From Comic Gon Magazine (May 1998)
Timed to match the release of the 25th anniversary Laserdiscs from Bandai/Emotion, this interview captures Leiji Matsumoto in buoyant spirits as he finds himself in an upwardly-mobile career swing after a comparatively quiet period in the late 80s and early 90s. He talks enthusiastically about his time on the first Yamato series and expands on his ideas for a new story.
This was the same issue of Comic Gon that dedicated many of its pages to a retrospective of OUT Magazine, widely considered the father of all the anime specialty periodicals that followed. Read about this coverage here.
Special thanks to Tsuneo Tateno for translation assistance.
In the Latest Work it’s not a Cruiser! It’s Space “Battleship” Yamato!
Interviewer: How far along was Yamato when you became involved?
Matsumoto: It was a grotesque image of the battleship encased in rock with only the bridge sticking out. It was not romantic at all. So I rethought it from there. I rewrote it to include Starsha of Iscandar and the Cosmo Cleaner D. My credit in the first series was ‘Supervisor,’ but actually I revised the entire concept into an original draft.
Even the first episode title changed, and it was rewritten four times. I drew about half the storyboards for the 26 episodes. I worked on the composition of scenes and the colors for Yamato. I ended up appointing colors for a lot of things.
This page of the interview article depicted the long-lost giant Yamato cutaway model from 1980. Read more about it here.
Interviewer: There was a weight to the space scenes
Matsumoto: Yes, I pursued colors that would give it a realistic heaviness. I instructed the staff to fill it with irregularities, because various substances are swirling around, it’s not just darkness. That’s how we settled on the blue colors. It gave the impression of light and energy, spinning in whirlpools and overflowing. That’s my concept of outer space. We gave it subtle gradations to avoid the look of a brush painting.
Interviewer: I thought it would be impossible to make an anime with your unique touch.
Matsumoto: One weak point at the time was that few in anime production could draw female characters beautifully. Yuki looks terrible when I see her now (laughter). For Starsha’s first appearance, I thought it would be impossible to give her face movement, so we just used the illustration that I painted.
After that, I drew some scenes of Starsha moving near the end of the first series. The staff protested that it couldn’t be done, so there was no other way but for me to do it.
Interviewer: After Yamato, terms like ‘warp’ and ‘wave-motion gun’ became well-known.
Matsumoto: About the wave-motion gun…my younger brother was a mechanical engineer in graduate school at the time, so he calculated a space wave-motion theory on the university’s computer.
It was my manga Dafuin (1969) in SF Magazine that was the first to use the words “Space Wave-Motion Theory,” far ahead of Yamato. I wondered whether or not it could also apply to Yamato, so I asked my brother. The computer confirmed that it was not a mistake. Whether or not it could really be done, the theory held up and we could use ‘warp navigation’ if we needed it.
SF terminology like that in Yamato is a hobby of mine. My only clunker was the name ‘Sasha.’ I once went to visit the Soviet Union, and my guide was a rugged man named Sasha. I asked, “Sasha is a man’s name?” And he said “Yes.” That was disappointing (laughter).
Interviewer: You had already used a Space Battleship Yamato in your manga, Lightning Ozma (1961). How does that link to the later Yamato?
Matsumoto: The anime title was already Space Battleship Yamato when I was brought in. I thought it might have been taken from Ozma, but the name was not under copyright. So since that was the title, the directive was to use the real thing, the ship that had been sunk. For the second episode, I thought about a scene during the rebuilding where a bulkhead would be peeled back to reveal a mountain of corpses, since 2700 men were killed in action on board the real Yamato.
Interviewer: Did you have anything to do with the music?
Matsumoto: I’m well-versed in classical music, and I’m familiar with all the tunes. We decided a classical orchestra would be the mother of Yamato sound. My hobby was clearly well-suited for this, since I could be a good judge of the music. When talking to the composer, I suggested the second movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony to convey an image.
The composer [Hiroshi Miyagawa] did his work brilliantly. I wouldn’t have been able to offer ideas if I didn’t have that grounding in classical music.
Interviewer: There were two versions of the theme song. One of them began with a vocal that had no accompaniment.
Matsumoto: Yes, like a Buddhist hymn. I like music that is more subdued.
Interviewer: Yamato was originally scheduled for 2 story arcs?
Matsumoto: 51 episodes. There were plans for 51 stories in my notebook. But the ratings were sluggish because Yamato was going head-to-head with Heidi of the Alps. It’s a habit of my work to start slow because it takes time for me to understand the content of the story and build up the world. Therefore, I was optimistic about the future.
However, the format was broken before it had a chance to improve. The sponsor was unhappy about the ratings. Usually I just ignore the sponsor, but this was a big problem and the story had to end in 26 episodes.
Interviewer: Would the 51 episodes have lengthened the outward trip?
Matsumoto: No, it was to be a full round trip. Captain Harlock was scheduled to appear, so he was part of the story. Though when I thought back on it later, it seemed like a good thing that he didn’t.
Interviewer: And Mamoru Kodai…?
Matsumoto: …would become Harlock. But that was cut. The average rating of the 26 episodes was to 2 to 2.5%, pretty close to zero. So the sponsor left.
It’s become a famous story that I was always having shouting matches with the producer, but this was not true to my character. And at the same time there was some relief in ending with 26 episodes. It was still possible to tell the story in that situation. There was a feeling of setting a good example, making images that would last into the future, so we put a a lot of variety into it.
There was the double planet, the hollow planet [Gamilas] with the hanging cities, the sulfuric acid sea…I thought it would just be their water supply, since sulfuric acid doesn’t melt things. But organic Aqua Regia [Royal Water] could dissolve anything.
The producer didn’t have scientific knowledge, and I was not able to make this understood to the others, so it became a sea of sulfuric acid.
Interviewer: Did you mainly argue with Mr. Nishizaki about the concepts?
Matsumoto: Sometimes, yes, and also about the history of Yamato. When the second episode was broadcast, the flashback of Yamato was accompanied by an old warship march. I said, “this is going to destroy the program!” The futuristic part of the story had not been seen yet, and I thought it would be misconstrued as an account of the war.
I went to them and said, “don’t you see we have a responsibility to stop this?” I understood that attaching the music was the last part of the process, and when we saw the test film the sound had not been added yet. It was changed for the reruns, but that didn’t matter. It would only invite misunderstanding on the first viewing. It might seem like we were trying to revive the war spirit.
Because I felt like these characters were my children, I didn’t want it to seem like their deaths were inevitable. Mr. Nishizaki and I had a big argument about the similarity to the special attack corps [the Kamikazes] and agreed that from there it would get back to basics and be all about the new Yamato.
Interviewer: How do you evaluate the first TV series now, after 25 years have passed?
Matsumoto: I think it was good. It was made possible by the passion and enthusiasm for a first project. From a commercial standpoint, it’s good that it went on to become a mass-market film. I feel the same way about Farewell to Yamato, except for the ending. I didn’t like that very much.
Interviewer: But the ending was changed for Yamato 2, where Kodai and Yuki did not die.
Matsumoto: Yes, but I told Mr. Nishizaki that once you start killing off characters you can’t make another story afterward. I was convinced that this could become a much longer series, so we should avoid letting our characters die, especially in a way that makes it impossible to revive them.
We wanted to go to a place of strong emotions, but the suffering of the heroes should be overcome by their own lifeforce.
The Father and Flight Commander was the Model for Captain Okita
Interviewer: You have a particular affection for certain characters…
Matsumoto: Yes, all the friends and foes who came out in the first series were like the lattices in a shutter.
My father was the model for the captain…his face and his death. As for Kodai, I used the name of my younger brother Susumu [translates as “progress”] who was at university during that time. Now he is a Doctor of Engineering, and works at a big laboratory. He’s in aerospace research. He’s participating in the development of H2. [Hydrogen batteries]
Interviewer: How many brothers do you have?
Matsumoto: Seven. I’m the fourth. Susumu is one below me. If you have older brothers or sisters you understand the feelings of your younger brothers and sisters. That’s how I brought my family relationships into Yamato.
I did the same with my first cat, Mi-Kun. She’s in episode 10 of the first series, when Yamato is leaving the solar system and has the last communication with Earth. Dr. Sado says “Goodbye, Mi-kun.” She died that same week. I had no idea that would happen when we were making it. She was in her grave when episode 10 was broadcast, so when it was on I turned up my TV to full volume so she could hear it.
Interviewer: May I ask about your father’s occupation?
Matsumoto: He was a pilot. As a child I grew up with the sound of roaring engines. And it was not some shabby little light airplane, he was a captain in the heavy-grade fighter corps. When he was sent to a new post the whole family would go along. I saw flying machines every day from 3 years old to 5 or 6. So I learned all the terms and the attitude of a flight commander in my childhood.
One of those who survived the war from my father’s unit went on to become an important man in a big auto company. When I asked about his attachment to my father, he said “he was the commander who taught me how to survive.” In other words, don’t fly recklessly into a dark cloud or the face of the enemy. I was always saying dangerous things like that.
So when Captain Okita returns to Earth and Kodai says, “why didn’t you bring my brother back” and Okita just says “sorry,” I wrote that while in the state of mind of my parents.
Yamato is a fictional story, but Okita is my father. In one sortie, he flew into a dogfight with 22 planes and lost 11 of them. Therefore, his frame of mind was apologetic. He didn’t tell many stories about the war. I heard from one of the subordinates who flew with him that it was a ghastly fight…the Battle of Leyte Gulf [the Phillippines, October 23-26, 1944]. One young man was shot in the head. Usually death would be instantaneous, but he lived long enough to fly back. He was unsteady on his return and he crashed.
My father’s favorite saying was, “don’t die before your parents.” Captain Okita has such thoughts.
Yamato Became a Catalyst for Hollywood
Interviewer: I saw a spacecraft in Independence Day that looked just like the mothership of the Dark Nebula Empire.
Matsumoto: We all have influences. I’m sure SF in America has also been considerably influenced. I seem to recall looking at early designs for Star Wars, where Han Solo and Princess Leia looked like characters from Captain Harlock. But there’s a big difference between the catalyst and the finished product. So it’s not imitation.
But it is a fact that Yamato and Harlock functioned as catalysts. Looking at the spaceships in Independence Day, they resemble an enemy fighter from Farewell to Yamato that looks like a ray with the tail. This sort of thing is my hobby.
Interviewer: How did it feel to see that in a Hollywood epic?
Matsumoto: I laughed when I noticed it. I wondered, did this result from my hobby? When my hobby was doodling, things would just come out. Like a round meter. They’re referred to as ‘meters’ in America. Now they are called “Leiji meters,” which is a big honor. Once I drew a digital clockface and then I saw a similar one in The Black Hole.
Interviewer: Who was your favorite artist and movie director?
Matsumoto: As a child, it was Disney and Osamu Tezuka, Fleischer, Shigeru Komatsuzaki…I liked those types. I thought it would be wonderful if I could combine all their good points in my drawing. The common feature of Disney, Fleischer, and Mr. Tezuka was their characters. Mr. Komatsuzaki was known for his precise, scientific illustrations of machinery. I thought it was possible to shine in both areas.
[Editor’s note: Komatsuzaki became a highly-popular illustrator of box art for model kits, including the first wave of Yamato models from Bandai.]
Yamato Resembles a State-of-the-Art Battleship on the Inside! Yuki was a college student from Okayama!
Interviewer: Did you have models for characters other than Okita and Kodai?
Matsumoto: Dr. Sado was based on a live-in assistant. He was the son of a certain bank president…and really liked alcohol. He was a good man on the surface, but an unpleasant jerk as a drinker. Whenever I brought home a bottle it would disappear instantly, even an enormous jar of cheap whiskey. Still, he could work calmly without passing out.
I referenced the Shinsengumi [a special police force that was active in the late 1800s] as a motif to make Yamato an ensemble-cast drama. The name Okita Jyuzo came out of that. When I outlined the destinies of each character, I consulted the lives of the Shinsengumi members. The name Jyuzo was taken from SF author Jyuza Unno, and the Okita family name was taken from Souji Okita, the captain of the Shinsengumi.
At first, the characters were ‘Jyuzo Kodai’ and ‘Susumu Okita,’ but I switched their family names. The reason I started with Jyuzo Kodai as a name was because he represents the older generation. [‘Kodai’ literally translated means ‘ancient times’] But later I felt that ‘Jyuzo Okita’ was more pleasing to the ear.
Yuki was named after a student in a music college whom I often corresponded with. I would draw her postcards saying, “How are you today, I’m feeling energetic!” She would start out by writing, “Today, Ms. Moriki…” in the third person. Her name was Miyuki Moriki, and the kanji for that looked very beautiful. I was going to name the character Yuki Moriki at first, then I shortened it to Yuki Mori [Forest Snow]. That was my technique for each name.
Her name changed when she got married, but by chance I saw her on TV once and she was introduced as “Pianist Miyuki XX from the music college of Okayama.” It was her! I thought about this and bowed very low.
Interviewer: Mamoru Kodai…?
Matsumoto: Mamoru was the name of my neighbor to the left…we were always fighting (laughter). So I used him. Shiro Kato, Shima Daisuke…all these names were acquired from friends. I occasionally joked about killing one of them. (laughter)
Interviewer: Analyzer was a robot with an innovative design.
Matsumoto: The original plan was to have two robots named Migi and Hidari. They could combine their bodies and perform the job of two people. They were usually divided in two, but they would unite whenever it was important. Then Star Wars came out with its two robots, so I’m glad we didn’t do that (laughter).
At left: Matsumoto’s final sketch for Analyzer. The double robot concept was revived (but still not used) for Captain Harlock.
Interviewer: I’d like to hear more about the original concepts…
Matsumoto: Iscandar was already named when I was brought in, but it was not yet a double planet. I thought up Gamilas. Iscandar was the name ‘Alexander’ spoken in a provincial Indian accent. So I wondered whether this would suggest a story about white-man worship, but we didn’t change it.
As for Gamilas, it was first intended to make Dessler a woman, and I thought of the vampire Carmilla [a companion to Dracula] which lead to the name Gamilas. Nobody but me could explain that, since names are important and come out of deep contemplation. And Dommel [Domeru/Lysis] was designed in the image of General Rommel, the brave commander.
Interviewer: Are the Gamilas based on German Nazis combined with the Roman Empire?
Matsumoto: No, I was not conscious of the Germans, I just used German names because they sounded cool. A protest came from a German person about them being cast as villains. That was not my intention at all. It was just the German army-mania in me! (Laughter)
Interviewer: Dessler is not a wholly cold-blooded dictator…
Matsumoto: Rather, he’s more of a hero. When you run an empire, you’re the commander of the nation. His name combines Death (Dess) and Ra (Sun) to mean ‘The Sun of Death.’ It’s a mistake to equate Dessler with Hitler.
[Editor’s note: yes, this name is fraught with transliteration issues.]
Evangelion, Don’t Be Discouraged!
Interviewer: Please talk about your ideas for the new story of Yamato.
Matsumoto: It will return to the starting point for a much vaster story. It will be an expanded version of the first series. It starts just after the return from Iscandar.
Interviewer: I saw in the Quickening video that there might also be a story about the next generation after the crew gets older.
Matsumoto: That’s true, but there wouldn’t be much interest if they’re no longer energetic. I still want Yuki to be the heroine, after all. So I would much rather make a continuation of the first series. Even though Captain Okita died, medicine has made tremendous progress, so he can be saved. Otherwise Yamato would be like a house without the father.
But it’s funny, I was 36 when the first series was made and I wrote that Okita was 45 years old. At the time, that seemed very old to me, but now I’m much older than that. So I think I’ll change it to put him in his sixties.
Interviewer: How do you analyze the Yamato boom?
Matsumoto: It is similar to when Oidon Man [a Matsumoto manga title] became popular. A sense of solidarity was born between the author and the audience. We shared common experiences. When people get the feeling that “he is like me,” the work catches on. Movies become more popular when people project their own feelings onto a character and think, “that’s how I would act if I were him.” It’s crucial for people to develop empathy for the characters.
Interviewer: Unlike conventional anime of the time, Yamato drew in an adult audience.
Matsumoto: That’s because we placed no restrictions on the terms and whatnot. A small child could understand it with a little effort. It’s not necessary to change the terminology for the young.
Interviewer: Do you watch other anime these days?
Matsumoto: No, I don’t read manga either. I’m from a generation of self-made people who didn’t have any entertainment. I don’t even read books. But the young people are doing their best. Something like Evangelion comes out and they gain experience. I shout out to them, “keep trying, don’t be discouraged!”
Interviewer: Did you see Evangelion?
Matsumoto: I did. It’s quite a different style. They made a world of their own. It belongs to the young generation, and they have the right to be radical. I’m OK with that. I want them to work hard.
I’m just as happy to see Princess Mononoke become a big hit and benefit the entire industry.
Interviewer: What do you think of the progress of technology now that we’ve almost reached the 21st century?
Matsumoto: Sometimes I’m surprised at how much it has approached the concept of Yamato. For example, the present design for a battleship bridge looks very much like the one designed for Yamato. The ceiling panel of the Aegis destroyer Kirishima has a large panel like Yamato‘s. Needless to say, that sort of thing didn’t exist when we made the series.
Interviewer: When is the new Yamato likely to be completed?
Matsumoto: Well, the intention is to begin a TV broadcast in 2001 or 2002. Until now, the English title has been Space Cruiser Yamato, but in the new work we will change it to Battleship. Because a cruiser is a cruiser. Mr. Nishizaki liked the darker flavor of the word, so he used it. But a cruiser is entirely different from a battleship. The armor plating is over ten times thicker. A bullet can’t pierce it. Even if it is punctured on the outside, there is more plating protecting the engine room or the computer room. Until the moment of sinking, they can remain intact.
Anyway, they are as different as a Subaru and a Benz (laughter).
Continue to the next Matsumoto article:
1999 interview from Yamato Legacy
Click here to see what became of Matsumoto’s New Yamato concept.