A Talk With Director Noboru Ishiguro

This interview was conducted at Anime Weekend Atlanta in the fall of 2007 with Mr. Ishiguro attending as Guest of Honor. He participated in a number of events that weekend, including a panel entirely devoted to Space Battleship Yamato hosted by this website’s writer/editor, Tim Eldred. It was later published in the February 2008 issue of Otaku USA and is being reprinted here to mark the occasion of Mr. Ishiguro’s passing in March 2012.

If you’re an anime fan, you have Mr. Noboru Ishiguro to thank for it. Either you’ve seen his work or you’ve seen something directly inspired by his work. His resume speaks for itself; starting as an in-betweener on the original Tetsujin 28, he moved up the ladder on such classics as Marine Boy, Star of the Giants, and Combattler V, and reached his pinnacle with the founding of Studio Artland, birthplace of such anime juggernauts as Macross, Orguss, Megazone 23, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, and much, much more.

People in the anime industry (and most other industries, for that matter) generally fall into one of two categories: auteur or workhorse. The auteur’s name is as well-known as their work. But without the workhorse, there can be no auteur. Ishiguro is just such a workhorse, as evidenced by both his long list of credits and the long list of auteurs who have relied on him for over 40 years. In this interview, Mr. Ishiguro discusses his most famous production of them all, Space Battleship Yamato. Joining the staff of Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s Office Academy at Yamato‘s time of inception put Ishiguro on a path that would create a generation of anime fans around the globe.

So you see, you really do have him to thank.

What brought you to the attention of Producer Nishizaki and convinced him to hire you for Yamato?

The year before Yamato, I was directing Mushi Productions’ last title, called Wansa-Kun, which was produced by Nishizaki. After Mushi-Pro was disbanded he had another project in mind, so he started to call upon people he knew, and that’s how I got involved.

What was Yamato‘s stage of development when you joined the staff?

That would be back in the spring of 1974. The project pitch was already drafted and the title was already Space Battleship Yamato, but the design was not the same as the Yamato we know. Back then it was still a clump of asteroid, a piece of rock that was the spaceship. The ship-form of Yamato came about when Leiji Matsumoto joined the staff. I joined when the asteroid-shaped rock version of Yamato was being transformed into the Leiji Matsumoto design. [Read all about this phase of development here.]

Your first project at this time was to animate a 10-minute pilot film, which was financed by Mr. Nishizaki, and was the very first time any of Yamato was committed to film. What were the challenges you faced in doing this?

We were very short on time and we had to somehow scrape up the resources to make it. During the production the character designer/animation director [Nobuhiro Okaseko] coughed up blood and collapsed from a stomach ulcer. So we had to somehow come up with a way to fill in his role and continue with the production.

Also at this time we didn’t have a solid design for how Gamilas or Dessler should look, so we were arbitrary about that. We didn’t know that they were supposed to be blue-skinned.

Who worked with you to make the animation?

The atomic explosion from the Planet bomb was done by a new animation director named Toyoo Ashida, and he worked on a very long 20-second explosion. It was so long that we had to overlap it with the next scene. (Read our tribute to Mr. Ashida here.) The collapsed girl from Iscandar was drawn by Leiji Matsumoto himself. Back then he would actually show up at the studio, and we got along well working together.

As we know from history, when the battleship Yamato sank it broke into two pieces, and probably more. Was that addressed at all when the film was made?

Back then we didn’t know in what state battleship Yamato was in when it sunk, that’s something we found out after Yamato was made.

How did the pilot film prepare you for TV production?

Compared to the actual Yamato, the color scheme is much brighter than what we’re used to. Nishizaki wanted darker and darker colors, so finally we had to come up with special color mixes just for Yamato. Also, most of the opening title sequence was recycled from the pilot.

The opening theme has become one of the most famous anime themes in history. What was it like to hear it for the first time, being on the production staff?

When I first heard it, I never thought there could be a song this moving. And this wasn’t the actual composition, just a piano rendition.

When the production began on the TV series, what was your job title, and what were your responsibilities?

The title they gave me was animation director, and the title of director went to Leiji Matsumoto. However, Mr. Matsumoto was a manga artist, not an animator, and he was not versed in the ways of the studio, so I ended up taking the entire job as director. It was fun, but at the same time it was a lot of work for me.

One of the studios that worked on design for Yamato was Studio Nue, which is very famous now. Were you involved with them, too?

I knew about Studio Nue before then, but it wasn’t until Yamato that I had the chance to work with them, and I have worked with them ever since. We worked together on titles such as Macross and Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

Yamato was a very unusual program at the time it was done. It was the first space fantasy program that anyone tried to do on that scale. Did you develop new animation techniques for Yamato that didn’t exist before?

I don’t know if ‘new’ would be the appropriate term, but I always loved science fiction ever since high school and I always wanted to work on a science fiction anime. The television industry in Japan back then considered anime to be something for children, so there was little chance to do realistic science fiction. So when I got the chance, I had no hesitation. There were a couple of ideas that I always wanted to implement in animation, such as how a ship would travel in space, or how explosions would look, so I put all those ideas into the production.

What was unique about the way you wanted to depict a spaceship or an explosion that hadn’t been seen before?

Back then if you let an animator depict an explosion, the flames or debris would fall to the ground, and that’s not how an explosion should take place in zero gravity. So I would draw examples of how it should look, and tell the animators to do it this way. As for the movement of a ship in space, they might be traveling at a very high velocity, but it’s very hard to depict such movement when the stars behind them are supposed to be moving in relative proportion. I’ve seen examples where a ship might be panning across the screen at high speed, but that doesn’t give you a good sense of scale for the ship itself, so I went the other way and made the ship move very slow to give you a sense of scale.

How did your job evolve as Yamato went on?

My job didn’t really change much from beginning to end, but what I remember the most was the production going on for 10 months and not being able to go home much. But aside from that, there were very few animators who were versed in the concepts of science fiction, so I had to teach that to all the staff and by the end of production I could leave it to them and be assured that they would get it. And it might be hard to believe today, but back then no one in the anime industry besides probably just me and the people at Studio Nue knew anything about science fiction, so evangelizing SF concepts was a lot of work for me.

Was it true that the deadlines were so tight that an episode would be finished only the day before it had to be broadcast?

In fact, we were relatively still on good time if we could finish a film the day before broadcast. A lot of times we ended up delivering the film on the day of broadcast. The actual airtime would be 7 or 8 in the evening, and the film would come back maybe 6 or 8 in the morning, we would take a look at the results without being able to comment on or fix anything, we just had to deliver it to the station. The tightest example of this would be the Yamato TV movie special (The New Voyage), where the second roll was being developed as the first roll was being broadcast.

There’s a unique shot at the very end of Yamato‘s launch sequence at the end of Episode 3. How was this assembled?

In this age of digital production it’s so trivial, but you see a very gradual enlargement of the ship in the frame, and to film it required a very elaborate setup. That cost about three thousand dollars in today’s money. This really angered the producer, and I was almost fired for it.

How did you come up with all those abstract ideas for the first space warp?

We had a lot of fun working with Leiji Matsumoto on that. We did manage to use most of our concepts, like superimposing three different images over filters, or the image of going through time, that was Matsumoto’s idea. And if we had access to digital technology back then it would have been a little more suave, but you can sense the effort that went into that sequence.

In Episode 11, there’s a very odd scene where Dessler’s skin color changes from pink to blue. Can you explain why this was done?

That’s because up until the previous episode all the Gamilas are shown to have pink skin and Producer Nishizaki sometimes asked for the impossible. He suddenly said “all the Gamilas are blue-skinned.” And as animators we have our own pride. We could have just given everyone blue skin, but we wanted to give sort of an explanation, saying it was the effects of lighting that made Gamilas’ skin appear pink but it was actually blue.

As another example of Producer Nishizaki asking for the impossible, in mid-production he started to insist that Yuki was the only female on the crew, but if you look at Episode 3 you clearly see other female crew members boarding the ship. But we had to obey his insistence.

Was there ever a moment during the production when you realized Yamato was going to be something very special?

Looking at the actual TV ratings, Yamato didn’t do well. It was actually cancelled in mid-season. This was because Yamato was going up against very tough competiton, Girl of the Alps Heidi. So Yamato never went over 10% in ratings, and we were very depressed that perhaps it once again proved that SF doesn’t do well on television. I was especially depressed because this was something I always wanted to work on. But during production we noticed that a lot of high school and college students started to visit the studio and they were very avid viewers of the show and we found that very encouraging, so we started to give out production cels to them like candy. In retrospect, I think we could have been a bit more savvy about that.

How did Yamato climb out of this situation to become such a classic?

We had to wrap up production and the producer went broke as a result. But he thought that he might be able to recover his costs by selling Yamato to the American market, not as a 26-episode TV series, but a two-hour feature. By then there were a lot of Yamato fans all over Japan and they had fan clubs and fanzines, probably the first ones in Japan. The fans got wind that there was going to be a Yamato feature and they demanded to see it.

At first, Nishizaki thought that perhaps he could gather some fans and do a small convention to screen it. But he eventually saw there was going to be a lot of demand, so he started negotiations with a couple of theaters in Tokyo. The theaters were booked, and in the first two days 100,000 advance tickets were sold. That’s when the rest of society noticed there was something going on with this title called Yamato. The movie was going to be released on Saturday, so the fans started camping out in line on Friday night. This was also a first in Japan, and it was so rare it made the evening news.

That was the moment when I believe the anime boom in Japan first began. All of us on the production staff were so excited that we went to investigate these lines, and Nishizaki himself started shaking hands with everyone camping out in line.

Your next Yamato production was the feature film called Farewell to Yamato. This set many records and became one of the most famous anime films of all time. How it was different from the first Yamato?

In the early phase of production we had a lot of time, so we could put in a lot of effort. Toei Animation gave us their full support and we had access to many of their veteran animators, so that gave a lot of strength to the production value. We started almost immediately after the first Yamato movie, so we had about a year to make this. The producer was obsessed with meetings, so he would rework the script many, many times. Each time there was a script revision all of the animation had to go on hold, which was very typical of Nishizaki. With so many revisions we ran out of time, so about 70 percent of the film was made in the last two months.

There is a shot of the Andromeda landing that uses the same photography technique as Yamato‘s first launch. Did you have an easier time the second time around?

After the theatrical success of the first Yamato movie, the producer became a rich man, so he stopped complaining.

After Farewell premiered in movie theatres, Yamato 2 appeared on TV only two months later. When did you begin working on Yamato 2?

We were still panting for breath after the movie finished, and the next day we began working on Yamato 2. Counting backward, you know that the scripts would have to begin a few months earlier, but since I was so busy working on the movie, I had no time to go into the script meetings.

After Yamato 2, you moved on to some of your own projects. Why did you decide to leave at the peak of Yamato‘s popularity?

The biggest reason I left after was that Yamato was no longer a science-fiction story, it was turning into a war story. As an example of that, you see the robot Analyzer. In the latter productions he turns into just this robot that shows up to make reports, and loses character as a member of the crew. You can tell that Nishizaki wasn’t fond of Analyzer.

Leiji Matsumoto and I are the same age, and Producer Nishizaki is five years older than us. For someone of our generation, these five years are significant. Because Matsumoto and I were born post-WWII, we were born with concepts such as democracy ingrained into us. But because of these five years, Nishizaki was born as a boy of a war nation, so the concept of war is pretty much ingrained into him. We became more convinced of that as Yamato continued. We sort of suspected that he would start to deviate from the concept of science-fiction and go into “war mode” and when this was confirmed, neither of us wanted to have involvement in that kind of story any more.

Looking back at some of your hands-on work in the battle scenes, you seemed to be very good at destroying things.

I love destruction! I may have been the one who started the trend of lavish destruction in anime. Those who followed after me would be Ichiro Itano of Macross and Hideaki Anno [Evangelion], and these guys have also become directors. I think this is a tradition that should continue on.

What do you believe is the strongest influence Yamato had on other anime?

Looking at the design of the Yamato, animators complained that it was so complicated it was hard to animate. They kept complaining to Leiji Matsumoto, asking could he at least remove the third bridge from the ship. But you could say Yamato was the very first show in which mecha design started to become elaborate and very embellished.

This, of course, set a precedent that forced everyone to work harder from then on. Any regrets about that?

I don’t know if this is something I regret, but since the design of Yamato was so complicated, we wanted to have lots of stock footage ready. One good example of that was the scene where you see empty space, then you see a point. It starts to enlarge into Yamato, it pans across the screen and flies away and reduces back to a point. This scene took over 500 cels and it was done in a month by one animator. We used this footage all over the series. Looking back at this, the coloring was inconsistent and the design sometimes skews and you could tell that it was hand-made. Today this could be done so easily in a digital environment. Whether that’s good or bad I don’t know, but you can tell that times are very different.

What was your most valuable lesson from working on Yamato?

Yamato was the very first title in which I was involved from the conceptualization all the way to the end. Before that I just worked on whatever came to me. But by being involved in the startup of a show, I learned a lot about preproduction and how much fun it is to be involved in the whole thing, and that’s the way one should work. I also learned that science fiction could indeed be valid in Japanese animation. Yamato is the title that convinced me. Those are the best lessons I got from Yamato.

The End

Later in the day after this panel at Anime Weekend Atlanta, Mr. Ishiguro was interviewed again for the Anime World Order podcast. That interview can be heard here.

Read our tribute to Mr. Ishiguro and find more interviews with him here.

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