Live-action movie interviews: production

As of this writing, five years have passed since the milestone release of the live-action Space Battleship Yamato movie. While it didn’t generate nearly as much press as Yamato 2199, there was still a respectable volume of magazine articles that did not get translated for this website at the time. Starting here, that gap will be filled to mark the film’s fifth anniversary on Earth.

This material is from Kinejun magazine #1569, the November 2010 issue. In addition to the two interviews presented here, the full article included a talk with star Takuya Kimura [Kodai] and an overview of the Yamato phenomenon. More coverage of the film can be found here.

Space Battleship Yamato

Space Battleship Yamato was broadcast on TV in 19784 and became a social phenomenon when it was released in theaters in 1977. Now this national monument of animation returns as a live-action version! Takuya Kimura, who plays the main character Susumu Kodai, is an admitted Yamato fan. And director Takashi Yamazaki, who planned a Space Battleship Yamato live-action film many times in the past has finally realized his dream. Here he talks about his passion for Yamato. How did leading VFX Team Shirogumi meet the challenge of a full-scale Japanese SF film that would embody men’s hot-blooded yearning from boyhood? Now Yamato begins its voyage with men’s dreams.

by Toji Aida

Takashi Yamazaki

Born 1964 in Nagano. Joined Shirogumi [White Group] in 1986. In charge of miniature production, SFX (special effects) digital composition for movies and commercials for director Juzo Itami. Made his directorial debut with Juvenile (2000), in charge of script and VFX. After that, became a guru in the Japanese VFX world, involved with a wide range of productions for film, TV, commercials, and games. Continues to work as a director.

He directed Always Sunset on Third Street (2005), which won many awards including the Ten Best Japanese Director award from readers of Kinejun. His production skills and imaging technology are highly respected. He also directed Returner (2002), Always Sunset on Third Street Continues (2007) and Ballad ~ Nameless song of love (2009).

An unimaginable struggle, a miracle of casting, and the “shape” of a boy’s yearning

A Yamato life could not be refused

How many years have passed since it was announced that a live-action New Century Evangelion movie would be made overseas? After all, that groundbreaking series was made here at home.

Of course, technology is needed to transfer the decidedly unique world of animation into live-action. Its expressiveness could not be achieved without technology. That’s especially true in the world of images. But the one thing more important than technology is decisiveness. Decisiveness leads technique with a sensibility, and ambition is only realized through decisiveness. Those who were going to make the live-action Eva movie had ambition and technology, but their sensibility wasn’t enough. Above all, they lacked decisiveness. That’s what I think.

Space Battleship Yamato is being made in live-action. It is reckless, but I believe it is also valiant. Rather than being risky, you can feel the challenge of taking a risk. But Takashi Yamazaki has accomplished it. He did it.

It’s a harsh way to say it, but some people can do it and others can’t. What does it take? They say they’re not afraid, but what does it mean not to be afraid? It means not running away from the world of “if,” “might” and “maybe.”

Let’s listen carefully to Takashi Yamazaki’s decisiveness.

“First of all, even if you use a big studio and all the techniques of Hollywood, the planning is risky. But when I heard the rumor, I was just really envious. I wanted to get involved somehow. I didn’t necessarily need to supervise it, but I wanted to work with space ships or draw storyboards, to get involved at that level.”

I want to be involved. Anyone who calls themselves a creator yearns for that. But when germinating that thought, the ability to know how to perform under pressure is important.

“The moment when the story got to me, I just thought ‘wow’ for about three seconds. Rather than just partial involvement, I had the sense of entering into what you might call a reckless battle, but when I thought deeply about it, I said ‘there’s no way I can refuse this life.’ This is what I wanted to do when I entered this industry in the first place, there was no getting around that. Maybe it’s exactly what I always wanted. It’s the biggest chance that has appeared so far in Japan. The moment when it came into my hand, I knew that if I turned it down I’d be saying ‘it could have been me’ for the rest of my life. It was terrifying and I lost my nerve after I gave my reply (Laughs) but this was a life I could not refuse.”

Yamazaki weaves it in simple words. He speaks casually and without exaggeration. But it’s extraordinary to think in terms of, “it could have been me.” It is certainly an apt remark.

Yamato is close to the roots. It was the driving force that got me into this industry, since I met it [in my imagination] earlier than Star Wars and Close Encounters (1977). It had an overwhelming presence. I live in Matsumoto, and I watched it in reruns. (The series was not highly rated in its initial 1974 broadcast, but caught fire in reruns that lead to the boom.) There was a big movement going on in Tokyo. There was a Yamato special on the All Night Nippon radio show the night before the premiere of Farewell to Yamato. A lot of people stood in line through the night. I listened from Matsumoto and thought, ‘wow.’ I’ve pushed aside all those feelings from that time. That’s my own personal good fortune. I’ve had enough of that. So whatever trouble was to come my way, in the end I said ‘I’ll gladly do it’ because Yamato is a such a big thing. And this may be imprudent, but at the same time I thought I could do something great.” (Laughs)

“Extracurricular activities” and the state of VFX development

However, the challenge faced by Yamazaki in charge of the VFX team Shirogumi forced him into an unimaginable fight.

“I nearly died each time. (Laughs) This was like nothing that came before. There were great complaints (from the staff) that single shots were so long and there were so many. (Laughs) For example, on Always Sunset on Third Street, I could say the house is like this and the scenery is like that, but since the world of Yamato doesn’t exist in reality there were far too many things that we had to design from scratch. Handling the art and having to finish shots at the same time was much more difficult than I imagined. But I got a little taste of SF. (Laughs) It’s my favorite genre, but it’s hard to find the basic skills. I’ve been able to reproduce things quite well in the past, but things like special effects explosions were very weak. I always went to outer space in my thoughts, but when it actually dropped into my work I realized that I wasn’t ready to do these things at all, and I was really stunned.”

Yamazaki had to develop the project while compensating for the lack of resources. He looks back on it like “riding a bike or doing extracurricular activities.”

“The greatest pinch in history. (Laughs) There are a lot of things in Yamato. The ground, outer space, the planets, the vast landscape of the tunnels, and aliens also appear. There were a lot of things on the menu to develop that I’d never done before. Even the ordinary objects had to measure up to the same level. Setting things in space in a major production, it really felt like it’d been a long time. Going from the special effects era to the VFX era, it was pretty close to starting from scratch.”

“But after facing it, I can say it’s quite an experience. (Laughs) The feeling I have now is like…I don’t have any more bullets to shoot. You have to dissolve lead to create bullets. It seems like I was developing weapons while in the midst of war. Some people are good at weapons development, and despite being better at firing, I had to do the development, too. It was a great battlefield to create new weapons while fighting as the main force.”

“In terms of making Japanese SF, I think it was a big step forward but it was also quite a tough step. If you were to compare it to extracurricular activies, it was like a department going to a national convention for the first time, or not knowing how to participate in a tournament in a different dimension. That gave it a feeling of desperation, but it was interesting to feel the adrenaline start pumping after a long time.”

I think that describing VFX is rather sterile. The only real way is to see and experience it. If I had to put it into words, for a Japanese person to go to space (assuming they aren’t in NASA), this is the only way they’ll do it. To gat that realness in there, on the screen and in our hearts, that’s the kind of VFX being done here.

There was no Susumu Kodai other than Takuya Kimura

The running time is 2 hours, 18 minutes. Should this be considered a happy encounter with the original Yamato feature film and Farewell to Yamato? If the original is a lyrical composition describing the voyage of Yamato, the last moments of Yamato are depicted on the way home in Farewell. The live action movie is a fusion of the voyage and the return. There is nothing unreasonable there. Rather than a compilation, it feels a great deal like a necessary encounter with inevitability.

“That might not have been [screenwriter] Shimako Sato’s forte. (Laughs) We didn’t intend to make a different Yamato. The thought was that Yamato is the spaceship, Kodai is the character, and the voyage to Iscandar and back is the story. The ship itself is the battleship Yamato, and if it’s a ship that goes off to somehow find hope in a hopeless situation, it can’t end with an unsatisfying image. I wanted to do something that was faithful to the spirit of the original Yamato, but I also wanted to do Farewell. That’s what it was about. I didn’t want to do something ordinary. That’s because Shimako Sato and I are great fans. I didn’t want to make something that someone would see and just say, ‘That isn’t Yamato’.”

It wasn’t meant to just trace the original. The goal was to make a Yamato rooted in the 21st century. To the end, the main character Susumu Kodai breathes modernity. While there was the color of “sacrifice” in the past, he is now more active and “earnest.”

“First of all, there’s how he has to decide for himself. The one thing that bugged me about Farewell was how Kodai kept having other people saying the word “life” to him. For my part, I thought it was important that Kodai make the choice himself rather than having others make it for him. After that, it was extremely vital that Kodai demonstrate slightly harsh/bitter/painful feelings. It’s done in a heroic manner, showing only a little weakness, and he’s completely resolved to it afterward.”

What does it take to make an anime character appear as a living human being? Here is the answer. Strength is weakness and weakness is strength. Takuya Kimura shows the universality of that in one moment.

“Kimura-san has that sort of feeling. He gives it that samurai spirit. I think it might be because he did kendo, but I think that if he were in that situation he’d make that choice. He has that sort of stoicism. It’s chosen without a second thought. I think that’s an inherent quality. In the real world, I got the feeling that he’d make the choice by shrugging and saying, ‘Oh, well. I just have to do what I have to do’ and then be able to carry it out. I don’t think there are any actors that could have undertaken the Susumu Kodai role other than Takuya Kimura. If there are, then I’d say show them to me. Kimura-san is the only person who could carry it on his back and do what Kodai does in the story. I think it’s an amazing miracle.”

Supposedly, Liam Neeson became so frustrated while performing in front of a bluescreen for The Phantom Menace (1999) he thought about quitting as an actor. With all due respect, that’s adorable. I’d like to show Takuya Kimura’s Yamato performance to Neeson. Not just Kimura, I want you to experience the performances of all the actors in this movie.

Taking it to extremes, the performances go beyond the interaction between people. I’d have to say it’s nothing less than “making the invisible visible.” With nobody in front of you, no scenery at all, you have to make “it” appear.

“For example, I was struck by the seriousness of Tsutomu Yamasaki [Okita] and everyone else. What you usually get is a collection of words that don’t add up, since this kind of acting is not an extension of the everyday. Nobody has gone off to fight in space. And there’s a scene of a gun battle. The opponents are aliens, and they’re not even here. And the guns don’t make any noise. In one meaning, it’s “playing make-believe.”

“However, in a way, when they’re acting against something invisible, it feels like it was visible. When everyone’s tension reaches a certain stage, a sign pops up. It may be something near the stage. The stage is really stripped down, so we have to show them something. They react to an illusion – a powerful illusion that I saw and felt.”

Thus, for Takashi Yamazaki the “form” was that overcoming such difficulties was comparable to the journey of Yamato.

“After all, I guess it looks like an absolutely impossible mission. But even if I know it’s going to be an uphill battle, I hate saying “there’s no use” at the beginning and then doing nothing. This is something that should be done. If it is, surely, it will lead to something else. That’s what I believe.”

Takashi Yamazaki is Susumu Kodai.

Kazuya Hamana talks about the long journey of Yamato

on the road to crank-in

by Toshihiko Nagano [Translator’s note: “Crank-in” is the Japanese term for start of principle photography.]

Kazuya Hamana

Born in 1956. Went into independent film production after college, and produced Another Side (1980) at 23 years old for director Naoto Yamakawa. Via various production companies, he joined TBS in 1991 and produced many movies as a film professional. In 2006 he won the Elan Dole Producer Award, and in 2007 he won the 26th annual Fujimoto Award. He currently manages the movie division for the TBS television bureau, and is involved with general TBS film production. In that capacity, he participated in such projects as The Story of My Dog and You, Tomorrow’s Joe (live-action adaptation of anime), Runway Beat, and Nobou’s Castle.

Yamato is a dream of youth

“While I’m always happy to tackle new material, at the same time I’m balancing that with consideration of the business side. In terms of this Yamato film, while of course I understand that making it a success is the most important goal, more than that I simply wanted to try and do it. This may sound kind of immature, but it’s sort of a dream I’ve had since I was young. Although originally my position was to say ‘you can’t eat dreams’.” (Laughs)

As a producer for the TBS movie division, Kazuya Hamana has worked on many films and was in charge of the planning for this work. When the premiere of Space Battleship Yamato in 1977 sparked an unprecedented anime boom, he was one of many fans who lined up to see it on the first day at a theater in Shibuya.

“Although I was a college student, I was in line by myself because anime didn’t have the atmosphere of a date movie back then. I aspired to be a movie producer at the time, and in fact I even once studied under Yoshinobu Nishizaki. It wasn’t an apprenticeship, but an open call for temporary employment. I went to a briefing session with Producer Nishizaki, and he spoke passionately about ‘production,’ Space Battleship Yamato, and ‘What it is to work with me.’ Then he said, ‘After your interview this afternoon, those who are prepared to work my way can stay.’ There were close to a hundred people, but most felt pressured by Nishizaki-san’s passion, and I was also one of those who talked about running away.” (Laughs)

Hamana’s relationship with Yamato gave him an edge, and about three years ago he was consulted on a live-action Yamato movie.

“It was said that producer Toshiaki Nazawa of Sedic International was considering a live-action version. I thought it was a pretty high hurdle, but I wanted to do it as a fan. It’s a live-action remake of an anime that was a big national hit thirty years ago. It’s SF taking place in space, which is a barren genre in Japan. Hollywood has a history of doing them for decades, and so the catch phrase became, ‘for the first time, the Japanese take on the challenge of a full-scale SF film’.”

“The hurdles are high in quite a number of ways. But since the feeling of wanting to do this was strong, conversely the sense that we had to make this a success both production-wise and commercially was stronger than ever. I didn’t want it to be said that I was doing it as a hobby, so I vowed to give it my best no matter what the obstacles were.”

The human resources required to realize the planning

What came to mind when the story was first discussed were two realities that had to be dealt with: whether there was a creator who could bring the world view of Yamato to live action, and whether there was an actor who could play Susumu Kodai, the hero of the adventure story in space.

“First, the creator. Specifically, who could direct it. I thought I might possibly have to turn my eyes toward overseas creators to handle this subject. But in the end, I felt strongly that because the subject is Yamato, he must be Japanese. Therefore, I settled on director Takashi Yamazaki at an early stage. He proved his abilities with the production of VFX and directing a human story with Always Sunset on Third Street (2005). I think it was lucky for this Yamato that he’s a person from the Yamato generation who seems to have had a dream to make it as a live-action.”

The casting of Takuya Kimura as Susumu Kodai also took place quite early in the planning stage.

“Since Space Battleship Yamato is historic material in the history of Japan animation, a live-action movie wouldn’t be supported without a national actor. Besides, if meets the challenge of Japan’s first full-scale SF work, it needs a star that won’t be upstaged by the huge scale of space. Of course, there are many great actors and attractive stars, but when preparing an SF movie as a national film, in the end there is only Takuya Kimura. Other than Kimura, there aren’t many people who could bring presence to the role of a romantic hero in the special situation of space. He’s the one and only. I think his presence was a big boost to realizing the plan for Yamato.”

With respect to casting, having Kimura at the center provided the image to assemble an ideal cast.

“Even if the direction and visuals are entrusted to Director Yamazaki, how it’s seen still depends on the actors who actually play the parts. But even an extravagant lineup of headliners is useless without chemistry. It’s an intense and important subject that can’t be resolved by acting skills alone. So they all needed an appearance and a presence that matched their character. We had a hard time there.”

“For example, if you want a Captain Okita with whom you could entrust the fate of Earth, you want one who exudes the charisma of Tsutomu Yamazaki. We looked at various patterns and considered many candidates, but in this case we got nearly all of our first choices in the casting.”

Live-action that takes advantage of the original

As Yamato moved forward, it was finally determined how to tell the story. Many stories were created for the former animation series, but it was decided that the first live-action film had to return to the starting point, the crisis of Earth’s destruction by Gamilas, the enemy from space.

“In terms of the story, we considered it in various possible ways, such as depicting a more advanced future that just borrowed the concept of the original, or exploring the past in the manner of an Episode Zero, but as expected it was best to base Space Battleship Yamato on the starting point. It would have great appeal to those of the Yamato generation and also be fresh for the new young generation. Of course, it was going to create a new hurdle in there. It had to be both convincing to the fans and satisfying for the new people.”

While remaking the first feature film with its original motifs, it was particularly important to properly depict it as a live-action film while writing the script.

“Anyway, we couldn’t just say, ‘These are the people who get it done.’ (Laughs) Of course, Earth is saved from extinction. The Battleship Yamato that was asleep for hundreds of years is revived as space battleship Yamato. Although the situation is considerably severe, hope is the precondition for taking the journey.”

“On top of that, while preserving the unique points of Yamato, the screenplay took into consideration how the visuals would specifically be changed for live-action. For example, there was considerable concern about the costumes for the crew because there was the possibility that, at least as far as the costumes went, they’d ‘been done’.”

“At first, something entirely different was discussed, cool and futuristic. But after some trial and error, it was decided to leave the arrow design intact. The purpose for traveling to Iscandar, the depiction of Dessler as an alien, the warp, and the radiation removal device were all clear in the anime, but more reality would be demanded when it became a life-action film. Of course, it’s an SF movie and it’s a lie, but there was a lot of worry that it would feel like a lie and the story subject might be laughed at if it was too far removed from our view of the world. One uneven button affects the whole. There were fine lines in a lot of places, and that’s where we paid the most attention. I think the director was also very nervous on the site.”

Godzilla’s cameo from Always Sunset on Third Street Continues, directing and VFX by Takashi Yamazaki

Fun and anticipation were greater than anxiety

As Hamana says, “Though the preparation stage was hard, I wasn’t worried about shooting,” but also, “If I said such such a thing, the director would get mad at me and say ‘shooting is hard, too.’ (Laughs) Crank-in was a relief. For example, on Chronicle of Tsurugi (2009) I was always anxious about the outdoor filming because shooting always centered on the set.”

“In Always Sunset on Third Street Continues (2007), above all the director made me want the Godzilla story to continue, so how could we use our imagination this time on the stage of outer space? [Translator’s note: the Godzilla reference here is to a brief imaginary cameo at the beginning of the film. See it on Youtube here.] Honestly, the fun and anticipation were greater than anxiety. For a producer, isn’t a joy to make full-fledged SF entertainment set in space into a real thing? When I think about doing something with Yamato, it’s like being handed a toy that I couldn’t get when I was a child.”

These days, when movies are often described as made-for-TV, “I want to make a movie that feels like a movie,” Hamana says.

“Even if the plan is to make a movie, TV stations are now a crucible of information, planning, and casting. TV stations now feel closer to the role movie studios once played. But that can’t go on forever. Movie companies are striking back. For example, Toho is making Confession and Villain with no involvement from a TV station. I think that’s the right strategy, and it could gradually bring them back to their original purpose. It could reinvigorate the entire film industry. I’ll be glad to be part of that fight. Anyway, I’d like many people to see this Yamato now. There will be a lot of powerful enemies to fight among the holiday movies. That’s the true meaning of ‘Yamato, hasshin’!”

The End

Special thanks to Neil Nadelman for translation support.

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