yamato writes about his circumstances and goals.
Mr. Nishizaki was born in Tokyo, 1934. After graduating from Nippon University Art Department, he became a jazz radio commentator, orchestra manager, and music producer. He began television promotion and general management for Mr. Osamu Tezuka in 1970. He established Office Academy in 1972 and greatly advanced anime in the world. Other than Yamato, his representative works include Wansa-kun, Triton of the Sea, Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird, and Space Carrier Blue Noah.
My dark days came in the spring of 1975
Anime is now in full bloom. Thanks to an unprecedented boom, people who enjoy anime are in the springtime of their lives. The lives of animators have improved very much as well. I think it’s an excellent thing. I am particularly joyful about the remarkable success of our industry because I once lived in a world of the “cruel anime story” and I can’t help but consider this my reward for that.
On the other hand, I have a feeling that we’ve recently entered a difficult period.
When I was involved in anime production before the boom arrived, it felt like winter and we were struggling to get to spring. Now it feels like summer came all at once. Moreover, I played a role in the anime boom without knowing it. It has been said that Space Battleship Yamato was the ignition point of this boom. Certainly, this could be the case. However, it was a result of the first TV broadcast and I never imagined back then that this could possibly be the case. Of course, I threw myself into Yamato with everything I had. But my plan to bet everything on it was totally undermined by dismal TV ratings.
This wasn’t limited to Yamato; most of the previous programs I worked on (some would say all) had bad ratings. Triton of the Sea and Wansa-kun were examples of this. I poured my heart and soul into Yamato production in 1974 with a state of mind that denied reality. But I couldn’t deny it any longer when I opened up the lid and saw the ratings. My shock at that time is difficult to describe. I was convinced from the bottom of my heart that I had no talent left in me.
Our original plan was for 39 episodes, and a sense of hopelessness set in when it was reduced to 26. It wasn’t just me. Leiji Matsumoto, Aritsune Toyota, and many others active on the front lines felt it was impossible for this work not to be a hit. The entire staff was greatly frustrated by this sense of failure.
The inclination of anime is toward regret
Some readers might say I shouldn’t have entered the world of anime if I could express such a feeling. I surely didn’t feel that way when I started.
In my junior high and high school days we saw our first American movies. Disney and SF films arrived in a rush. We were all starved for entertainment, and we hunted desperately for it in books. There was no TV yet, so the only visuals we had were movies, [projected] cartoons, and of course what we could visualize in our heads. I was a dreamer, and it was my favorite pastime to visualize what I saw on the printed page. When I look back, my desire for SF arrived in earnest after reading Osamu Tezuka’s trilogy: Lost World, Next World, and Metropolis.
English-language versions of the Tezuka titles, originally published 1948-1951
However, the dreamer passed on and I went in the direction of collaberation with other people. I’m the type who has various thoughts and wants to translate them into action all at once. I’m not satisfied unless I try and do it myself. Impulsiveness…trial and error…these are the privileges of youth. Therefore, it is assumed that an adult can’t act this way even if he feels and seems youthful. But it’s the opposite–an energetic person in his thirties can have a great sense of youth. Because that’s how I am, I’ve taken a lot of wrong turns, but I don’t regret it at all.
I’ll get back to the original topic.
I had the opportunity to enter the anime world when I became a general manager for Mr. Osamu Tezuka, but I did not yet think I would become an anime producer. My main thought was how to support him and sell his work when I joined Mushi Pro [Tezuka’s production company]. One of my steps was to sell his work Marvelous Melmo to Asahi Broadcasting in Osaka. The audience rating for that was worse than imagination. I assumed that it was all my fault. I merely sold the work made by another person, but I irrationally took responsibility for the judgment of others on that work. I felt like a joke because my only experience up to that time was in producing music for the stage. That’s where my inclination toward regret came from.
One thing that came out of that experience was a hardened determination to create an anime work that I would not regret.
Above left: Marvelous Melmo, written and drawn by Tezuka from 1970-72. Read about the TV series here. Above right: Triton of the Sea.
Producing my first anime
There was once a newspaper comic strip called Blue Triton. Though the work was unfinished, it set the stage for dreams about a romantic story of the sea. I reconstituted it for myself and developed it as a drama. At the time, comics were giving way to animation, which was a stronger way to present a story. It was natural to think about elementary school children as the target audience. Therefore, I deduced that the first episode should be told from the standpoint of a child. If the story continued from there, I thought that child’s eventual goal should be to find his mother. I thought it should take about 27 episodes to tell the story.
Editor’s note: Some pertinent details were left out of this essay owing to additional mistakes Nishizaki made while serving as general manager for Osamu Tezuka. In that position, one of his responsibilities was to register TV and residual copyrights for two Tezuka manga, Blue Triton (serialized in the Sankei Newspaper from 1969-71) and Wansa-kun (1971-72). Anectodal evidence points strongly to the unfortunate fact that they were erroneously registered in Nishizaki’s own name, thus cutting off the anime rights from Tezuka indefinitely. This may have been one of the contributing factors to the demise of Mushi Productions. Both manga remained in Tezuka’s name, however, and when they were reprinted, Blue Triton was retitled Triton of the Sea. An 8-minute pilot film was made by Mushi Pro in 1971 (stills shown above right), but the 27-episode TV series that premiered in 1972 was entirely a Nishizaki production. Read all about it here.
While Triton of the Sea was the first anime I produced in both name and reality, my mistake was to aim it at the wrong group. I had intended it for elementary school children, but when it was broadcast the fans actually turned out to be mostly junior high students. It was the same situation now present in Mobile Suit Gundam.
The main character was for young children and the content was for older children. It was a combination that invited a drop in the ratings. Triton was re-evaluated for the first time during reruns and a considerable number of fan clubs formed around it later. Perhaps it was the anime that started fan clubs in Japan. In any case, the ratings were not good at the time of the original broadcast, and it influenced my later work.
I thought a lot about the difference between target audience and actual viewing audience while developing Yamato. I had trouble selling it because Triton of the Sea was something I had done after leaving Mushi Pro and before I established Office Academy. I was in my mid thirties, and even though I put out my “producer” signboard, I didn’t think I could finance it alone. Therefore, I decided to promote a secondary plan of character merchandising. My first product had been a Moomin calendar that was sold while Triton was in production.
Above left: Moomin was an eccentric book series created in Finland by Tove Jansson in 1945. It found enough popularity in Japan to warrant an animated version. Above right: images from Wansa-kun.
Making the eye-opening anime Wansa-kun
While managing the production and sales of character calendars, I started my next animation work, Wansa-kun, about a white mongrel dog. Producing it continued my education of trial and error. Music had been important on Triton, but it was a vital component on Wansa-kun. There was the network and the record company, and it was common sense that you could always make money in music. But I thought that might be a mistake.
I had some confidence after spending my teens and twenties in the world of music. Therefore, I had an interest in combining music with animation in some unusual way. Incidentally, the production expense for the music in Wansa-kun was almost double that of Yamato. It was an attempt to try a Disney-style musical.
When I saw the ratings, I was not rewarded at all. I can look back now and laugh it off as a good case study, but I couldn’t do that in those days. I realized that I was wrong to assume Wansa-kun could only appeal to a certain age group, and to target an audience of younger children as the TV network demanded. But my biggest mistake was to claim to the network that I could satisfy their demands. I didn’t have the key networks in Tokyo and desperately tried to sell the pilot in Osaka. I often went there, since I could never sell anything to the big Tokyo networks.
Then there was the struggle over making money. The money collected from TV stations alone was insufficient to cover the production costs. Nothing was secure. But you can’t call yourself a real producer if you don’t prepare for a shortfall. Going through the difficulty of financing was a good study. A bank doesn’t have to worry much about its reputation, but for an individual person every day is a desperate one.
This is a sidenote, but it’s a good one for filmmakers who dream about making a movie in their twenties or thirties. “If I’m just allowed the chance to make it freely, there won’t be any problems.” To me, someone who thinks that way is already finished. “If given a chance…” or, “if the money was there…” Instead, if the challenge really is to create your own movie, it’s up to you to do it. And that’s not just limited to making movies.
The original proposal book for Space Battleship Yamato (before Leiji Matsumoto’s involvement), and the 1974 promotional pamphlet
Even if the ratings were bad, talent emerged
After the bitter experiences of Triton and Wansa-kun, I felt strongly about creating Space Battleship Yamato for the upper elementary and junior high school grades. This is the age at which they become aware of the start of adulthood. It is a vague thing, but feelings grow at that age and lead to first love.
One characteristic of a first love is a vague uneasiness about one’s expectations for the future. The focus is very narrow, on studying for exams and such, while not knowing the constraints of the larger world. Not being able to specify one’s expectations causes anxiety and leads to great unhappiness. Giving this generation a strong feeling about the future was the first motif of Space Battleship Yamato.
I was on some sort of mission when I first set up our animation studio on the second floor of a bakery in Sakuradai, Tokyo. This is where production went on five days a week. I prayed that our round-the-clock efforts would be rewarded with an audience rating of 20% when the broadcast began. But, and I still remember this clearly, the first episode got only 6% and the Nielsen ratings came in at just over 5%.
The feeling of despair that I spoke of earlier began to settle in. But heaven did not desert me.
Though it was broadcast in a timeslot for younger elementary students, the mid-teens in my target audience were watching, and it was them who set fire to the anime boom. There was a generation who sympathized with the work as I had intended. It was a great stroke of luck, and I was delighted. Everyone involved with the production was lifted up by the boom, one after another.
Is it an exaggeration to say that Mr. Matsumoto’s image of space first came through loud and clear through Yamato? In addition, the generation of animators who came up through Yamato (Udagawa, Shirato, Koizumi, and many others) is now considered world-class. Needless to say, it is an important duty of the producer to mention those who made his work possible.
To have produced Space Battleship Yamato was my proudest accomplishment.
My second proudest accomplishment was to completely grasp the technique of how to emphasize music in combination with pictures drawn on paper. There is a lot of misunderstanding about anime with dramatic characteristics and the know-how it takes to effectively combine it with music.
This time I will say Goodbye to Yamato
Recently, the anime world appears to be overheating. We have reached a point when TV anime is easy to see. But having seen enough of it, I have come to believe that the anime boom for theatres has only two years left.
The reason is simple. I believe TV anime is changing the standards, and it is a characteristic of the present anime boom to watch something made for TV in a movie theatre. This gets technical, but theatrical anime is made very differently from TV anime. A scene for TV is considered acceptable when seen clearly from a distance of two meters, but to support a big screen movie, it is required to draw considerably more detail.
That’s not all. When considering the size of a theatre, sound effects have a lot of gravity that cannot compare with TV. And most importantly, the characteristics of the story have to support a big screen image. I stand by such matters, and my prediction will not come true of anime made specifically for theatres continues to come out steadily in the future.
Unfortunately, it is the situation these days to show a work made for the small TV screen in theatres. This may be going too far, but it feels like we now have too many cartoons in the theatres. Won’t you lose the desire to see anime in a theatre if you don’t get the feeling you’re looking for?
If one chooses to take advantage of the boom to make a good quality anime work for the theatre, that’s a different story, but we will have to wait another three years to see that. It has been proven that TV anime can work in a theatre; I’m proud to have done it with Yamato, and I don’t want to detract from it. That is part of the reason I originally thought Farewell to Yamato should have been the end, exposed through mass communication in movie theatres. This will be the clear purpose of Final Yamato when it opens to the public next year.
Yamato‘s will to depart is the main theme. The last scene has already been decided. Yamato will pass beyond the Magellanic Cloud 148,000 light years away, pass the Andromeda Galaxy, pass the Dark Nebula Galaxy, and fly on to eternity, a world untouched by war or mankind. At the same time, the figures of Kodai and Yuki will walk toward their future. Something new will be born for them, a sense of security after Yamato leaves them…as I think about it, to me it is an acceptable ending.
The TV screen now is too small. It must absolutely be a big screen presentation in 70mm to support the departure of Yamato. I expect it to open in theatres next August, exactly two years after the movie of last year. I will use all of the intervening time to concentrate on it; writing of the script already began at the end of January. Of course, I will write the original story this time.
Up to now, I kept company with Yamato fans while sadly thinking of the day when Yamato and I must inevitably part…
Continue to our next Nishizaki article:
Postscript: from the privileged vantage point of almost 30 years on, it’s easy to see now that Nishizaki got it about half right. TV anime did continue to migrate to the big screen (whether or not it was a detriment is a matter of taste), but not to the degree he feared. The writing for feature film anime has had its ups and downs, but thanks to artisans like Hayao Miyazaki, Katsuhiro Otomo and Mamoru Oshii, the visuals only increased in quality and complexity–a trend that thankfully continues to this day.
It’s also appropriate to note that at the time this essay was written, the plan to release Final Yamato in August 1982 was still on track. A few months later, Toei Pictures decided instead to make Leiji Matsumoto’s My Youth in Arcadia for that summer. Everyone agreed that the resources to animate and release Final Yamato in the same timeframe would have caused both productions to suffer, so it was pushed back to the spring of 1983.
Special thanks to Osamu Tezuka expert Helen McCarthy for assistance; click here for information about her 2009 book, The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga.