Ryusuke Hikawa interview, January 2017

Ryusuke Hikawa’s name should be known to every Yamato fan worldwide. Of all the individual fans whose efforts saved Yamato from oblivion back in the mid-70s, he was the most passionate. In a very real way, we have him to thank for much of what came after. We’ve spoken with Mr. Hikawa here in the past, and he is still a prominent voice in SF/anime fandom with constant writing projects. This interview was published Showa 40 Man magazine Vol. 41 (Crete Publishing, January 2017) and places Yamato’s rise into a context seldom seen elsewhere.

The experience of SF expanding the mind was exactly what came from our encounter with Yamato

Anime and Tokusatsu researcher

Ryusuke Hikawa

Science-fiction and the encounter with Yamato were experiences that stand out in the mind. Space Battleship Yamato is the work that absolutely cannot be ignored when talking about the men of Showa 40. Why were we fascinated by it? The journey to the appearance of this work is closely related to it. Animation researcher Ryusuke Hikawa examines the history of postwar science fiction, carefully leading up to the birth of Yamato.

Text: Koichi Fukuzumi
Photography: Michihito Matsuda

[Translator’s note: Tokusatsu is the Japanese term for live-action special effects programs and films such as Godzilla and Ultraman.]

“I was born in 1958. Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy by Osamu Tezuka, 1951), a work that was bound up with postwar Japanese SF, was made before I was born. I heard rumors from my elders that 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was great, but I was only ten years old at the time so naturally I couldn’t watch it in a movie theater. So both of them clearly belong to the baby-boom generation. I recognized that they were not of my generation.”

The animation researcher who says that is Ryusuke Hikawa, and it is not an exaggeration to call him a Yamato missionary. He is seven years older than a Showa 40 man [born in 1965].

Before asking what science-fiction movie first captivated Mr. Hikawa, I had to ask why postwar Japan culture was overflowing with SF in the first place.

“Briefly, the pinnacle of the postwar high was the Tokyo Olympics. I think everything related to the long-term was very SF-like. Both the capital expressway and the Shinkansen [bullet train] were all new. Something we didn’t have yesterday seemed natural today, and all the Japanese people from children to adults experienced such times. Therefore, I don’t think anyone treated SF-like things as special. In other words, I think SF was the obvious index for not just science and technology but also the development of the economy.”

In this time of such sudden change, a new trend was born in children’s SF that pursued more realism.

“In the 60s, Tetsuwan Atom represented a demand that could not be satisfied by the vague SF depictions of previous images. Anime fit into that. Atom and 8-Man were broadcast in the same year (1963) and in tokusatsu there was Ultraman Q (1966). Looking back on them now, they were pretty rough, but the point was that they had a certain level of logic at the time. I was one of those who were addicted to both of these works.”

The “jump” that happens in those stories is an element that cannot be removed from SF, and if the reasoning behind it does not stand up to logic, that jump ends up looking like a childish fantasy. Both of these were well-crafted and drew a lot of attention from kids who became obsessed with them. It would have been exciting to feel their realism when focusing on the S in SF. In a word, the science.

The accumulation of theories says that the biggest contribution that awakened thoughts of creating cathartic works came from the Hayakawa SF Library, which was born in 1970.

“I later learned that Kazumasa Hirai, an SF writer who was the original author of 8-Man, also wrote the anime scripts. But in my case, the Hayakawa Library was a trigger to read SF by Japanese writers. I also knew the name Sakyo Komatsu at this time. I wasn’t conscious of SF from the beginning, but when I followed my favorite things, they all lead me to SF.”

When the SF paperback boom began in 1971, Kazumasa Hirai’s Wolf Guy mixed with overseas works, and Sakyo Komatsu published Espy. Aritsune Toyota, who wrote 8-Man scripts with Hirai, published a work in the same year.

The grounds for accepting the SF “doomsday boom”

Hikawa says that a change that happened in the world of SF books in the 1970s is unexpectedly related to Yamato.

“At that time, the cover art of SF paperbacks was almost abstract. At the start of the 70s, Masaru Mori, who was the chief editor of Hayakawa’s SF Magazine starting using manga illustrators for the covers, which was revolutionary. Before that, the world of paperbacks was very conservative, and the trend was that using manga illustrators was out of the question. However, space opera was popular in America before the war, and there was a hint of the erotic in cover art that caught peoples’ attention, so they won over a lot of young science fiction readers by breaking with convention.”

Also, the environment surrounding SF changed dramatically in the 70s, triggered by the major issue of the pollution problem that was largely taken up in media from the mid-60s, and the focus shifted to the dark side of technological civilizations.

“There was the movie Godzilla vs Hedorah (1971) that depicted pollution damage, which was not at all exaggerated for me, who grew up in Tokyo. I got coughing fits from photochemical smoke when I went home from school. It was not a conceptual crisis, but a real physical theat. (Laughs) It was normal for vinyl to stick to your body at the beach, and I felt the fear of “Is it really true that the Earth is broken?” under my skin.”

“With the arrival of the first oil shock in 1973, the festive mood of the Osaka World Expo was completely blown away. One of the things I clearly remember from those days was that boys’ manga magazines suddenly became thin. From the situation that the manga I wanted to read was down to only a few pages, I think even children had the actual feeling that something serious was taking place.”

Let’s take movies as an example. Japan Sinks (1973) was an unprecedented hit in Japan, the first TV broadcast of Planet of the Apes (1968) took place on TBS, robots caused a revolt in Westworld (1973), and Soylent Green (1973) depicted a population adjustment in future society. Even in Hollywood, works criticized civilization one after another. This vividly reflected the signs of defeat near the end of the Vietnam war and a heavy feeling of weariness. They all implied a gloomy and catastrophic future for humanity, which had overestimated science. All of this happened in the year 1973.

Yamato embodied the post-oil shock

Thus, around the age of 8, imprinted with a planetary crisis and the ruin of mankind, we finally met Space Battleship Yamato in 1974. I asked Mr. Hikawa for his candid impression of this work when he first saw it at the age of 16.

“In fact, I did not see the first episode in real time. A friend told me an amazing anime had started. When I saw Episode 1 later, I was shocked. First, I was fascinated by the advanced beauty of the visuals. The depiction of outer space. The mecha design was so precise that anime before it could not compare. I learned later that it was done under the direction of the Chief Director Noboru Ishiguro, and it was thoroughly made. I thought about what would happen if an explosion occurred in zero gravity.”

“It had a visual reality that could not be expressed in words. We were surprised to see such attention to detail. It was a world view that took a step forward from a feeling of helplessness. In other words, it was a work that embodied the post-oil shock. Based on the premise of a dark future that was flooding in at the time, it depicted what to do from there. The detailed images were intertwined with this concept, and it was a work that excited me in a way I’d never felt before.”

Negative social conditions ruled by a doomsday theory; SF that reflected that reached a saturation point in 1973. This work appeared the very next year. What exquisite timing. Furthermore, Mr. Hikawa told me about other revolutionary points of this work.

Yamato was not a work about watching the main character. It was about the concept and worldview. It’s normal for a specific hero to appear and solve a difficult problem in a fight, but this work was, so to speak, a group drama. Susumu Kodai was just one of the characters. Through visuals like the Earth colored rust-red and the moment Yamato starts up, the priority was to enjoy the visuals of a world we hadn’t seen before. If it had only followed the trends and emotions of the hero, it would have settled into conventional thinking, but since I experienced a worldview I hadn’t seen before, it couldn’t fit into my brain. Bringing an unprecedented experience is an important element of SF. I was able to experience the taste of a high-quality SF novel with this work. Moreover, it was an anime broadcast on TV every week. I thought that was revolutionary.”

When you meet something that goes beyond the scope of your thinking, brain cells start actively moving to understand it. Is this the “sense of wonder” feeling that is often described in the world of SF?

“The image of Earth and the destruction of mankind was something that should have been abominable, but the feeling of virtue was beautiful. A world that mixed Eros and Thanatos. Some said it was imprudent to deal with the Battleship Yamato in the first place, since the scars of war were more vivid back then, but even despite that, Yamato was a work you couldn’t look away from.”

Exchanges between fans formed because of the emphasis on worldview

Why could this work only have been created 43 years ago? By whose suggestion was it created in the first place?

“Actually, that’s a mystery. It’s well-known that excellent creators gathered together and the world was born under the direction of Yoshinobu Nishizaki, but you can’t assert that it was the achievement of one person. I believe that is also an essential element in talking about this work. As I pointed out earlier, it’s a work that depicts the concept and worldview, and ten different people will have ten different viewpoints. Therefore, everyone wants to talk. To be honest, if you look back on it now there are also holes in the work, and everyone dreams about how to fill those holes in again. When you think like this…you could say you’re making your own Yamato within yourself. I don’t think this can be done with a character-driven anime.”

Was that the driving force for Mr. Hikawa to form a fan circle?

“The plan to make 39 episodes was ended with only 26. Briefly, the broadcast was shortened. There was great vexation about whether it was a good thing or not that this was all that got sent out into the world. I couldn’t go through this alone, so I made friends because I wanted to talk about Yamato. I think this activity contributed to the big hit of the theatrical version in 1977.”

As Mr. Hikawa says, the work ended with 26 episodes, but it gradually became a topic with reruns. Ultimately, the 1977 theatrical version caused a social phenomenon when people lined up all night before it opened. Every Showa 40 man knows about this.

“I can say without fear of misunderstanding that Yamato is by no means a perfect work. There are contradictions in the story and roughness in the production as well. However, there is no denying the influence and importance of its existence. Yamato was the first time the word “anime” was established. It was a time when a work with the concept of unknown people from space attacked Earth with radioactivity, and a long journey of 148,000 light years had to be taken in order to obtain a radiation-removal device from another planet. I think you can understand how innovative it was.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that Space Battleship Yamato was the big restart point for SF after the war.


At left: Cover for the first issue of Yamato Association Bulletin (1977), by the Yamato fan club. Hikawa served as chairmain while in college. It became a place of exchange between fans and a trigger to foster later anime fans.

At right: Dune by Frank Herbert (1972). This is Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, later made into a film by David Lynch. The cover of this edition is by manga artist Shotaro Ishinomori. Fujiko Fujio and Monkey Punch were other active manga artists who were invited to illustrate later volumes.

A program titled Legacy of the Future cast doubt on human prosperity

There were reasons to accept the extinction of Earth in Yamato. Mr. Hikawa says that the influence of the 1974 NHK program Legacy of the Future, which gave a contemporary Japanese outlook on human beings and civilization, was not small.

“It was a program that dealt with the Nazca ground pictures and Mayan civilization. Mankind had built a civilization in which space flight was possible. NHK broadcast the bold hypothesis to the entire nation that it could also have fallen. Coupled with the influence of Japan Sinks and The Great Prophecies of Nostradamus, children and adults alike had the prevailing thought that the prosperity of the human race was not permanent.”

Above right: Noboru Ishiguro first participated in anime by supporting directors. He was originally an SF lover and pursued its image without compromise. While managing the work site as an animation director, he realized beautiful depictions that took leaps forward from conventional anime.

Above left: Ishiguro reached his true height with weightless explosions in zero gravity space battle scenes. He thoroughly checked all storyboards, worked out theoretical explosions in space, and issued detailed instructions each time. This effort created the unique and powerful explosion scenes we know in Yamato.

The TV anime was broadcast from 1974-75 and the first Yamato feature film was released in 1977. It was released on blu-ray in June 2013.

The common points of Yamato and Star Wars

There are several similarities between Yamato and Star Wars. Both have the refrains of World War II, moving the stage of battle from the ground to outer space. Star Wars is also a work with a satisfying worldview, and it is not a work judged by its main character, Luke Skywalker. Another similarity is the point of looking at a hopeless situation with little chance of victory and aiming for a reversal.

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