Yamatour 2013: The adventures of Tim Eldred

Arrival: September 1

This was the start of my eighth trip to Japan, but valuable experience has taught me that these voyages are never routine. There are always things you can never plan for, and at least one important thing that you forget to pack in the final rush. I’ll save that second point for later in the narrative, but examples of the first point became clear in succession during the inbound portion of the trip:

A: I’d heard from various sources that Tokyo had been hit by a crazy heat wave during the previous week, so I packed and dressed for hot weather. So, of course, the air conditioner on my trans-Pacific flight was set to “Arctic Fringe” for the entire 11 hours.

B: I’d never arrived in Narita airport on a Sunday night before, so you can imagine my surprise to find that both the currency exchange and Narita Express train ticket offices had CLOSED about 15 minutes after my flight landed. For a moment I had to grapple with the prospect of no cash and no way out of the airport…then alternate offices appeared after a short look around. Travelers are well looked-after here, but you don’t fully appreciate that until you encounter an obstacle like that.

C: Members of a 5-man death metal group appeared in the outbound terminal at LAX, boarded my plane, stayed visible all the way through customs and the train ride out of Narita, and even disembarked with me in Shinjuku. They stuck out like big, pale, doughy, hairy demons the entire time, bedecked in black rocker gear. (Despite the words KILL FOR SATAN MIGHTY LUCIFER on the band leader’s t-shirt, he and his posse were nothing but polite and well-mannered.) I half-expected to see them turn up in my hotel lobby next, in which case I would have had to give up and get acquainted – which would have resulted in a very different report.

Other than that, the ride into Tokyo was smooth as could be, and I was happy to see Takuya Kimura (the live-action Kodai) still looming large over Shinjuku station when I emerged. He’s been there promoting a real estate company named Tamahome at least since December 2010. I’m told that Tamahome also deals in grave sites. Guess business is going well.

Anyway, some context for this trip: unlike previous Yamatours, my tenure was sort of a second act. When the premiere dates for Chapters 6 and 7 were announced together back in April, the time had finally come to commit to seeing Yamato 2199 in a theater, as The Maker intended. I would have loved to be in Japan for every premiere, but it just wasn’t practical. I made the difficult choice to miss Chapter 1 in favor of Yamato Party in 2012 (see that travelogue here), but there was nothing standing in the way of Chapter 7…except Captain Harlock.

The first rumors of a CG Harlock feature film had crept out of Japan years ago, then there was that eyeball-grabbing promo trailer in 2010, but nothing further for a long time. Some believed it was yet another Leiji Matsumoto project that would never materialize, but I held out and was rewarded for my patience in early 2013 when it was announced for a release by the end of the year…date to be determined.

Hoping against all odds it would come out the same time as Chapter 7, I went ahead with my travel plans and invited others to join me via the Cosmo DNA Facebook group. To my surprise, eight of them jumped in. It all seemed set in stone…and then Harlock‘s release date was announced: September 7. Two weeks after the opening of Chapter 7, and one day after it would close.

I couldn’t be there for both premieres, so I opted out of week 1 and decided to go for week 2 instead. It was painful to extricate myself from the group that had come together and even harder to watch from the sidelines as they reported their week 1 adventures on Facebook. But as it turned out, my choice lined up some unexpected benefits that made for an extended Yamatour experience, since we would now have boots on the ground for the entire two-week run of Chapter 7.

Daniel George has begun to fill you in on the first portion here, and now begins the second.

Monday, September 2

After a night of forced inactivity (I sure can’t call it “sleep”), the first order of business was to get ready for the top priority: a morning screening of Chapter 7 itself. I finished watching Chapter 6 as a warmup, threw on my clothes for the day, which was HOT (Er, the temperature that is, not me getting dressed) and hoofed it over to the Shinjuku Piccadilly theater. This name has come up a lot in recent Yamato history. It’s where past travels brought me to see Resurrection, the live-action movie, and plenty else. It’s also where the talk show events happen, which sort of makes it unofficial Yamato headquarters.

The place was uncrowded (Monday morning, natch) but not empty. The same category of Yamato fan was there as on previous occasions, but it would be a stretch to say there were more than 50 of us. The big marquee poster was there in the lobby (see first photo above), and the gift shop seemed well-stocked, though I’m sure the first week of plunder had taken its toll.

In addition to the standard items from Froovie, I was surprised to see t-shirts and neckties from Bandai Fashion Net, a couple of model kits, and a nice stack of EARTH design books. Another welcome sight was a batch of music CDs, including Radio Yamato Volume 3, which wasn’t supposed to be out until the week after my trip. Best of all, when we walked into the theater, we were all given the free Week 2 handout pack containing the Yuki postcards, which I expected to be long gone after the weekend.

In case anyone’s wondering, seeing a movie in Japan is almost exactly like seeing one in America, including the between-show promos running on the screen when you walk in. Commercials and trailers are exactly what you’re accustomed to, and Yamato carried trailers for other SF anime titles, a couple live-action Japanese dramas, and the still-forthcoming Elysium and Wolverine Samurai. The high point was a big-screen commercial for the Yamato movie blu-rays, in which I got to see brief shots from Farewell just as they looked to moviegoers in 1978. (Though the picture was nearly a square compared to the screen proportions.)

When Chapter 7 finally started, a persistent question was finally answered for me; how are the episodes packaged for a theatrical screening? They aren’t quite formatted as they are on home video. It began with text messages from the 2199 production committee and staff, thank-you’s for support and apologies for the missing footage. These probably won’t be on the home video, so that already felt like an up-front exclusive.

Next was a story digest. These are on the vids, but until now I didn’t quite understand their purpose. Now it became perfectly clear: “previously, on Yamato 2199…” The digest in front of Chapter 7 was ten minutes long with scattered shots from Chapters 1-5 and a lot of scenes from Chapter 6. I’d just rewatched that in my hotel room on my laptop, so this gave me an instant comparison to the big-screen version.

I learned while first watching Resurrection (with its Final Yamato flashback) in this theater that your relationship to the story can entirely change when the pictures are larger than you. It was the same here, like stepping out into a big city for the first time (Tokyo, for example) after only seeing photos of it for years. At last, I was part of the flow.

Backlit montage posters leading up to the Piccadilly lobby, one for each movie.

After the digest came the familiar opening title (same as on the vids), but without production credits. This was the only use of the opening title throughout the film; the breaks between episodes were just fade-to-black moments, like a commercial break. The credits for the entire body of work were combined at the end, some broken up by episode, which made for a credit roll long enough to accommodate an entire closing song.

Interestingly, voice credits were split off into a mini-roll of their own prior to the rest, accompanied by a short version of The Scarlet Scarf, then the final shot of Earth, then the long list.

Storywise, Yamato 2199 Chapter 7 is immensely satisfying, all payoff from start to finish. A final chapter of anything, when written well, is where the soul of the story comes shining through in a way that no other story can, showing a total greater than the sum of its parts. Thus, Chapter 7 is a Yamato story in its purest form, full of drama, emotion, and suspense all spun out of its unique components.

If you saw the trailer and the 10-minute preview, they only hinted at what lies in store. Also, without spoiling anything I can tell you that the Garmillas story ends in Episode 23 and the Iscandar story ends in 24, which gives us TWO homeward-bound episodes rather than just one. 25 is the first of the two, and it’s the one with missing footage. Keeping an eye on my watch, I estimated 6 minutes’ worth. Based on some visual cues, I’m certain of one event that has to happen in there, which we’ll hopefully see on the blu-ray. However, there is no further appearance by the boat named Tsukuba and no revival of the original Yamato salute, which I thought for sure would be created on Iscandar.

I’d really hoped to see those particular threads paid off, but the good news was that I liked the movie so much that they didn’t even occur to me until hours later. There was also plenty of previously-unheard music which will make the third soundtrack album quite a goldmine.

After the film I hooked up with my pal Kevin Callahan and we walked over to the nearby Kinokuniya Bookstore where I could get my first look at the Yamato premium shop that would be open through the end of the week. As I expected, it was pretty small. As I didn’t expect, it didn’t have all that much that I was after. I’d hoped that by now they would have packaged up all those episode-title postcards into a set I could buy, but they were still being offered only as incentive items. I had to buy 1000yen (about ten bucks) worth of stuff to earn just one, and there wasn’t even close to enough stuff there to earn all 26. So this would take some further thought.

After a quick lunch we were off to Odaiba for a new visit to Gundam Front, then the first spin through Nakano Broadway. See the photojournal for the day here.

Note: There’s a photojournal for every day of the trip. You can view them individually, or click a link at the end of this travelogue to view them all sequentially.

Tuesday, September 3

I don’t get real vacations very often, but when I do it becomes an excuse to indulge in things I don’t usually get to do – like see a movie whenever I damn well feel like it. Thus, I started this trip with the intention of seeing a movie every day, and on day two that movie was the live-action Gatchaman.

I watched Battle of the Planets as a kid and some bits and pieces of the real thing thereafter, but for the most part I can take it or leave it. I love the concept, but not the art style, and that’s kind of a dealbreaker with anime. So I took a shot at seeing Gatchaman without the art style, and found it pretty awesome. The story is pure fluff from start to finish, but the design, action scenes, and cinematography are all excellent.

It opens with a parody of the anime with limited Flash animation, then we go to a much darker place. The forces of Galactor overrun Europe in 2015 (get on the stick, you guys – it’s coming up fast!) but the leader’s plans are thwarted when a young boy gets away with a magic, glowing rock.

13 years later, Europe is an occupied zone but Japan looks pretty normal, until one day when the enemy leader unleashes a giant wheel-shaped chain saw on the city. He arrives with a couple of underlings to watch it plow into the headquarters building of ISO [International Scientific Organization]. Suddenly, five caped superheroes soar into battle against the assault, and things get off to a rollicking start.

A model display in the lobby. That red sucker is BIG!

Familiar faces greet you as you ascend the escalators to the screening rooms at Shinjuku Piccadilly. As you ascend, it’s easier to identify the less-dimensional among them.

From there it’s just pure, cheesy joy as the stakes get higher, personal angst complicates the story, and the Gatchaman team does everything they can to finally eradicate Galactor from Earth – but there may be little they can do against a secret weapon called Virus X!

The costume design was by Shoji Kawamori (of Macross fame), the eclectic soundtrack is by Nima Fakhrara, the lead
CG effects house was Shirogumi (who also did the live-action Yamato) and yes, there is a God Bird Phoenix – but, thankfully, no 7-Zark-Anything. This has all the hallmarks of something that will be released on home vid in America, so keep an eye or three open for it!

See the official Gatchaman movie website here, and the trailer here.

The rest of Tuesday was a whirlwind of shopping in Shibuya and Nakano, ending with a stop at Pasela Resort to try out the Yamato 2199 “collaboration menu.” See the photojournal for the day here

Wednesday, September 4

Today’s movie was Tonto, which also featured a white guy in a mask. I don’t know what all the complaining was about. I liked it. This one was subtitled in Japanese, so it was a nice break from the non-stop non-English. There were about a dozen people in the audience of various ages, and like every other Japanese audience I’ve sat with, they were utterly silent throughout. There were plenty of laugh-inducing moments, and I had to bottle them all up inside. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.

Most of the day was spent in Akihabara, drifting from store to store (into and out of pockets of blissful air conditioning) to tick things off my shopping list and see what kind of presence Yamato has these days. The word “prodigious” sums it up well.

Model kits were available in large numbers from the usual shops, most especially Volks Hobby (below left) and the plamo department at Yodobashi Camera, which kicks the ass of every other model kit seller around. And it wasn’t just 2199, Bandai is keeping almost the entire back-catalogue in production. An old 1/500 Yamato sits right next to the newer one.

Wednesday’s dinner was decided upon back in the spring when the restaurant Hakata Yakitori Yamato opened in an outlying district of Tokyo named Sengawa, about half an hour into the suburbs on the Keio train line from Shinjuku. I’d managed to make it to Café Crew restaurant in 2012, which parted ways with its Yamato sponsorship after just six months, so there was some urgency attached to this one. Turns out my worries were groundless; Yakitori Yamato is partially-owned by Shoji Nishizaki, so it will probably be around for a while.

My dining companion was Mr. Ryusuke Hikawa, who I’d first met in early 2012, then saw again that May. He speaks English, which is a good thing because he’s always got a lot to talk about.

I’d never needed to use the Keio line before, so it was a bit bewildering once I got into the station and had to figure out which track was mine. By an extremely lucky bit of timing, Mr. Hikawa chose that moment to walk past me and recognized me right away. That made the trip effortless, and we arrived at the restaurant’s doorstep precisely on time.

As we got caught up on things along the way, I was amazed once again by the sheer number of high-profile projects he’s been involved with. He’s now doing the sort of work he could scarcely have dreamed of back when he was a teenager watching Space Battleship Yamato in 1974. Since then, he has contributed so much to the field of anime commentary that almost every time I brought up the name of a book, magazine, video, etc. his answer was usually, “I worked on that one.” The two biggies that week were extras for the recently-released Mobile Suit Gundam blu-ray box set and text features for the fast-approaching Captain Harlock movie program. And did I mention that he speaks English?

Like many Japanese restaurants, Yakitori Yamato occupies a small space compared to the eating emporiums most Americans are used to. It’s on a second-floor walkup above a convenience store, and is very sleek inside. The first outward sign of the Yamato relationship is the sign itself, which sports the familiar logo.

The next indicator is a shelf of model kits at the top of the stairs, next to a small display with flyers and trading cards. Then there’s the “insider” part of the deal – if you’re a member of the Yamato Crew Premium Fun Club and you flash your membership card, you get something for free. Aaaaand guess what I forgot to bring. Yep, this is the item I hinted at earlier. It was on my packing list, I swear, but I neglected to check off that list until after I left home, and had been kicking myself ever since.

But fate came to my rescue; one of the things I collected here was my copy of the latest Fun Club Magazine (issue 4), still in its shipping envelope, which had my name and membership number right there on the front. Bingo! Ryusuke introduced me to the hostess as a fan from America who “writes an important website,” explained the sitch, and she was all smiles. So what was the freebie? The first drink was on the house. I’d asked for water and Ryusuke went for a beer, so it was just like I’d bought him a round.

This was just the first of many happy visits from the hostess, who seemed amazed that someone would come from around the world for a meal. She sent over some free stickers and a mini Yamato flashlight as a thank you, and offered us some trading cards later. I felt I had to give something back, so I whipped out a fully-translated version of their menu, which I’d pulled together before launch (in case something didn’t work out and I had to go it alone here). I handed it over to the hostess as a gift, and she was overjoyed to have it, with much fussing and bowing. Hopefully they can put it to good use.

So, you heard it, fans – if you can make it to Yakitori Yamato and you ask for an “Eigo Menu” things might just work out for you. In case you’re not yet acquainted, Yakitori is skewered chicken (or other birds) with a huge variety of seasonings and variations using every edible part of the bird. EVERY part. (Find location data here and here.)

Anyway, Ryusuke was overflowing with information, as usual. He filled me in on some of the story nuances in Chapter 7 that I hadn’t caught, and said he was concerned that they might be missed, since they intentionally echoed the vagueries of the original (like Yuki’s revival, for example). He said that some fans were already divided over changes to the story, but agreed with me that there was no need to do keep everything as is, since we can go back to the original any time we want.

His most recent conversation with series director Yutaka Izubuchi had taken place about a week earlier, in which he learned that there are actually about 8 minutes of missing footage from Episode 25 that depict the fate of characters who were left adrift after the battle of Garmillas. As of that day, Episode 25 was just two and a half weeks away from airing on TV, and fandom was eagerly waiting for one last taste of something new before the whole series marches off into history.

The “Yamato Cocktail,” a refreshing grape/violet concoction.

As for the future, Ryusuke doesn’t have any details yet, but says that a prequel OVA is still in consideration and Izubuchi regularly vacillates between saying “I don’t want to do a second series” and “here’s what could happen in a second series.” Either way, we shouldn’t be in a hurry. Yamato 2199 took over five years from startup to completion.

When I asked about the cancellation of Newtype Ace magazine, he explained that production cost was one factor, but the much bigger one is the overall decline in publishing here. Kadokawa (the magazine’s publisher) recently downsized from nine branch companies to just one, so NTA was far from the only casualty. He’d planned to continue his monthly column there, but had no choice but to wrap it up with #12.

I suggested that his work could become the basis for a book, and he said Kadokawa had a similar idea in the beginning, but obviously the options are much more limited now. When I brought up the need for a Roman Album, he took me literally and said Tokuma Shoten doesn’t publish them any more.

House wines: Space Battleship Yamato, Kodai, and Yuki.

Then I explained that “Roman Album” is used as a generic term in American fandom; since it was always rendered in English, we sort of adopted it to mean any book of that kind, no matter what it was actually called. He was amused by this and got it immediately – then agreed with me that we need one. But such decisions happen far above his pay grade.

Hideaki Ito’s name came up next, and we raised our glasses in his memory. (Get acquainted with the late Mr. Ito here. You won’t regret it.) A wake had been held a couple days earlier which brought together about 50 of his friends and colleagues, including Ms. Yoko Asagami, the original voice actress for Yuki Mori.

She has since retired from anime voice acting and now pursues a career in dramatic narrative, but she stepped back into the role of Yuki one last time for this occasion, addressing “Ito-kun” in the great beyond as Yuki would have yearned for her beloved Kodai. Ryusuke was certain that “Ito-kun” would have absolutely loved it.

Finally, I posed a “what if” question that I thought he was uniquely positioned to answer: what if the original series had been a ratings success and gone all the way to 39 episodes?

If you recall your Yamato history, it was originally meant to run that long until low initial numbers caused the Yomiuri network to chop it down to 26. This was the move that ignited fandom (with Ryusuke himself at the forefront) to organize into clubs, publish fanzines, and begin rallying the masses that would eventually enable the 1977 comeback. But what if the series had done better, and that moment of ignition hadn’t happened?

Full up with chicken and facts.

I don’t know if he’d considered that before, but to me it has always been the single biggest turning point in Yamato history. It’s impossible to look into an alternate timeline, of course, but Ryusuke agreed with me that there would have been fewer reasons to organize. He probably still would have published doujinshi (he did have that enormous treasure trove of cels, scripts, production art, etc. after all) but wouldn’t have done it with quite as much fervor. Thus the 1977 movie might never have been made, and by extension there might not have been a 1978 followup. Without Farewell to Yamato in the picture, you can imagine how vastly different it would have been.

This is the sort of thing that makes history interesting, isn’t it? (And you can read the full story of this particular history here.)

See the photojournal for the day here

Thursday, September 5

This morning’s movie was Pashific Rimu. Of course, I saw it at home on opening weekend, but this time I went for the 3D and the Japanese dub. All the leads were A-list anime voice actors, which solidified the bridge back to the inspirational source material. The lineup included Toru Furuya (Amuro Rei from Gundam), Shuichi Ikeda (Char Aznable, also from Gundam), Shigeru Chiba (hundreds of roles, including Dr. Sado from 2199), Megumi Hayashibara (Faye from Cowboy Bebop, Rei Ayanami from Evangelion) and other voices very familiar to longtime anime viewers.

Naturally, some of the plot subtleties would have eluded me had I not already seen the original version, but there’s nothing subtle about the words “ROCKETO PUNCH!”

See the official Japanese site for the movie here.

I took a break from full-impact shopping for the rest of the day, instead taking in a couple of gallery shows and visiting the Ueno Museum of Science and Nature. One of the shows was at the Wakayama Art Museum Media Gallery, a tiny walkup in a smallish side street on the southern edge of Ginza. Here there was a single room dedicated to Leiji Matsumoto.

The intention was to encapsulate his manga publishing career, which has now surpassed 60 years. Cases of books and framed pages were all over the place, arranged chronologically. There were no originals, alas, but there were images of a few childhood works leading up to his first published book as a high school teenager, and the intergalactic blossoming that followed.

Appropriately, turning from the first wall to the second (above right) coincided with Oidon Man, Matsumoto’s self-proclaimed turning point at which he found his own creative voice and plunged forward into the future. There was a display for Yamato, a case containing the November 1974 issue of Adventure King (in excellent condition), and a reproduction of his rough story notes with his first sketch of the ship itself – the one that introduced the contours we know and love.

In the years since the ownership dispute between Matsumoto and Yoshinobu Nishizaki was settled in court (in Nishizaki’s favor), an uneasy cease-fire has settled over the franchise. Eager to avoid giving Matsumoto any further litigation opportunities, the Yamato 2199 Production Committee set a firm policy from the start to launder out anything he could put a legitimate claim on. This is why, for example, we don’t see Matsumoto-style meters on control panels, and it’s also why the sharp-edged arrow insignia on the uniforms became an anchor. Now that I think about it, the classic Yamato salute probably fits into that category. Alas.

Bottom center image: Matsumoto’s first sketch of Yamato

Matsumoto, in turn, has published book after book containing the production documents on display in this gallery (and several more) as proof that his influence goes all the way down to the original concept itself. This drumbeat became even more relentless after Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s death in late 2010, continuously putting the 2199 Committee on their guard. It’s a highly regrettable situation that nobody enjoys, and it even affected me during the few months that they took control of starblazers.com; during the spring of 2012, they instructed me to delete content that might further complicate the situation. You can imagine how pleased I was to do so.

These days, now that the production committee and I have gone our separate ways, I can show a photo like this one and describe its full context. Were I still working for starblazers.com, it would be out of the question. I’ll admit it, part of me will always be bitter over the broken promises, but whenever I see those ancient documents I thank my lucky stars that I’m no longer forced to choose sides.

Myself, Mr. Habara, and our lovely translator, Ms. Rina Lee

The rest of the day was spent in the Ueno district, where I enjoyed the sights in the Science and Nature Museum. Then I buzzed over to the famed Yamashiroya toy store, a multi-floor emporium that had its own Yamato Premium shop to complement the one at Kinokuniya bookstore. Not only did they have more stuff, they gave me a shot at completing a “stamp rally” card – one Kodai stamp and I was on my way. More on that later.

Thursday evening brought a welcome reunion with Mr. Nobuyoshi Habara, who you should remember (from this interview) as one of the episodic directors of Yamato 2199. We kept in touch after our first meeting in 2012 and became Facebook friends. He’s also a member of the Cosmo DNA Facebook community, so don’t be surprised to see his name pop up there. Moreover, he’s one of the very few staff members who worked on Yamato Resurrection prior to 2199, which gives him a unique vantage point on the revival phase of Yamato history.

He has even kept up with my career. Between our first meeting and this one, I had the pleasure of directing twelve episodes of Marvel’s Avengers Assemble (currently running on Disney XD), and being a fan of the Marvel movies, Habara has a keen interest in what follows. Our jobs have slightly different requirements, but our positions are pretty much the same; we’re handed a script and told to turn it into pictures. We figure out what pictures best tell the story, and manage whatever resources are needed to get that story told. We both answer to a supervising director who keeps tabs on the overall style of the show.

In my case, season 2 of Avengers Assemble is approaching the launch pad. In Habara’s case, Yamato projects are behind him for the time being. After Resurrection and the subsequent director’s cut, he directed episodes 9 and 19 of 2199 and has now moved on to himself supervise a new Fafnir series for Xebec Animation Studio.

Of course, the first thing I asked him is if he knows anything about what is to come next for Yamato, and he said discussions are underway. He specifically cited the possibility of a gaiden [side story] feature film that would occur somewhere during the series. Like all of us, Habara would love to see the prequel story Yutaka Izubuchi has talked about, featuring Captain Okita and the Battle of Mars, but nothing has been decided yet.

He said he “just wants to be friends.” Sigh…

We dined at a gorgeous theme restaurant in Shinjuku with a name that translates roughly to “Love Actually.” Here, I’m proposing marriage to Mr. Habara in a picture-perfect setting.

Our dinner lasted for three hours, about half of which were spent recording an interview all about his work on 2199. We viewed both of his episodes and did an impromptu audio commentary that will be part of Cosmo DNA’s October 15 update, along with the reveal of a very special gift he handed over to me. Sorry to dangle that in front of you and snatch it away, but this report isn’t close to being finished yet.

See the photojournal for the day here

Click here to continue to part 2

One thought on “Yamatour 2013: The adventures of Tim Eldred

  1. On Sept 4, you viewed the Disney attempt to redo The Lone Ranger. The result was less than even passable. No wonder Johnny Depp did Tonto. He pulled in the money internationally, kemosabe.

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