Yamatour 2012, Continued

By Tim Eldred

Those of you who have been with us for a while might have assumed that since every recent Space Battleship Yamato movie opening warranted a special trip to Tokyo, the same would be true of the April premiere of Yamato 2199. And you better believe that the moment it was announced back in December of last year, that was my full intention. Prior to that, the format hadn’t been publicized. For all I knew, it was being planned as another feature film to join the line up of Resurrection and the live-action movie.

Acquired during my first half-hour on the ground: all the
newest magazines featuring
Yamato 2199 coverage.

But when it was subsequently announced that the 2199 movie was only 50 minutes long, probably without a big, multi-level promo campaign, even I had to question the sense of spending the money necessary to be there. And, in fact, Yamato Party 2012, the occasional one-day mini-con held by fans for fans had already been announced to happen a month later. I’d had a wonderful time at their 2009 event, met new friends, and collected a ton of cool goodies available nowhere else.

It would be regrettable to break the premiere streak (three for three as of January 2012), but it didn’t seem worth it to pass up the more unique things that would be found at the party. It seemed like there could be a slim chance of catching the 2199 movie at the tail end of its theatrical run. This didn’t turn out to be true, but it didn’t change my mind; I wanted to party like it was 2199.

Day 1: May 5

The day started early when I connected with friend-of-the-website Gwyn Campbell for breakfast, then the two of us hopped a train out to Wakoshi, a western suburb of Tokyo where Yamato Party 2012 was about to open its doors. It hadn’t changed much since the previous one in 2009, though all the children were now old enough not to need a dedicated play area. Instead, their space was given over to an enormous “flea market” of vintage Yamato merchandise in amounts I’d never seen before.

The day progressed essentially as it had in 2009 with occasional group events taking over the main room; quizzes, cosplay, a video presentation, an auction, and the end-of-day singalong. There wasn’t a presentation from the “home office” this time, as there had been with the first reveal of footage from Yamato Resurrection in ’09, but there was a new book that took us all by surprise.

Proud of Yamato is the more-than-apt title for this landscape-format hardcover, assembled in cooperation with the Japan office of Voyager Entertainment. It’s 112 pages of cels, backgrounds, and promotional art culled from the personal collection of Yoshinobu Nishizaki. It’s not a mass-market project, so it won’t be available through mainstream channels, but will at some point be offered through the Yamato Crew website. They don’t ship overseas, so this would be a good time to endear yourself to any Japanese friends you may have.

Between that and all the colorful doujinshi (fanzines; a small sampling shown above right) on offer, it made Gwyn and I much heavier on the ride back than the ride out.

See a photo gallery of Yamato Party 2012 here.

We parted for the day, and after a well-earned jet-lag nap and break for dinner, I decided to take a gamble on seeing Battleship, the big-scale action film that was still two weeks from release back in the states. I hadn’t quite shaken off all my jet lag, so I started drifting about 15 minutes into the movie, but even half-awake I could see every plot turn coming from a mile off. The one truly rewarding part was the deployment of an actual World War II battleship that was so Yamato-like in its presentation that I swear the anime was used as a storyboard. So don’t go into Battleship expecting great storytelling, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the arrival of its “title character.” It certainly woke me up.

By the way, this is probably a good point to mention that during the previous trip, Gwyn Campbell was kind enough to invite me on board his Macross World podcast for an episode in which we covered a lot of SF anime topics and personal history. It took a while to get edited and posted, but it can now be heard here. Enjoy!

Day 2: May 6

This was truly a day of action and adventure in which I teamed up with different friends at different times in different locals around Tokyo for a whirlwind tour of public events with the common theme of 1/1 scale wonders.

The first was actually a reunion of sorts; Anton Kholodov and I were lucky enough to get a glimpse of the famed 1/1 Mobile Suit Gundam back in February, after it had been built but before the grand opening of Diver City, the new mall it was guarding on Odaiba island in Tokyo Bay.

This time it was a different story; Gwyn and I threaded our way through crowds of people milling around Gundam‘s giant red feet and into Diver City itself, which was fully packed with families determined to get the most out of what remained of Golden Week. Within the mall was a dedicated exhibit called Gundam Front, an interactive tour of the prodigious Gundam universe.

After standing in line for close to an hour, we filed into a dome that looked somewhat like the inside of a planetarium. It darkened, and a multi-media “Gundam primer” swirled to life above our heads. After running through famous anime scenes dressed up with high-tech graphics, the 10-minute presentation shifted into all new material, a state-of-the-art CG movie that jumped from one pivotal Mobile Suit fight to another across the saga. At times, we were seeing robots at life size, looming and spinning over us in pitched battle. My only regret was that there’s no possible way to experience this presentation on a flat screen, so it’s definitely a one-timer.

We walked from the dome into a couple of display rooms with some more wonders; other large-scale models (two of which met the 1/1 scale criteria), animation art from the first Gundam TV series, artifacts from the 1/1 scale robot outside the mall, and of course swag. A mountain of swag. If there is any Gundam swag you don’t have yet, this is where you’d find it. We finished out with a turn through one huge room packed wall to wall with fully-built Gundam model kits from the very first to the very latest, literally hundreds of them lined up in glass cases. And after that the most welcome sight; two warm-blooded human beings dressed in Gundam uniforms, posing and smiling for what must have been several punishing hours. And, of course, in 1/1 scale.

See photos of Gundam stuff here.

From there we split up again and I rocketed across town from the Gundam universe to the world of Macross. This being the 30th anniversary of the franchise, some sort of public exhibition was required, and this one didn’t disappoint. May 6 happened to be the final day of the Macross 30th Anniversary celebration at Sunshine City Mall in Ikebukuro.

There I was reunited with Tsuneo Tateno, another friend of this website and occasional translator. According to him, Sunshine City is the biggest building in Japan, and I can believe it. If the exits weren’t mapped out for you, you’d have no choice but to live there.

Macross could be found deep inside. Gwyn, being the biggest Macross fan I knew, had already been there more than once and didn’t feel the need to repeat. It was similar in concept to Gundam Front, though not quite as spectacular since it was built into a smaller space. But that took nothing away from the centerpiece, a 1/1 scale VF-25 Valkyrie in drydock. It was just the front half, with legs supposedly to be added when the exhibition travels to a future stop later in the year.

After this came life-size statues of the three best-known Macross idol girls and lots of displays that covered history, characters, mecha development, and more. And after this, of course, a swag store and a cafe. One more bonus to all this was cosplay; fangirls came out intricately dressed as Sheryl and Ranka from Macross Frontier for one last chance to snap pics of themselves in the world of their dreams. In 1/1 scale.

See photos of Macross stuff here. See the exhibit on YouTube here.

One more stop remained, and it was going to be a doozy: GENGA, an art exhibit in Chiyoda (on the edge of Akihabara) dedicated to the works of manga master Katsuhiro Otomo. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, this one should: AKIRA.

Gwyn and I were homing in on it from separate directions when a freakish blast of rain and thunder struck seemingly from nowhere. We got undercover in time to stay dry, but hadn’t thought to bring umbrellas with us. We independently arrived at the same solution, to buy one on the spot (they were plentiful for 5 bucks or less in Akihabara; any place else in the world probably would have hit them with a 1000% markup on the spot). And it worked like a charm–as soon as we opened them up the rain stopped instantly. Hey, whatever it takes, right?

Since it was held in an actual art gallery, GENGA didn’t allow cameras in the main exhibit. Nevertheless, it treated us to what must be an extremely rare opportunity; seeing every single page of original art Otomo ever drew for his groundbreaking AKIRA manga. Every. Single. Page. They filled five rooms, all spaced out in multi-tiered glass cases that each held close to a thousand originals. If you really wanted to, you could have strained your eyes and neck to read every one, but it was the sheer volume of the work that was the real point here, the occupying of physical space as a symbol of its place in history.

Another room preceded this, filled wall to wall with paintings, animation art, and manga pages from other stages of Otomo’s career. And another room finished us off, this one returning to the 1/1 theme. In it were Kaneda’s jacket and his most famous red motorcycle–a working, customized model built by a fan and actually driven here to the installation. Guests were welcome to suit up and climb on for photos. Across the room was a damaged wall, hand-painted by Otomo himself, to match a set piece from his manga DOMU. Unlike in the gallery rooms, we were encouraged to snap away.

See photos here.

Read an article about the exhibit (with photos I couldn’t take) at Japantimes.co.jp here.

These certainly weren’t all of Japan’s 1/1 scale anime/manga attractions, but I daresay that at any other time you’d be hard-pressed to see so many in a single day.

Day 3: May 7

This was mainly a logistical day rather than a wild tour of wonderland, but there was time enough to catch the other Macross anniversary exhibit, this one devoted entirely to the art of the anime, at Parco department store in Shibuya. Like GENGA, it was another anti-camera zone (the nice lady behind the counter is mouthing those very words to me in the photo below right) so all I can tell you is that no finer art exhibit has ever been conceived by man, and you’ll just have to take my word for it.

The space was fairly small and concept designs were the mainstay, mostly from the original series but several from later ones as well. The two real eyecatchers were both Minmay-related; a row of extremely detailed cels showing a single dance move from Flashback 2012, and a photo album replicating the one from the original series’ end titles. As you flipped the pages to look at Minmay photos, the end title song played over your head. Brilliant. Unless you worked in the nearby Macross gift shop, where you had no choice but to hear that song on a loop for your entire shift.

Quick aside: while I was waiting to commence Yamato-related activities in the Minato district, a cab drove by from the Daiwa company. “Daiwa” in this case is the root word for Yamato. Do these things happen to other people, too?

In Minato, I met up with the lovely and buoyant Rina Lee, who would be accompanying me as my translator for the rest of this trip. She’s got a life story few can match, having learned her English in Japan, Texas, and England. That day, she became the first person ever to say the word “loo” in my presence while in Japan. We all remember our first.

We scouted the location of one of our upcoming interviews, an office within the Space Battleship Yamato business sphere, and I got the next pleasant surprise of the day, a personal private communion with one of the incredible Yamato “Precision Cut” models. I’ve gone on about these before; two were made for promotional exhibits in 1978 and 1980. After 1983 they went into storage to be brought out for special events.

The 1980 model (which included Be Forever-era markings) ended up in the possession of Leiji Matsumoto and was donated to the Battleship Yamato Museum in Kure, near Hiroshima, which was a stop on the first Yamatour exactly three years ago. Since then, it was moved to Yamato Gallery Zero, a Matsumoto-themed museum around the corner. There it resides still.

The 1978 model remained in the possession of Yoshinobu Nishizaki and made its triumphant return to the public eye in late 2009 to help promote Yamato Resurrection. It was seen twice by Anton Kholodov in the second Yamatour, but it evaded my personal gaze…until today.

It’s been refurbished in a few places with surfaces fully restored and broken parts replaced. It’s also sporting a pair of Cosmo Zeroes on the rear catapults, and every internal part is as bright and shiny as the day it was built. Truly a privilege to behold with no glass or rope line in the way. Don’t tell anyone, but my hand might have…brushed against it. Slightly.

See more photos here.

That’s all I need to say about Day 3. After seeing the model, everything else was just details.

Day 4: May 8

Today was all business, or at least as close as it gets to that during a typical Yamatour. Two interviews had been lined up, and Rina joined me in the morning along with another member of the family, Mr. Nobuyuki Sakurai. His name ought to be familiar to you by now, since he’s the guy who writes all those essays I’ve been translating from Dengeki Hobby magazine. He’s also a badass modeler, and showed me photos of a 2199-era Gamilas battleship he custom-built for the new issue. (See them for yourself here.)

In his spare time, Sakurai freelances for the Japanese office of Voyager Entertainment, and today he was along to do exactly what we were doing. In his case, however, he was collecting content for the slick new Ship’s Log magazine for the Yamato Crew premium fan club members. Issue no. 0 was published a few days before I arrived, and take my word for it; the thing is gorgeous.

Unfortunately for non-Premium members, the publisher requested that I not show the interior here. But it’s got a nice cover!

Our first interview was with anime director Nobuyoshi Habara, who worked on both Yamato Resurrection and the Resurrection Director’s Cut. I previously saw him introduce the DC on stage back in January, and now we were face to face. In the intervening time, he became an episode director for Yamato 2199, and was currently working on Episode 9. To my surprise, he speaks a little English and recognized my home city in the LA zone from my business card; turns out he lived there for a few months in 1995 when he worked on some TV projects for 4 Kids Entertainment.

Friendly and instantly likeable, Habara-san embodies what we’ve been hearing about the key staff members of 2199; he loves Yamato passionately and couldn’t be happier that he’s got the chance to instill that passion in a new generation. He’s also one of those guys who smiles with his entire face, so you can’t help wanting to make him laugh.

We talked for a little over an hour and he didn’t lose an ounce of enthusiasm. In fact, his answer to my last question was the most exuberant of all. When I asked where he’d like Yamato to go after 2199, he didn’t hesitate for a second: “COMET EMPIRE!”

Read the interview here.

Habara-san stayed with us for a late lunch and then headed back to Xebec Studio in the Kokubunji ward to start his working day. Yes, on 2199 they start in the afternoon and work all night. It probably took decades for this pattern to evolve; everyone in the anime biz worked late anyway, so after a while they all just skipped the day shift. There had been talk of us getting a studio visit the next day, and before we parted Habara said he’d love to see us there. Alas, it was not to be–the staff is far too slammed these days to deal with drop-ins.

Our day plan had a three-hour gap between two scheduled interviews, but since Habara had wanted to hang out with us a while, the time flew by. We hopped a train to Saitama, about a half-hour to the north, and chatted on the way. Sakurai’s career is quite unheard of in the west, since we don’t have mainstream hobby magazines to showcase plastic models as if they were the sexiest objects on the planet. He builds museum-quality kits every month for photospreads in Dengeki, modifying and upgrading them to an insane degree of precision. I admitted to never getting past standard plastic model building and stockpiling far more of the things than I’ll probably ever finish. Sakarai said he’s got the same problem, but he’s more than happy to build models in his spare time when he’s not building models to pay his bills. Now that’s dedication.

Our destination was a branch of Royal Host, what they call a “family style restaurant” in Japan. They’re identical in every way to kitschy American diners, but about 25% smaller. About half the food on the menu is native Japanese, and the rest has a counterpart at your local Denny’s.

Here we met interviewee #2: Yamato 2199‘s character designer, Nobuteru Yuuki. The few friends I’d told about this in advance were insanely jealous of this fact, and Yuuki laughed when I mentioned it to him. He seems quite unaccustomed to fame, and the idea that he’s built an army of fans on the other side of the globe seems beyond his comprehension.

Over the next hour we talked all about his current responsibilities, which have gone beyond simple character design to include correction and cleanup of key animation art. With an enormous volume of drawings to pump out over too short a time, they can’t all be perfect, so it’s Yuuki’s job to step in and fix that as much as possible. And who better than the guy who set the standard in the first place?

I was interested in getting to the bottom of the new Dessler design, to find out if it truly was based on Yamatour alumnus Anton Kholodov. When I asked about Dessler’s design origin, Yuuki smiled knowingly and said there was a “rumor” about the design being based on a Russian guy, but it was just a coincidence. He stuck to his story, even when I recounted the details of my discovery.

He also revealed quite a lot about the new Gamilas characters we’ll be seeing later in the series, probably far more than he should have and definitely more than I’m going to reveal here. Suffice it to say that there will be a point when this Yamato story will only tangentially resemble the original and gain its own distinct identity. This point was made more than once during our interview, that it’s a Yamato intended for a new audience and longtime fans must check preconceived notions at the door.

Yuuki’s obvious devotion to the project was just as intense and genuine as Habara’s, as you can see in our interview here.

With the work day over, Rina, Sakurai and I went our separate ways after trying in vain to find a bar in Saitama to toast our successful outing. I blazed a trail back to the Shinjuku Picadilly theater and bought a ticket for a movie that happened to open the day I arrived. It’s name was Uchuu Kyodai [Space Brothers] and the trailer looked like something made with me in mind; two Japanese brothers grow up dreaming of being astronauts; one of them makes it and joins a NASA/JAXA moon mission in 2025 while the other spins his wheels helplessly on Earth.

It’s based on a popular manga and TV anime (which I hadn’t seen yet) but the film itself was a bit of a letdown. The emotional theme seems well-realized, but two other factors sort of killed it for me. First, its numerous bilingual scenes featured horribly amateurish performances from the English-speaking actors (Buzz Aldrin chief among them) and second, all the scenes on the Moon surface were in dire need of more research. Even half-awake as I was, I would have made a better science advisor than whoever they actually hired.

If you’re a space geek like me, you probably won’t be able to resist seeing Space Brothers, but the story is more likely to impress you than the packaging.

Murukawa-san is camera-shy, but
he let us photograph his drawing hand.

Day 5: May 9

Rina and I reassembled in the morning to conduct our third and final interview of the trip, this time with Michio Murakawa, the manga master who is drawing the official adaptation of Yamato 2199 for New Type Ace magazine. Like all the others, he seems born to the role. His passion for the original is second to none and he beams with pride when he describes this as the peak of his career.

As much as I enjoyed the interviews of the previous day, this one was something special. I’ve got a lot in common with Habara-san since I’m also an animation director by trade (currently at Marvel Studio), but my comic book career got a much earlier start, so my kinship with Murakawa-san has deeper roots. It also helps that he and I are the only people in the world officially drawing Yamato comics right now. Mine is The Bolar Wars Extended, perhaps you’ve heard of it. So when thinking about who I wanted to meet on this trip, this interview was a no-brainer.

It seemed like I asked all the right questions, because his answers were thorough and thoughtful. He’d also brought with him a file book with some original art in it; not finished pages, but the miniature layouts that preceded them. They are extremely intricate and complete, almost as if they’d been reduced down from the end product. These get enlarged and redrawn from top to bottom. Personally, I only use this “thumbnail” stage for blocking out compositions and I leave the detail for later since layouts will never be seen by anyone. But we all have our preferred methods.

After the interview, Murakawa gave me the best surprise of the entire week, and one that will live as a top-10 Japan moment forever; he revealed that he gave my name to a character in the manga. I’d completely missed it, but at the beginning of the second chapter a dignitary from the UN calls in to Cosmo Navy HQ from the other side of the world. She’s an older woman named Eldred-san. No joke.

Art by Michio Murakawa, copyright Kadokawa Publishing

I’d first met Murakawa three years earlier at Yamato Party 2009, but certainly didn’t think I’d made that big an impression on him. So when I asked how this came to be, he explained that it was suggested by mecha designer Junichiro Tamamori, who I interviewed by email for our February 1 update. In a subsequent conversation, “Tama” told Murakawa about this crazy fan in the States and this was the result. This character has only a brief appearance in the anime and goes nameless, but at least I can say that my great-great-great granddaughter made it into the manga.

Read the interview here.

Rina and I bid our goodbyes to Murakawa and Sakurai, then traveled one stop on the closest subway to have lunch at Cafe Crew, the Yamato-themed restaurant I’d visited with others during the last trip. Alas, it is no longer Yamato-themed. That turned out to be a temporary arrangement, which reached its end point just a week earlier. All the art and display models had been cleared out on May 1 along with the Yamato-themed menu. This explained why they didn’t go all-out with the decor. The food was still excellent, though, and made a terrific parting meal for Rina and I.

I ought to mention that prior to this week, she didn’t know much about Space Battleship Yamato at all. She’s watched anime (she’s a Lupin III fan and even has her own favorite Fujiko) and aspires to become a narrator for the World Heritage Treaty’s TV show. She’s also interested in anime voice acting, but her very first Yamato was episodes 1 and 2 of 2199. After learning about its history and hearing so much about it in such a short time, she’s hooked. She’s also making herself a sort of field tester, intent on seeing all of 2199 before going back to the original. Doubtless we’ll all be hearing from her again in the future. For now, I feel like I’ve got a daughter in Japan to match the one back home. I hope they get to meet someday, since they both dig purple shoes.

With all the week’s “work” behind me, I wandered happily around in Nakano Broadway mall, that famed destination for all the world’s Otaku. I’ve come to think of it as a horcrux; I store a piece of my soul here and always feel at home. All remaining items were checked off my shopping list (except for one which wouldn’t be available until the next morning) and set course for my last remaining rendezvous.

Left: the entrance to the greatest mall on Earth.
Space Battleship Yamato canned bread, available at Anime World Star (inside the greatest mall on Earth).

After holding it in as long as possible, the clouds above Shinjuku finally released a downpour and rendered the place full Blade Runner. Here I found myself umbrella-to-umbrella with Ryusuke Hikawa, anime fandom’s big brother. As revealed in this year’s previous Yamatour, I’d sat down with him for a three-hour interview. It’s still awaiting translation, so you haven’t missed it. In the time since then, we’d been corresponding steadily–his English is quite good–and he agreed to meet again for dinner on my last night.

It’s not every day you get to sit down and break breaded pork (tonkatsu) with someone who unknowingly played a pivotal role in your life, not to mention the lives of all your geeky friends. But with no shortage of common topics, we had plenty to talk about. He’s as busy as you can imagine with a non-stop string of projects with famous people. Who else could say that they’d spent the week helping to curate art exhibits with the likes of Hideaki Anno and Yasuhiko Yoshikazu? Not you or I, that’s for sure.

His latest Yamato project is something along similar lines; he’s helping to assemble features for the upcoming Series 1 Blu-ray box set (coming in Japan this summer), which requires him to spend days on end digging out everything he rescued from the Academy studio back in 1974/75. It came to about ten file boxes, with literally hundreds of documents related to each individual episode. It all had to be definitively organized and prepared for scanning, which sounds to me like a thoroughly satisfying use of one’s time.

Hikawa-san concluded the evening by handing over a truly generous gift, a copy of the first 2199 Blu-ray, the coveted theater-only version that had sold out in a week. Is that classy, or what?

Day 6: May 10

Last day! Once again, the lightning round was upon me! With precious few hours remaining, I got my paws around the final item left on my list: issue 9 of New Type Ace. It had just arrived at newsstands that morning and featured chapter 3 of Michio Murakawa’s 2199 manga. It was a real pleasure to get it hot off the press at Kinokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku (for actual cover price), rather than Kinokuniya’s Los Angeles branch the next day (an air-mail copy with an insane markup). What’s that you ask? Yes, I did spend hundreds on a plane ticket to make this possible. What’s your point?

A few more errands later (including a final half-hour at my Nakano horcrux) and I landed in my seat on the Narita Express train just 15 minutes before the rain resumed with a vengeance. Had I opted for the next train out, both I and my haul would have left Tokyo drenched. Can’t complain about an early departure in this case.

The end of every Yamatour is also a beginning. The beginning of a lot of work, for one thing; all the interviews have to be transcribed and double-checked for a future update. All the stuff I gathered over the week has to be studied, organized, and added to the archive. And then there’s always hell to pay for taking a week off from the work that actually pays the bills; TV cartoons don’t storyboard themselves, after all.

There’s also a question that comes up more frequently in conversation as the week draws to a close: “when are you coming back?” It would, of course, be awesome to fly in for every upcoming 2199 movie premiere, but that’s not really compatible with paying a mortgage. So the story I settled on was that I would return for the last movie, which is estimated to be a year or so in the future. Let’s see if I can resist the temptation for that long. Either way, there’s going to be much more to talk about in the meantime than any of us can predict.

The End

(Partially written over the Pacific Ocean, Yes, THAT Pacific Ocean.)

Bonus Shots

Vintage swag on sale at Yamato Party 2012. It would probably be heartless of me to tell you how cheap it was, so I won’t.

The next big things coming to the Shinjuku Picadilly (as of early May, 2012).

Above and below: my hotel in Kabuki-cho was surrounded by pachinko parlors dominated by
two of anime’s heaviest hitters:
Fist of the North Star and Lupin III. So I felt right at home.

At left: Takuya Kimura (our live-action Kodai) was spotted again, this time shilling something-or-other for a men’s spa
with a name that would never fly in down-home America: Dandy House. (Website here, if you really want to see it.)
At right: a store in Nakano that should be reassuring to everyone.

At left: even the little card reader at the Shinjuku branch of Citibank was sad to see me go. At right: airport sushi is my traditional farewell-to-Japan meal at Narita. It might not sound appetizing, but it’s way better than no sushi at all.

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