Yamatour 2010, Part 2

Travelogue by Tim Eldred

Back up to Part 1

For several weeks before I left, I knew this trip was going to be something special. All trips to Japan are special, of course, and since this would be my fifth I had a routine to follow. But there was an added element I hadn’t experienced before: this time I was going to meet some famous people.

This was made possible by my new friend Sword Takeda, who’d first written to me all the way back in April to compliment my work on this site. It was high praise indeed, kudos from a hardcore Japanese Yamato fan with his own in-depth blog and many more years of studying the same subject. Eager to support my efforts, he generously provided answers to tough questions, straightened out misinformation, and even volunteered to do some detective work. (He even successfully unearthed one of the missing chapters of the “Lost” manga by Yuki Hijiri.) He went so far as to say he wished there was a Japanese site as comprehensive as this one.

I knew that on my next trip, I had to meet this guy.

Yamato actors could be seen everywhere if you knew who to look for. Takuya Kimura (Kodai) loomed over Shinjuku station on a video billboard, Shinichi Tsutsumi (Mamoru Kodai) was spotted on an ad for–of all things–storm windows, and a TV drama series featuring Toshiro Yanagiba (Sanada) was newly-released on DVD.

As the early planning for the trip began, Sword upped the stakes without even blinking, asking me if there was anyone I’d like to meet such as…oh, how about Leiji Matsumoto? Naturally, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. Sword knew him personally, having interviewed him years earlier for a hobby magazine called Figure King and tried to develop a Galaxy Express novel for him. Since Sword was willing to aim high, I threw a few other names at him, and he went to work without hesitation.

One of those names was Yoshinobu Nishizaki. On November 7, it became painfully obvious that this was not to be. But a Deputy Captain was left behind, an adopted son who was positioned to take command of the ship, so Sword added the name Shoji Nishizaki to the list. Regrettably, Enagio (Nishizaki’s company) was still experiencing too much turbulence to accommodate such a request. But it turned out to be the only target Sword couldn’t hit.

Meisa Kuroki (Yuki) was easy to find, since she’s the primary fashion model for clothing store chain UniQlo.

I was scheduled to arrive in Tokyo on November 30, and on November 15 the word came in: Leiji Matsumoto was a go! I put the word out to friends, soliciting questions to add to my own. They poured in over the next week or so, and I spent part of the flight streamlining and organizing them into categories. The interview was set to take place the next day, December 1, at 6:30pm in a restaurant at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku. He was giving a lecture at Shinjuku College and would meet us there afterward.

By this time, “us” had ballooned to five people: Sword and myself, Yamatour veteran Anton Kholodov, Otaku USA editor-in-chief Patrick Macias, and Sega employee Gwyn Campbell. Like Sword, Gwyn had introduced himself earlier in the year by email, saying nice things about the site and offering to attend any local events I might hear about. He proved his mettle by attending Yamato Expo ’10 in February and shooting some killer photos. (Which can be seen here.)

My first non-electronic meeting with both Sword and Gwyn happened on the night of my arrival, when we all ganged up for dinner and set the plan for the interview. Between us, we would represent three foreign countries: America, Russia, and Australia. This, apparently, is what caught and held Matsumoto’s interest.

Even without this, December 1 would have been a full day, with the premiere of the live-action Yamato movie, the first whirlwind of shopping, and a visit to the prop exhibit at TBS headquarters in Akasaka. The exhibit was previously covered in Part 1 of this story, but here’s a more extensive collection of photos to expand the view:

Prop photos.

Costume photos.

Giant Yamato model

I was lucky to have a smaller crowd to contend with than Anton and Gwyn did for their visit. The giant Yamato model instantly grabbed everyone’s attention, and the props were lined up in a pavilion to its right. Every main character was represented by a costume and a handful of dedicated objects. It was gratifying to see the fighters modeled in real life (as opposed to simple CG data), and a maquette of the Gamilasborg. The description even gave an explanation for this term: Gamilas Bony-Rock Organism. (Yikes.) There was also a short promo video showing Yamato flying over Japanese cultural landmarks in the tour’s next few stops.

If there was any negative at all, it was the constant repetition of Steven Tyler’s song Love Lives over the loudspeakers. It’s a fine song, but you really don’t need to hear it more than once per half-hour. I felt great sympathy for the employees who had to endure it all day long. Through no fault of Mr. Tyler’s, his tune probably became an object of fear and loathing to this handful of individuals.

The ship model’s Wave-Motion Gun was rigged to spew smoke and fire a laser light show, so I’d planned to come back on the evening of December 4 to see this just before the exhibit departed for its next city. Daylight hours were now ticking away and we had to get ready for the interview.

Famima Conbini (Family Mart convenience stores) carried the Yamato banner throughout November and December with food products and prize lotteries.

Half an hour before game time, we all gathered at a meeting point outside the Shinjuku JR train station and started hoofing it over to Keio Plaza in the skyscraper district. Patrick is in the habit of recording such things for his personal podcast Hot Tears of Shame, so he brought along his digital recorder to collect our thoughts as we walked. I expected to be a bundle of nerves by this time, but the day had already been so full of activity, I simply didn’t have enough spare energy to be nervous.

Sword lead us into a brightly-lit restaurant. To be honest, it was not the ideal setting to record an interview since there would be background noise and a definite time limit. We picked a table for six and got into a “surround-the-subject” seating arrangement while Sword went outside to look for our guest. We kept popping up from our booth like Meerkats, looking toward the door for any sign of a knit pirate cap.

The first wave of Yamato food items at Famima was discontinued just before I arrived, but I was there for the rollout of “Yamato Big Brown Sugar Bread,” which tasted exactly what it sounds like. The store clerks wouldn’t let me take the display panel, though.

After an uncomfortably long time, Sword appeared with an older man in tow. From first glance, something seemed off. His hair was suitably grey and stringy, but that’s where the resemblance ended. There was no sign of his trademark cap, glasses, or beard. Plus, he was wearing a threadbare suit. Never in my life have I seen a photo of Leiji Matsumoto in a suit. My thought was that he’d gotten a makeover before the college lecture. Not knowing what else to do, we all leapt to our feet and made with the handshakes. The guy was grinning from ear to ear, pleased to see us, and gladly accepted the seat we’d chosen for him.

We traded uncertain glances with each other as Sword engaged him in conversation. If this was Leiji Matsumoto, he’d REALLY changed. Anton was the one to see him most recently, at the World of Matsumoto event on October 31st. And Anton looked more incredulous than the rest of us.

It was obvious by this time that we were all thinking the same thing: this can’t be him, but how do we react now that we’d already welcomed him in? We’d mentally prepared ourselves for multiple scenarios: a happy Matsumoto, a confused Matsumoto, an impatient Matsumoto, even an irritated Matsumoto. There was simply no preparation for what we were actually facing: a fake Matsumoto.

His business card told the tale. He was some sort of stage/screen/TV/music agent. Who exactly he thought we were, why he readily accepted the company of gaijin, and how he got past Sword in the first place were complete mysteries. As he wandered away, we sat dumbfounded. Our red flags had all gone up at the same time, but we were just too polite and, as Patrick observed, too “willing to believe” to speak up. And who, exactly, had made the mistake here?

Other attractions: The inescapable Ultraman had a new movie out, Ultraman Zero. The previous film was being promoted exactly a year earlier. Meanwhile, Capcom was making noise about the release of Monster Hunter 3, which resulted in this giant (inflatable!) creature display outside Shinjuku station with some occasional live heroes in costume.

We filtered back into the Shinjuku streets as Sword phoned the Matsumoto household to enquire about our missing guest. The answer was that the sensei had already called in and was on his way home. There would be a followup call later to sort things out.

Walking away from the most surreal moment of the trip, we questioned each other in vain and chose nicknames for Fake Matsumoto. Patrick dubbed him “Dirty Matsumoto” after the notorious ero-manga artist and I went with “Ray G. Matsumoto,” serial impersonator. Unfortunately, none of us thought to keep his business card (which was stained by something wet) or snap his photo (thus potentially sparing our lives). We were all demoralized by this, but I stated my belief that it would ultimately result in a better interview.

My ill-fated Black Tiger jersey. Alas.

We went our separate ways and I took stock of the day. This hadn’t been the only mishap. I’d learned that morning at the movie theater that all the advance tickets I bought weeks earlier were exclusive to a different theater, and the Black Tiger jersey for which I paid far too much money didn’t fit me. Here’s a tip: Medium-size Japanese clothing is child-size in America. Don’t believe any of the actual measurements. That jersey felt like a kid’s wetsuit on me, and I nearly wrenched my arms trying to get it off. (Fortunately, Dive Toy Co. figured out later it would be a good idea to release them in XL.)

Just before bedtime, I got an email from Sword. He’d spoken again to the Matsumoto household and learned what went wrong: our guest had gone to a different restaurant at the hotel and waited 45 minutes for us before giving up and packing it in.

All things considered, Wednesday December 1 wasn’t the best kickoff for Yamatour 2010. But there were plenty more days to come.

Thursday, December 2

After a remarkably fortifying breakfast (I highly, HIGHLY recommend the giant toast at Cafe Renoir, branches of which are everywhere in Tokyo) I teamed up for the second time with Sword Takeda and made for the little-known district of Jimbocho. Little known to American anime/manga fans, that is. I learned about it while researching my first trip back in 2007. All I needed to see was the term “used bookstores” to make it a must-see. It’s not a cornucopia like the better-known districts, but if you enjoy digging through musty boxes for movie memorabilia, old magazines, or anime books you’ve never heard of, Jimbocho is waiting for you.

Waiting for us there on this particular day was a gentleman by the name of Hideaki Ito. Like this neighborhood, his name isn’t well-known to American anime fandom, but it should be. He and his fellow Yamato maniacs were the ones who turned their passion for the show into action. They formed the first fan club, revolutionized doujinshis (fanzines) and lead the grass-roots effort to save Yamato from obscurity. Along the way, they created what we now know as anime fandom–and they didn’t even have the word anime yet.

As I got deeper into researching articles for this site in 2008, Ito’s name came up again and again, usually as the author of detailed and comprehensive liner notes on CDs and DVDs. Over time it became obvious that I was following in his footsteps and I needed to pay him my respects. With Sword’s generous help, I had come to Jimbocho on this day to do exactly that.

Ito now works for independent publisher Gin-Ei Co. Ltd., located on a Jimbocho side street in a modest 6-story walkup with a steakhouse on its ground floor. As soon as you walk in, you know you’re in serious Otaku territory with books, manga, and collectibles stacked in narrow spaces. A tiny table barely big enough for two people functions as a meeting room. But what Ito’s office lacks in comfort is more than compensated by the breadth of his imagination and achievements. When Yamato was only halfway through the production years, Ito followed his muse from homemade doujinshis into the professional publishing world. In 1978, he took the reigns of OUT Magazine and went on to develop many more.

He had a hand in several mainstream Yamato books as well, such as the first two Keibunsha encyclopedias and the Rapport Deluxe Special from 1983. He spent a lot of years documenting his other favorites as well, such as Tatsunoko animation and the mega-popular SF programs from ITC such as Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds. This work continues today with consultation for Bandai’s various Yamato projects.

Ito’s latest masterpiece is a book titled Space Battleship Yamato Great Chronicle, which was published only the day before our meeting. Working directly with Leiji Matsumoto, he painstakingly collected as many artifacts as he could find from the original TV series and assembled them into the single most impressive volume anyone could produce.

With Sword translating, we talked for two solid hours about all things Yamato. From first to last, Ito was direct, animated, and articulate. I worried at several points in the conversation that I was keeping him from some major project, but in fact he’d just finished Great Chronicle and was enjoying a lighter-than-usual workday.

At my request, he’d brought along several treasures from his personal collection, including his first scrapbook and a nearly-complete stack of the classic doujinshis he’d helped publish back in the mid-70s. To my surprise, he turned out to be an accomplished artist in addition to a writer, and proudly pointed out his own handiwork.

It was a little jarring to watch him manhandle these time capsules with no more care than your average newspaper, unconcerned about bending corner or adding another stress mark. He’d been living with them for decades, of course, so they probably held no fascination for him whatsoever. To me, though, they belong in a museum. Having them right in front of me after years of seeing them only in print was as transcendent as gazing upon an animation cel from a familiar scene; actual physical evidence of real work done by a real person.

Our discussion went from Ito’s pre-Yamato days in the Hokkaido countryside to his move to Tokyo for art college and his subsequent submersion into fandom. We came all the way up to the world of present day Yamato publishing, a complex minefield of ownership turf and contentious relationships that go hand-in-hand with a decades-old franchise.

My interview with Ito was fully translated by Sword Takeda and is presented here. It was a fascinating session from start to finish and says much about where Yamato has been and how far it has come.

Yamato‘s presence could also be found in the big pachinko parlors of Kabuki-cho. At left and center is a CR Yamato 3 machine, which made its debut back in February (read about it here). CR Yamato 2 was also still alive and well. (shown at right).

We wandered back outside in somewhat of a daze, having absorbed as concentrated a dose of history as we could have wanted, and I realized it was time for Sword to place a call to the Leiji Matsumoto household. He’d made an appointment last night to call in and ask for another appointment. (It’s complicated.)

I milled around on the sidewalk while he talked, and when I heard him shout “Thank you very much!” loud enough to echo across the street I knew we were back in business. Once again, it was our nature as visitors from distant lands that held the master’s interest. And apparently that interest ran pretty deep; we had just been invited to his house.

I’d have to cancel my plans to see the Wave-Motion Gun light show at Akasaka, but it seemed worth the sacrifice.

Friday, December 3

Sword and I teamed up in the morning for the next interview he’d lined up: manga artist Yuki Hijiri. If you read the article about the “lost” Yamato manga, you already know about him. He was the third artist to write and draw a manga adaptation while the show was originally on TV, but unlike Leiji Matsumoto and Akira Hio, his version faded into history. He became far better known for his own character, Locke the Superman, but I suspected he’d have an interesting perspective on the early phase of the Yamato phenomenon, so I enthusiastically agreed to Sword’s offer to track him down.

I didn’t know what to expect, envisioning a grumpy eldster being dragged away from his drawing board to meet us in a cafe in one of the monolithic Isetan department stores in Shinjuku. But when he and Mie Hasegawa (his extremely polite wife) arrived 15 minutes late owing to a car accident on the freeway (not their own, fortunately), they fell all over themselves to apologize, which was completely charming.

Like me, they were meeting their first foreign-born comic artist, so this endeared them to me even further. We ended up talking for a solid 90 minutes, learning all sorts of things about each others’ industries, finding that our shared career experience allowed us to speak the same language even though we didn’t.

Mr. Hijiri fished out of his bag a Locke art book containing some Yamato clippings, so I instantly had something new for my shopping list. I found both it and a nice Hijiri art collection before leaving Tokyo; too late for autographing, naturally.

I’d learned that Mie Hasegawa had lived in Los Angeles as a teenager when her father worked there, so I brought her a book of L.A. photographs as a gift. She’d claimed via email that she didn’t remember any English, but she did just fine during our discussion. We were both surprised to learn that we lived only a few miles apart in L.A. albeit a couple of decades apart.

It pained me to turn down their offer for lunch afterward, but time in Tokyo moves pretty fast and the afternoon was already underway. Click here to read our entire interview with Mr. Hijiri, which covers his Yamato experience and much more.

Spotted inside a massive Akihabara electronics store: a display for the Hitachi Wooo HD TV (with a Yamato tie-in) and a corner display for last year’s Yamato Resurrection with CDs and DVDs.

From Shinjuku we headed into Akihabara to comb stores and meet up with friends. It was going to be a big night since nine of us were coming together for dinner in Ginza and our next screening of the Yamato movie. The venue this time was Toho’s premiere theater, the Nichigeki, where the film was being shown on the single largest screen in Tokyo. Two days earlier, it had been the site of a special afternoon screening (seats awarded by lottery) featuring the director and main cast members, the only time after the November 1 preview that they would all be seen together.

The theater was indeed a giant, large enough to contain an average block or two of Tokyo buildings. For all that, though, only about a third of the seats were filled since we came to the last screening of the day, 9:20 to 11:40pm. Most trains stop running between 12 and 1am, so late shows aren’t heavily attended.

The movie rolled, and I knew inside the first couple of minutes that I was going to have a hard time with this one. Jet lag doesn’t usually affect me when I visit Tokyo, but this was the first evening in about five days that I was sitting still without a project demanding all my attention. Over that time I’d gotten maybe one full night’s worth of real sleep. Suddenly my eyelids were concrete blocks and my neck was a wet noodle. It wasn’t a huge problem, since I’d already seen the movie twice and would do so again before leaving Tokyo, so I let myself drift and soak up whatever I could in my delerium. It’s actually not a bad experience unless you’re desperate to stay awake.

Displays for two other forthcoming genre films in the Nichigeki lobby

Chatter amongst my companions began as soon as the lights came up. Everyone liked it more than they expected to. It was my first chance to discuss the film openly with a group, which woke me right up. The unanimous opinion was that it was the best-looking Japanese SF film we’d ever seen, and it could stand easily among top US films in visual quality.

The locals among us were not impressed by Takuya Kimura’s performance as Kodai, grumbling that he basically just plays himself in every one of his movies. Being removed from both the Japanese language and celebrity culture allows the rest of us to ignore this. Nothing he did particularly bothered me, since I had no other film to gauge it against. But not a discouraging word was said about the other actors, and the twists to the storyline had made it an engaging experience for everyone. None of us felt any denigration to the original; the movie stands on its own and gives you just enough of what you remember to keep it authentic, particularly the music.

Speaking for myself, I can’t recommend the soundtrack highly enough. Composer Naoki Satoh samples liberally from Hiroshi Miyagawa’s original anime score, weaving both the main theme and the “Infinity of Space” melody so thoroughly into the music that they become part of the film’s DNA. Satoh’s own tracks are equal in scope and majesty, preventing any drop in quality. Most importantly, the entire score is rippling with that key ingredient that has always made Yamato music great: POWER. No matter what opinion you eventually form about the film, the soundtrack is flawless.

My homies and I can attest that in Japan, even Harry Potter rushes to see Space Battleship Yamato.

Incidentally, we also had some box office news to pass around by this point. The film had scored number 1 on its opening day, beating out even the new Harry Potter movie. Part of this probably had to do with premiering on the first of the month, a day in which all Japanese movie theaters drop their ticket prices to 1000 yen, but it wasn’t the only sign of success: the movie had already been sold to six countries in Europe and Asia, and American distributors were actively interested. Not a minute too soon.

Later news reports indicated that the film held the number 1 spot for five days straight and pulled in over $12 million USD. For Japanese cinema, that’s very successful indeed.

Continue reading Yamatour 2010 here

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