From Fantoche Magazine #2 (April, 1976)
Fantoche was the pet project of artist Yoshikazu Hirose, who had served as a color designer on the first Yamato TV series. Thanks to this connection, it was the first magazine to ever carry a Yamato cover story. It may also be considered the first anime specialty magazine, though its extensive coverage of foreign animation may be a disqualifier.
The cover story promoted a very early interview with Leiji Matsumoto when he was a humble newcomer to the world of anime and still carried a powerful torch for a beloved children’s story titled Maya the Bee. This may, in fact, be the first published interview with Matsumoto after his work on Yamato, and would therefore have captured his freshest memories of the experience.
Translated by Tsuneo Tateno, edited by Tim Eldred
I want to make Mitsubachi Maya [Maya the Bee]
Talking about Yamato in many forms with Leiji Matsumoto
Interviewer: How did you get the invitation to be a supervisor of Space Battleship Yamato?
Matsumoto: That was quite unexpected. The proposal had already been accepted and Yomiuri TV had decided to air the show. The only concept at the time was “Yamato goes somewhere.” There were no details about why Yamato was going to Iscandar.
Interviewer: It seems the plan had already been around for a while.
Matsumoto: Yes, I didn’t know about it until then, but the original plan was to fly an asteroid, a large rock made into a ship. When I arrived, they asked me what I thought about the Battleship Yamato flying in space. I don’t know why they decided to change it to Yamato, but their proposal book was already done and a design for Yamato existed, but it was encased in bedrock. There were several costume designs, but I don’t know who did them. Their first question to me was, “what would you do?”
Interviewer: You worked out the plan very carefully.
Matsumoto: Our meetings sometimes lasted over 10 hours, so I thought we were being very, very careful. Also, Yamato itself brought a kind of theme that was liable to cause misunderstanding. We talked a lot about making this a space story and doing everything possible not to confuse it with a story about military history.
Interviewer: I felt that the personality of the characters was inconsistent between episodes.
Matsumoto: That’s because there were many staff members. I mean me, Mr. Nishizaki, and Eiichi Yamamoto—the three of us decided on the characters’ personalities. Then [script writer] Keisuke Fujikawa joined us, and we all incited each other to go this way or that way. We often disagreed about the characters and it caused inconsistencies throughout the series. I think that’s why you had that feeling.
It was done through trial and error, so to be honest I didn’t understand it well because it was my first animation job. It was like an experiment for me, and I ran without realizing what I was doing. In those days I wanted to establish all the personalities of the main characters like Kodai in the first three episodes or so. I’m not sure if that idea was good or bad.
Now I watch the reruns with a cool, clear head, and I spot flaws that I didn’t notice while we were making it. But I also see things that I felt were failures and they turned out much better than I thought. Now I’m doing a self-examination while I watch them again.
So I feel very happy that I suddenly joined that project and was trusted. I appreciate the fact that I was given such a wide field of action. It was a good education for me.
Interviewer: Who is the original author of Yamato?
Matsumoto: To be precise, Nishizaki lead the planning and the first draft, but when it comes to who participated in the story, that’s a bit vague. It was made by committee, perhaps? What I can say is, I remember I created most of the basic stories and ideas for episodes, including settings and details of battle scenes. I didn’t give out my ideas grudgingly, because it was a group-work.
So I can only give you a vague answer.
Interviewer: Was there something you regret not being able to do?
Matsumoto: I think we could have put forward the romantic aspect of Yamato, the weight of it, the spirit of romantic adventure for boys. Fortunately, the great theme songs and music compensated for this, but I wanted to give it one clear, simple, straightforward atmosphere.
I wasn’t quite satisfied with Starsha. If I have another opportunity to create a character like her, I will manage her better. I want to create strong and active female characters.
[Editor’s note: this interview was conducted 8 months before the debut of Matsumoto’s Galaxy Express 999, starring his most famous female character, Maetel.]
Interviewer: I heard you wanted more time before Yamato‘s launch.
Matsumoto: Yes. In our early plans, the takeoff was in episode 6 or so. But various people demanded that we reveal Yamato as soon as possible, so we had to twist the story. Our original idea wasn’t like that. We intended this to be a show that fathers and sons could watch together, so I wanted to draw the scene of Yamato‘s rise more carefully. I’m not satisfied with the direction of that scene. I was too inexperienced. I wanted Yamato‘s first appearance to be more spectacular and glorious.
Interviewer: The initial plan was for 39 episodes, told in three arcs.
Matsumoto: I think that the story would have been perfect at that length, but I would have been totally exhausted [by the end of it].
Interviewer: As an inevitable component of TV anime, Yamato fell into a slump…
[Editor’s note; the original text included the word ‘anime,’ which may have been one of its first uses in print.]
Matsumoto: I guess we digressed from the main storyline, maybe at Planet Beemera. I have some responsibility for this. It’s no use grumbling about it, I won’t make excuses. I wanted to make it as a complete SF story, but it was inevitable that it would fail because we had to use Yamato as the focal point.
I wanted to make everything about the show perfect and complete, whether we used Yamato or not, so nobody could find fault with us. But we couldn’t, and I have regrets about it. Some parts of this were contradictory with Yamato‘s purpose, and because of that we couldn’t push it.
But from my point of view, it was surprising that they gave us such a free hand with the show. I thank them for the opportunity, so I have no complaint. But I guess people in the trenches had a tough job.
Interviewer: What about Captain Harlock?
Matsumoto: He was a character I planned to introduce if we could make all 39 episodes, but we had to cut him because we didn’t have enough time when the show was cut down to 26. Harlock is my favorite major character. I first created him when I was a Junior High student. I didn’t want his first appearance to be done in half-measures. Never for him.
Interviewer: How was the response from girls?
Matsumoto: I received a pile of letters, but I’m not much of a correspondent, so I only wrote a few replies. Maybe it was kind of an estimated response, as we intended from our early planning meetings. We had the vague notion of, “if we do this, they’ll respond like that,” but we intentionally made the show for fathers and sons, so to tell the truth it was very surprising that many females watched it enthusiastically.
Interviewer: It seems viewers think of the main character as an elder brother.
Matsumoto: I often hear that. This means he is accepted as a living being, so I’m very happy about it. He is only a fictional character, pictures drawn on celluloid. This shows the importance of character planning and how to direct them as if they are actual people.
Aftermath of Yamato…
Matsumoto: Mr. Nishizaki wasn’t sure what would happen if he left me in charge of the animation. He trusted Mr. Yamamoto and other staff members because they had long years of experience together. But I was totally unknown to him. I guess he felt uneasy. It was the same for me, actually, I was also worried about what I would do! (Laughter) It was a valuable experience for me.
Interviewer: Do you want to direct anime again?
Matsumoto: Yes. People said I would be worn out by the trials and tribulations of making anime and never want to do it again, but I think the troubles happened because of my inexperience. So of course it was a great opportunity to gain those experiences that nothing else could replace.
At the time I felt my inexperience with all my heart. I was new, just starting out, an anime amateur. The rest of them had experience going back 20 years. I didn’t understand much, but the things I explained verbally and the things we decided on at the meetings almost always made it on film as intended.
When I saw this, I understood they were true professionals and I gave them my fullest confidence. That gave me a positive influence, the thought that we could do anything if I left it in their hands. I didn’t need to bother them with constant direction. I understood their skill and made many friends, and they were a great influence on me.
To tell the truth, making a “manga movie” (it wasn’t called anime in those days) was always my main objective. But budget and studio issues prevented me from doing it, so I chose the way of drawing manga instead. When I first went to Tokyo, there was a company [Nippon Animation] who was making Mitsubachi Maya [Maya the Bee]. Maybe it was some kind of mistake, but they tried to recruit me. If I had joined them, I would’ve had to make an anime that was totally different from my vision. So I refused because I was determined to have it my own way, and I thought I should take a stand to only make anime that would suit me.
Interviewer: So you wanted to make manga movies but chose the way of manga publishing.
Matsumoto: Yes. I love drawing manga, by all means. So I drew manga on paper and aspired to make manga movies at the same time. So it was inevitable that I would go overboard for Disney or Fleischer, but fortunately I also saw animation from the Soviet Union when I was living in Kyushu. I wasn’t biased, and I could watch a variety of animation styles. It seems that was very lucky.
I didn’t just want to make science-fiction, but also a peaceful fairy tale anime like Mitsubachi Maya. In general, my lifelong dream is to make an entire series like Maya by my own hand, with my style and sensibility. I was really attracted to the show when it began on TV, and thought, “I want to make that, too.” The original story [a children’s book] filled my mind with beautiful images, and I wanted to perfectly visualize an insect’s world in my own way.
This is my wish. I want to make another Mitsubachi Maya.
Saying “perfectly” sounds presumptuous, but at least I’ll visualize my own image perfectly. I have imagined it since I was a child, so in my mind I’ve already completed every scene and decided on every color. The main reason I wanted to make a manga movie was to make a perfect version of Maya, and I always daydreamed about it.
I’m glad I got to make Yamato, but if I could be hired to make Maya, I would work much more enthusiastically. People tend to think that an author who did an SF story like Yamato is entirely devoted to SF, but I’d like to create something like Maya, too. If someone were to ask which genre is best suited to me, I’d say let me try each of them once. Nobody in the world is generous enough to give me that chance, but I want to do both.
The bridge between the two genres is Starsha. She may provide the common ground in terms of creating female characters. I’m not sure what will happen when I actually try it, but I believe I can do it somehow. I want to study and try many things.
And lastly, I love Fleisher’s Mr. Bug Goes to Town very much.
Interview conducted the evening of February 3rd, 1976 at the home of Leiji Matsumoto.
[Editor’s note: Maya the Bee started as a German children’s book in 1912 that went on to become a worldwide classic. Matsumoto read it as a child and it fueled a fascination with insects that became the subject of many a manga story, such as his 1975 title Insect. A 55-episode anime series was produced that same year by Nippon Animation Company and was also exported to many other countries including the US where it was titled Maya the Honey Bee. It goes without saying that if Matsumoto had chosen to work on that series instead of Yamato, the anime world would be very different today. This website would almost certainly not exist, for one thing…]