Yamatour 2017 travelogue, part 1 continued

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Saturday, February 25

Christmas morning, Yamato style

On a normal wakeup, the brain reformats itself: This is me, this is what day it is, this is what we have to do. On a Yamato premiere day, my brain wakes up at the Shinjuku Piccadilly and my body has to play catch-up.

Dan, JP, Phillip, and I would be seeing it at 11:10. Thanks to local friends, the rest of the team had scored tickets to a 10:30 show, which gave them the chance to see the live stage presentation with staff and cast. It would have been nice to get in on that, but since it would get online coverage I didn’t sweat it too much. The real priority was to get in the opening day Blu-ray line. I’d only ever heard about it. Now I could see it for myself.

Come 7am, I had already done my morning websurf to collect all the latest news and interviews (the amount really was unbelievable, as you can see here) and was heading out the door. Daniel and JP were still horizontal, but I had a beat to cover. I stepped onto the morning train at about 7:20. “Stepped” is actually not an accurate term. More like “merged.” It was Saturday morning, but the commute was as dense as on a weekday. You decided before you got on if you wanted your arms up or down, because you wouldn’t have room to move them once you got rolling.

The express ride from Nakano to Shinjuku is only four minutes, but when you’re actively trying to avoid eye contact with people only a foot away from you, it feels much longer. The door opens, you disgorge (“step off” is also not accurate) and the moment is over. It’s a strangely intimate experience to share with people you’ll probably never see again.

At 7:35, I had reached the Shinjuku Piccadilly to find a sight I’d seen twice before: a long line stretching down the street to see a new Yamato movie on the first morning. I confirmed that it was actually the line for the Blu-ray and settled in for however long it took. Which wasn’t actually long at all, less than half an hour. But we were all there for the same purpose – gotta get that Blu-ray of that movie and then later see that movie.

This phenom started with Chapter 1 of 2199. Prior to that, Gundam Unicorn made it possible to pre-order a blu-ray at a theater, but Bandai Visual took the extra step with Yamato to bring you a disc and a movie on the same day. Of course, you had to buy a movie ticket first. Otherwise the purpose of the movie might be defeated. It all stems from the fact that anime studios have to raise all their own production funds, which they naturally want to recover as early as possible to keep the machine running. Video sales are an essential link in that chain, so they pull the trigger on video sales as early as possible. (And despite two misfires on 2199 – discs weren’t ready in time for chapters 2 and 7 – they made it work. But nobody else seems to have tried it yet.)

Turn left at the 1/100 display model…

The line for the Chapter 1 Blu-ray turns into the building and wraps around a couple of times as we approach the cashier. I get my first glance at discs inside a carton and am delighted to see other things for sale here, too – program books and advance tickets for Chapter 2. I opt for two program books with my Blu-ray, show my movie ticket, and the deed is done. Now upstairs and into the gift shop line for other merch.

This line is about as long as the first one, but I’m in no danger of missing my screening. It’s only 8:15am so I’ve got three hours. The first show of the day starts in 15 minutes, and the crowd is already marching inside. Their screening ends at about 9:30, at which time the first stage greeting happens. The second stage greeting goes back to back as a lead-in to the 10:30 screening. Adventure Team members will be there.

But here we are in this merch line with some time on our hands, and now I can conclusively answer a mystery that’s been hanging over Chapter 1 for months: will the Blu-ray have English subtitles? All the signals have been pointing to NO, but they’re frustratingly inconclusive.

If the subtitles didn’t turn a profit on 2199, they could have been discontinued at any time. But they weren’t. The specs for the disc have been online for a while with no indicator. But that’s how it was with the first 2199 disc until shortly before its release, and Amazon doesn’t always update specs during the pre-order phase. Someone in the English-speaking fan community finally does what we all want to do and writes to Bandai Visual directly about it. The answer is NO, but that’s their standard answer to every such question.

The only way to know conclusively is to pull out the disc I’m holding in this bag right now and look at the label. So I do. And the suspicion is confirmed: no subtitles. At all. Not even in Japanese.

We’re going to be standing in line for a while yet, so let’s ponder this.

Pondering the non-subtitles

This is a big moment. I waste no time in sending the word out to the rest of the world, or at least the part of it that reads the Cosmo DNA Facebook page. For better or worse, it’s no longer a mystery. But what is it instead?

Disappointing? You bet. It was a real blessing to get those subs on 2199 and to have the entire story opened up from the beginning. It didn’t stop piracy from happening (if anything, it removed a step by eliminating the need for fansubs), but it did get a lot of people over that Japanese price barrier.

Japanese video is VERY expensive because the production costs haven’t yet been covered by advertisers. Japan doesn’t work that way, and it changes the dynamics of marketing. Their number one source of revenue becomes the domestic viewership, and they pay the bills through movie tickets, video sales, and a cut of the merchandising. Being able to offload additional Blu-rays to the international crowd is a nice boost, but can’t be relied upon in the short term. So all your priorities lean toward your domestic consumers.

Therefore, if you want to minimize your expenses, you can eliminate extra features that don’t necessarily attract your domestic consumers, such as English subtitles. Thus, they’re not as common as the rest of the globe would like them to be. Another reason to leave them off is that they could cut into a foreign market that may open up in the future. An overseas distributor is going to be less interested if the core audience has already bought the product you’re proposing to sell them.

But let’s say you’re not interested in explanations. Let’s say you’re so unhappy about this that you don’t see any reason to invest in any of it. The Yamato 2202 Production Committee (led by Voyager Entertainment) has let you down for the last time. Obviously, you’re entitled to react however you want. So what options are left, other than waiting for someone to fansub and pirate it?

This is where it becomes helpful to review how anime consumption has evolved over the last four decades. There have been four basic stages: hunter/gatherer, import, download, and streaming.

The hunter/gatherer stage required maximum effort. You had to actively find the stuff through tape trading, network building, research, and communication. Fan clubs, newsletters, APAs, fanzines and convention screening guides were your bread and butter. Subtitles were rare. Most of it was raw, and degraded picture quality was a given, unless you got the bucks together to buy an original Japanese tape or laserdisc. Some did. Amazingly, none of these obstacles were dealbreakers, and a foundation was laid for the next stage.

The import stage required less effort. Companies started appearing in the early 90s to license anime on video to the western world. VHS and LD at first, DVD and Blu-ray later. Everything was subtitled and/or dubbed (in the early days you had to choose one or the other) and you could either buy it in a store or order it by mail. Empires rose and fell on video sales, TV broadcasts became a thing, and fandom expanded exponentially.

Then came the download stage, where technology made DIY possible. Now fans could do the job of importers, digitally dancing around copyright law to make their own subtitles and bittorrent the hell out of everything. At this stage, you needed a computer and a fast internet connection, but you didn’t have to pay for content or leave your house to get it.

That delivers us to the streaming stage, where licensors end-run downloaders by putting content on Hulu, Crunchyroll, etc. Consuming anime is easier than it’s ever been. Now you don’t even have to leave your couch, and you can often see it as soon as it’s released in Japan.

As you can tell, the trend over the decades has been to reduce the effort required from you. Those of us who started out in the hunter/gatherer stage are grateful that it’s come to pass, because we remember what it’s like to spend years collecting a complete series and hurl ourselves against the language barrier to puzzle it out. Believe it or not, some of us (including me) thought that was the fun part.

Those who came into the game at a later stage didn’t have that experience. And now Yamato 2202 comes along, expensive as hell with not a word of English. Deciding to consume it drags you back down through those decades to the hunter/gatherer stage. The hunting part is a lot easier (just buy it online) but what about the gathering? If you don’t understand Japanese, information must be gathered. How are you meant to do that if nobody makes newsletters, APAs or ‘zines any more? If only there was a website…

We’re getting up to the front of the merch line now, so I’ll conclude by making two promises.

First, Cosmo DNA will continue its mission to bring you the most comprehensive information possible. Now that information will include story material. As it can be obtained, it will be published.

Second, you’re a lot smarter than you think when it comes to watching anime without a net. Especially Yamato. You already have a grounding here. And, by definition, anime is visual storytelling. You won’t understand every word, but the pictures are in English. And believe it or not, you can actually learn a hell of a lot by watching, rewatching, and interpreting what you see.

Simply put, if you’re scared of the language barrier you’re underestimating yourself.

If it’s money alone that’s holding you back, nobody can hold that against you. These discs are freakin’ expensive. But if a lack of subtitles is the dealbreaker, give it some more thought. Going by what we saw on the big screen in Chapter 1, we’re all in for six more unsubtitled Blu-rays. Sure, it will require some extra effort to puzzle out the story. But the tools needed to do that have never been more accessible, and the subject matter has never been more enticing.

C’mon. Everyone’s doing it. You know you want to.

All right, let’s pay for this junk and move on.

End of pondering

When I got back downstairs, the morning crowd had dispersed. Everyone who had to get an early Blu-ray had gone on to their next mission and the lobby was unexpectedly quiet. Daniel and JP arrived to take their plunge and I headed back to the apartment to shower up and start the rest of my day.

The morning screenings went fine, we all got our free handout (art prints of Okita and Yamato), and Phil Thorne appeared at the last possible moment just before the lights went down for the 11:15 show. (He got off his train at the wrong end of Shinjuku station, which can be a mofo when you’re in a hurry.) The only thing I need to tell you about Chapter 1 is that it’s magnificent. Meaty, dense, exactly what I was hoping for: an authentic Yamato story that I don’t know the ending to. I could not be more excited for our future together.

Left: best tonkatsu in the WORLD. I am prepared to go bare-knuckle over that claim.
Right: Another soft vinyl A.T. at a price that makes my knuckles itch for soft face-flesh.
400 bucks??? Have you lost your damn MIND, Mandarake?

During the screenings, the Adventure Team had expanded to 11 people, 7 travelers and 4 locals. One of the locals was Brad Lucido, who we’d met on Facebook and was overjoyed to hitch his car to our train for a while. Another was the legendary Ardith Carlton and her own circle of anime old-schoolers. We paused to have another moment with the 1/100 Yamato model and then were off to lunch in Akihabara for some of the best tonkatsu ever made. (Maru Go. Any and all travelers should alight there. I’ll be happy to give you directions.)

I could go on about the afternoon I spent in Akihabara, diving deep into favorite stores and coming up for occasional air like a drunk dolphin, but that would only delay my description of the next miracle to land on me. And this time I wasn’t the only one.

Wander around in Akihabara for a while and you’re bound to see someone you know.

Yakitori Yamato is a restaurant in the outlying suburb of Sengawa. I went there once before, in the company of someone I’m proud to call a friend, the original Yamato superfan Ryusuke Hikawa. (Read about it in the 2013 travelogue if you like. Warning: I was a bit chubbier then.)

If I lived in Tokyo, this restaurant would be a regular haunt. Not only does it have a Yamato connection, it’s got some of the best Japanese food I’ve ever had. Yakitori means skewered chicken, and this is made in Hakata style (a city way down south) which adds a lot of variety to what may otherwise sound quite plain. The Yamato connection is a simple one: it’s owned by Shoji Nishizaki, who inherited the role of executive producer from his adopted father Yoshinobu Nishizaki. Plus, it’s genuinely classy.

One more from Akihabara: hello again, beautiful!

The only trick is that it’s a little hard to get to since it’s on a secondary train line (the Keio) that’s not as English-friendly as the main JR network, so you need a local to help you out. Fortunately, we had one: Hiroshi Ban, friend-of-the website and frequent commentor on our FB page. He wrangled our reservation for us (our number evolved throughout the day from 9 down to 6, which made it slightly challenging) and lead us to the exact train we needed with no fuss.

Hiroshi made us a gang of 5, which included myself, Dan, JP, and the perpetually enthusiastic Brad Lucido. Brad’s fluent in Japanese, which would be a huge help as the evening progressed. Meeting us in Sengawa was team member number 6, who we’d only met through posts on the Cosmo DNA Facebook group: Minoru Itgaki. It was touch and go for a while, but Minoru ultimately decided to make the trip from Yokohama to meet us and we became fast friends in the real world.

So, with three Japanese speakers on our side, we were ready for anything. Good thing, too.

The restaurant is very easy to find, just a few minutes’ walk from Sengawa station, during which time I told Brad what I know about the ownership. Which isn’t much more than I wrote above. Since it opened, it’s become a destination for Yamato fans and the occasional site of official fan club gatherings not unlike those held by the elder Nishizaki back in the old days.

The six of us entered and were guided to the largest table, which could seat 8. That left two empty seats on the end with a small divider to mark the territory. As we sat, my view of the bar brought an individual to my attention, just over Dan’s shoulder. I thought I recognized him and began to suspect. When he turned to profile, it removed all doubt.

Shoji. Nishizaki.

During my brief tenure as a “favored nation” back in 2012, I made it all the way inside the Voyager office in Tokyo, but never this far. Never in the same room as the prez. I quickly made everyone aware of my star sighting in a stage whisper. “It’s HIM!” What are the odds that we would find ourselves in a room with the owner of Yamato on a Yamato premiere day? And more importantly, what would it take to exchange hellos? I set my sights on somehow getting myself in a picture with him, and decided to be satisfied with that much.

But that was just the start.

As we got to talking, Yamato chatter floated across the room and caught his ear more than once. He knew. Food arrived. Delicious. But my mind wasn’t on food. At one point I got up to walk around and “admire the décor,” snapping a few random pics. One of which just happened to catch the guy at the end of the bar. So at least I now had proof.

But that was still just the start.

Left: the saki case contained bottles of “Kodai” and “Yuki” but no “Sado” for some reason.
Right: the big guy (center) and our table (behind the big guy).

After enough time for the surprise to wear off, a couple came in looking for seats. Nishizaki got up from the bar (along with a friend who he’d been talking to) to make room. Now he and his friend needed two seats. There was still one table with two seats open. And now you know why I described our table earlier.

As I watched, disbelieving every second of it, he walked over, looked at us and said (in English), “Hello. My name is Nishizaki” and sat down at the end of our table. Brad answered for all of us: “We know. It’s an honor.” I grabbed Brad by the arm and stage-whispered again. “HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN?”

But that was STILL just the start.

More food arrived, more flavors that surprised and delighted. Free gifts arrived in the form of flyers and coasters. More Yamato chatter ping-ponged back and forth across the table, all of it overheard by our guests. Something had to break, and Dan finally figured out how to break it. He held up his glass and we followed suit.

Yamato 2202, kampai!”

With that, both Nishizaki and his friend lifted their glasses and joined in. As of then, we were having dinner with the executive producer. And now we’re past the start.

He seemed to decide that IN meant ALL THE WAY in and turned to us. The twinkle in his eye was fully audible. “Would you like to ask me any questions?”

Boy, would we. Thanks to the three Japanese speakers in our group, there was no barrier to communication and we started right in.

1. Why no subtitles? Answer: We’re working on an international deal. An official announcement hasn’t been made yet, but it will be.

2. Will there be another Yamato project after this one? Answer: It’s already in development.

3. What will the 2202 story be like? Answer: No more of the “silly high school stuff.” This is going to be REAL Yamato. (Make what you will of that claim. He probably meant less camera time for the teenage girls.)

4. The gap between chapters 1 and 2 is four months, will that be normal? Answer: The schedule is not final, but after this the interval should go down to three months. (Which was the average for 2199. If that holds, it will finish in the fall of 2018. So now we have a rough date for the next Yamatour.)

5. What’s happening with the Hollywood Star Blazers movie? Answer: The script is still being worked on, and the goal is to get it out either late 2018 or early 2019. He also repeated his observation that there are “three great S titles” in SF – Star Wars, Star Trek, and Star Blazers. We explained that we universally observe Yamato as the Star Trek of Japan, and since there was a Yamato in TNG, it would be fun to see an EDF ship named Enterprise. Maybe it will happen, maybe not.

Those were the main points in a conversation that lasted perhaps 20 minutes with Brad translating throughout. We also learned that he proudly hand-picked the 2202 staff himself (“Good job, huh?”) and that he bought the restaurant so his wife would “have something to do.” We can all attest that she does it quite well.

He got up to leave and we requested a group photo. And miracle number two was accomplished.

Left to right: Dan, Shoji Nishizaki (!!!), John-Paul, Brad, Minoru, and Tim.
Hiroshi is notoriously camera-shy, so he’s just out of frame.

Arigato Gozaimas! Oishkata des! HELL YES, we’ll be back!

Dazed from our astonishing luck, a bit of booze, and the tap of jet lag on our shoulders, we made our way outside. I went back into mission mode when I spotted a bookstore next to the station and thought I’d push my luck back into the magazine hunt. There were two titles that had eluded me so far, Zexi Premiere and Weekly Bunshun. I didn’t know what category they belonged in, so I didn’t know where to look for them. Hiroshi and Minoru both went into action and found them immediately.

As it turned out, Zexi was a bridal magazine and Bunshun was dedicated to social commentary. (I recognized its logo right away, unchanged from a 1977 issue that interviewed Yoshinobu Nishizaki; see it here.) I had no idea why a bridal magazine was on the master list, but both of these were purported to contain interviews with writer Harutoshi Fukui. When I got them back to the apartment later, they both came up empty. Guess that list wasn’t foolproof after all.

Getting there! Just three more to go!

Either way, there were now only 3 titles left. And we’d seen Chapter 1. And had dinner with the producer. So this day was a flawless win.

Continue to part 2

2 thoughts on “Yamatour 2017 travelogue, part 1 continued

  1. One thing I will stress about this place is that the food is absolutely amazing. Tim and the others will attest to that. Definitely good value for money. And you never know who you might run into…

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