Yamato Origins, Part 1: The Big Picture

Just like success in the public sphere, the story of Space Battleship Yamato did not come quickly or easily. In terms of active pre-production, the gestation period for the first TV series lasted well over a year as Executive Producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki slowly gathered his dream team and carefully crafted his masterpiece.

Dual Plans

At the dawn of 1973, Yamato was not yet even a gleam in Nishizaki’s eye. By this time he had ended his tenure as a manager for Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Pro (read his account of that time here), founded Office Academy Studio and produced his first TV series, Triton of the Sea (1972). Following this, he took separate meetings with three different scriptwriters: Keisuke Fujikawa, Eiichi Yamamoto, and Aritsune Toyota.

Left to right: Yoshinobu Nishizaki, Keisuke Fujikawa, Eiichi Yamamoto, Aritsune Toyota

Fujikawa and Nishizaki had it in mind to create a live-action Tokusatsu (special effects) program. It did not materialize for various reasons, but the relationship between them allowed the idea to gestate into a science-fiction concept for anime. Their meeting resulted in Fujikawa becoming the head writer of Nishizaki’s next show.

Wansa-Kun [Little Wansa] was produced by both Nishizaki and Eiichi Yamamoto, animated at Mushi Pro, and aired in the spring and summer of 1973. Yamamoto’s directorial approach to dramatic storytelling was what drew Nishizaki to him. Together, they would nurture the SF anime idea ever forward.

Nishizaki read Robert Heinlein’s novel Methusulah’s Children (retitled Earthscape in Japan) and was eager to start on an original work set in outer space. Aritsune Toyota, who wrote TV scripts for Mushi Pro, offered his own 1970 novel Desecrated Earth as further inspiration. After that, Nishizaki asked both Fujikawa and Toyota to develop separate plans for the SF anime series. Both submitted their ideas to him in the spring of 1973.

Space Battleship Cosmo was the working title of Fujikawa’s concept:

1,000 years in the future, humans live underground because of radioactive contamination, the result of an attack from a mysterious alien planet. They have survived and constructed an underground nation, but extinction is approaching in just a few years. Those determined to escape the Earth build a huge exploration ship equipped for battle. This giant vessel’s mission is to find a new planet. It can take a crew of approximately 10,000 and functions as a mothership with three smaller vessels that can detach in an emergency.

Asteroid 6 was the name of Toyota’s plan:

At the beginning of the 21st century, Earth is attacked by mysterious aliens called the Rajendora. Their missiles bombard the planet with radioactive contamination, and humans face extinction in just one year. An alien ship makes an emergency landing on Mars; it is from the Planet Iscandar, 20,000 light years away. Humans use its engine as the core of an Asteroid Ship using the asteroid Icarus as its body. It sets off on a journey to Iscandar.

It’s easy to see the seeds of Yamato in the broad strokes of both ideas. Since they were written almost simultaneously, it is evident that everyone at least agreed on the starting point. At this same time, Nishizaki invited Producer Yoshihiro Nozaki (another Mushi Pro veteran) to join Office Academy and begin working toward full-fledged production. The first task was to develop a presentation for advertising agencies and TV networks.

The First Yamato

Toyota’s Asteroid 6 had scored higher than Fujikawa’s Cosmo, so Toyota expanded it into a fertile garden of international characters, story springboards, and high-tech mecha. As the senior staff writer, Eiichi Yamamoto authored the next draft of the story in close consultation with Nishizaki. Everything was subjected to an extensive rewrite that turned all the characters Japanese, refined the plot points and, most importantly, renamed the series.

What was previously a big hunk of rock was now a sleek space battleship that only used the rock as a protective shell. This game-changing idea came from Nishizaki himself, who also gave it a new name: Yamato. (Though it should be pointed out that at this stage it was still a newly-built ship rather than a reconstruction of the sunken original.)

The story was a substantial step closer to the end product we all know and love, but significant differences remained. For example, the faceless enemies were still called the Rajendora, only two of the crewmembers had names that would stick, and there was no such thing as a Wave-Motion Gun. Moreover, the tone of the story was quite dark and somber. It emphasized the flaws of the characters to the point where few were likeable, and some were downright unsympathetic. The ship was a hotbed of rivalry and betrayal with only the main character surviving all the way to the end. Had it stayed that way on the air, chances are slim it would be remembered as an uplifting tale of triumph over impossible odds.

Yoshihiro Nozaki played a key role in the editing and assembly of the first plan book, a detailed proposal lavishly decorated with color paintings and design drawings. One of the artists on the project was Kenichi Matsuzaki of the nascent Crystal Art Studio, a design group that would later become the artistic powerhouse Studio Nue. Another was Kazuaki Saito, who served as the art director for Mushi Pro’s Dororo anime series and illustrated covers for SF Magazines. Their work filled the first half of the plan book; The second half consisted of a sample script by Keisuke Fujikawa.

The production staff was listed as follows:

Executive Producer: Yoshinobu Nishizaki
Idea: Aritsune Toyota
Script: Keisuke Fujikawa
Art: Kenichi Matsuzaki and Kazuaki Saitou
Producer: Yoshihiro Nozaki
Director: Eiichi Yamamoto

Other than Saitou, everyone on this list would be involved in Yamato for years to come. For now, Mushi Pro was listed as the animation studio. Of course, everything about the series was purely speculative, especially the intention to make 52 episodes.

The Labyrinth of Real Life

The 45-page plan book for Yamato was completed in the late summer of 1973, during the second half of Wansa-Kun‘s broadcast. It is believed that 80 copies were produced at the substantial cost of about $100 per copy, and that Nishizaki handed the first one over to Tetsuo Sanmatsu, media director of the Tokyu Agency. Nishizaki had worked with the network bureau of Kansai TV to produce Wansa-Kun and wanted to work with them again, so this became Sanmatsu’s first target.

Several days passed with no formal acceptance from Kansai. Meanwhile, Wansa-Kun finished its run on September 24, 1973. Subsequently, Mushi Pro Studio went bankrupt on November 1 with unpaid liabilities totaling 350 million yen.

The plan finally began to bear fruit in the early spring of 1974 with an attempt to attract advertising agencies. A joint operation called the “Society of Three” was formed by the Tokyu Agency, Dai-Ichi Communications, and Dai-Ichi Advertising. They combined their resources to search for a sponsor, assuming that three medium-size agencies would gain the reach of a major one by combining their resources. The Tokyu Agency submitted the Yamato plan book to this “Society of Three” and the campaign began.

A alternate account also exists; Kenichi Nakamura, Deputy Director of Planning for Dai-Ichi Communications was already acquainted with Nishizaki by virtue of his involvement in Wansa-Kun. Mr. Nakamura recalls that he was approached by Nishizaki, who presented Yamato to him and his sales manager, Akira Kinoshita. They, in turn, were the ones who submitted it to the “Society of Three.” The truth, apparently, is still out there.

Either way, it was unprecedented for such a coalition to represent a project like Yamato together. But because it was such a new concept, even this resourceful triad had a difficult time finding sponsors. Because of this, Dai-Ichi Advertising pulled out at an early stage, leaving Tokyu and Dai-Ichi Communications to soldier on, eventually signing the first sponsor, S&B Foods.

Another obstacle was the TV broadcaster. The Tokyu Agency was working on the upper echelon of Japanese television, but it was Dai-Ichi Communications working in parallel who opened the first negotiations with Yomiuri TV in May 1974. Thus, the “Society of Three” ended and Dai-Ichi Communications became the sole agent of Yamato from that point onward.

Incidentally, this was not Dai-Ichi’s first foray into anime; they had previously secured financing for Ogon Bat (The Golden Bat, 1967) and Yokai Ningen Bem (Humanoid Monster Bem, 1968), but it was not customary at the time for an investment company’s name to appear in production credits.

The timing was fortuitous; Yomiuri was looking for a unique program to fill its Sunday evening timeslot of 7:30 to 8pm, since they were struggling against the ratings giant Girl of the Alps Heidi on a rival network. Yomiuri’s representative was Jushichi Sano, the producer of an anime baseball series named Samurai Giants (in addition to other classics such as Star of the Giants, Tiger Mask, and Lupin III). It was Sano who took the Yamato pitch and helped to shepherd it closer to the launch pad.

Enter Leiji Matsumoto

Up to this point, Eiichi Yamamoto had been the prime candidate to direct and supervise the series. But he received an invitation from longtime colleague Producer Junichi Ushiyama to participate in the making of a documentary film, and he accepted. (He would return to the fold as a writer on episode 16 of Series 1.) A replacement was needed, and so the call went out to veteran live-action filmmaker Toshio Masuda, who was highly regarded for his work on the Japanese sequences of Tora Tora Tora (1970). He was interested, but soon got involved in other work and became unavailable. (He would return in 1977 to help construct the Yamato feature film.)

Finally, the supervisor’s position was given to Leiji Matsumoto in the spring of 1974. Nishizaki had previously asked Matsumoto to serve as Yamato‘s art director, wanting his unique aesthetic for the mecha design. Matsumoto initially turned down the offer, citing his strong desire to supervise an entire production and devote his creative energy to it at every level. Now that the position was open again, Nishizaki gave him the chance he was waiting for.

This was also extraordinarily good timing; Matsumoto had long desired to create an animated version of Maya the Bee, one of his favorite childhood stories. Nippon Animation Company began production on a Maya TV series in early 1974 and invited Matsumoto to participate, but he declined when it became obvious he couldn’t direct it to his satisfaction. Had this gone the other way, he would not have been available for Yamato and anime history would have been quite different.

Matsumoto began by reworking the plot from start to finish, completing a draft on May 21, 1974. This set most of the final concepts into place and became the foundation for the story we now know. Since this was his first foray into the anime world, he would need an experienced assistant, which lead to the hiring of Noboru Ishiguro. Ultimately, of course, Ishiguro would be elevated to the position of chief director to deal with the massive workload.

In June 1974, Office Academy Studio was established in the Nerima Ward of Tokyo where an animation community had grown around the hub of Toei Studio. Full production began with the first airdate just four months away. A full-color, 16-page publicity book was produced with all-new art to aid Yomiuri’s effort to land more sponsors. At the network’s behest, the episode count had been trimmed to 39, structured in three 13-episode arcs. A ten-minute pilot film was made as a proof-of-concept, and it lives on today as the final step in Yamato‘s grand evolution.

Fortunately for us, all the major stages of that process were preserved and published over subsequent years in Japan, and now they have been gathered here chronologically. For the first time in English, this series of articles tracks Yamato‘s origins from start to finish. Each article is linked to the next for continuous reading.

Continue to Part 2: Yoshinobu Nishizaki Essay, 1978

Or jump ahead to any article in this series:

Part 3: Space Battleship Cosmo proposal by Keisuke Fujikawa
Part 4: Asteroid Ship proposal by Aritsune Toyota
Part 5: Yamato plan book by Eiichi Yamamoto
Part 6: Yamato outline by Leiji Matsumoto
Part 7: Story notes by Leiji Matsumoto
Part 8: 39-Episode TV Series outline
Part 9: The making of the Pilot Film

Portions of the above account were translated from text by Masahiro Haraguchi

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