Off to Spazio Eterno
Japanese Animation and Star Blazers in Italy

By Andrea Controzzi

Yamato and I were born in the same year, 1974. I consider it a sort of omen, since this program out of all the works of Leiji Matsumoto has had such a strong influence on my life. You could say it is only an anime, but the values of friendship, love, respect for life, hard work and cooperation to achieve your dreams had a huge impact on me. It was not just an animated series for me, but a lesson about life and self-discovery.

Above: a Star Blazers jigsaw puzzle by Mondadori

I’m a male, by the way, since here Andrea is a male name only. I first saw Star Blazers on a black & white TV when I was 8, and ever since then I have felt something resonate inside me, as if it were speaking my soul’s secret language. Other programs like Matsumoto’s Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 were interesting and fascinating, but with Star Blazers it was different.I always recognized myself and my beliefs in the characters, then in the story, and finally I realized I was listening to Leiji Matsumoto himself; to his point of view about life, love, and friendship.

I’ve always had a passion for astronomy. I looked to the stars and planets and wanted to go see them, but I was born too early in the history of mankind to achieve this. But I cannot forget the day (I was 14 at the time) when I turned on my new color TV set early in the morning and saw that Star Blazers was airing again. It was the beginning of the second season, and I got to see again the climax of the Comet Empire saga. I was very sad to see it end, and I was hoping they would start over the next day.

After 20 years, I still remember with a shiver the surprise of seeing the silhouette of the sun and the Argo coming out of it. This was the third series unfolding before my eyes! That story is strong with science and astronomy, moreso than the others. Star Blazers has never been far from my mind since then, and it eventually lead me directly back to its source. But more about that at the end of this article. First I will provide an introduction of Japanese animation in Italy and some peculiar details about how Star Blazers fits into its history.

Very few people know, and would believe, that Italy is probably the third largest market for Japanese animation, after Japan itself and USA. Most likely, Italy is second only to Japan on the “otaku percentage” of population. There is a mix of cultural and historical reasons for this; anime was introduced when the Italian economy was booming, and TV sets were spreading like wildfire. After the state television monopoly was canceled, thousands of local television channels were born in a few years. None of them were allowed to build a national network, because of laws that protected the supremacy of state television, so each channel had a very low budget. That meant that each local, or at most regional, network was hungry for cheap entertainment, especially for children whose mothers were entering careers for the first time and needed a reliable babysitting tool.

Four volumes in a series of Star Blazers photobooks, Mondadori

The potential for anime was huge. It was immediately pegged as children’s entertainment, even violent series like Tiger Mask, which was run absolutely uncensored. Many channels dedicated up to 4 hours per day to anime and the demand was so high that almost all the series ever produced were eventually imported. They aired so many times that everybody was able to watch almost of the entire body of Japanese production. Those born in the “magic seventies” grew up eating Nutella and watching “cartoni animati” [cartoon animation] for most of their youth. Now they have money to spend and live in the age when passions are at the highest. Thus was born the Italian “otaku generation.”

The Italian values of freedom and charity lead to some unique changes in the anime. For example, the lyrics in the opening theme to Lupin III (which 95% of the 20-30 year olds would still be able to sing still today) described him as a thief who “stole from the rich to give to the poor,” while the series did nothing to hide the fact that Lupin stole for himself. Even Tiger Mask‘s opening song proclaimed the main character was fighting against evil and for freedom. Italy at the time (1970-1980) was a very strong Catholic state that bordered the “iron curtain” during the Cold War, so freedom was a value always underlined in contrast with the lack of it in the Soviet Union and its allies.

Almost all theme songs were in Italian, composed by famous or semi-famous artists and groups, in a few cases using the original Japanese music but changing the words. The opening theme to Italian UFO Robot Goldrake [UFO Robot Grendaizer] is as famous and widely known as the Yamato Theme in Japan, and introduced the word “cybernetics” in Italy. The most famous lines from the Goldrake theme are “Mangia libri di cibernetica, insalate di matematica” (“he eats cybernetics books and mathematic salads”). Google it and you’ll find more than 5000 entries, with many real mathematics books still today being titled “insalata di matematica” (“Mathematics salad”).

The images shown during the openings were often different from the original Japanese and taken directly from the series, most often from the first and last episodes, or a random one which was most likely being dubbed when the song was made available. The ending themes were usually left intact or cut completely. Some, like Lupin III and a few others, had an Italian closing theme too.

It is worth mentioning that all the anime in Italy is dubbed, and subtitles are never used. Italy has very professional voice actors, and many of the most famous dub-voices for well-known foreign actors started their careers working in anime. As a result, voice acting on Italian anime series is top class, even better during the Golden Age than today. (Click here to see an interview on YouTube with the actor Rino Bolognesi, who played Desslock, Sandor, and the narrator; he confirms that Star Blazers was produced in the best studio with the best actors of the time, many of whom spoke for multiple characters as in the English version.)

Needless to say, in such a huge market, there was a large opportunity for models, books, games and toys. Many were imported from Japan, not by small shops but by big companies like GIG (the Italian equivalent of Toys “R” Us), and in huge quantities. Almost all 30-something men and women here will admit to having dressed as an anime character for carnival and keeping a few animation books or posters in their bedroom.

But the most peculiar products are the indigenous board games. They were released in limited numbers, probably with shady copyrights if not outright illegally, and had very limited success because of their low quality. The most common ones are those based on SF like Captain Harlock and Star Blazers, because it is easier to get a game out of space ships than a Time Bokan comedy series.

At present, anime is not the mass-culture phenomenon it was 20 years ago, but it occupies a strong niche like any other European country. There are some specialized TV channels, but the role of cheap entertainment is mostly filled by American sitcoms. Yet, Italy does have a generation now in their 30s (called the Nutella Generation) that is peculiar to this country and probably has a counterpart only in Japanese otaku. Large, semi-annual conventions like Lucca Comics in Tuscany are being replaced by many local alternatives. The growing underground/black market started with VHS tapes many years ago and still lives on with bootleg DVDs and console videogames. File sharing is growing constantly too, and almost all of the Italian series can be found on peer-to-peer networks.

More proof that anime has not completely shaken its roots as cheap childrens’ entertainment is the complete lack of movies in cinemas and on TV. The only movie ever aired on Italian television was Leiji Matsumoto’s My Youth in Arcadia, which was cut into 20 minute episodes and run as a miniseries. The only anime movie that ever reached a big screen was Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which won a Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival. Matsumoto’s Interstella 5555 was released in theaters, but is considered a musical because of the soundtrack by France’s Daft Punk.

Translated manga by Leiji Matsumoto

Matsumoto’s earlier works, Yamato, Harlock, Galaxy Express 999, Queen Millennia and Danguard A, each had a different story when it came to localization for Italy. Harlock and Galaxy Express were introduced almost unchanged. However, Harlock was not presented as a pirate who fought under his own flag, but instead a sort of Robin Hood who stole from rich to give to the poor, and who fought for everybody’s freedom rather than just his own. The only significant changes to Galaxy Express were the character names: Masai instead of Tetsuro, and Maisha instead of Maetel. (Some have speculated that Maetel was too similar to the latin “mater” (mother) used for the Virgin Mary.) Danguard A and Queen Millennia were introduced without changes.

Star Blazers in Italy had a different and very peculiar story. The first and second series, presented as a single 52-episode package, came from the US version in 1980. It was initially aired on Italian-language Swiss television and then arrived in Italy. It had an English Star Blazers logo but an Italian opening theme (reproduced at the end of this page), and all the US editing was intact, including name changes. The opening title images for Series 1 were imported from the US, while the one for The Comet Empire had new footage, mostly from the final attack on Gatlantis. Star Blazers was probably the only seriously-edited series ever aired in Italy during the Golden Age.

Ironically, the Italian Star Blazers reintroduces some taboo words the Americans had cut. The most notable example is when Wildstar and Venture find Sasha’s body. In the American version, Venture says “Is she… ?”, and Wildstar answers, “I think so.” The word “death” is not spoken. In the Italian version, Venture says bluntly “She’s dead”. Other minor changes followed, as in the Magnetron Fortress episode. Dialogue indicating the destroyed plane was Sandor’s is changed, and nobody pretends the pilot has escaped alive, even if though the footage of the unfortunate pilot was cut.

The third series, in contrast, came directly from Japan, so it was completely uncut. Fans were shocked to see Analyzer’s sexual advances on Nova for the first time, not to mention open violence against people, not robots. The American names were kept to avoid confusion, but not without mistakes (Homer and Eager were exchanged). Most of the original dialogue was unchanged. All the Japanese screen text showing the names of characters and planets was left intact. The opening theme had the original Japanese music and images, but no singing.

At left: Wrapper from a set of collectible stickers

The new main characters, Ageha and Domon in Japanese, were given American-sounding names, Conan Wayne and Alex Stardust, instead of Flash Contrail and Jason Jetter. The same was done with Mother Shalbart and Princess Ruda, who became Queen Meridia and Princess Luda, instead of Queen Guardiana and Princess Mariposa. The ship was called “Incrociatore Spaziale Argo” (Space Cruiser Argo) in the third series, not corazzata (“battleship”) probably due to confusion with the Japanese choice of Cruiser in the official title. Finally, in Italy Series 1 and 2 are considered a single first series, while Yamato III is called “Star Blazers seconda serie” (second series).

The Yamato movies never reached television or cinema (almost no anime movie ever did) but much later they were released commercially on VHS tapes and later on DVDs by a company called Yamato Video, the leader of anime distribution in Italy. The movies were uncut and unchanged, taken directly from the Japanese original masters, so the title was correctly Corazzata Spaziale Yamato [Space Battleship Yamato], and kept all the original Japanese character names; Okita, Kodai and Dessler instead of Avatar, Wildstar and Desslok. This was a big shock for our Star Blazers fans. Some of the purists still use the American names they grew up on, and refuse to acknowledge the original ones. Sadly, the movies had very poor voice acting. This was not due to a lack of quality in the actors themselves, but probably their disinterest in their work. And Be Forever Yamato suffered from a particularly bad translation.

It is also sad to speak about Star Blazers’ lack of availability in Italy. The status of the rights is actually unclear. We only know that 20 years ago it was aired on a channel called Rete 4, later bought by Mediaset. They are the biggest network today with three national channels, and growing quickly thanks to digital broadcasting. There is a lot of speculation about who has the rights. Star Blazers disappeared from television more than 15 years ago and until recently the only way to watch it was to ask fellow fans for video copies. The aging of VHS is leading to increasing rarity, and usually the best one can find is a bootleg copy of some badly recorded broadcast.

The unknown legal status makes an official release impossible. The movies were only available because they were imported much later directly from Japan. Around 2002, an almost-unknown company called Explosion Video suddenly started selling Star Blazers on tape first, then on DVD, with some scenes restored using the original footage. Any anime shop owner would warn that they were probably illegal and wouldn’t be finished, and they were right. Soon Explosion Video was forced to close down with several lawsuits for breached copyrights, and they sped through a series of name changes including Exa Cinema. Exa released three Star Blazers DVDs (with Japanese package art and a menu system suspiciously similar to that of Voyage Entertainment) before dropping off the map and resurfacing later as Storm Video.

DVD sleeves from Exa Cinema. Click on each to see an enlargement of the entire sleeve.

Now the only way for a fan to get quality copies is either from Japan (first on Laserdisc, a medium mostly unknown in Europe, then DVDs), Hong Kong DVD bootlegs with low-quality subtitles, or the edited USA version. Fansubs of the first two series have recently appeared, a blessing especially in Italy where the third series is uncut and unchanged other than the character names.

Now back to my own personal experience with Star Blazers.

After watching the third series at the age of 14, I spent the rest of my teenage years fondly remembering Star Blazers. But I was never able to watch it again because it was not aired anymore and no tapes were sold. It is almost unbelievable now, but there were no browsers and the Internet was not much more than FTP, E-mail and the first user communities (called newsgroups). If more proof is needed to show how deeply-rooted anime was in the “magic seventies,” here it is: when the Italian hierarchy of newsgroups was created in 1995 and there was almost no Internet access outside universities, I proposed one called it.arti.cartoni (cartoons, in the arts branch), that soon became Italy’s top newsgroup for many years after.

It was shortly later that I found the Yamato movies and took my next step. I finally made contact with the origins. I came ever closer, without the filters of name and dialogue changes, to Leiji Matsumoto’s original work. The shock was soon absorbed and I felt even closer to the spirit of the series once I had the chance to hear to the original words.

So I started to look for more, using the Internet as a powerful tool to find Yamato fans all over the world. I joined a newly-born mailing list that put me in touch with many American fans and, most important, a Japanese one. At the same time, still thanks to Internet, I was finally able to locate someone with a copy of the Italian Star Blazers series. After a long trip by train I managed to watch one full series per night. Crazy, yes, but typical of a fan. That gave me more insight on the series in a time when animation was booming again thanks the new medium that put so many fans in contact.

I was acknowledged as a Yamato fan and expert by the anime community in Italy. I remember attending my first Lucca Comics festival in spring 1997, with new friends from all of Italy who shared my interests, and there I found merchandise like CDs, books and models. It was there that I made a fateful statement: let’s organize a trip to Japan and meet Leiji Matsumoto himself.

Illustrated Star Blazers storybook, Mondadori

Needless to say, I was laughed at for being so crazy, but a true Matsumoto fan knows that time never betrays your dreams. As long as you believe in them, they will eventually come true. While many laughed, some were listening, and together we started to plan the voyage. Only 6 months later, we were taking off for Japan. I was laughed at again when I told everybody a few days before that I was going to meet Matsumoto. But during takeoff I was listening to Yamato music and whispered “hasshin!” It is funny how we looked so much like the typical “super robot” team: a boy, a girl, a fat one, a dark one and a child. We really looked like that!

I was finally in Japan, but despite my bold statements the chances for a nobody like me to meet Leiji Matsumoto himself in those two weeks were even lower than for Yamato to reach Iscandar and come back in one year. I attended the Yamato Party, an annual convention of Japanese Yamato fans. Not an easy task, since I didn’t speak Japanese at all and my only friend was a Japanese member of the mailing list I subscribed to. The Yamato Party is as crazy as any Japanese otaku party can be, with a lot of doujinshi and videos you wouldn’t believe. It was there that I got a real chance, as my friend provided me with the address and phone number of Matsumoto’s house!

At right: a Japanese book translated into Italian – Anime University: the Improbable Science of Japanese Animation by Rikao Yanagita. Click here to see inside.

Once back in Kyoto I gathered my courage, took a deep breath and entered a phone booth, dialed the number and hoped for good. I was a 21-year-old student in Computer Science trying to get in contact with a god of Japanese animation. I expected to be calling an office, and to ask (or probably beg) a secretary for an appointment with the “sensei.” Surprisingly, someone answered and I heard an old man’s voice saying “moshi moshi?” [“Hello?”] With my heart beating fast, I said in English: “Hello, my name is Andrea Controzzi, I’m an Italian, I would like to speak with Matsumoto!” I didn’t realize I was sort of blunt, but the reply shocked me:

“I’m Matsumoto.”

My heart almost stopped beating, and I said: “But… Matsumoto Leiji?” “Yes.” I admit I almost fainted, I have no pride to defend here, because I was talking directly to the man who worked on Yamato, my childhood dreams. I still don’t know how the English came to me at that moment, but I explained that I was an Italian fan who came to Japan and I would be really honored for a chance to meet him. He kindly agreed and told me to go to Toei Animation (yes that famous Toei Animation), since he lived nearby, and to meet with a friend of his who would bring us to his house.

There are no words to describe how I felt. My friends told me I was completely excited and I believe them. Two days later we took the “shinkansen” bullet train to Tokyo and entered the building of the mythical Toei Animation where so much of the anime we watched in Italy was produced. I was awestruck when I saw the corridors filled with pictures of all the series they made, and the staff was quite amused that we recognized almost all of them. I even saw a few original cels from the Yamato movies, especially Farewell to Yamato and The New Voyage. They were glad to know that their work was so appreciated and fondly remembered.

The contact arrived and brought three of us (two chose to visit the Tokyo aquarium instead) to meet Leiji Matsumoto.

It was like a dream, and I feel better today to know that there are photos and witnesses, because sometimes I still wonder if it was only a dream. I remember the name tag with the Leiji Matsumoto kanji, the gate made with real train wheels, and the entrance to his house. We were waiting for him in a huge room, sitting on airplane seats (really!), and I noticed many details of his personal life. This included the antelope he shot in Africa and wanted in his house to remember to respect life. When he found out I knew that story he was quite surprised.

At left: My friends and I with Matsumoto-San
in front of his Earth mural.

A few minutes later, while my friends were making fun of me because I was so nervous, he arrived. Bowing deeply, I finally met the man whose works had such an impact on my life. In person, Matsumoto looks harmless and benevolent just like everybody’s grandfather. I was especially struck by his calmness, he looks very kind. But there is an aura, almost palpable, that surrounds him. It is probably the same aura of greatness, wisdom and magnificence that very few human beings have, something I’ve felt in my life only in another person, the late Pope Johannes Paulus II.

I had the chance to speak with him for half an hour. He’s the only Japanese I’ve met who speaks perfect English, and I took the chance to tell him in person how deeply I was touched by his works, how much I learned from his values and beliefs. I asked him to sign a copy of his Yamato manga, and he drew a female profile in front of me. I can’t forget how fascinating it was to watch him draw, there is something almost magic in his talent. As a parting gift, he gave me a Galaxy Express 999 puzzle that glows in the dark. I still have here near me while writing this article.

The experience was something I won’t forget, and I feel lucky to have met him in person. It is true that if you believe in your dreams, you can eventually make them come true.

The End

Star Blazers opening theme translation

NOTE: the song is pretty childish, half of it is sung by children, and reflects the attitude towards animation as children entertainment.

See a YouTube video of the opening title here. See a version with the Japanese opening here.

Italian Lyrics

Star Blazers!

Corre qua, vola la per il cielo azzurro

l’astronave Argo lassu

gira in giu, ruota in su per lo spazio eterno

misterioso come il suo blu

Se coi razzi e coi missili nucleari

Gamilon ci inseguira

Argo sa, Argo puo, Argo vuol ridare

alla terra la liberta

gli eroi dello spazio noi siamo

ci guida il capitano Avatar.

Argo sa, Argo puo, Argo vuol ridare

alla terra la liberta.

Star Blazers

accelerazione costante a mezzo G

rotta programmata OK, automatico inserito

Luci fuochi esplosioni e lampi strani

rompono lo spazio lassu

Argo sa, Argo puo, Argo e sempre in guardia

e parare i colpi sapra

gli eroi dello spazio noi siamo

ci guida il capitano Avatar.

Argo sa, Argo puo, Argo e sempre pronto

e parare i colpi sapra.

Mille a mille, mille a mille noi contiam le stelle

noie, guasti e difficolta

Argo sa, Argo puo, Argo sta in agguato

pericolosamente lassu

la terra noi dobbiamo salvare

con la forza e la volonta.

Argo sa, Argo puo, Argo vuol ridare

alla terra la liberta.

English Translation

Star Blazers!

Rushes here, flies there along the blue sky

the spaceship Argo up there

turns down, turns up through the space

mysterious like its blue

Even if with rockets and nuclear missiles

Gamilon will purchase us

Argo knows, Argo can, Argo wants to give back

freedom to Earth.

We are the heroes of the space

we follow captain Avatar

Argo knows, Argo can, Argo wants to give back

freedom to Earth.

Star Blazers

constant acceleration to half G

route programmed OK, automatic inserted

Lights fires explosions and strange lightnings

break the space over there

Argo knows, Argo can, Argo is always ready

and will block any attack

We are the heroes of the space

we follow captain Avatar

Argo knows, Argo can, Argo is always ready

and will block any attack

Thousands and thousands we count the stars

troubles, breakdowns and hardships

Argo knows, Argo can, Argo waits in ambush

Dangerously over there

We have to save Earth

With strength of will and force

Argo knows, Argo can, Argo wants to give back

freedom to Earth.

3 thoughts on “Off to Spazio Eterno
Japanese Animation and Star Blazers in Italy

  1. I enjoyed your article about the influence of Anime in Italy and share your enthusiasm for Star Blazers. I like the first 52 episodes (season 1 & 2) . Like you, Star Blazers had a profound influence upon me. Anime was rare at the time and very few programs were aired on American television. Star Blazers was one of the few, but it was the best. Around this time, I discovered a foreign language station that showed sub-titled amine on Saturday evenings. The original Captain Harlock and Cyborg 009. I was surprised to read about your meeting with Mostumoto in person. I was amused to learn he answered his own phone and impressed with fluency in English ( did not know he spoke English). Is that you standing next to Motsumoto?

    • Sorry for the late reply, Rich. Yes, it is me in the picture next to Matsumoto. I was pretty thin, being a full vegetarian in Japan was quite hard!

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