Yamatour 2013: The adventures of Tim Eldred, Part 2

Back up to part 1

Friday, September 6

Today’s movie was Kaze tachinu [The Wind Rises], supposedly the last animated feature film ever to be directed by Hayao Miyazaki. I put it that way because he said the same thing about his last three movies. This was a rare opportunity to see a Miyazaki film as the director intended, on a big screen with all its visual nuance, so I couldn’t pass it by.

This is very different from the work that made him famous; much slower paced and more introspective than his fantasy films. It is a dramatized biopic based on three novels about Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the Zero Fighter deployed by Japan in World War II. It covers his rise from childhood as a progressive thinker continuously scraping against conventional rigidity in the world of aircraft engineering, punctuated by stunning dream sequences and a tragic love story in pre-war Japan.

It is also VERY dialogue-heavy, which makes it a tough nut to crack if you (like me) are still on the wrong side of the language barrier. The films that made Miyazaki a worldwide name all featured vivid fantasy sequences that transcended language and thus made it easy for anyone to follow. Other than a few scattered moments, The Wind Rises isn’t like that at all. It’s loaded with gorgeous imagery, of course, but I strongly suggest waiting for a translated version since the story carries most of it.

See a montage from the film (containing just about every action scene) here.


This was the last day for Chapter 7, and thus the last day
for this display at the Shinjuku Piccadilly.

Something else I can say about seeing a Miyazaki movie in a Japanese theater is that it gives you a good look at his audience, or at least those who show up at a Friday matinee. I was most definitely part of the younger half; the vast majority were in their 60s or above, and the large theater was at least 75% full when I chose my seat. Many were moved to tears by the ending. Imagine, senior citizens who willingly go to see an animated film because it’s got something in it for THEM. This will help keep the world safe.

The day after I saw the film, Miyazaki rocked the anime world with a press conference in which he announced that he had indeed retired once and for all, but that he’d hoped to create a sequel to his seminal Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Now lacking the energy to follow through on that, he handed the reigns over to a very worthy successor indeed: Hideaki Anno.

You should definitely recognize that name; as one of the biggest Yamato fans in Japan, he would have directed Yamato 2199 if he hadn’t been tied up with the Evangelion movies. After he makes one more of those, Nausicaa will evidently be his next project. (He created the God Soldier scenes in the Nausicaa movie, so that pretty much locks him in.) By the way, something else I learned after the fact was that Mr. Anno was also selected by Miyazaki to provide the voice for the lead character in Kaze Tachinu, his first-ever role as a voice actor.

The afternoon was spent hanging out with my longtime pal Earnest Migaki, who I met face to face for the very first time since we first encountered each other in the pages of an anime APA back in the 1980s. In case you don’t know what an APA is, think of it as the paper version of a chat room before the internet came along. A very slowly-paced chat room. We made a return visit to Kinokuniya where I completed my “stamp rally” card by placing Yuki next to Kodai, and managed to score six of the episode-title postcards (just 20 to go!). We then moved on to Nakano Broadway for a cleanup round, where I spotted some remaindered Resurrection t-shirts for a piddling 200yen each.

Friday night reunited me with Ryusuke Hikawa and friend-of-the-website Gwyn Campbell at the Shinjuku Piccadilly to see the very last showing of Yamato 2199 Chapter 7 and the Yamatalk session that followed. This was very different from my Monday morning screening; the lobby was jam-packed with hardcore fans, some of whom I recognized from the last two Yamato Party events. (One member of this website’s Facebook group even recognized me, which was nice bonus. According to Gwyn, I am actually known to the fan community here. So, yay!)

As we made our way into the theater, we were all given the Week 2 freebie pack, which now came with one more freebie: a special card, unique to this event, with thank-you’s on the back from the Yamatalk participants. Yutaka Izubuchi took up the left side with his message. At the top it says “A journey has no end.”

The movie ran to its conclusion and ended to great applause. During the short break that followed, chairs were moved on stage as a member of the crowd stepped up to me and held out his hand. He introduced himself as Junichiro Tamamori, and I had the momentary honor of clasping the hand that designed Yamato itself.

A few moments later, MC Osamu Kobayashi took the stage and introduced the Yamatalk. All the big guns came out for this one: director Yutaka Izubuchi, character designer Nobuteru Yuuki, chief mechanical director Masanori Nishii, and sound director Tomohiro Yashida. After they introduced themselves, two more luminaries joined them: mecha designer Junichiro Tamamori and storyboard artist (also a film director) Shinji Higuchi.

For 90 minutes, they each discussed their experiences and swapped stories of production battles. Izubuchi and Higuchi pretty much took over whenever they spoke, egging each other one with tales that had the crowd cracking up. I couldn’t follow most of it, But Gwyn was right next to me noting it all for a report that will follow in a future update.

One highlight that transcended language, however, was seeing character and mecha designs projected on the movie screen above the participants, certainly larger than they had ever been seen before. For several minutes, Mr. Tamamori’s elaborate mecha designs towered over their designer. The stern view above was one of them. You’ve seen it a few times now, but imagine it big enough so that the figure on the far right becomes life size.

That’s what makes it worth traveling so far to see Yamato on a big screen, where even a fleeting glimpse at 1/1 scale will stay with you forever.

On the way out through the lobby, we passed by the gift shop where all the leftover Yamato merchandise had been removed and boxed up while we were in the theater. I couldn’t help thinking a typical American huckster would have lined it up for a half-price blowout as prime customers walked by, but this stuff was probably on its way to resale at Yamato Crew or some future Yamatalk (yes, they do want to continue them).

See the photojournal for the day here

Saturday, September 7

This day didn’t start with a movie, but it definitely started at a movie theater. This was the premiere day for the new Captain Harlock feature film, and I hurried myself over to Shinjuku’s Wald 9 theater as soon as I could. I’d already bought a ticket to see the film the next morning, but if past experience was anything to go by, I needed a shot at the merchandise before the first-day rush cleaned it out.

The Wald 9 is located a few blocks from the Shinjuku Piccadilly, run by the Toei theater chain. It carries many of the same mainstream films; both the Piccadilly and the Wald 9 ran the live-action Yamato in 2010, and this time they shared others such as Lone Ranger, Man of Steel, Gatchaman, and Kazetachinu. But the Wald is a great place to go for alternatives; they book more anime and independent films, and in this case they had the lock on Harlock.

They also do a bang-up job of decorating their lobby. The centerpiece was a “shooting set” built to match one in an anime film they were currently showing, and Harlock displays were everywhere. Giant posters, standees, and even a huge, tattered pirate flag dominated the room.

And sure enough, an entire case in the gift shop was stocked with Harlock swag that looked a heckuva lot like the Yamato 2199 lineup: postcards, keychains, cel phone straps, 3D posters, and much more. It was obvious at a glance that a successful marketing model was being perpetuated. I gleefully snapped up one of everything, plus the program book. I won’t divulge the total price, but the first number might have been an 8.

Yeah, that’s a lot of scratch to lay down for a film I hadn’t even seen yet, but I had already invested plenty to get here, and promotion had been staring me in the face all week long: posters were all over the city, giant video billboards looped the trailer in all the hot spots, and even the little TV in my taxi on the last ride to the train station showed me a short commercial. Even if the movie was a dud, I was determined to find something to like about it. And there was plenty to like in the merchandising.

So, did it all pay off when I finally did see the finished product? Can’t tell you yet, it’s only Saturday.

After the Wald 9, I shot over to the Suginami district to pair up with Gwyn Campbell and check out something I’d only learned about two days earlier: the Suganimi Animation Museum. Neither of us had heard of the place until I found a flyer promoting an exhibit there called “50 Years of Robot Anime.” For Gwyn and I, a name like that was a fish hook with live bait.

We found the place pretty easily, but like most locations here, it’s bigger in your mind’s eye than in real life. It’s impressively decorated out front, but it occupies part of a municipal multipurpose building that looked as if it hadn’t been touched (or even used very much) since the 70s. It was easy to imagine Yoshinobu Nishizaki wearing wide lapels presiding over an old-timey Yamato fan club gathering here.

For what it was, the museum’s heart was in the right place. Its main room was filled with displays that touched on many aspects of the anime industry (including a display index of every movie and TV series ever made from 1917 to 2008), a screening room that was showing TV episodes that day (Gwyn lamented that we couldn’t hang around long enough to watch Macross Episode 6), and a manga/video library. If I were a kid in Suginami, you’d have a hard time keeping me out of there every afternoon after school.

The Anime Robot exhibit, though, was a letdown. One smallish room with a few placards and production documents summed up five decades with just these titles: Tetsuwan Atom [Astro Boy], Tetsujin 28 [Gigantor], Doraemon, Godmars, and Macross. That’s it. Either of us could have curated a better exhibit from our personal collections.

But the important thing was to find that another anime museum does exist, and thus there is the foundation for greater things in the future. Besides, admission is free.

Our immediate future was waiting for us back in Shinjuku, where we descended some stairs to an underground club called Loft Plus One. It’s a combination bar, cafe and talk show space for all manner of subcultures. Today it was the site of Yamato Kouza [Lecture] 6, the last in a series that began with the arrival of Yamato 2199. One day after Chapter 7 closed, it was also coming to an end.


Photos were not permitted while the panelists were on. Sorry.

A large crowd had already gathered there when we arrived, some of whom I’d seen the night before at the Piccadilly, so they were evidently making a weekend of it. A table on the right side of the room was reserved for professional artists who had contributed original drawings to the event. I recognized Masato Hayase of Cyborg 009 fame among them. The host was Osamu Kobayashi, MC of every Yamatalk Night. A 3-hour session had been planned, and it finally gave me a firsthand glimpse of what the Yamato Lecture series was all about.

First, Kobayashi brought two “students” up to the lecture table, an artist named Ataru Yoshijima, and a voice actress named Hitomi Nase. They were referred to as “students” because they had never seen Yamato before 2199, and the purpose of the entire lecture series had been to chart their impressions. They had been in the spotlight five times already, and this was to be their “final exam.”


The Yamato-themed menu

The first 45 minutes was a conversation between Kobayashi and the two of them, sharing their thoughts on Chapter 7 and the conclusion of the story. Their thoughts will probably match yours when you finally get to see it, so rather than recount them here, I’ll just mention one moment that had the crowd roaring with laughter: Hitomi dropped the name Leiji Matsumoto, caught herself for a moment, then Kobayashi assured her it was “safe” to say it here in a conversation between fans. (That scandal runs deep.)

The next segment brought the first of two guests into the conversation, writer Hisashi Maeda, who contributes to the magazine Otona [Adult] Anime and a website called AniFav. He delivered his own lecture, pointing out that since he’d been born in 1982 he didn’t have a chance to see Yamato on a big screen until Resurrection, and came up as an anime fan in the 90s while Leiji Matsumoto’s output was at its lowest. Thus, growing up on shows like Sailor Moon and Evangelion, Maeda responded favorably to 2199‘s large female cast and the hyper-detailed mecha.

He admired its uniquely classic flavor, the fact that it wasn’t bogged down by hyper-emo characters, and how it avoided the pitfalls of other remakes by not pushing the realism too far. He also liked how the mecha had gone back to basics rather than follow the trend of increasing gimmickry, citing the progression of Gundam to Macross to Eva as an example.

After Maeda’s opening statements, the others engaged him in conversation. Kobayashi agreed with his assessment about the straightforward nature of the storytelling being a refreshing approach. They observed how the average age of the audience dropped over time, starting almost entirely with people in their 40s and 50s and gradually incorporating younger generations. Kobayashi pointed out that the younger fans tend to view 2199 more positively since they go into it without preconceived notions.

The second guest was another writer named Ryota Fujitsu, who gave a lecture of his own. His first Yamato experience had been listening to a drama LP as a second-grader, and then seeing Farewell in a theater. One example he cited for the generational difference was the way in which they perceive the original Kodai’s character; older fans see him as a classic hot-blooded action hero whereas younger fans question his contradictory impulses.

Since the title of his monologue was “What Was Yamato 2199,” he expounded on what he perceived as the central themes. Whereas the theme of “love” was retroactively placed upon the original series, he found 2199‘s themes to be about how cultures could understand one another and whether or not humans can ever stop fighting. He felt that a common theme for the classic and new stories was that Yamato‘s crew survives thanks to the sacrifices of others, which gives them the responsibility to move forward. The original Kodai was passionate and reactive, whereas the 2199 version accepts his responsibilities with maturity. The question to viewers is what they would do in such a situation.


Yuki Mori poster by the great Yasuaki Watanabe

In the original, it was Kodai who finally expressed the theme of coexistence after the destruction of Gamilas, but this time it is Yuki, the only member of the crew to be a firsthand witness to both cultures and therefore make the plea for mutual understanding. “We should never have fought each other! We should have showed understanding and kindness!” This went hand-in-hand with showing the impact and consequences of violence rather than depicting it merely for entertainment.

Hitomi was asked for her views on Kodai and Yuki as a younger fan, and her observations were enlightening. She admitted to being surprised that the 2199 Kodai would be consistently mature and rational throughout the story, and felt that it should be incumbent upon a main character to go off the rails from time to time. As for Yuki, Hitomi found it curious that for most of the story Kodai was superior to her, but in the last portion the dynamic flipped after she was abducted, and his life became driven by her while she took over the action role (in Chapter 7).

At that point, the conversation shifted to Yamato itself, and specific events that happen in Chapter 7. Recounting that part of the conversation is spoiler-heavy, so skip ahead if you’re not prepared to go that deep.

SPOILERS START HERE

In Chapter 7, Yamato reaches Iscandar and receives the Cosmo Reverse System. With it, Starsha provides an extra “element” that actually makes it work: the memories of someone from Earth, before it was devastated by planet bombs. That someone is Mamoru Kodai, who crash-landed on Iscandar and died before Yamato‘s arrival. His spirit is sent home with them, taking the place of Yurisha in the auto-navigation system. Just as she secretly guided the ship on its outbound journey, Mamoru’s ghost guides it back home.


Yurisha Iscandar poster by the great Yasuaki Watanabe

This part of the story lead to the most interesting part of Yamato Lecture 6, a discussion of its themes and implications. Fujitsu observed that since Yamato was never Mamoru’s ship, it was “wrong” to place him in that role (wrong within story context, not a mistake by the writers). This was “corrected” when Mamoru sacrificed his spirit to save Yuki’s life and turned the role over to Captain Okita at the very end – so when Captain Okita dies with the words “Earth…so many good memories,” he properly takes his place as the spirit guide for the Cosmo Reverse System. (In fact, this is the very point Ryusuke Hikawa expressed concern over a few nights earlier.)

It was also observed that Mamoru’s role changes the character of the ship itself on its return voyage. It had a feminine nature while under Yurisha’s guidance, and it was natural for her to physically revive, since the female figure represents the continuation of life. Under Mamoru’s guidance, the ship takes on a male character with the role of sacrificing oneself for the resurrection of life.

This has implications for Yamato when the Wave-Motion Gun is sealed up to enable the Cosmo Reverse System. Without its prime weapon, it is no longer the ship it used to be, and its fate after we see it drift away toward Earth in the final scene is uncertain. As the instrument of the CRS, is Yamato obliterated? Does it dissolve away or get destroyed, perhaps to be rebuilt again in the future? This question is left unanswered in the anime. Only a sequel can lay it to rest.

END OF SPOILERS

With conversation of the story and themes at an end, both Maeda and Fujitsu talked about their impressions of the fan community. As professional anime writers, neither of them has done much with the original Yamato saga because it is simply too intimidating. The first generation of Yamato fans has very high expectations that are almost impossible to meet. Whereas Yamato Resurrection was aimed squarely at them, Yamato 2199 gave everyone else new reference points, thus opening up conversation again.


Ataru Yoshijima and Hitomi Nase after the event. She’s holding
her parting gift, an art jam by all the pros in the room.

The “students” gave their final impressions, and Hitomi won the hearts of the crowd with a dramatic Yamato-style closing narrative in which she said that since 2199 had broadened her horizons, she was in danger of becoming an otaku. She closed by observing that one’s taste in anime is determined by what one sees at an impressionable age, and she wonders what lies in store for the kids whose tastes are being set by this series. With that, Kobayashi declared that the lectures were complete, and both “students” had graduated.

The last part of the event was a prize raffle, which included all the originals by the assembled pros. (See them in the gallery section of the Yamato Kouza website by clicking the link in the second box down, with “Part 6” in the title.) They were dispersed one by one in a raffle, then the two grand prizes were brought out – exquisitely painted, one of a kind posters created just for this day, one of Yurisha and one of Yuki. The Yurisha poster had been seen online already, but the Yuki poster was new, and instantly coveted by all.

The winning ticket number was called for the Yuki poster: G107. My ticket was G106. We shall never speak of this again.

The rest of my day was spent with friends new and old, trying not to think about the number 107. A few hours later it was replaced by the number 009-1, my movie for the day. This was a truly unexpected bonus; I’d learned back in July that a live-action feature film had been made based on this manga by the legendary Shotaro Ishinomori. Don’t confuse it with his famed Cyborg 009; 009-1 is a different character altogether. If you were to cast Mini Fujiko from Lupin III in a James Bond role, you wouldn’t be too far off. Except she is also a cyborg, which makes it even more confusing.

Anyway, the live-action 009-1: The End of the Beginning, opened September 7 on just three screens in Japan, and one of them happened to be the Wald 9. There was only a single screening at 9:30pm, featuring the director and main cast members on stage (the lead actress video-skyped in from Paris), and I was right there to see it unfold.

The movie wasn’t great, I’m sorry to say. Like the anime TV series, it was had strong sexual overtones and some unique moments. Unlike the anime, it was very repetitive. The combat scenes were staged so similarly that it flattened out the story, so it became increasingly difficult to remain engaged as a viewer. It seems unlikely that this will get a theatrical release outside Japan, but it may turn up elsewhere. If so, I’ll be interested in watching it again for story details buried in the dialogue. But it’s not a buy.

Visit the film’s official website here. See the trailer here.

See the photojournal for the day here

Sunday, September 8

The final day of the trip began with the final movie, the one that had decided the travel dates for me: Space Pirate Captain Harlock. No more suspense: I loved it.

It has a lot in common with the live-action Yamato movie. A progressive take on a beloved classic, it places modern techniques front and center. It is entirely CG and state of the art from top to bottom. Realistic CG lives and dies on the quality of its character animation, and this is about as good as it gets. The uncanny valley is avoided by stylizing the faces just enough to keep them in a pure fantasy environment rather than attempting to replace human actors. If you’ve seen Final Fantasy Advent Children, this one is a few steps past it.

The choice of trailers will always tell you something about what sort of audience the movie company expects to show up, and this selection was very dignified; some anime titles sprinkled in among historical dramas and a WWII movie centering on the Pacific.

Harlock‘s environment is dark, gothic, gritty, and foreboding. I saw it in 3D, so the color was further dimmed by the glasses. This didn’t hurt the presentation at all, just made it more of what it was already trying to be. Blu-ray will brighten it way up, and that will probably seem “off” to me when I get to see it again. (And you better believe this is a deluxe-set-must-buy when it comes out, English subs or no.)


An original drawing by Leiji Matsumoto, displayed in the lobby.
Harlock does not smile once in the film.

On the other hand, this is an adaptation of a pre-existing franchise, so it’s going to throw some longtime fans. It’s not a one-to-one match with any previous incarnation of Harlock or any of his stories. It’s called Space Pirate, but has little in common with the 1978 Space Pirate TV series (no Mayu, no Mazones, and no hint of Emeraldas). The Arcadia has the giant skull and the galleon-style stern, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Harlock himself lives with an even darker cloud over him than we’ve seen before, and cannot be considered a hero by anyone.

Throughout my viewing, I got the strong feeling that the English-speaking fan community will greet this film very much like the live-action Yamato; some will insist it is Harlock in name only while others will embrace it on its own merits and enjoy having something new. (And even the most devout Harlock fan will have to admit that it scores way higher latter-day anime incarnations. It’s no My Youth in Arcadia, but it leaves Endless Odyssey in the dust.)


3D art prints for sale. A lighting shift shows you what they’re all about.

More than once I found myself wishing that the Yamato movie had gone this way rather than casting live actors. The space action would have looked the same (and the scale of Harlock‘s space action is MUCH bigger than Yamato), but the characters would probably have fared better without the baggage of flesh-and-blood casting.

Either way, I regret nothing. It was a fantastic ending to a fantastic week, I’m happy that I went out of my way for it, and the full-throated arrival of Leiji Matsumoto’s signature character in mainstream cinema raises the standard for other things to come. I have no doubt that at least one of those things will have Yamato in its title.

Harlock links: Official site | Subtitled trailers 1 and 2 | Subtitled trailer 3 | First 12 minutes of the film, subtitled

See the photojournal for the day here

See all the photojournals in sequence here.

The End

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