Yamatour 2014: Three men and a ship

By Tim Eldred

Prologue: over the water

Like the launch of Skylab, the birth of Twitter, and Colbert taking over for Letterman, I’m sure we all remember where we were when we first heard there would be a new Yamato 2199 movie in 2014.

I was in an Atlanta hotel room on a Sunday morning in October. I was there for Anime Weekend Atlanta 2013, and had successfully downloaded 2199 episodes 25 and 26 thanks to a friend in Japan. 26 had just been broadcast there a few hours earlier. Thanks to him, the first US audience would get to see them on the same calendar day at my annual “What’s up with Yamato” panel. (25 included some new footage not in the theatrical version, which made it even more of a coup.)

Two months earlier, I’d gone to Tokyo for Yamatour 2013 to see Chapter 7 on the big screen, and got to interview Nobuyoshi Habara (director of episodes 9 & 19) for the second time. He told me something cryptic when we met: there was a surprise in store for everyone at the end of the last episode. But he wouldn’t tell me what it was.

That Sunday morning, the answer was at my fingertips. I opened up the video file and zipped right to the end credits to see a 15-second add-on with two text captions. I quickly reconstructed that text and ran it through Google translate to see these words: “Completely new feature film – coming in 2014.”

As I posted this news on the CDNA Facebook page, my inner speculatron kicked into high gear. Series Director Yutaka Izubuchi had said in a couple of interviews that if he were to do a spinoff, he’d like to tackle the Battle of Mars and the arrival of Garmillas, but said the problem with a prequel was that Yamato wouldn’t be in it.

As an animation guy who has to think practically, I thought if they wanted to do a second series down the road, they ought to involve Gatlantis [The Comet Empire] in this movie so they could start designing stuff in advance. Using an interim project to absorb that cost and build up some assets would be a wise investment. After all, it’s what allowed Yamato 2 to launch so quickly after Farewell to Yamato in 1978. Therefore, I thought the smart move would be to make a side story about Garmillas vs. Gatlantis. But that had the same problem as a prequel: no Yamato.

Then the first piece of key art appeared. If you were paying attention then, you remember it: A shot of Yamato (guns and bridge) facing toward camera with a space backdrop. The ever-observant Daniel George pointed something out I missed: the backdrop was the Tarantula Nebula. From this angle, Yamato was leaving it behind. If he read that correctly, it meant the story would take place on the way home. The giveaway would be if the Wave-Motion Gun was plugged up, but it was cropped out of the image.

Then April came along. The title Hoshi Meguru Hakobune (Ark of the Stars) was announced, and Daniel’s theory was confirmed: Yamato would be on the way home. It would meet up with something mysterious and find a strange planet, as depicted in the new key art. Shortly afterward the first teaser trailer dropped a bomb with this quote: “The enemy is…Gatlantis!” I don’t mind telling you, I felt like I just won something.

As I write these words (Japan-bound over the Pacific), Ark of the Stars is just under two days from its premiere. As soon as I read those words in the Atlanta hotel room, it was a foregone conclusion that I’d be in Tokyo for it. Once you see a Yamato movie on a big screen (which I talked myself into doing with Resurrection in 2009), it feels wrong not to be there for the next one. So I went again for the live-action movie in 2010. When I first heard about 2199 debuting in theaters, I was ready to make it a hat trick, but then I learned Chapter 1 would only be two episodes long, and stuck with my plan to fly in for Yamato Party 2012 instead.

One 2199 premiere after another went by through 2012 and 2013. I gritted my teeth and let them all pass. Sure, I’m a psycho fan, but flying to Japan every two or three months was too psycho even for me. And it would have created havoc at work; I’m a director at Marvel Animation Studio on Avengers Assemble, and those episodes have to go out every four weeks no matter what. Things worked out for me to see the finale in August 2013, and that’s where we loop around to what Mr. Habara told me.

Schedule-wise, the premiere of Ark of the Stars couldn’t have been better-planned. Avengers Assemble season 2 is winding down and season 3 is about a month from startup, and we’re all encouraged to use our vacation time during this break.

This is the sixth Yamatour, but it’s also my ninth voyage across the sea. The first was in August of 2007, when the yen was about 112 to the dollar. The US recession hit at the end of that year and put me farther on the wrong side of the exchange rate for every subsequent trip, bottoming out at a brutal 73 yen to the dollar. But now that’s turned around as well. For the first time since ’07, we’re on the positive side again with a generous exchange of 116.

So, the time is there and the money is there. What’s the punch line? This is something I’ve noticed every trip. There’s always a punch line. Inevitably I will discover that if I’d slipped my travel dates by just one day in either direction I would have caught something else cool. This trip has two punch lines.

The first is Premium Night. This is a special event for members of the Yamato Crew Premium Fan Club, which includes me. It always happens the Friday night before the movie premiere. (Movies premiere on Saturdays there.) You get to see it early, get first access to the merch, and see a special guest on stage. With this trip, I thought I’d finally get a shot at Premium Night, so I chose Thursday as my arrival night. Thursday the 4th.

Months went by with no announcement, but it was just a matter of time. Then it finally broke in November: Premium Night! Thursday the 4th! Starting five minutes before my plane lands.

See? Punch line. Hilarious.

As for the second punch line, I’ll save it for the end for storytelling purposes.

Back on the positive side of the ledger, this Yamatour would be a three musketeers-type scenario. Daniel George was on the ground already (having gone there three weeks earlier) and we’d meet for the first time in person after countless e-mails and Facebook messages. We narrowly missed each other in 2013, but this time it was a lock.

Another prominent name in our geeky little circle is Luis Cotovio, who hails from Portugal. He and Daniel collaborate on the exhaustive 2199 episode commentaries, and we absolutely wanted him along so we could all finally look each other in the eye. To our mutual regret, schedules didn’t line up to make that happen. Next time, Luis. For sure.

Instead, the third member of the team was one Mr. Roger Sorensen. He and I go back about (gasp) thirty years, and when I started thinking about this trip I got a whim to invite him along. He’s been an anime fan for as long as I’ve known him and an SF model-builder even longer. He’s been working 2199 kits like a madman, and he’d never been to Japan before. It took him a couple days to decide, then he was 100% in.

His plane took off from Chicago around the same time mine took off from Los Angeles. One way or another, adventure lay ahead.

Arrival, December 4

The entry process was eventless all the way in to Shinjuku, which is where I set up base camp for proximity to the major JR train lines. Right next to Shinjuku is the neon warren of Kabuki-cho, tightly packed with pachinko casinos, grifters and pimps. This isn’t as bad as it sounds; the worst thing that’s ever happened to me here was that someone tried to talk me into a lurid deed. I just kept walking.

You could avoid such an encounter simply by skirting around the place to a different entry point (closest to the hotel), but it seems this is no longer foolproof. As I made the first walk from my hotel to the neighboring convenience store, a parka-clad lady hustler zeroed in to offer me a “Japanese garu fo sexu.” A flattering offer, sure, but even if I wasn’t jet-lagged, married, and closing in on 50, I couldn’t see it ending well.

Since I’d gotten in after 10pm there was no real shopping available, so convenience stores were the limit. Even so, I found a mini-carton of Yamato milk and an issue of Weekly Playboy that I knew contained a new 2199 article. I took it as a good omen.

Friday, December 5

My first surprise of the day came up quickly. Walking back to Shinjuku station for my first inspection tour, a massive Ark of the Stars promo display loomed into view at the plaza. I’d seen big promos in this spot before (a huge inflatable dragon from a video game, for example) but never a Yamato installation, unless you count the presence of Takuya Kimura (live action Kodai) looking down from a huge billboard. He’s been there since at least 2010, and is high enough to escape burial in a future apocalypse.

Roger Sorensen arrived on the train from Narita airport. His flight landed uncomfortably close to Thursday’s last train out, so he opted for an airport flophouse and an early ride the next morning. Turned out to be completely unnecessary, but it made the inbound flight much less worrisome. (I fretted the entire 11 hours flying in for the first 2012 Yamatour and have no desire to repeat that.)

After catching some breakfast at Café Renoir, our first stop was the lower lobby of the Shinjuku Piccadilly theater, where we were delighted to find the 1/100 Yamato model still in residence with “Santa Yuki” next to it. Lots of photos from Japan make things seem bigger than they are, but this goes the other way. The model is much beefier than I expected, and built just as well as it could be. I could easily have stuffed all my fingers into the Wave-Motion Gun if I wanted to ensure that I’d never be allowed near it again.

The Piccadilly is right on top of the best stores Shinjuku has to offer, but they were a disappointment in terms of new Yamato merch. The Ark of the Stars novelization was the only new thing in sight, and the 40th Anniversary Image Album CD was nowhere to be found. I took Roger on a long walk around Shinjuku station to help him get his bearings, and we found a Yodobashi store. If you’ve never been to one, imagine your local Best Buy with about six times the inventory and half the square footage. Even with multiple floors, it’s still claustrophobic. But they had a respectable music and video section and they had Image Album. It’s like they never heard the rest of the world is done with solid-state media.

Next we took a quick train ride over to Akihabara, where the giant Yamato mural went up at the Sofmap store November 21 when A Voyage to Remember arrived on video. When I was here for Resurrection in ’09 and the live action movie in ’10, I noticed a distressing pattern for movie promotion to vanish the moment a movie came out – an odd marketing choice if you want people to see it after opening day. Thinking this might also happen at Sofmap, I wanted to see it for myself in case its hours were numbered.

Then it was back to Shinjuku to collect the third member of our party, Mr. Daniel George.

He’d already been in-country for three weeks, jetting and training from city to city on a one-man crusade to drown himself in all things Japan. (Which he’ll describe perfectly well in his own travelogue.) After a few minutes of waiting, he emerged from the station and we shared our first in-person look since meeting each other on Facebook in 2012. He was a key participant in rebuilding of Cosmo DNA from its former identity, ingratiating himself to the point where I had to make him a member of the family. Stooped with the weight of his luggage, he looked like he’d absorbed a lifetime of travel, but was all smiles.

With everyone present and checked in, we launched into the business of the afternoon and evening: rocketing down to Shibuya for shopping, dining, and the first movie of the week.

The shopping was at Shibuya’s Mandarake store, the first one I’d ever visited in Japan after we lost the one in California. (By the way, lots of people make the error of pronouncing it “Mandrake.” I assure you, it is Mon-da-ra-kay.) Every Mandarake has its own personal charm, but this one is also a physical experience; you have to descend several flights of stairs underground where a cavern of geeky delights is waiting for you. And they always have something you never heard of.

At Mandarake: a vintage vinyl Kodai figure looks like he’s had just about enough of sitting in this case with these losers.

After dining at a particularly smokey Café Miyama (restaurant tip: don’t make your upper level the non-smoking section) we ambled over to Shibuya’s Cine Palace to take in a big screen presentation of A Voyage to Remember. It was the only local screening left in the film’s secondary run and the only showing of the day, at 8pm. I knew this was going to be trouble, but there were no other options.

Why trouble? Because I never get any meaningful sleep my first night here. It was the same for Roger. We were both wired-up and our body clocks weren’t tuned yet. Add to this a whole day of walking for two guys accustomed to sitting at computers, and no movie is going to keep them awake. We made a deal to keep an eye on each other and work the elbows whenever we saw a head droop. I made it about a half-hour in before things got patchy. Roger didn’t get that far. Having something physical to do (elbow jabbing) actually helped keep me alert, but gravity had a grip on my eyelids and wasn’t letting go.

Having already acquired and watched the Blu-ray (thanks to the mighty Gwyn Campbell), I already knew what I’d be seeing, but that’s not the point. Big-screen Yamato is a different experience, especially with the full 5.1ch sound that I’m not yet equipped for at home. I wasn’t going to miss any story by blacking out, but I still struggled to stay vertical. Finally, somewhere around the battle on Garmillas, WHAMP! Roger got in a good jab and made sure I wouldn’t miss the end. Good thing, because a nice surprise waiting there was the trailer for Ark of the Stars, which we’d be back to watch in just 12 hours.

Daniel generously sprung for a cab to get us back to the hotel. He made the true score of the day, finding a box set of the original Series 1 silver books at Mandarake for the amazing price of $40 US, and wasn’t keen on lugging them back to the train station. Sleep that night was still fitful, but better than the first one. Roger went straight through, for which I envied him.

See the December 5 photojournal here.

Ads for the original set (1978) and the new one (2014). Tradition matters.

Saturday, December 6

Part of the reason it was still tough for me to sleep all the way through our second night was anxiety about this morning. This was premiere day for Ark of the Stars. Seeing it wasn’t a problem, since we’d all bought advance tickets and our seats were secure. The problem was opening day at Shinjuku Piccadilly.

Under “normal” circumstances, we would have seen the film there. Day 1, show 1. That’s the Yamatour tradition. But this time, show 1 at the Piccadilly was an earlier-than-usual event with a stage greeting from the prime voice actresses. It took extra steps to get those tickets, so we opted out. Instead, our focus was the Piccadilly’s top-notch gift shop and that mountain of sweet, sweet merch. It’s no secret that this is THE place to hit if you want a shot at that mountain.

There was a lot to look for, but the top priority by far was the 2199 Complete Works book set. If you need a refresher on this, here you go: in 1978, Office Academy revolutionized anime publishing with the Yamato Series 1 “silver set,” the one Daniel found the night before (ad shown above left). It was revolutionary at the time, and reset the standard for the entire anime publishing world. 2199 Complete Works is a “silver set” for Yamato 2199, a direct descendent of the original. We’d heard it would be available from only two sources: online and in theaters (for 21990 yen) and we were each determined to score a copy.

The questions that kept me wired on the second night were: Did I read that info correctly? Should I have played it safe and ordered online? Would there be a run on them by other fans? Would there even be enough left for the three of us? What if there were only two copies by the time we got through the line? Or one? Would it end in mortal combat and empty-handed deportation? (It’s not lost on me that these are patently first-world problems, but I promise it’s all leading up to a punch line.)

The Shinjuku Piccadilly would open at 8am, so we decided to be in line by 7. We got there to find two lines completely filling the sidewalk in front of the building. I worked out that one was for the lower lobby and the other was for the upper. In the lower lobby, they were unboxing the exclusive model kits: a 1/72 “metal-coating” Cosmo Zero and an interesting double-pack of the Mecha Collection mini-kits for Yamato and Lambea in “cosmo clear” colors. (A commemorative Ark set bound to drive collectors mad for years to come.) But we weren’t there for models, so we jumped into the upper lobby line. And there were a lot of people ahead of us.

By the time we got upstairs, the line into the gift shop practically filled the room. It took about 40 minutes to get into the shop itself, during which none of our 2199 Complete Works questions were answered. We didn’t see anyone walking out with a set. But as we edged closer to the threshold, signs started to appear. The books were in the room! But would there be enough?

I filled a basket with trinkets from the shelves, finally reached the cashier, and spoke the words I’d been imagining for months: “Do you have 2199 Complete Works?” A nod and a smile. Success. Mounds of them were stacked up next to the counter, each one wrapped in a black tote bag with custom printing on it. This was a real mercy, because those suckers are HEAVY. Without handles, you’d be fumbling with them all the way home. (And besides, all the other stuff – program books, clear files, etc. – would fill the bag in your other hand.)

Loaded to maximum, flush with victory, Daniel, Roger and I crept out of the Piccadilly as others sat down for show 1. We had an hour to get to our own show 1. But first, breakfast. Of sorts. Japan has Burger King, and they have the “Kuro Burger.” Kuro means “black,” and it’s definitely that – meat and bun artificially colored with bamboo charcoal and sauce colored with squid ink. Roger decided a few days earlier that he would try one. In the end, he found it to be only slightly tangier than the regular version. So now nobody else has to check.

After “breakfast” (it was a stretch even to call it a meal) we hoofed it back to the plaza outside Shinjuku station for another nice surprise: the 5 meter Yamato model from Resurrection had magically been added to the big outdoor ad, along with some display panels. Always a pleasure to see you, big guy. Even if it was for one day only.

Meeting up with my friend and occasional translator Tsuneo Tateno, we hopped the train back down to Shibuya and returned to Cine Palace to meet another friend, Hiroshi Ban (who contributes prolifically to the Cosmo DNA Facebook community). As everyone got acquainted in the lobby, I started digging into my day bag for the Ark tickets we’d bought last night. And kept digging. And kept digging. I knew I put the damn things in there the night before. They were the most important item in the Saturday packout. But they kept refusing to turn up.

I appealed to Tsuneo for help explaining this to the theater staff – the exact same staff who sold them to me the night before. How they didn’t remember is a mystery, since we were the only gaijin in the room. I had to explain through Tsuneo that I mistakenly left our tickets at the hotel, but we had reserved specific seats. The seats were right there on the chart. Since then, maybe ten other people had bought tickets. Still, a worried phone call was placed and the manager said to hold us back until all the other reserved seats were claimed. Then my hand fell into my day bag…and there they were after all. Little bastards.

The movie was fantastic, worth every minute of the long wait since October 2013. It’s a whole new episode of 2199 with an original story informed by vintage Yamato mythos. It handsomely rewards you for knowing things, which is always a great viewing experience. The new Gatlantis elements are the best part, though they stopped short of a full reveal of what we might see in a second series.

I was hoping we’d get a teaser at the end like the one that got this whole ball rolling. It didn’t have to be specific. “New story coming soon” would have done it. But nope. When Resurrection came out in 2009, we already knew the live-action movie was coming. When that arrived, rumors were already spreading that 2199 was on the way. Then the teaser for 2014. For the first time in five years, we don’t have a bridge to a future Yamato. To be honest, it feels a little lonely.

That said, Ark of the Stars is a generous consolation prize. It’s a bit mystifying that a limited-edition Blu-ray wasn’t sold in theaters this time. It was never a problem before now. But we know there will be one eventually. And a soundtrack, and probably some new model kits. That’s a bridge, too. One we should all be standing on right now.

We talked about it over lunch with Tsuneo and Hiroshi clearing up some plot points for us. Hiroshi said his goodbyes and we raced off across town for the next big event of the day, an exhibition of original art by the great Yoshiyuki Takani.

That’s a name every anime fan really should know. If you’re even a casual consumer of anime art, you’ve probably seen his model kit boxes and other paintings. He’s been a master of this particular craft since the 70s with countless renderings of tanks, planes, battleships, and other vehicles. His work is so filled with texture and craftsmanship that you want to buy the model kit just so you can have the box, too.

Takani was already famous for his non-fiction works when he brought the same skills to the world of anime. His “first strike” was box art for Xabungle models in the early 80s, kicking off a fruitful career making anime mecha look as real as it could possibly be outside of live-action filmmaking. He is perhaps most remembered for his prodigious Macross paintings, which graced the first generation models and boosted an already-eye-catching product line into the stratosphere. He also a nutural choice for box art on Bandai’s 1/350 Yamato. (Boy, would I have loved to see that painting!)

Read more about Takani’s impact in our interview with one of his successors, Hidetaka Tenjin, here.

Mr. Takani was present at the exhibition, which took place at the Yayoi Art Museum in Ueno, Tokyo. He dutifully autographed piece after piece for those in line, from art books to toy and model boxes, while the rest of us wandered from case to case with a trail of slobber in our wake. We all felt lucky to be there.

Having met up with the local Macross World gang (Gwyn Campbell, Renato Rivera Rusca, and Adrian Lozano) at the exhibit, we hit the sidewalks to Akihabara for dinner at Gundam Café. This anime-themed restaurant had been impossible to get into the first year or so after it opened, but now it was a breeze. Their menu is loaded with food items creatively formed into Gundam-like shapes. A DVD collection of opening and end titles played continuously in the café as we nattered on in full geeky bliss about Yamato, Gundam, Macross, Patlabor, and other things that make life worth holding onto.

Side note: Gundam Cafe has a spinoff hamburger joint in Tokyo station called McDaniels. Zeta Gundam fans, take note.

And by the way, the Sofmap display was still up and fully lit. I had nothing to worry about. It would stay up all week.

There had been the possibility of taking in an evening show of Ark at the Shinjuku Piccadilly, but we had to admit that jet lag would cast its voodoo over our tired heads again. Better to stick with plan A and grab a matinee later on. There were still several opportunities ahead.

Since we were in Akihabara, and the glorious old Radio Kaikan building had been fully rebuilt, I wanted to take a peek inside before leaving. Let me back up and explain that I had the pleasure of shopping at the original version during my first two trips (’07 and ’08) and understood its charm immediately. Well past its prime, it seemed like a place I would have haunted as a kid; obscure hobby shops, cramped toy stores, hodgepodge book dealers, rickety shelving, dusty stairwells, creaky floors, the works. The shabbier it got, the more you’d love it. You’d come back as an adult and be filled with nostagia. On the other hand, it was probably a miserable place to work. So it had to go.

The shiny new Radio Kaikan is already full of stores, and K Books was the one that caught my eye first. There were new books and magazines I still hadn’t found, and this was a good place to check.

And now the punch line of the day.

They were selling Yamato 2199 Complete Works. Right there for the taking. We rolled on back to Shinjuku in kind of a stupor. Rather than return to the hotel with Dan and Rog, I revisited the first bookstore we’d entered the day before (Forest). They were also selling Yamato 2199 Complete Works. Right there for the taking.

But what the heck, life is about collecting stories.

See the December 6 photojournal here.

Sunday, December 7

Osaka is widely known as Japan’s number two city, but it is by no means second best. I’ve enjoyed it more each time I’ve visited (always for too short a time, it seems), enough to reach the conclusion that if I had to choose to live in either Tokyo or Osaka, the big O would get the nod. Less crowded, slower paced, easy to navigate, and some of the best-tasting food in the world. And this time I got to see it from a different vantage point.

Leaving Daniel in Tokyo to take a vacation from his vacation, Roger and I rode a morning bullet train across the countryside on a sparkling morning that gave us razor-sharp views of a white-topped Mount Fuji and a stretch of snowy farmland. (It was the only snow we saw all week, since it never got below freezing elsewhere.) We arrived at Shin-Osaka station a bit after 11am to meet a new friend.

Shiba Hirohara connected with me this year through this very website. As a collector/restorer of 1980s Laser Disc games, his hunt for the Final Yamato LD game led him to the Cosmo DNA overview (see it here), which was made possible by Yamato Party chairman Masaru Enomoto. I’d met Masaru in 2009 and he generously fulfilled my request for a DVD copy of the game footage. I was able to turn this around and provide it to Shiba, which he used to reconstruct a playable PC version. This was a bigger deal to him than I thought, since he sent several gifts in return and offered to guide me around Osaka on my next visit.

On all other occasions in Japan, palling around with a local meant a day of train-hopping. I expected the same with Shiba. So you can imagine the look on my face (and Roger’s) when he lead us out of the station to his waiting Mercedes Benz. His wife had “released” him for the day and he was intent on driving us everywhere we wanted to go.

Watching Osaka roll by from the road couldn’t be more different from watching it from the subways, for self-evident reasons. I got the sense that Shiba loves to floor it as often as possible, especially around the curves. Car ownership is uncommon in the cities, owing to the extravagant costs. The result is less crowded expressways – and more room for Shiba to put the pedal down.

His English isn’t 100%, but we had no trouble putting the pieces together when he introduced himself as an ophthalmologist with his own office and staff. And a second Mercedes Benz for his wife. (He’s also a father of two.) We were in the presence of a rare individual indeed.

In his younger days, Shiba regularly visited Osaka’s Mandarake stores, and he was happy to do so again with us. There are two of them, both of which produced some terrific finds. Roger made his big score with a beautifully-crafted 1/4000 Macross garage kit. It later flew to the top of his list when I asked what his standout moment was. In fact, this was the standout day for both of us. I was stunned to spot the two Cosmo Fleet Special Garmillas carriers I couldn’t find in Tokyo. All three had come out a week earlier, but only Lambea was seen so far. Now Balgray and Schderg appeared before me, miraculously marked down from 3900 yen to 2500. Another reason to choose Osaka.

When not shopping, we took a stroll through Osaka Castle and had two of the best meals of the week. Shiba introduced us to Soba noodles at an old-school restaurant on the outskirts of town (near his multi-floor clinic, which we drove past), and I got to taste my favorite Okonomiyaki on Earth – for the fourth time – in the Umeda district. I’m told that these two meals are representative of Kansai-style cooking, which automatically makes me a Kansai guy.

Lastly, if you know where to look, Osaka also has some world-class characters. At one point, as Shiba trained a camera Roger and me, an American-style chopper thundered past, tall handlebars and all. The biker had our “coolest guy” award for a brief moment, but it was snatched away by another who had frankensteined the front of a hog onto the back of a gleaming white Cadillac. To my eternal regret, we didn’t catch either of them on camera. Just knowing that they exist will have to do.

See the December 7 photojournal here.

Continue to Part 2

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