The Rise and Fall of Yamato 2520

In the 1980s, Yoshinobu Nishizaki wanted to sequelize Space Battleship Yamato in the worst way. In 1994, that’s just what he did.

That may be a harsh way to start an overview of Yamato 2520, but with all the time that has passed since then, there aren’t many votes left to be counted.

If one were to identify a repetitive obstacle in Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s career, it would have to be outsized ambition. On at least three separate occasions, outside forces conspired to chop a big idea down to a smaller one. It happened with the first Yamato TV series, it happened again on Yamato III, and the third time was the charm with the 1985 production of Odin. All were meant to run longer than they did, and only in one case did reduction lead to positive results.

It was a perceived injustice that motivated Japanese fans to leap in and take matters into their own hands when the first series was cut short in 1975. Some admitted afterward that if it had gone its intended length of 39 episodes, they might not have felt the need to rise to its defense. Their action is what built the foundation for Yamato as a long-term franchise, but a twist of fate like that comes once in a lifetime. There was no such outrage over the shortening of Yamato III, and certainly none when Odin was reduced from a 12-hour series to a 2.5 hour feature film that still seemed too long. In both of those cases, the story didn’t fulfill its promise and the reduction had a chilling effect on future plans.

You have to hand it to Nishizaki, then, for going at it a fourth time with Yamato 2520. After a long stretch of building up and throwing away concepts for a new Yamato adventure (read about them in detail here), he got an idea from writer Soji Yoshikawa that he really liked: a far-future story in which neither the original ship nor characters would appear, but the legend would be revived. Yamato: The Next Generation.

As a pure concept, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. But pushing it so far into the future that it ends up looking and feeling completely unlike the original can only result in one thing: another story that won’t go the distance. A sequel in the worst way.

So now that the elephant’s out of the room, it might just be possible to examine Yamato 2520 on its own merits and see what it had to offer. Would it have won our hearts if its full story had been told, or was it justifiably put out of its misery? Let’s see if we can find out.

The first images of 2520 were published in the June 1988 issue of the Yamato fan club magazine, photos that showed none other than world-class designer/futurist Syd Mead in conference with Nishizaki, Leiji Matsumoto, and a core group of West Cape insiders. Nishizaki had announced in the magazine six months earlier that he would commission the services of a world-famous American artist, and now everyone knew who it was. The ship they were designing still didn’t have a story behind it, but at the time everyone was more concerned with getting the symbol on paper.

A subsequent issue showed the process in its next phase with modeler Makoto Kobayashi hard at work on a 3-D version of the ship. Photos of the finished model appeared shortly after that (shown at right) and actual production officially got started.

The next sighting came in February 1994 with the release of The Quickening on VHS and laserdisc, an hour-long video documentary on the making of the saga. The production years were discussed in several on-camera interviews with Nishizaki and some of his key staff members. About half the program was devoted to the preproduction design for Yamato 2520, which included footage of Syd Mead interacting with Nishizaki and his crew. Mead is also shown working on a CG model of the ship, which was no mean feat for a desktop computer in the early 90s.

Syd Mead on the ship design: The challenge of taking the Matsumoto version of the Yamato to the next stage was that the TV animation series had a huge fan audience, first of all. And they expect to see or recognize that look, even though you’ve changed it quite a bit. The challenge was to keep the same three-dimensional silhouette and make it at the same time completely new, but somewhere inside the outline and the detail, you’d see the recognizable profile and characteristic of the Yamato.

See a gallery of Syd Mead’s artwork here.

The backstory was laid out as follows: in the decades following Final Yamato, Earth’s greatest challenges came from within. The rise of genetically-enhanced humans lead to the threat of a fascist state. This threat was eliminated when these elites were exiled in a convoy of colony ships, and they made their way to another galaxy where they discovered a new source of tremendous power called Monopole energy. Their leader, Brone, founded the Salene civilization there and declared opposition to the Earth Federation.

About a century later, another source of Monopole energy was found on the planet Rinbos, in a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. Earth forces mobilized to excavate it, and when the Salene arrived to do the same, it sparked a war that raged for 100 years before both sides reached stalemate and a cease-fire was declared. Salene held onto Rinbos (now a an independent frontier world) and Earth set up on the neighboring planet Agua to monitor them. It’s an extremely tense situation; if either side makes a threatening move (like going after the Monopole) the war could boil up again in a flash. This brings us to the year 2520.

Syd Mead described his approach to the cultural design: The trick was to think about the mixture of Earth and Salene and create Rinbus, and sort of work backward from the dramatic requirements of each of those styles. Salene was more intensive design, machinery, and so forth. Aggressive. Earth Federation was more advanced technology for utilitarian purpose, but with more style to it. And the Rinbus society, the frontier society, has essentially been overlaid or added to by the Salene conquerors.

Time was also spent examining test animation which looped repeatedly throughout the segment. See a gallery of stills from the test animation and other production art here.

Ten long months went by after The Quickening with no debut episode in sight. Instead, a “Volume 0” video turned up at the tail end of 1994. Whether or not it was rushed together just to get something out is a matter of pure speculation. Either way, it was titled 100 Year War in the Milky Way, it was released in December 1994, and it picked up where The Quickening left off.

More animation had been completed in the intervening months, and it was put to use in an extended montage that fleshed out the history of the war between Earth and Salene. (See a segment of this montage on YouTube here.) A new wrinkle was added to the story: sometime during the 100 Year Galactic War, a group of explorers from Earth called the Kodai Spacemen found evidence of an ancient civilization called the Goda. All they could decode was a single message stating that whoever controls their vast technology can control the universe. This, too, served to stoke the fires of war.

The history montage was threaded throughout the 50-minute presentation on Volume 0, alternating with more making-of footage. The first of these segments followed Nishizaki and music supervisor Kentaro Haneda to New York City for a recording session.

At left, composer David Matthews conducts the orchestra while (at right) Haneda and Nishizaki backseat-conduct from inside the sound booth. The score was written, arranged, and conducted by David Matthews, who also wrote an ending theme that was sung by vocalist Caroline Reinhart. She also appears to have been the basis for the character design of Ameshis, the daughter of Emperor Brone.

The program went on to visit the planet Rinbos, littered with spacecraft wreckage–including the rusting hulk of the 17th Space Battleship to go by the name Yamato. (If the Star Trek method of ship-naming was used, it would be Yamato Q.) The main characters were introduced, a gang of youngsters toiling under the supervision of their Salene masters on Rinbos.

Next stop was Salene itself, a planet that was once swallowed up by its sun, but the tremendous Monopole energy it contained caused the sun to cool instantly. Now the planet is a giant glass sphere. Emperor Brone built his nation here and surrounded it with seven artificial suns. This is their base of operations from which they continue the search for more Monopole sources to augment their already fearsome power.

Volume 0 wrapped up with another visit to Syd Mead’s studio and encouraging messages from various people including Yoko Asagami, the voice of Yuki. And now Volume 1 was just around the corner. The mission statement was as follows: The main star of the story is Space Battleship Yamato, and its great strength is the entertaining element. Space is an ocean. An ocean is very dangerous. But in its vastness there are infinite possibilities for adventure. By traveling there with Yamato, we enjoy the fantasy and romance. The young crew experiences the forced circumstances of their society and recognize how precious freedom is. Through many hardships, they grow to maturity.

Let’s see how this mission played out…

Volume 1, titled Hope for Tomorrow, was released February 1995 on VHS and a month later on laserdisc. It opened with the same historical footage that was seen on Volume 0, then brought us to Rinbos where the story got started…

A gang of youths watches an air race between their two hottest rivals, Nabu and Aga. It inadvertently sets off a planetary security grid and two Salene officers named Packard and Rikyard go to investigate. Nabu and Aga continue their struggle on the ground with fists, ostensibly to win dating privileges with their mutual love interest, a girl named Marcy. Of course, she’s disgusted at the idea of being anyone’s trophy.

The fight breaks up when the Salene approach, and the gang scatters into the wasteland. Some go underground into the wreckage of a spaceship where Nabu falls into a shaft and finds himself staring at the main computer, which seems to still be working. Rather than let the Salene discover it, Nabu surrenders to them and is let off with a warning, but Packard suspects him of hiding something. Nabu’s guardian, Shima, takes him back to the salvage yard where they work. Shima is also Marcy’s grandfather, and she scolds Nabu for not being more respectful toward him.

Aga leads a very different life, working in the Salene’s domed city (built over a frontier town named Osaka) and hopes to be accepted into their military academy. The others in the gang detest this approach, but everyone wants to get off this dump of a planet any way they can. Naturally, they leave Aga out of it when they secretly re-enter the spaceship wreckage for a closer look at its computer. They learn the name of the ship: Yamato. Nabu finds its central data disc and vows that the Salene will never get their hands on it.

A new character arrives from Salene: Ameshis, the daughter of Emperor Brone. She develops an instant liking for Rikyard, who suspects that her real motive is to start digging up Monopole. She pulls rank on Packard, who figures out pretty quickly his best chance for promotion is to ferret out valuable information for her. He pries some out of Aga, enough to figure out the kids have found the wreckage of Yamato, but an investigation reveals the precious data disc is gone. Ameshis reports the news to her father, who orders her to make Yamato her top priority.

Meanwhile, Nabu’s gang has cracked the disc and found complete blueprints of the ship. He hatches the idea of rebuilding it; with their own mighty space battleship, they can get off Rinbos and have all the freedom they want. As they start gathering up materials, Packard brings the hammer down. But Aga, disillusioned when he realizes he got his friends imprisoned, breaks them out before they can be interrogated. He and Nabu settle their long-standing feud and everyone takes off across the desert where their future awaits.

Shima has gone along with them, and thinks back to Yamato‘s final battle over Rinbos 17 years earlier…a battle which he remembers all too well. And unknown to him, a Salene fleet is now en route to stand in the way of history. End of Volume 1.

At this point it looked like Yamato 2520 was going full steam ahead, since the sleeve wrapper for the laserdisc listed all forthcoming episodes up to Volume 7. But Volume 2 took a full ten months to appear, by which time the writing was probably on the wall for the rest of the series.

Continue to Part 2

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