Off to Outer Space via Pen and Ink: Yamato in Manga and Comics
By Tim Eldred
Special thanks to Earnest Migaki and Michiko Ito for help with translation and research
Even before Space Battleship Yamato went into production as an animated TV series in 1974, it was already off to outer space on the printed page. Then as now, manga was such an integral part of Japanese culture that it would be almost inconceivable for an untested anime program to achieve critical mass without a manga to back it up. In the US we often think of comic books as ‘lesser’ media, something lower than film or television on the entertainment food chain. In Japan, it’s safe to say the opposite is true: manga is quite often the pioneer format for an original story, and only after it has proven itself do the film or TV adaptations follow.
Manga was even more vital to the process in the early 1970s than it is now. This was a time when just about every anime series you could find was based on a manga. To prove the point, ‘anime’ as a catchall term hadn’t even been coined yet. Instead the shows were called Terebi Manga (Television Comics) and it took the eventual multimedia success of Yamato to bring a new buzzword–Anime–into the lexicon. That fact alone should explain the importance of manga to any merchandising campaign of the time.
That being said, Yamato was already revolutionary for NOT being based on a manga, but instead making its debut as a manga and a TV show simultaneously. The absence of a pre-sold audience meant that the odds would be stacked against the series right from the beginning, perhaps even more than a single manga adaptation could overcome. So instead there would be three.
One sure way to get funding for an anime production was (and still is) to sell product licenses to any company brave enough to take a chance on your series. Bandai, for example, purchased the license to make Yamato model kits (read more about that here). Nippon Columbia purchased the license to publish Yamato music. And three major publishers signed on for the book rights: Akita Shoten, Tokuma Shoten, and Asahi Sonorama. (There were others, but for the purposes of discussing manga, we’ll focus only on those three here.) Incredibly, each of their agreements with Office Academy (Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s production company) gave them practically identical rights. They could each publish manga, novels, art books, etc. and each would carry the official Academy stamp of approval. Such a duplication of rights was unusual even for that time (and would never be tolerated today), so it’s reasonable to assume that they probably didn’t cost very much…and that over time each of these three publishers saw a tremendous return on their investment.
All three Yamato manga adaptations were on bookshelves within a month of the October 6 TV premiere in 1974. The first was Leiji Matsumoto’s Cosmoship Yamato (shown at left), serialized in the pages of Akita Shoten’s monthly Adventure King. This magazine was struggling at the time, with the editors trying out different features about live-action TV heroes or pop idols. Since the Yamato anime was aimed at a slightly older demographic than Adventure King‘s usual readership of younger elementary students, the Matsumoto manga was given special treatment with color pages and support articles in an attempt to ‘age up’ the magazine’s appeal.
Next to appear (by only a matter of days) was Asahi Sonorama’s Yamato manga by writer Keisuke Fujikawa and artist Akira Hio (shown at right). Instead of a periodical, this was the first of three paperbacks, which gave readers a much larger chunk of story at a time. The rivalry of the publishers was not matched by a rivalry between artists, however. Hio was in fact a great admirer of Matsumoto and had wanted to become his assistant before fate brought him under the wing of another manga master named Shotaro Ishinomori (creator of Cyborg 009).
Tokuma Shoten’s entry into this first round was found in the pages of its monthly Terebi Land (TV Land) magazine, which had begun publication with tie-ins to the ubiquitous Kamen Rider live-action TV series. The magazine was already well-known for such anime adaptations as Ninja Captor, Fighting General Daimos, and the mega-popular Locke the Superman by writer/artist Yuki Hijiri. Hijiri was tapped to draw a 5-chapter Yamato serial from November 1974 to March 1975 (shown above). After this period, Terebi Land switched to an all-color format.
If you’ve never heard of the Hijiri manga, you’re not alone; of the three different versions, this is the one Yoshinobu Nishizaki liked the least, and he quashed all efforts for it to be reprinted. After continued persuasion by an independent fan club, he relented and allowed them to publish a very limited run of 300 fanzines containing the entire strip. After this, it disappeared into history…until it was finally unearthed and translated for this very website. Find it in the links at the end of this page.
All three of these manga kept pace with the TV series, each offering a very different experience. Even Matsumoto, the closest of all three artists to the anime production, made his Yamato manga significantly different from what could be seen on television. Fans ate it up, but the entire enterprise came to a premature conclusion when the Yomiuri television network decided the ratings weren’t high enough to support 39 episodes, and cut their order down to 26. The three publishers followed suit, ending their respective manga adaptations either just before or just after the final episode in the spring of 1975.
Thankfully, as we all know, that was only the beginning of the Yamato story. Its wide exposure in manga form helped to create and grow the audience awareness that was missing in the early days. Maybe things didn’t happen quite in the right order, but they did happen nonetheless, and we all enjoyed the benefits later.
Despite the loss of the TV series, the publishers still had their licensing agreements in place, and a completed body of work that was ripe for reprinting. Tokuma Shoten opted out of this, so the Yuki Hijiri manga would fade into the history of Terebi Land magazine. But Akita Shoten wisely brought out a collected paperback of the Matsumoto version in the summer of 1975. Matsumoto’s star was rising fast thanks to his many other projects (Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999 and the like) and Akita benefited greatly from their association with him. As a result, the Cosmoship Yamato manga would go back to press over and over, and Matsumoto created the first-ever Yamato spinoff story in a summer 1976 issue of Akita’s Playcomic magazine.
Sonorama rejoined the party when they reissued the Hio manga in three digest volumes in late 1976 (above right). Keep in mind, practically nothing else was going on with Yamato during this time. The movie, which would rocket the series into mega-success, wouldn’t premiere until August 1977. Manga’s broad appeal and its huge economic return were essentially bridging the gap until the anime could regain its footing. Of course, everything changed in 1977 and changed again with the release of Farewell to Yamato a year later. No one was going to be caught unaware this time, and the three big Yamato publishers were shoulder-to-shoulder when the onslaught began. Tokuma Shoten moved away from manga, electing instead to produce art books such as their trend-setting Roman Album line. But Akita Shoten put Leiji Matsumoto right back to work on a Farewell to Yamato manga in Adventure King and Sonorama got Akira Hio going on another three-volume paperback trilogy. Both would follow the same reprint pattern; Matsumoto’s version was collected into another two Cosmoship Yamato volumes and Hio’s trilogy resurfaced in digest size only a few months after the first printing of book 3.
Yamato was only getting more popular, but it was at this point that two mangas were reduced to one. Leiji Matsumoto was far too busy with new projects to even finish his version of Farewell, so he abandoned it in mid-stream. Determined not to lose their readership, Akita capitalized on a different kind of manga called Anime Comics and started a whole new ball game of their own.
With Sonorama now firmly in place as the front-runner in Yamato manga, Akira Hio had the field all to himself, earning all subsequent assignments but one. He would go on to adapt New Voyage, Be Forever, and Final Yamato, but another artist was needed for Yamato III. That was Takayuki Masuo, who ordinarily drew sentai (super-hero) manga for Sonorama and was chosen to adapt the third TV series. It was not a match made in heaven, but it guaranteed that no Yamato production (with the partial exception of Yamato 2) would go manga-less.
Akita Shoten was heard from again during this time, when a serialized Yamato III manga appeared in the pages of Adventure King from November 1980 to August 1981, sharing the magazine with Kamen Rider Super 1, Denjiman, and Tetsujin 28. This version of Yamato III was drawn by Hiroshi Aizawa, a former assistant to Leiji Matsumoto, but it was never honored with a reprint. See our presentation of it here. Seemingly for good measure, Akita Shoten also serialized Yamato III as an anime comic in the pages of My Anime magazine from April 1981 to June 1982. See them all fully translated here.
Since by this time Yamato was thought of as an anime first and everything else second, all manga disappeared into outer space along with the ship itself in 1983’s Final Yamato. But just as Yamato went into decline in Japan, Star Blazers was on the rise in America…and Americans were no strangers to manga. They just had a different name for it: comic books. As in Japan, there were multiple publishers, but this time they were divided by time and circumstance. Throughout the 1980s, Star Blazers was owned by Westchester Films, who licensed the comic book rights to Comico. Over the course of two miniseries (4 issues in 1987, 5 in 1989) they became the first publisher to continue the story we saw in the English-speaking world. What made it interesting was the pedigree of the creators; author Phil Foglio and artist Doug Rice were both well-known anime fans whose work picked up from the end of the Comet Empire story and paved the way for The Bolar Wars.
The 1990s brought a new company into the mix, Voyager Entertainment, Inc. Voyager acquired the worldwide rights to Star Blazers from Westchester (rights which they still hold today) and became the publisher of the next comic book series under an imprint called Argo Press. Twelve issues, a special, and a graphic novel collection were published from 1995 to 97. John Ott, Bruce Lewis, and Tim Eldred formed a three-man team called Studio Go!, and since Voyager had begun actively releasing the Yamato movies to home video the comics stayed within known continuity. Star Blazers characters experienced the Yamato plotlines, as if the Americanization of the series were continued into The New Voyage and beyond. The series was well-received by fans, but became one of many innocent bystanders in a severe contraction of the comic book marketplace in 1997.
Meanwhile, Yamato‘s legacy years in Japan were bringing manga back to the forefront. The Matsumoto and Hio mangas were repeatedly reissued as anniversary milestones came and went. Akita Shoten brought Cosmoship Yamato back in four separate editions and Asahi Sonorama brought the Hio manga back twice, with a third reissue handled by Media Factory in 2005.
The 1990s also saw a completely new manga movement from the very people for whom Yamato was made: the Japanese fans. As costs came down and expertise went up, fan-made doujinshi (fanzines) poured out of the creative minds that were inspired to continue the story on their own. Freed of any licensing restrictions whatsoever, fan writers and artists explored whole new frontiers in manga form, from loving parodies to romantic interludes to original stories with only the barest of nods to the source material. There had been an entire generational shift from the production years, but the spirit and creativity of the fans made it seem like the series had never left the airwaves. Such doujinshi continues to be published today, with no end in sight.
A completely new Yamato manga finally appeared in 2000 as part of the 25th anniversary push that culminated with a series of videogames for Sony Playstation. Leiji Matsumoto served as the executive producer for the games, with an army of new talent working under him to reinterpret the story into this new medium. Many of them contributed to the Yamato Comic Anthology, a thick manga with high production values which adapted several episodes of the first TV series. This single volume was published by Studio DNA. One of the artists who contributed was Michio Murakawa, who later got the enviable assignment to draw the adaptation of Yamato 2199. Read about that here.
If we want to talk about the very first Yamato manga, we need to revisit an adventure-fiction magazine called Hi no Maru. In 1961 they published Shin (New) Battleship Yamato, an illustrated story by Ikki Kajiwara (who would go on to write incredibly popular sports manga such as Tomorrow’s Joe and Star of the Giants). A manga version of Kajiwara’s story appeared in Shohen Gaho magazine in 1963 with art by Tetsuya Dan (shown below).
In this story, Captain Okita (yes, that was his name) commands a Yamato that can fly and submerge. With his two sons, he fights the evil mad scientist, Dr. Killer. Kajiwara regarded the anime Yamato as an imitation of his concept. But as it turns out, the idea of flying battleships in Japanese fiction predates even World War II, originating in a story by Hirata Shinsaku titled New Battleship Takachiho.
Read much more about New Battleship Yamato here.
Returning to the present, this very website hosts the first and so far only two Star Blazers webcomics on planet Earth, both descended from the Argo Press comics from the 1990s. Star Blazers Rebirth was serialized online from August 2005 to August 2007. Created to honor the 25th anniversary of the series in America, it returns to the Star Force 25 years later and places challenges in their path that brings new meaning to their original adventures. Read the entire series here.
The second Star Blazers webcomic, titled The Bolar Wars Extended, began in October 2009. Whereas the Rebirth webcomic was based on material developed for Yamato Resurrection, this one greatly expanded on concepts that had seemingly been lost forever when the Series 3 was cancelled prematurely in 1981. Read it all here.
Leiji Matsumoto’s classic manga gained new life in 2018 thanks to a little-known company called Fukkan Publishing. In one year, they brought out large-format keepsake editions that reduced all previous versions to footnotes.
Read the details here.
This is almost certainly not the end of Yamato‘s life in manga or comics form. The medium came into being and flourished precisely because of its economic versatility. As long as comics are easier and cheaper to produce than animation, there will always be a place for Yamato (or Star Blazers) to live on. To read more about some of the publications described in this article, click on any of the links below and settle in for a great read.
Read about Leiji Matsumoto’s Cosmoship Yamato manga
Read the Yamato manga by Yuki Hijiri
Read about the Akira Hio manga series
Read about Yamato III manga
Read the Yamato III manga by Hiroshi Aizawa
Read about Yamato Anime Comics
Read about the WCC Star Blazers Animation Comics
Read about the Comico Star Blazers Comics
Read about the Argo Press Star Blazers Comics
Read about Japanese Doujinshi
Go to the Star Blazers Rebirth webcomic