Special Feature I
A man who saw heaven and hell: Yoshinobu Nishizaki
by Masashi Nishizawa
A born romanticist
August 5th, 1977, Tokyo: the Tokyu Bunka Theater in Shibuya was wrapped in a strange heat on that dark morning. From the day before, and the night before that, it had become surrounded by a wall of junior high students.
There weren’t enough people working in the theater to keep these boys organized, so officers had to be dispatched from the nearby Shibuya Police Department. This was the unexpected sight revealed by a survey of the landscape around the movie Space Battleship Yamato.
This writer didn’t even know about a movie named Space Battleship Yamato until this time, and I think it was probably similar for the majority of journalists and critics.
“What’s going on at the theater in Shibuya?”
It was a little past 10am that day when the society of roving reporters and their friends rushed over. I made some phone calls to learn for the first time what those boys were heated up about. I remember being incredulous about it. The idea of kids lining up overnight to watch an anime was impossible in those days.
However, this was definitely the reality. The movie called Yamato, which had not yet opened, had obviously drawn a lot of boys to the theater. That afternoon, I went over to the Tokyu Bunka to confirm it with my own eyes. That was also extremely unusual for this writer.
In fact, Space Battleship Yamato wasn’t a big hit because of any actor in those days. Although it was called a movie, it was simply a rehash from TV. The series had been broadcast from October 1974 to March ’75, and I hadn’t heard the story that spread out from there.
At the time, Toho and Toei ran anime in the spring and summer under the name “Manga Matsuri” [Festival], and had lost public trust through fraudulent action such as extracting parts of TV shows for film screenings. With the exception of [Osamu Tezuka’s studio] Mushi Pro, it was hardly possible to make big bucks on anime. So this “fever” around Yamato was called an “incident.”
In this way, a single showing at the Tokyu theater opened the lid on the Yamato boom, and began a mobilization to expand it nationwide through the Toei chain. As autumn winds began to blow, the abacus was flicked to reveal distribution income somewhere between 930 million and 2.1 billion yen.
The existence of Producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki had been known since earlier days in the world of show business and anime, but Yamato in general was close to being completely unknown. Along with his hit movie, his name would be thrust into the limelight as a new star.
Nishizaki was born in Tokyo in 1934. His father Akira Nishizaki was a businessman graduate of the University of Tokyo’s law school who was renowned as a “rehabilitator” of slumping businesses, and had successive jobs at Nippon Soda Co., the Imperial Mining Development, Nitoku Metals, and others.
His grandfather was a pharmacist, his grandfather on his mother’s side was an admiral, and the founders of the family, Ryu and Midori Nishizaki, had taken in his father’s younger sister, giving them a respectable family name.
This man had stepped outside the limits of common sense in every meaning, and lacked the ability to get on the path to become a member of the elite. While attending the prestigious Musashi middle school and high school, he rebelled against the will of his parents and entered the Nippon University Drama Department.
According to Nishizaki, because he “started on a different path in life in elementary school”, there was no way for him to even imagine what fate had in store for him.
In his sixth year of elementary school (Toyoshima Normal School) it was expected that as a member of a distinguished family he would be accepted at the Kaisei private school. Kaisei, Azabu, and Musashi are considered the “big three” in Tokyo, and Kaisei was on top in those days. However, he spectacularly failed the test. Nishizaki was burning with anger in his opposition to his father, and tried to run away from home with only 100 yen in his pocket.
At that time, Tokyo was a burned-out post-war ruin. It is said that he lived under guard for four days, polishing shoes.
As a matter of course, he tested for the University of Tokyo while in high school. Inwardly, he thought, “I’ll be a doctor or a scientist in the future,” but he didn’t know if that was his true intention. In any case, he was on the road to University of Tokyo whether he liked it or not, which could be considered the fate of the eldest son of the Nishizaki family.
As expected, he failed. But it’s doubtful that he took this seriously. He’d already received a certificate in literature, which his parents didn’t know about. He accepted an offer from the Bungakuza theatrical company “because I saw Haruko Sugimura in A Streetcar Name Desire and it left me trembling,” he said.
He had another dramatic clash with his father over re-taking the university entrance exam, and was disowned at last. Nishizaki left home and lived in a bunkhouse in the mountains of Shinshu for three months.
“I knew drinking and fighting and gambling, and experienced the romance of itinerant life,” he said of this time, when he emerged as a natural-born romanticist. This lifestyle of Nishizaki’s wasn’t that of the petty bourgeoisie. If he lost his footing on such a large rail, it’s possible this was due to this man not being suited from the very start to the steadier footing of the smaller side rail that offered an ordinary life.
Nishizaki enrolled in Japan University and hardly attended school, attending only literature classes. Despite this, and the fact that he rarely saw a stage, he was learning to be an actor.
He had many walk-on roles. Little is known of his acting ability, but he was over six feet tall and was rather handsome. If it had gone smoothly, he might have become a full-fledged actor, but he had a car accident two years later. His car plummeted 70 meters into a valley in the Hakone mountains, and he was seriously injured. After being rescued, he was unconscious for three days but narrowly escaped death. His left arm was paralyzed and his acting dreams were cut off.
He resigned from the literature department at the university “in order to eat” and took more than twenty jobs, from bartender to club presenter to a businessman’s assistant. He experienced hardships an ordinary person couldn’t imagine. This became a great asset for him later, since he seemed to have practiced ancient lessons in finding trouble.
Through this experience, Nishizaki learned much about society and secretly explored his own way of living. He chose the world of entertainment, which he should have already abandoned.
When he set foot into the world of show business, he began by working as a producer on many musical shows. Working with “sound” and “music” would be a great help to him in his later career as a movie producer.
By building upon this foothold as a basis of support, Nishizaki eventually met Osamu Tezuka and planned to enter the world of anime. He dealt with several works, including Triton of the Sea and Wansa-kun, and established his own production base, Office Academy, at age 47. Two years later, the Space Battleship Yamato TV series was born.
By the way, where did the novel idea of a battleship flying in the sky come from? Nishizaki has talked about this before.
“I liked the sea, and when I could take time off I went boating. One day I was looked at the sky and daydreamed about the clouds floating there. I dreamed about driving a boat fast enough to go up into that sky.” This story occurred long before Star Wars appeared in theaters. Nishizaki’s image eventually transformed from a boat to a battleship. And when you talk about battleships in Japan, it has to be Yamato.
Whether it was the blood of his maternal grandfather Admiral Nishizaki that made him think about the Battleship Yamato is a part of his upbringing that we cannot know. In any case, the idea of taking the symbol of the Japanese Navy, which sank to the bottom of the sea, and flying it into the sky has the sufficient scent of a man named Nishizaki.
“My dreams wander across a field of dry grass” said the poet Matsuo Basho, expressing his true thoughts on his death bed, but as the battleship Yamato bustled around in Nishizaki’s head, the concept for the story expanded endlessly.
Message from the Producer
As you know, the Japanese film industry peaked in 1958 with 1.1 billion admissions [tickets sold] and then went into rapid decline. You could say that it dulled as it grew poor, but the minds of this nation’s movie producers have grown just as poor and dull. Moreover, most of all, those who were brimming with ideas have vanished, continuing this current pitiful state of affairs, with people lying low as though waiting for the storm to pass.
Such depth has appeared in two people, Nishizaki and Haruki Kadokawa. For better or worse, they have had a very similar life and philosophy of life.
To put this way of life into a famous saying, perhaps it would be “On the roads behind those the people travel, you’ll find a mountain of flowers.” [Which in English is best represented by the phrase “Buy when others sell, sell when others buy.”]
While they both walk on an elite course through a privileged environment, their rebellious heart and will made them daringly choose an unorthodox life. And they’ve grabbed an extraordinary amount of money and fame. It’s easy to call this way of life “tough,” but not everyone can live it.
Toei President Shigeru Okada, who is astounded by the fantastic idea of a battleship in the sky, said, “An idea like that could never have come from filmmakers like us. Amateurs are afraid to show off.” He admires the unique moviemaking style of Kadokawa, and Nishizaki is equally original.
However, you can’t consider something to be precious simply because it’s unusual. Novelty is only novel on a one-time basis.
Farewell to Yamato, the second installment, premiered in 1978, just one year after the first. The American SF epic Star Wars had just landed [in Japan], and it presented aspects of the Japan-US SF war.
Later, a monster movie called E.T. changed all the box office numbers, but in those days Star Wars and a new kind of monster movie called Jaws reset the records. They were hits that had stunned moviegoers in America.
Even with the landing of Star Wars, Yamato set another record when it came in seventh place in Japanese movie history with distribution income of 2.1 billion yen (as of February 1981). At the same time, it fundamentally changed the concept of anime and manga.
The origin of full-scale anime in the Japanese movie market was Walt Disney’s works from America. Domestically, Mushi Pro established itself with A Thousand and One Nights.
However, the image of “anime” was grudgingly inseparable from second-class movies meant for children. That impression was further strengthened after Toei and Toho brought TV works into theaters. Of course, it was extremely unconventional to release an anime as a standalone feature.
However, Yamato debuted as a single feature and shattered the notion that anime could not earn more than 4 or 5 million yen. Moreover, Japan was flooded with merchandising, orders rushed in for a set of deluxe books costing 30,000 yen, and record sales flourished.[Translator’s note: the deluxe books referenced here was Office Academy’s 1978 “silver set” of hardcover books on Series 1.]
As the producer, Nishizaki analyzed the cause of this big hit as follows: “Isn’t it because my message resonated? Also, the music. Music has been downplayed far too much in Japanese movies up to now.”
What is the “producer’s message” Nishizaki mentioned? Those who have seen the movie already know it is “love.” The hero of the story sacrifices his own life to protect Earth and the people he loves. Nishizaki calls out from behind the screen: “Can you die for the one you love?”
Putting in such a pretentious phrase will likely raise the eyebrows of the so-called progressive intellectuals, the pre-war, and the war generation. It is guaranteed to raise memories of the Kamikazes who went out to protect their homeland. An allergy to “war” has changed all sense of value. Along with the peace came examination hell, and economic growth also brought spiritual desolation. I think the message of “friendship” and “love” that Nishizaki delivered was avoided in the household and school education.
With only two works, Nishizaki had fame and fortune in his hand. Yamato became the spark of the movie industry and suddenly stirred up the anime boom.
With the second big hit, Nishizaki brought confusion to the heart. The title was Farewell. In other words, this title indicated, it was the end. Therefore, the hero of the story would be allowed to die.
However, when it became a hit with earnings of 1.1 billion yen, voices rose simultaneously from theater owners across the country, the distribution company, and the Yamato fan club for “another work.” It turned out not to be the end after all.
Nishizaki was troubled for several months by this happy miscalculation. If he made a third work, it would definitely be a hit. However, it was obvious that his conscience as a producer was torn apart.
In the end, Nishizaki decided to make a third film, but having the main character appear had become a total joke. It would be so. Because the hero Susumu Kodai had already died in the second work, there was no way to bring him back alive. And a Susumu Kodai II could appear only as a last resort.
In other words, the idea that the heroine, Yuki Mori, gives birth to a child of Kodai. As one might expect, Nishizaki was visibly depressed and frequently apologized at press conferences.
In this way, the third installment, Be Forever Yamato, premiered in August 1980 with a box office take of 2.5 billion yen and distribution earnings of 1.36 billion yen. In the previous year, the Yamato Festival (a re-release of the first two movies) opened in the summer and earned 520 million yen.[Translator’s note: for whatever reason, the writer of this article left out the important stretch of time between feature films, in which Yamato 2 revised the movie deaths and kicked off a long-term saga. It is true that the ending of Yamato 2 wasn’t decided from the start, but Nishizaki was not quite as anguished as described here.]
A turning point in life
Since August 1977, Space Battleship Yamato raised close to five billion yen in distribution income in only about three years. It equaled the record of Jaws, the shark movie that overwhelmed Japan seven years ago. Of course, not all of that income ends up in the pocket of the producer, but it becomes an enormous amount when combined with publishing, record albums, and other licensing income.
Surprisingly, however, a lot of money can disappear quickly, as in the case of an “incident” that Nishizaki soon encountered.
This incident came to light in July 1980, just before the premiere of the third film. Around this time, the newspapers were full of stories about the internal strife between a legal council for Soka Gakkai [a Buddhist movement] and an academic society. It was the so-called “Yamatomo” incident. The relationship between Nishizaki and this lawyer, Masatomo Yamasaki, was an old one, having started when he was a producer for Min-on (The People’s Music Association) and Yamasaki had assumed the role of Nishizaki’s legal council.[Translator’s note: “Yamatomo” is a contraction of Masatomo Yamasaki.]
Seahorse, a company managed by Yamasaki, was said to be the cause of the incident that alarmed the association. Nishizaki had financed it. There is evidence that subordinates of Nishizaki spent considerable funds to rebuild the deteriorating management of Seahorse, but only the parties concerned understand the truth.
When the problem became clear, it was noticed that two billion yen had disappeared from a safe, and it was said afterward that Nishizaki was forced to recover it.
In order to recover the money his subordinates spent without permission, Nishizaki poured in most of the profit made from the movie and related business, in addition to his own private funds. He underwent a complete reversal, falling from heaven and being thrown into the agony of hell.
After later regaining his brightness, Nishizaki said, “I couldn’t let it come to the surface just before the premiere. The suffering at that time was beyond description.”
It took until summer of last year  for Office Academy and related companies to finished processing all of the bills. Nishizaki was preparing to film Dirty Hero, an original Haruhiko Oyabu work he had burned with an obsession to make, but he had to abandon it in tears.
The script was written in both Japan and the US, and more than ten hours of film had been shot on a European location with more than 20 motorcycles – all of which had cost more than 300 million to shoot and had to be abandoned to raise funds. Rights to the film were handed over to the old rival, Kadokawa.[Translator’s note: based on a 1969 novel by Oyabu, Dirty Hero (alternate title: Riding High) was released as a movie by Kadokawa Pictures in December 1982.]
The production base was moved to West Cape Corporation in Akasaka, Tokyo, and Nishizaki was off to a fresh start. Nishizaki made his comeback as a producer last summer , and talked about it without even working up a sweat.
“Human beings must not dwell on the past. You must set positive goals and move forward in a positive manner. I learned my lessons from the incident and now I focus on being a producer.”
Watching Nishizaki from Yamato‘s first sortie until now, you would not have heard this sort of earnest tone from him even once. It could be that the shock of the incident made Nishizaki into an adult, so to speak. In any case, what supported Nishizaki during this period was his great passion for the final chapter of Yamato.
“It has been exactly ten years since I started working on Yamato. I’ve walked to the end of this decade of my life. And so I’d like to put everything I’ve got into making this final chapter and mark this as a turning point in my life.”
Nishizaki talked about his current state of mind with Kinejun‘s chief editor, Kazuo Kuroi. Since he began writing Yamato for film and TV, he has set foot in a variety of worlds, seeming to explore his own potential. However, with the exception of Yamato, they all ended in vain with failure. Now, only the title of Producer of Yamato remains for him. But what other titles are necessary for this man now? The only one he needs is Nishizaki, and I think his passion as a producer is enough.
When The Final Chapter premieres this spring, he will receive a “director” credit for the first time. It will be evidence of parting with the Yamato decade. When his passion for one work burns out, what other kind of work will be born?
Special Feature II
Retreating from Yamato
Tomoharu Katsumata, Director
Brainstorming day and night
Against the backdrop of SF fantasy, love, and romance, the battleship Yamato was a suitable tragic figure to suddenly burst out of the deep sea off Bogasaki and spark a big animation boom as Space Battleship Yamato. Now ten years have gone by, and Yamato is about to disappear into the sea of space. What was it for me? I’d like to look back at the content of this work and then entrust Yamato, this monster that lasted a decade, to the hands of the fans.
My relationship with the work called Yamato began five years ago, with the feature film Farewell to Yamato, in 1978. Before that time, anime in movie theaters came out twice, in spring and summer, mainly composed of a masterpiece series called the Toei Manga Matsuri [Festival]. It was a selection by the Ministry of Education that parents and children could enjoy together. The films were shown along with TV repeats that were tacked on.
Then the Space Battleship Yamato TV series was re-edited into a standalone feature as per the western movie system, and it became a big hit. This was just as our company [Toei] was discontinuing the screenings of TV repeats, and the hit of Yamato was surprising. Because, for us, we felt “this is just a compilation of a TV show,” and never thought of it as a production that had built up such a fervent following, because it had barely been accepted. At the time of its TV broadcast, Yamato received less than 5% support from the audience.
But there was a pitfall. Youngsters in those days were suffering under the strain of modern society. As they fell into misanthropy, the entertainment media of TV and movies was flooded by children’s manga, which left them with a taste of isolation. Social conditions backed up their feeling. But when the dashing Space Battleship Yamato appeared with the theme of dreams, love, and courage, many troubled young people jumped for it.
After the Yamato movie premiered in August 1977, a production request for a full-fledged Yamato feature film was brought to Toei. At the time, I was wearing the two hats of director and production manager, and my boss sought my opinion by asking, “Should we accept Yamato, or decline?” I immediately told him, “Don’t turn your nose up at spoils that roll right in front of you. That’s to say nothing of how our company would be ruined if we let it be robbed of its due.”
“Well then,” he said, “you’ll share the table with me when we meet our partner, Mr. Nishizaki.” After working on the festivals, was I now part of the Shinjuku sales department…?? As fate would have it, I would later be engaged with Be Forever Yamato and The Final Chapter.
Thus, it was decided to make Farewell to Yamato in October of that year , but it did not progress easily. Office Academy’s production headquarters was in Kudan, which was a bad geographical location compared to Toei Animation in Oizumi. The main staff that would be involved with Yamato for the first time spent three days and nights discussing and analyzing the 26-episode TV series. As soon as it was over, each person submitted their own proposal. When a proposal was approved, brainstorming meetings followed day after day, and this hothouse made the Toei main staff completely depressed, including me.
Other than the Toei side, everyone was a soldier in the field, and discussions with the executive producer at the center did not progress easily. But a strong collective assertiveness came out of it because it was the Nishizaki method to tie the executive producer’s ideas into the theme. It was not an exaggeration to call it a battlefield; some would get into a fight and leave, while others complained and paced around the room to cheer themselves up. It was exactly like a fierce fight between men. Sometimes I kept my head down and other times I cried, and when Nishizaki would make an impassioned speech, I started wondering what was going through this man’s mind.
It was common for brainstorming to begin at 10am and go on until midnight, and I wouldn’t get home until 3am.
Brainstorming started in October and was going to last through the winter. Toei started to worry about making an odd work. One day, I went to Academy completely exhausted, and when I heard, “We’ll spend the New Year holiday in Hawaii,” I doubted my ears for an instant. We would go there to watch Star Wars and Close Encounters for reference.
As the new year began (1978) I boarded an airplane to Hawaii on the night of January 2, and before long I was staring out at a star in the night sky. My heart eased as I imagined Yumenoshima [the island of dreams] and this and that. However, a thick pile of memos was stacked up in front of me. I was given a summary of the proposal and told, “read this until morning.” I didn’t think I’d have to bring work on the plane, but the SF writer Aritsune Toyota who shared my table read it quickly. When I finally finished reading one copy, he’d read three different novels. When I asked him about it, he said it was his routine to read three books at night before going to sleep. I wondered what kind of structure was in his head. There are some amazing people in this world.
Next I went to see our good friend Tsuji Tadanao (concept artist). I got another surprise. He was sleeping instead of reading. “Did you read it already?” I asked, and he said, “Uh, I started reading, but didn’t feel well.” The proposal book was open in the middle and turned over on his knee. I was secretly relieved.
Because of this, it was hard on us even after arriving in Hawaii. It was not the time to sing, “Oh Viva Hawaii.” We ate breakfast and immediately had a meeting about the proposal I’d read on the plane. When I looked at a clock, it was pointing to 9am. No one expected that this would continue for four days. Rather than saying we had come here to watch movies for reference, it would have been more accurate to say we were coming here to have meetings. This was exactly Nishizaki style, a surprise attack on Hawaii.
Gradually, I came to understand the Nishizaki steering method
When we returned to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, two writers started on the script based on the proposal that was completed in Hawaii while others held strategic concept meetings. It became a “dance of meetings” with script reviews and storyboard checks. Farewell to Yamato was gradually completed in this way, to bring love and romance to young people. At that time, too, I was filled with trepidation over the antagonism between the “reality faction” and the “romance faction”, and there was a time when director Masuda finally ran out of patience and told Mr. Nishizaki, “If you’re just going to tell me to shut up and listen, then why don’t you be the goddamn director?! I quit!” and flipped his desk over.
At the beginning of April when the cold winter wind passed and cherry trees bloomed, I managed to start drawing-in at last. [Translator’s note: “drawing-in” is jargon for starting animation. In live-action film, the start of photography is called “crank-in.”] It was less than four months to the premiere on August 4, a production period that was utterly unthinkable in our company. Expectations for Farewell had already begun to surge among the public. Those on-site were lead by the staff who experienced the Yamato TV series, and I thought it was best for the Toei staff to lean in their direction. I think I had now gradually come to understand the Nishizaki steering method. The work situation was described over and over in anime magazines, so I won’t go into it here, but I don’t think it is humanly possible to express in words the state in which those people were working. There was a person asleep with bread in his mouth and his face overgrown with a beard, another sleeping at his animation desk with a snot bubble blowing from his nose. It was not an exaggeration to call them the living dead.
A mountain of cels for the whole three-plus-hour thing were piled up from the third floor stairs up to the entrance of the bathroom on the fourth floor, and one person was even injured when his foot slipped on cels in the middle of the night and he slid down to the bottom.
This situation continued with no change afterward on Be Forever Yamato and The Final Chapter. This time, on The Final Chapter, storyboards were still being fiddled with in February on a movie that would premiere in March. You might ask, what on Earth is it about Nishizaki-style that makes filmmaking go this way? Is it a lack of confidence? No, it isn’t. It is his tough, fearless vitality that meets every challenge to the limit and does not permit compromise until the end. He takes the lead and shows his mettle. I think that is his philosophy of life. With the courage to surpass himself, while seeking dreams of love and romance to help people, I think he continues to appeal to young people with the growth process of surpassing their parents and becoming independent.
For me, Space Battleship Yamato was the fight with Mr. Nishizaki. It was to understand him. It was similar to the fight of Okita and Kodai. Just as Yamato had many crew members aboard, I had plenty of staff. I was helped by many of my seniors among them, I united with my companions, and now I am trying to leave Yamato. I endured a lot of pain for a long time to do meaningful work. I’ll take this energy to my next work, and sometime I’d like to make a work that surpasses Space Battleship Yamato.
Special thanks to Neil Nadelman for translation support.