Noboru Ishiguro Essay, 1980

If Space Battleship Yamato (the anime) were Space Battleship Yamato (the ship) the crew assignments might break down this way:

Captain: Yoshinobu Nishizaki, producer
First officer: Leiji Matsumoto, artistic director
Chief engineer: Noboru Ishiguro, animation director and glutton for punishment

Ishiguro’s name should be well-known to regular readers of this website. His contribution to Yamato was at least as important as those above him on the roster, since he had to manage the physical production at every level. This meant drawing or supervising storyboards, animating or fixing key scenes, revising and approving model sheets, running or overseeing the camera department, participating in recordings and sound mixes, and generally trouble-shooting whatever someone else couldn’t handle.

Of course, in TV production you don’t have the luxury of making one episode at a time, since they take considerably longer than a week to finish. So a director’s REAL skill is juggling several episodes simultaneously, all in different states of crisis.

Ishiguro is a legend in the anime world, with a resume that probably outstrips anyone else’s. He got into the business well before Yamato and continued long after with his name on everything from Astro Boy to Macross.

He co-wrote a real-world account of life as an animator titled TV Anime Frontline, which was published in July 1980. He’d parted ways with Yamato by this time after enduring the punishing blows of Yamato 2 and The New Voyage. His main project that year was a color remake of Astro Boy for Tezuka Pro (note: “Pro” is industry shorthand for “Productions”) and Macross was still two years away.

This is the Yamato chapter from his book, which tells stories never told elsewhere. It is being presented here for the first time in English.

The History of an Anime Director

Space Battleship Yamato, Launch!

From TV Anime Frontline
Personal Opinion: 17 Years in Anime
by Noboru Ishiguro and Noriko Ohara
Yamato Books, July 1980

Translated and edited by Tim Eldred with assistance from Michiko Ito

King Kong, Frankenstein, and the Invisible Man seem to be the three major creations of classic Hollywood movies, but what are the three major creations of anime? Certainly Space Battleship Yamato is in that league.

What I am most proud of as a staff member of Yamato is that it was not a remake of a manga, but an original TV project from the very beginning. Of course, Mr. Leiji Matsumoto was well-known as a cartoonist before he joined the staff (not as a writer, but as a supervisor) and it is not an exaggeration to say the series was a by-product of his work.

It was in early June, 1974 that I first heard the name Space Battleship Yamato, at the Takizawa coffee shop in Shinjuku. (It was a preferred stop for anime people since the traffic was good and a lot of studio members shared news there.) I first heard about the production from Mr. Tatsuo Shibayama. He said it this way:

“I’m working for Academy [Studio] on Space Battleship Yamato starting in October. Leiji Matsumoto is working on it, and he needs an assistant because he’s an amateur at anime. Mr. Nishizaki is really enthusiastic about making the first real SF program.”

Making an SF program had been my dream ever since I entered the anime world. I had already been involved in some robot anime, but I didn’t like the faulty science of it. It was becoming seemingly impossible to make something in the realm of pure SF. As I drew storyboards, I noticed one script seemed completely unconcerned that a certain training action required the subject to endure 700 G’s. (Even though I dropped it to 70 G’s in the storyboard, it was still absurd.) There was also a man-made island 3,000 meters long that crossed the sea at several hundred kilometers an hour. If such a thing were real, it would cause a massive tsunami.

UFO Robo Grendaizer and Combattler V, two Toei productions for which Ishiguro drew storyboards

Toy makers were the main sponsors of robot anime, so toy robots and vehicles from the program appeared in commercials and in stores. I once met with the president of such a toy maker who said, “the story isn’t the heart of it, the robot is. The point is to show them fighting for a half-hour in order to sell the toys; you’re making a half-hour commercial.” Hearing it spoken so plainly made me angry.

I had no choice but to accept it at the time, but I thought it might change if real SF could come to TV anime. My interest in this new series by Academy was aroused by the involvement of Mr. Matsumoto, whose work had great atmosphere, and I thought this might possibly be the SF anime I was waiting for.

I learned this later, but Mr. Matsumoto was also a maniac who built his own animation stand, so when Academy asked him to join he readily agreed, thinking he could make anime using someone else’s money! However, Mr. Nishizaki was well-known for being a hands-on producer, so he broke into story discussions without hesitation. Mr. Matsumoto was enthusiastic about making anime, and believed he could do it exactly the way he wanted, so he was perplexed at the beginning. But tenacity was his forte. He could hold out to the last round and meet Mr. Nishizaki blow for blow.

It might be said that Space Battleship Yamato was made by the power of two people and it is a record that compares their techniques to each other. It took all my energy to harness their ideas; I had to assert myself because my job as animation director made me a general overseer.

By the way, Mr. Nishizaki’s formal position was GP (General Producer) and we would sometimes refer to him as the Gamilas Producer. On the other hand, I was referred to as the CD. (It stood for Chief Director, but really, it should have been AD for Animation Director.) Mr. Nishizaki seemed to like our nickname for him, and would sometimes say “The Gamilas Producer is here” when entering a room. Sometimes his impossible demands seemed like a crushing blow being delivered to the Earth.

First of all, we had to start with character design. Many cartoonists had drawn samples. Mr. Nishizaki went to Yasuo Otsuka, who was making movies in those days, and tried to negotiate with him to take the position of art director. Of course, it didn’t happen, but it is fun to imagine…Otsuka’s Yamato

The first big struggle between the director and the producer was to determine the colors for the main characters. Both easily agreed that Susumu Kodai [Wildstar] should have a red-on-white uniform, but Mr. Matsumoto wanted Shima’s to be blue-on-white and Mr. Nishizaki insisted on green.

“Because Kodai is red, Shima should be blue. If you want red and green, you must be colorblind!”

Who’s colorblind??”

They each had an opinion but couldn’t pursuade the other because a color preference is no more than a flavor preference.

“Let my opinion stand for the main characters, because two of the supporting characters already comply with your opinion.”

It became like churning butter, and the color specs were finally completed several hours later. Afterward, Mr. Matsumoto asked me, “Is choosing colors going to be that hard every time?” And I was impressed with the amount of sweat he wiped off his face.

It isn’t possible to talk about the color specs without mentioning our art director, Mr. Nobuhiro Okaseko. He checked all the colors set by Mr. Matsumoto and ordered the matching cel paints. We had to delicately reduce the chroma by mixing it with grey. This gave it a unique tonality. The Matsumoto touch brought in a warm tone and made it slightly different from other works.

I heard later that a particular lens on the animation camera at Mushi Pro had a property that accidentally softened the picture a bit, and gave it a more attractive tone. So when Farewell to Yamato was produced at Toei Animation, I was most concerned about this. Generally, Toei productions have vivid colors which give a cold feeling, and I wanted to make sure our colors were properly translated, but it didn’t turn out to be a particular problem.

Personally, I think the movie looks a little cold in comparison with the previous work, but did anyone but me notice?

Production for Farewell to Yamato began on February 18, 1978 and on that very day Mr. Kenichi Matsuzaki [development designer and BG painter on Series 1] died abruptly of a stroke. It was said that the demands of the job were the cause. It was Mr. Matsumoto who was hardest hit by this. Aside from losing his skills on Yamato, I was overwhelmed with sorrow that I had lost a longtime friend. He was just over 40, and it was very regretful that he had to die in his prime. I pray for his happiness in the other world.

It was the color of the ship hull that Mr. Nishizaki was most particular about. To express the weight of the metal, we special-ordered dark blue-black paints that had not been used before in TV anime. We tried it out, and when we showed it to the producer we called it “Z Color.” (We went through a great many paint color names before deciding on the colors of Yamato.)

They even continued to change after the broadcast began. A complaint came in from a friend of mine who was watching it on a black and white TV. He said it seemed like Yamato would melt into space and turn invisible. The only thing that managed to stand out was the “garbage.” (Though some have said that all the cel dirt was a special feature of Yamato.)

In the beginning, that was caused by retakes and delays in the schedule. The camera room was the dirtiest in the studio, so dirt naturally settled onto the dark space backgrounds. I was nervous about going in there with my shoes on, so I spread newspaper over the floor. Every time I moved around, I worried about stirring up more dust.

I remember something Mr. Nishizaki said the first time we watched rushes from Farewell to Yamato: “there needs to be more power in this. Make the cel dirty.”

Mr. Tomoharu Katsumata and the rest of the Toei staff must surely have been stunned to hear this. It went against how they had thought about animation cels for decades. But there was some merit to Mr. Nishizaki’s complaint when you consider the sort of printing you see in a newspaper. I didn’t see it very often, but sometimes an “extra” would be distributed just a few minutes after some great event. The ink would be heavier in some places or some extra type would dance around on the page. It was because it had been made under emergency conditions and enhanced the importance of the event with a feeling of being printed in a rush. I think the presence of cel dirt gives the same feeling as an extra soaking of ink.

But, of course, it’s very unorthodox.

Stills and cels from the 1974 Yamato pilot film

Behind the Scenes of Yamato

Let’s return to the beginning of the story. The production headquarters of Space Battleship Yamato was on the second floor of a building in Sakuradai, along the Seibu railway. Animators gathered there one by one.

Office Academy was the nucleus of the production, and our subcontractors worked in parallel. It was a situation in which a single animator couldn’t see the big picture, but it was gathered up from a collective. I greatly relied on Mr. Okaseko to summarize everything for me, but he got sick and passed out shortly after we finished the pilot. I was at a loss. (Editor’s note: Okaseko suffered from a bleeding ulcer and had to be hospitalized just as the TV series was starting production, the worst possible time.)

Toyoo Ashida, Another art supervisor, could bring in several artists who used to work with him at Mushi Pro (Osamu Tezuka’s studio), but I had doubts about this since most of their work was in a fairy-tale style and I wasn’t sure they could handle the demands of an SF project at the time. I had no choice but to bring them on board, but it was an unknown quantity. As we started production on episode 1, I was leading them into pitch darkness.

However, I immediately realized that I had underestimated their abilities. Mr. Ashida’s strength was to quickly adapt fresh habits even with little experience. I want to apologize to him here again for ever doubting him. He took direction very well and went to a lot of trouble to maintain the solidity of the style.

I pushed myself considerably to make my first full-scale SF anime. I think I was the one who drew most of the retakes. First of all, I had to set the style for an explosion in weightless conditions. Others would draw the smoke rising up as it would from the ground, but an explosion in space would be spherical because there is no up or down. There are various theories about what an explosion in space would look like, such as whether it would give off light, so each production did it a little differently. Tatsunoko-Pro, for example, adopted the light-disappearance theory on Space Knight Tekkaman. Above all, we wanted to depict the huge scale of a war in space, so we used big, flashy explosions that lasted from three to five seconds.

There was a person on the inside whose main concern was saving money, and he didn’t know about the hardships of the work. Naturally, I had to go to him for permission to do retakes. It seemed that he worked only part-time in the office. Once I overheard him on the telephone with another company making excuses about the late schedule:

“I’m sorry for the delay. The production of Yamato is hard work and there are a lot of retakes. We’ll be back on schedule in one week. Please wait a little longer.”

I had to endure the unbearable, and this man got off with one excuse.

Despite this, fans would visit the studio.

“I watched Yamato, but Heidi is better,” some of the girls said, and it was hard not to cry. Our whole team was united, burning with the desire to work together on a masterpiece. For some it was their only means of making a living. But Girl of the Alps Heidi was always on Yamato‘s back.

Heidi‘s ratings were overwhelming in those days. We weren’t trying to appeal to the same audience; it was a show for mothers and daughters. But a lot of girls in junior and senior high watched the beginning of our broadcast and Mr. Nishizaki was inclined toward embracing this phenomenon.

The pencil tests for the first episode were completed in a rush and the voice recording took place about two weeks before it went on the air. When the second and third episodes had to be recorded, the pencil tests were only about 15% done. From there on, all the episodes were 100% blank footage with red and blue lines, timing indicators for the actors. This is the worst possible condition to be in with TV animation production.

The Warship March Event

Mr. Matsumoto and Mr. Nishizaki clashed again over episode 2. Mr. Nishizaki decided to use a traditional military march as the soundtrack for our flashback of the original Battleship Yamato in World War II. Mr. Matsumoto learned about this after dubbing was finished and roused Mr. Nishizaki for a heated telephone discussion late into the night.

Because some Japanese people were sensitive about the name “Yamato,” Matsumoto insisted that it would be necessary to handle it very carefully. During the planning stage we talked about how a person in their twenties would take it as we meant it, but someone in their forties would be extremely touchy and reject it out of hand. I wondered, what about those in their thirties? (Matsumoto and I were both in our mid-thirties then.) We understood both sides, and our reaction was somewhere in the middle. Therefore, it was a good thing that Mr. Matsumoto didn’t want this work to be misconstrued or to polarize anyone.

Looking back, I think the generational issue was an important one and if I had disagreed with him I would look back on it now with regret. Mr. Nishizaki was only four or five years older than us, but the difference brought on by experience with war could make it seem many times greater. The difference in our sensibilities was, so to speak, the cause of this problem.

Mr. Matsumoto wanted to make a clear distinction between the image of the former Yamato and the SF action we were making. Even if a flashback scene was unavoidable, we took careful consideration not to draw the command flag, but the addition of a warship march tore it down completely. On the other hand, Mr. Nishizaki asserted that it was the only scene with a warship march. The difference in their sensibilities could not be overcome, so the telephone quarrel broke off after two hours without a solution.

There were only 3 or 4 days left before the broadcast.

“If it goes out like this, I have no choice but to quit,” Matsumoto grumbled.

However, the solution came from an unexpected place. There was an all-staff production meeting the next day. I put in an appearance as the director. The first matter of business was to talk about adjustments in the schedule. When this was finished, Mr. Nishizaki’s hand went up.

“I have a question,” He said. “We added a warship march to episode 2, but we don’t want to give the impression that we’re making a story about the Right Wing. I’ll take it out or leave it in according to the answers I get here.”

There were four or five people in a tight circle around him, who all looked pale and rigid. Even Mr. Nishizaki’s face was serious and deep in thought, like he was in shock. Men such as him who had experienced the US-Japan Security Treaty during their youth had this uneasiness in them about the old Yamato. The “Warship March event” had now surfaced in its wake.

Because our schedule was already pushed to its limit, we had no idea what to expect in this situation. I didn’t know whether Matsumoto had talked with Nishizaki about putting different music in after the dub was already finished. However, a finished print of the episode had already been delivered to the network and the only way to change it before the broadast was to make an entirely new print and somehow get it done in time.

In the end, there was only one area in Japan where the military march was broadcast: Niigata prefecture. We had to deliver the film there directly every week because there was no network and they had a different broadcast schedule. Because of traffic reasons, the film had to be dispatched from Tokyo a day before the deadline. For this reason, the revised tape [without the march] could not be readied in time for Niigata.

In Tokyo there were fans who said “I’m sure I saw that scene with the military march,” and it started to sound like a ghost story. But, in fact, the Tokyo print of the second episode did not include the military march. It has been heard since then, but it’s different these days when Yamato is well-known to everyone and nobody has a problem with it.

After that meeting, Mr. Nishizaki said he felt like he was going to pass out. I could understand that, given how seriously we were thinking about the problem back then.

The Basis of the Yamato Boom

Three of my colleagues who worked with me on Dokonjo Gaeru (Gutsy Frog, 1972-74) were with me on Yamato episode 3, or perhaps episode 4. During this time, I tried a really elaborate camera setup we called “skip photography.” We were always thinking up new experiments, but this one nearly got me fired by Mr. Nishizaki.

There was a lot of pressure on the camera department to keep things moving, and the complaint was that this method took three times longer than usual. (Editor’s note: Ishiguro is describing the last scene in episode 3, in which Yamato climbs away from the mushroom cloud. The foreground and background layers both zoom at different rates, which means they had to be shot separately onto the same film stock. This required far more time and precision than an ordinary scene.) By the time we did Yamato 2 we should have been able to accomplish such shots with ease, but there was little we could do about the deficiencies of the camera.

In my opinion, anime is a collaborative art and Yamato would not have been as popular as it was without the collaberation of Mr. Matsumoto and Mr. Nishizaki. It was by virtue of Mr. Matsumoto that I was able to meet the wonderful people of Studio Nue. I had already known of them because of their mecha design on Zerotester. Kazutaka Miyatake was their main artist and Kenichi Matsuzaki was their PR man. They were great SF maniacs.

We developed a saying, “Yabunue” instead of “yabuhebi.” When they got excited, they created more and more complicated mecha that we couldn’t handle. (Translator’s note: “Yabuhebi” is a shortened expression of an old proverb that basically means “let sleeping dogs lie.” So “Yabunue” is wordplay using the name of Studio “Nue.”) On other anime, some animators would take the liberty of omitting fine details in the designs, but Yamato became a favorite for many because we pushed ourselves to keep it all intact.

The later president of Studio Nue (Haruka Takachiho) became a popular novelist, and Mr. Matsuzaki made his scriptwriting debut on Mobile Suit Gundam. It will be fun to see how the company continues to develop.

I had to participate in the storyboarding from the beginning, but Yasuhiko Yoshikazu joined with episode 6 and Mr. Nishizaki brought him back to participate in other productions through The New Voyage.

By the way, two or three months after the broadcast started, fans began to make frequent appearances at the studio, full of curiosity and amazement. We didn’t know it, but it was an early sign of the coming anime boom. There were enthusiastic girls who came by plane from Kyushu and we gave them cels and background paintings as souvenirs because they had taken such great pains. Those cels now have the same street value as drugs, but in those days they were just a waste of space.

Several people also came to visit the recording studio and it increased gradually along with the voice actor boom, so that there were as many as 40 people there for the final episode, almost a public event.

Mr. Nishizaki loved meetings. Sometimes they would go all day and well into the night. Mr. Matsumoto and I became emaciated by the ordeal. Still, we held out and got through the last of it, complaining all the while that we were getting weaker and couldn’t concentrate on the work. No wonder, since we’d put all our energy into Yamato.

Matsumoto would come in with 50 new ideas for weapons and we started to feel like the Yamato crew in episode 22, when the Gamilas kept teleporting in to torment them. It seemed Mr. Nishizaki would call a meeting any time he got bored and wanted something to think about. Yamato pulled out an abundance of ideas in every episode in addition to the abundance of detail. The fun of details is an indispensable element of SF.

Matsumoto was tied up with a superhuman workload when we got to Yamato 2 and Mr. Nishizaki often disappeared to do his thing, so it really took a toll on my physical condition. Furthermore, I was forging ahead without some of the veterans who played an active role in the first series. The whole anime world continued to make work that was diluted by mass production, and even Yamato 2 could not escape that fate.

One exception was the voice recording, which was rich with veterans and always harmonious. Our network producer Mr. Fukuo was an SF fan, so I could talk to him without any constraints, which was fun. Thanks to the presence of many new artists, Yamato 2 was rejuvenated to make it seem like 5 years earlier.

The end of the series was reached without Kodai making a death-charge at the enemy, as he did in Farewell. This was the idea of Mr. Matsumoto, who protested the Kamikaze attack at the end of the movie and it allowed us to make a sequel after Yamato 2.

I also got to know Mr. Tomoharu Katsumata and Mr. Tomonori Kogawa while working on Farewell. I spent a lot of time with them on the last two months of production at Toei. The film irritated a lot of the other employees, but it was my first feature and became an unforgettable experience.

When speaking of the anime boom, it is necessary to touch upon the first Yamato movie. In the beginning, the series was edited into a feature to sell to America, and part of it was changed so we did new storyboards and animation. The rumor spread among the fans that we were doing this, and they wanted to see it. I said in those days, “even if Mr. Nishizaki could only show it at a fan meeting, he would do it.” I have great admiration for his ability to sell it to Japanese theatres and accomplish such a big boom as a result.

It was surely the work of the anime fans and their devotion to Yamato that provided the foundation for the ignition point, but it was Mr. Nishizaki who integrated that into his skillful strategy and used it to great achievement. I can’t help but think that the real job of a producer is to fight a lonely battle. I feel more like a lone wolf who can’t compete with the producer of a large organization.

Mr. Nishizaki is currently starting production on Yamato III. There may also be a serious case of Yamato Fever about to start up this summer [1980]. By the way, I’m not participating in this next work. I’m not confident that it will have the perfect combustion of the first series, but the major reason is that I’m already working for Tezuka Pro. (Editor’s note: Ishiguro was directing the 1980 version of Astro Boy as he wrote these words, but he still found the time to animate a few of the climactic battle scenes in Be Forever.)

Previously I put the blame on the mass-production system for the difficulty of making Yamato 2, but in truth I was responsible for it all. At the time of the first series, I disregarded audience ratings since I had it in mind to somehow pioneer the first full-scale SF anime. (I never dreamed it would be popular with the general public.) I had the purity of being able devote myself to it single-mindedly.

On Yamato 2, it was only about avoiding ruin, and it was painful for it not to be as fulfilling as the first series. Therefore, I felt I had to put Yamato away when it was all over. But this was my own personal feeling, and was in fact contrary to Yamato 2‘s ratings, which went on to 20% and higher. Of course, my intention to make SF did not stop with Yamato, and I want to approach it in another form again.

The End

Read our tribute to Mr. Ishiguro here

Read a 1975 interview with Ishiguro here

Read a 1977 interview with Ishiguro here

Read a 1992 interview with Ishiguro about the second Yamato series here

Read his updated career history here

Read a 2007 interview with Ishiguro here

Listen to a live 2007 interview at Anime World Order here

Read a 2010 interview with Ishiguro here

Read about the other prominent artists of the first series here


Fun Fact: Ishiguro got a surprise cameo in episode 10 as one of the potential suitors being promoted by Yuki’s mother!

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