by Tim Eldred
Wednesday March 1
It was my last full day in Tokyo for Yamatour 2017, and it was destined to be the best. The second my eyes popped open, coherent thought number 1 was: visiting Habara at Xebec today!
A day long remembered…
It was my tenth trip to Japan over nearly ten years (first one was August 2007) and even then my daydream was to get inside an anime studio. I’ve been working in US animation studios since 1996, and I wanted like hell to stand in a Japanese counterpart to feel the context wash over me. Our artists fill their work spaces with posters, toys, books, etc. to personalize them. We all find our own ways to surround ourselves with inspirational objects. Conversely, some of us leave that space completely empty, choosing to focus only on the work. Would Japanese artists be the same? Today I’d finally get the chance to find out.
Arrival time at Tanashi station would be 10:30am, so I met Rina Lee about 45 minutes ahead and we departed together from Nakano. I had test-traveled the route the day before to see how long it would take. When I reached Tanashi station then, I got right back on the train and reversed course. I toyed briefly with the idea of stepping onto the street and finding Xebec studio for a photo op. I had looked it up once before and discovered it to be quite close, but I decided not to push the test too far. Good thing, too, because I was soon to learn that Xebec had since picked up and moved to a bigger building.
When we got inside Tanashi station, I looked past the entry gates and saw Nobuyoshi Habara immediately, standing with someone I vaguely recognized and wearing that smile that somehow takes up his entire face. I thought I’d be cute and set him up for a Kodai-greets-Shima-at-Hero’s-Hill moment, so I extended my arms and said “KODAI!” Not quite getting it, he went in for a hug instead, which was even better. Then surprise #1: his friend.
Director/designer/animator Tomonori Kogawa, master of the upshot.
I turned to face him, and it clicked. Standing in front of me was Mr. Tomonori Kogawa. If you don’t recognize that name, I’ll remind you: animation director/character designer extraordinaire. He directed character animation on Farewell to Yamato in 1978 and went on to design and direct for a spate of 1980s SF that included Ideon, Xabungle, Dunbine, and many more. He returned to Yamato on Resurrection in 2009. And now here he was, inches away. My arms were still out, so he went in for a hug too. Close bodily contact with two Yamato superstars in one go. Who else can claim that?
I introduced myself and Kogawa asked how long I was in Tokyo. When I told him I was leaving the next day, he looked wistful and said that if I was staying longer he’d be happy to sit down for a chat. But with that off the table, we agreed to do it next time. “Next time” will be the Yamatour where we all go for Chapter 7 (fall of 2018?) and you better believe I’m going to follow up on this agreement.
As we walked out of the station to start off for Xebec, Habara explained to me that Kogawa was actually working for him. It was no accident that the Gatlantis scenes in Chapter 1 looked like his work, upshots and all – he was specifically hired to do them.
The walk to the studio took about ten minutes, during which time we got caught up on each others’ lives. I got the chance to drop a series name from Habara’s past, and he picked it up right away: Mad Machine. Explanation: during the time I was translating magazine content from 1983 for the Final Yamato Time Machine series, I kept seeing promo for an TV series that either never aired or was completely forgotten: Mad Machine. From what I could tell, it was a “supercar” mecha show, and I’d learned in the interim that it was one of Habara’s earliest design projects. It certainly was, he said, and he’d worked on it right up to the moment it was canceled before it could go on the air. Apparently a major sponsor pulled out. These things happen. (In America, too.)
Xebec hadn’t only moved to a bigger building, it had JUST moved there. Boxes were piled up everywhere and it looked more like an animation warehouse than a working studio. In fact, the work day hadn’t quite begun yet; most of the artists would roll in at noon and work late into the night. So I wouldn’t get to see much of the wildlife in its natural environment, but we also wouldn’t be interrupting work.
After swapping out my shoes for those oversized leather “pocket sandals” that constantly want to launch themselves off my feet, we made our way up a couple flights of stairs and into a meeting room where we sat down for some conversation. A TV monitor and a bookcase full of Yamato model kits adorned one side. We had only about an hour, so we had to make the most of it. Habara started me off with a very unexpected treat: a viewing of the rough version of the opening title that will grace the series from Chapter 2 onward.
In America, we call them animatics; a storyboard presented in slideshow fashion with a rough soundtrack. In this case, the soundtrack was the same instrumental version of the opening theme heard on the Chapter 1 Blu-ray. This animatic reused it along with the new scenes we saw in the opening title attached to Episode 2. In this version, the scenes reused from Episode 1 had all been stripped out and replaced by intricate black and white storyboards. Each scene was a beauty shot of Yamato in its underground dock with machinery moving this way and that, ammo and support mecha being loaded up for the upcoming voyage. Then a launch and we’re off. None of these scenes had been finished yet because they were derived from a sequence that wouldn’t be animated until Episode 4. We’ll all get to see it when the Chapter 2 Blu-ray finally arrives in July.
I asked Habara if each chapter would have its own end title song a la Yamato 2199, and he confirmed it. Then he showed me something even better – a short animatic sequence from the second half of Episode 4 starting with Kodai at the helm and Shima arriving at the last minute to take over. Yamato cruises out of its dock and into open ocean. That was it. Only a few seconds. But each of them was pure magic.
After that, TV off and mouths on for a rapid-fire succession of Q & A:
When Yamato fires its mighty shock cannon at the end of Episode 1, where does all that lake water go? It freaking EVAPORATED, that’s where it went.
Is manga artist Michio Murakawa contributing to the series? Yes, he’s doing screen graphics for computer monitors and such.
I looked up the name of the Gatlantis battleship in Chapter 1 and found the original Mayan spelling: Calakmul. But the first instance I’ve seen in English was spelled Calaklum. Was that intentional? Yes, because it’s easier for Japanese to say.
Is Nobuteru Yuuki designing every character for the series? No, some are rough-designed in the storyboards and guest character designer Shinichi Yamaoka takes it from there.
Why is General Serizawa (of the Cosmo Navy) not in jail after his failed coup against Yamato in 2199? You’ll find out in Episode 3.
What are the huge stones surrounding Telezart at the end of Episode 2? It’s a secret.
Volunteered info: just as Yoshinobu Nishizaki was animated for a cameo scene in Farewell to Yamato, a similar cameo is now being planned for exec producer Shoji Nishizaki.
Finally, for a reference point, I asked about the production status of all current episodes. Here it was as of March 1:
Eps 3 & 4: Close to being finished. Sound work done. Final editing underway.
Eps 5 & 6: About 75% done, sound work done.
Ep 7: Voice recording done, animation underway. (A few scenes were piled up waiting for inspection.)
Ep 8: Animation in the layout stage. Voice recording was scheduled for the next day.
Ep 9: Storyboards underway.
Scripts: all 26 are written. They get modified one by one as each episode is developed.
I was not surprised at all to hear that many episodes were in progress simultaneously. On the Avengers series at Marvel Animation Studio, I’m one of two directors. We each handle 13 episodes with a new one starting every four weeks. (I do all the even-numbered shows.) We reach peak production with the arrival of our fifth script. From there, we constantly have five episodes rolling forward at one stage or another. It stays at that level until they start dropping off with no new episodes to replace them. Japanese directors actually get assigned fewer shows over that same time frame because they see them all the way through the animation process. In the US, we only see an episode through pre-production (script/design/storyboards/voice recording) and then ship it off to Korea for animation. About four months later it comes back and enters post-production. At Xebec (and most other Japanese studios) everything stays in one place and each director is on it all the way through. That’s why some of the 2199 directors only got to do two episodes.
As I write these words, two and a half months have passed since my visit to Xebec and all the episode numbers have shifted forward, but I can only guess which ones are keeping Habara and his team busy right now. They must at least be approaching the halfway point.
Left: scenes in progress, each one tucked into its own production envelope. Right: Prototype Andromeda model.
Next, we walked over to the actual 2202 nerve center. Half of it was full of recently-moved equipment and the other half with individual work spaces, but less than half a dozen people were around and only a couple of them were awake. The others were stretched out on chairs or under their desks, sleeping off an all-nighter. So we kept it quiet.
Habara took us over to his own workspace, tucked deep into a corner of this room. And boy, did it look like home to me. Yamato books, posters and toys, lots of art and reference books, a prototype Andromeda model kit, rows of CDs, the works. My own space at Marvel wouldn’t look out of place here at all.
Habara takes a quick peek at the day’s workload on the way to his cubicle.
He also works at the same kind of drawing tablet as I do, a 21″ Cintiq. He runs it off a laptop, which I had done for a long time prior to upgrading my Mac. The point is, he’s at the creative pinnacle of perhaps the greatest project of his life, and his work space is as down to Earth as he is. He’s so tucked in you could walk right by without seeing him.
Also, the wallpaper on his Cintiq screen is a huge, intricate Yamato-in-dock image from the opening title, painted by Kia Asamiya with a view right through the bow crest. It was as high-def as high-def gets, and would easily hold up on a big screen. I hope we all get the chance to see it that way.
Do not feed the artist or tap on the glass. Keep all hands and feet clear of artist’s reach.
We talked Yamato trivia for a bit, and I noticed that one of the posters hanging over him was the promo for Chapter 2. This was quite symbolic, given that it was his top priority at the moment. Four months seems like a long wait for us, but I guarantee you it’s far too short when you’re actually making the film. This got us talking about the 2202 release schedule, and I asked if they were aiming for Chapter 7 to come out in August 2018. Habara said that would be impossible, thinking it would be late fall instead. I asked him if anything special was being planned for August 2018 and he wondered why I brought that up. When I reminded him that it would be the 40th anniversary of Farewell to Yamato, his eyes got big and his jaw fell open. Imagine being so swamped with work you would forget about something like that. He vowed to bring it up in the next planning meeting. So if something special DOES happen, I am claiming full credit.
It was coming up on 12:30 and we had to move along. Habara generously walked us all the way back to Tanashi station, yakking the whole way. I asked if he ever got to take time off, and he said it was pretty much non-stop work. He’d taken a week-long trip to France prior to starting, but that window will stay closed until production is over. Having come to appreciate the value of physical fitness over the last year (my stamina on this trip alone had been a revelation compared to previous visits), I asked him to take good care of himself and not let Yamato destroy his health. He will do the best he can at both, I’m sure.
After a morning like that, seeing my first anime studio in the context of my favorite anime, it was hard to think of anything else that could measure up. I’d intentionally left the day planner blank to accommodate anything new that might float in. I’d kept in touch with my friend Matt Alt to wait for our lunch schedules to line up, and today they did.
We grabbed a pair of seats at a Nakano sushi joint with an automat feel; you’d place your order on a touch screen and a few minutes later a toy bullet train would whisk it out of the kitchen directly to your spot at the bar. No human contact except for your drink order and the cashout. I hadn’t had sushi yet on this trip, so it was a perfect choice. I even got a taste of ankimo – the foie gras of the seafood world – which is disappointingly difficult to find outside Japan.
Now arriving at Ankimo station, track 1…
Matt and I loitered around like reprobates inside Nakano for a bit and settled in for coffee. After sharing info about our latest projects, conversation drifted into anime and I mentioned that I’d been considering picking up the new Crusher Joe blu-ray box set while I was here. Matt joined the chorus of other voices in recommending it for its astonishing picture quality, but I was still face-planting into the substantial 25,000 yen asking price (around $230). It comes with multiple discs and custom books, but still…
Back on the solo path, I suddenly remembered the other movie I had intended to see while I was here, the latest Lupin III story, Blood Spray of Goemon. It would give me a chance to revisit the exquisite Shinjuku Wald 9 theater again – a true palace of cinema – so I express-trained over from Nakano and took off at a trot. Alas, time was just a little too tight for it to happen. I got all the way to the ticket counter just after trailers started rolling, and that was the cutoff. An American theater would have coughed up a ticket even after the film had started, but they take customer care a little more seriously in Japan. And good for them.
I’d have one more chance to see the film, but for the rest of this particular day I decided on a final spin through Shinjuku before heading out to meet friends for dinner in Akihabara. It got me thinking about the experience of seeing familiar things in foreign places.
The “Kimtak” billboard, December 2014 and February 2017.
When you wander around specifically looking at magazine racks (as I did on my search earlier in the trip), you see the same covers over and over until they become sort of like friends. The same is true of any public media no matter where you travel. A stream of consistency in what can be an otherwise bewildering environment (I’ve noticed the same thing in every foreign city I’ve travelled to). Another example of this was the billboard near Shinjuku station that was up for years – a dirt-simple ad for a home security company – that inexplicably placed pop star/actor Takuya Kimura in a kingly position over the city. It took on a Yamato connection when he starred in the 2010 live-action movie, and this billboard became sort of like a friend I looked forward to seeing. Until this time, when he vanished. Come to think of it, his longtime pop supergroup SMAP broke up last year, so maybe that had something to do with it. Nothing is permanent, Kimtak.
After a whirlwind tour of the 9-floor Radio Kaikan building in Akihabara (where you can count on finding just about anything that came out in the last 6 months) I reassembled with Daniel George and John-Paul Goodwin. We met our old pal Tsuneo Tateno (who I befriended on my second trip all the way back in 2008) and – for the first time – enjoyed a second helping of the world’s best tonkatsu at Maru Go restaurant.
Super Robot Wars V, featuring Space Battleship Yamato!
We split up afterward with Tsuneo joining me for a walk through the insanely large Yodobashi Camera/Multimedia department store (a sales event for Chapter 1 on Blu-ray would be held here a few weeks later). I was ready to act on my impulse to buy that Crusher Joe blu-ray box IF it happened to turn up at something less than 25,000 yen. It didn’t. But on the other hand it had only been a few days since the release of the new Super Robot Wars V video game, the first to include Space Battleship Yamato, so I was able to get a few shots of it in its natural habitat. And below are a few more from the same department. Yodobashi is quite a carnival, but you will find familiar faces there.
The bathroom sinks at the Shinjuku Wald 9 win the sink
olympics. Hold your hand in front of the faucet for a squirt,
the dispenser for some soap, and then the blower for a dry.
All contained in one basin.
Thursday March 2
The last day started early with me bolting out of bed for an 8am movie. Read that again if you disbelieve. An 8am movie.
As mentioned earlier, the latest Lupin III film was playing at the Shinjuku Wald 9. I’ve been a Lupin fan almost as long as I’ve been a Yamato fan, but had never gotten the chance to see him on the big screen. (Well, OK, there was a Cagliostro screening in LA many years ago, but I’m not counting that.) I’d let it slide until today and I knew I’d regret it if I couldn’t close the deal. We had to be out of the apartment by 11, so it was either 8am or not at all. Fortunately, I was still connected to the Tokyo Live Wire. Sleep wasn’t a priority.
The new film was named Blood Spray of Goemon, and a more accurate title doesn’t exist. With a running time of 50 minutes, it was packaged as two TV episodes in the same fashion as Jigen’s Gravestone. Both took their stylistic cues from A Woman Named Mine Fujiko and Lupin III Part IV; a gritty, appealing experiment in what the best animators from the 1960s might do with today’s techniques.
This is easily the goriest Lupin story I’ve ever seen. Even unsubtitled, it was easy to follow due to its simplicity; axe-wielding maniac kills a gangster who hired Ishikawa Goemon as a bodyguard. Goemon must atone by slicing up axe-wielding maniac. Blood and flesh pile up as their confrontations get increasingly violent. It’s breathtaking. We’ve seen Goemon take enemies apart with precision swordplay for almost 50 years, but until now it’s always been sanitized for TV. Not here. You’ll need a strong stomach.
On the way out I had the opportunity to buy the Blu-ray and the soundtrack CD.
If you think I would turn down this opportunity, you don’t know me well enough.
A final walk through the Shinjuku Piccadilly revealed that the 1/100 Yamato model had set sail for another destination. A big empty hole stood in its place, a sure sign that this Yamatour was ending. Yamato 2202 Chapter 1 would still be around for a little over a week, and Nobuyoshi Habara would soon take the stage alongside writer Harutoshi Fukui to launch the second weekend. I would have stayed if I could. But Avengers cartoons don’t make themselves.
One last look at the movie posters outside the Piccadilly, which was playing both 2202 and Your Name.
Closer inspection revealed some autographs…
Writer Harutoshi Fukui, Director Nobuyoshi Habara, Houko Kuwashima (Yuki) and Daisuke Ono (Kodai)
had all gone on stage for the Feb 25 premiere and left this ink behind.
I returned directly to the apartment in Nakano for the last time. The grey sky opened up to water me during the final walk from the station, so I bought a newspaper to keep it off. The total effective life of that newspaper was ten minutes. Wherever it ended up, it has my gratitude.
The major packing had all been done the night before, so now all I had to do was zip everything shut and join the exodus. Daniel and John-Paul were closing things up when I got there, and had been joined by Mr. Cat Hands Agent himself, Sonchori Ha.
A moment of reintroduction is in order: Sonchori has been a friend since 2006 when I started using his online services to dive deeper into my hobby. You can get plenty of stuff through mainstream sources like Hobbylink Japan, CD Japan, and Amazon.co.jp – and indeed they are still my primary sources for new products. But if you want to dig back through history and join the psychofan elite, you need an ally like Sonchori. As a deputy shopper, he accesses the same “underground” sources available to Japanese collectors, the largest being Yahoo Japan Auctions. If you’ve ever marveled at the ancient artifacts presented here at Cosmo DNA, thank Sonchori for helping me obtain them. And then become one of his customers.
Salutes and handshakes marked our last moment as a trio. Dan and JP had only just completed the first part of their tour with two weeks still ahead of them in other cities. I would be home in less than 24 hours (and it would still be Thursday March 2), but they wouldn’t set foot on Australian soil again until March 18.
Sonchori generously lent me his company for my last few hours. The Narita Express train back to the airport would leave mid-afternoon, so there was enough time for a last, leisurely round of Nakano; one more visit to all the places that would be regular stops for me if I actually did live here. Breakfast at Café Renoir, a pastry from Refutei, a round of window-shopping at Nakano Broadway, and a steaming bowl of ramen for lunch.
First we needed a safe spot to keep my luggage, which allowed me my first glimpse of Takemori Heights, the condo and home office of Cat Hands Agent. At least from the outside. Sonchori didn’t want me seeing the interior (which he describes as a “stock room”), which only made me want to see it more. But no budging on that one. At least my luggage got to see it.
Last chance for local cuisine!
And perhaps some not-so-local. (Didn’t try this.)
It seems that I can never leave Nakano Broadway empty-handed. I’d already lost count of how many times I dived in on this trip, but there’s simply too much of it to see in a single round. Stock may even change day to day, especially at the Mandarake stores. I was down to the last of my cash, which would pay for a taxi and airport sushi, but I started to notice that American Express was accepted just about everywhere and the bells of fate began to ring. The lightning round was ON.
A few days earlier I’d posted a photo of this classic Yamato 2 cel I saw at Anime World Star. Friend-of-the-website Patrick Bleakney said he’d pay me back for it if I bought it for him. Do they take Amex? Yep. DONE.
Next stop was a Mandarake store specializing in antique toys with a mid-80s cutoff. Here I finally saw a vintage Yamato collectible I’d always secretly coveted – the 10th anniversary brass medallion from 1983. Completely, utterly useless. Which made it irresistable. Amex OK? DONE.
The medallion and other items in the store it came from.
One more Mandarake store, this one specializing in CDs and home video. One last chance to find that Crusher Joe Blu-ray box, see that it could never be had for less than 25,000 yen, and write it off forever. I turned a corner, looked up, and saw it in a case. 16,000 yen. Amex. DONE. (And man, is it a beauty. No regrets.)
The outer box and a 100-page art book.
Blu-ray containing the movie and OAVs, guide book, bonus footage DVD.
Since all the luggage was closed and full, I’d have to leave these new scores with Sonchori for shipping. A couple weeks later, their arrival gave me a warm memory of this victory lap. From there, my exit was all by the numbers. I was happy to find myself back in the same terminal at Narita I’d been to on every previous trip, where a terrific plate of sushi would be waiting. And that’s as good a place as any to close out this travelogue. There was only a week and a half to go until the next Cosmo DNA deadline (for the March 15 update) and work began in my airplane seat. No rest on the Yamato beat.
When that ol’ Narita Express comes a’callin’…
We’d already agreed that the next Yamatour would center on the release of 2202 Chapter 7, and that is still the plan. Late fall of 2018 is the most likely window at this point. Many things will come and go before then, and the temptation to return for an interim screening (maybe the Chapter 4 midpoint?) buzzes in my head like a cicada. Whatever happens, it will be reported here. And if it yields only half the miracles of Yamatour 2017 it will still be a runaway success.
Last view until next time. Of course there will be a next time. Ten trips ain’t nearly enough.
PS: Want some more? Click here to read an account by Yamatour 2017 participant Phillip Thorne.