Conductor Naoto Otomo interview, May 2019

Conductor Naoto Otomo reveals the birth story of Kentaro Haneda’s Space Battleship Yamato Grand Symphony

Published by Real Sound on May 9, 2019. See the original article here.

The latest live version of the Space Battleship Yamato Grand Symphony has been released, a work that used the theme motif of the nationally-popular anime Yamato (composed by Hiroshi Miyagawa), and was completed by the genius pianist and arranger Kentaro “Haneken” Haneda when he was only 35.

The Yamato Grand Symphony was given its first public performance on May 4, 1984 by the NHK Symphony Orchestra with Naoto Otomo as conductor, and released on LP, CD, and home video. Another session took place in 2009 to re-record it as soundtrack music [for Yamato Resurrection]. This new recording is the first in ten years and commemorates the 70th anniversary of Haneda’s birth.

It remains the only symphony composed by Haneda, and we heard about its 20th century birth from maestro Naoto Otomo, who understands every corner of the score.

Interview by Tetsuya Higashibata
Photos by Naoyuki Hayashi

From the 1984 premiere: Yoshinobu Nishizaki, vocalist Kazuko Kawashima, Violinist Tsugio Tokunaga, Conductor Naoto Otomo

“A luxurious production like Final Yamato would not be possible now” – Naoto Otomo

Interviewer: As a conductor, your appearance is exactly like a “captain”…despite your warm and mild atmosphere, you exude the sharp posture and dignity that is needed to find the essence of the work.

Otomo: You honor me. (Laughs)

Interviewer: But in 1984 when the Grand Symphony had its first public performance with the NHK Symphony Orchestra, you were still in your mid-twenties.

Otomo: That’s right, I was a novice at the time. I was involved in the music of Final Yamato (the fourth feature film), which came out in 1983. If you look back at Final Yamato now, such a luxurious production would not be possible now. Producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki poured all his energy into it, and the movie was completed with the intention of it being the last work. Then, after a long gap, there was Resurrection in 2009. I think that was his last monumental achievement in the days when he was still healthy and flourishing.

Interviewer: These days, world-class orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic have taken up John Williams’ music for Star Wars in concerts, but at that time wasn’t it quite groundbreaking for the NHK Orchestra, which was the pride of Japan, to play music from an anime?

Otomo: As you say, it was unprecedented. The reason it became possible was that many core players of the orchestra actually participated in the recording of Yamato soundtrack music for the theater. Most of the string section was from the NHK Orchestra. There was already a strong relationship of mutual trust between them and Mr. Nishizaki, so I think it’s certain that they were able to move boldly and persuade the management to do it. Anyway, the man named Nishizaki who drove the production had a tremendous, overwhelming power like some kind of “monster.” Everyone around me was drawn in and swayed by that passion.

Interviewer: Space Battleship Yamato was a groundbreaking series that laid a great foundation in Japanese animation history. It was the herald of the “anime boom” that followed. Please tell me how you got involved in the music of Yamato.

Otomo: I was not a member of the “anime fan” generation, but in those days everyone in Japan knew the main theme, adults and children alike, and I heard it frequently. I became involved in the recording because, as I said earlier, many classical performers at the time participated in the production and I got my chance when someone asked me, “We’re doing it with a full orchestra, so why don’t you take command?” Of course, there were a lot of pop musicians in the field too, and I’d been doing both pops and classical work in parallel since I was a student. That’s how I first met Kentaro Haneda in a studio, when he was active as a pianist.

Interviewer: What was the first thing you heard about the Yamato Grand Symphony project?

Otomo: I think it began to move forward with Mr. Nishizaki’s shout around the time Final Yamato was completed. He was a lover of the classics and had a great commitment to music, so his enthusiasm was overwhelming. I don’t think it was sufficient to relegate the music of Yamato to soundtrack albums and so-called BGM collections. We were exploring some other approach. From that idea, we came to the conclusion that we wanted to make a work like a symphony (in a classic 4-movement form) with a full orchestra.

“Mr. Haneda was basically a very methodical person.”

Interviewer: Since the first TV series in 1974, the music of Yamato was consistently composed by Hiroshi Miyagawa, a great master who was one of the pioneers of Japanese pops, known for his hit songs with [singing duo] The Peanuts. Mr. Haneda joined the recordings as a pianist on the LP record for the second feature film, Farewell to Yamato (which opened in August 1978). I heard that he was officially appointed as a co-author in charge of the music for Final Yamato with Mr. Miyagawa, and the Grand Symphony should be considered a collaboration between the two of them, which is very unique for a symphony.

Otomo: It certainly has a special background, but as for this work I think it’s safe to say that Kentaro Haneda wrote the symphony. Mr. Miyagawa and Mr. Haneda got along very well, and of course Mr. Miyagawa was a generation older. I understood that they sincerely respected each other as musicians in the same line of work. Many times, I heard Mr. Miyagawa say, “It’s still difficult for me to write a symphony that uses the NHK Orchestra, so I wanted to ask Haneda, who studied classical music in college.” I think Mr. Haneda was also a top selection thanks to Mr. Nishizaki’s enthusiasm.

Interviewer: I heard that he declined all other work in those days and spent more than half a year writing the composition.

Otomo: I think there was already serious pressure. Mr. Haneda was basically a very methodical person. He said, “Anyway, I’m the type who is useless if I can’t compose something every day, so I scheduled it out on the calendar and I have a plan to write up to this day…” So while this work uses motifs written by Mr. Miyagawa, you can say that every nook and cranny of every measure is the crystallization of Mr. Haneda’s effort.

Interviewer: Most classical composers like Mozart or Beethoven are from older times, so the experience of sending a work out into the world within the lifetime of its composer is something special for a conductor, isn’t it?

Otomo: Very much. It’s the most rewarding job. Plus, it continues being occasionally performed after its premiere, and I’m extremely happy that the new recording is being released now.

Flyer for the 2009 performance, which was recorded for Yamato Resurrection.

“I want it to be a work that blows open a hole in the blockade of classical music.”

Interviewer: The premiere was with the NHK Symphony Orchestra, and the first repeat performance in 25 years took place at a regular concert of the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra (May, 2009) prior to the release of the fifth Yamato film, Resurrection. There was also a session recording by the Japan Philharmonic. You conducted all of them.

Otomo: However, it hasn’t actually been performed many times. As soon as possible, if it’s possible, I’d like other conductors and orchestras to take it up in their repertoire in many places, including foreign countries. Because it is a work with unique appeal and quality.

Kentaro Haneda at the premiere, 1984.

Interviewer: Mr. Haneda participated in the premiere himself at the piano, and the piano score in the fourth movement was not written in detail, since he assumed that he would play it himself. That’s an episode unique to a composer being contemporary with his own work. After his death in 2007, did you transcribe the piano part using his performance as a sound source?

Otomo: That’s right. For the 2009 recording with the Japan Philharmonic, the part was performed by Yukio Yokoyama, who was able to do the transcription. In fact, you can see that Mr. Yokoyama’s ad libs are very Hanada-esque. How he turns his fingers is quite similar, and is offered as an homage. However, Mr. Yokoyama is faster. (Laughs)

Interviewer: Since you’ve read through every part of the score and you know it so well, what attraction does the Grand Symphony hold for you?

Otomo: I think it is the same belief that Mr. Haneda had since he was young, that wonderful music is always about catching and moving the heart of the listener. Every time I conduct this work, I think about how it transcends novelty and modernity, and the point is that its appeal increases. It originally came out of an anime work of the 1970s, and even when it touches a generation that doesn’t know about it, you can feel a lot of things from there.

Promotion for the 2018 performance.

Interviewer: The new CD that’s just been released is based on a completely handwritten score that was discovered in 2017, and it was performed at Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall on August 25, 2018. It was a live recording by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra for its The Masterpiece Classics series. The program that day also included Mozart’s 41st symphony Jupiter. It’s impressive that it was treated as classical music rather than a special Yamato music feature.

Otomo: I think it’s the same as a Mozart symphony in the sense that it’s stood the test of time and is played as repertoire, even though the length of history is very different. There is probably no player who feels any kind of stress from this work. You should be able to go straight into it from rehearsal.

Rehearsal session at Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall.

Interviewer: This session also has some of the strongest soloists from the 2009 recording, who powered up and reassembled after nine years. The third movement features soprano Sara Kobayashi, who has built a brilliant career in the opera world and has a passionate singing voice. The fourth movement unfolds with an exquisite negotiation between two popular soloists, Yasuko Otani (violin) and Yukio Yokoyama (piano) that really must be heard! The venue was filled with a storm of “bravos” after the curtain, and I heard that the generous applause went on for six minutes.

Otomo: It became a high-energy performance by first-class soloists. I think it will be difficult to collect this many of them again, but by all means I hope many groups will take up this challenge. Not just in Tokyo, but all over Japan and overseas as well!

Interviewer: Anime is a Japanese subculture that is now a global boom, so expectations are rising.

Otomo: And as I said earlier, I think it will be universally accepted as a classical work in other countries. Actually, in the 25-year performance at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theater in 2009, it was very popular with friends of a French person from a Paris orchestra, who played lead viola. And when it was performed by the Ryukyu Symphony Orchestra in Okinawa, a Hawaiian woman in the horn section who was there on an international exchange liked it. She said, “It’s good music, I’d like to play it in Hawaii.” The world of classical music tends to close itself off everywhere in the world, and I’ll be glad if this work can blow open a hole in that blockade.

Interviewer: Finally, there’s one more thing I want to ask you…Haneda’s handwritten score was adopted for the fourth movement of this new live recording, which means it has an original ending. Please tell me about how that movement was changed for the premiere at the strong request of Mr. Nishizaki.

Otomo: It was a very Nishizaki-like episode. After the rehearsal was over, he said, “I’m worried that the ending isn’t tight enough to be satisfying, and I want to put in something that seems more like the Yamato theme just once at the end.” And Haneda conceded, so the change was made on the spot. It was an unusual story, but there was nothing normal about the atmosphere of that place. He was a great person in many ways…and so were Mr. Haneda and Mr. Miyagawa. All three of them have been gone for a while now, but they were all amazing people, full of vitality, and at that time they were really shining. They entrusted their dreams and hopes and tremendous energy to the music, and I hope everyone can feel it from this CD.

Read about the original 1984 performance and Kentaro Haneda’s liner notes here.

See Kentaro Haneda’s credits at Anime News Network here.

Release History

LP edition, Nippon Columbia (1984)

CD edition, Nippon Columbia (1985)

First laserdisc, Nippon Columbia (1985)

Second laserdisc, Bandai Emotion (1993)

Eternal Edition Premium CD, Nippon Columbia (2004)

           DVD, Columbia (2005)

Yamato Resurrection edition, EMI Music (2009)

Sound Almanac edition, Nippon Columbia (2014)

Newest edition CD, Denon (2019)
Order it from here or CD Japan here.

Sheet Music, Hustle Copy (2018)

Mr. Otomo’s call for others to perform the Grand Symphony isn’t as far-fetched as it may sound. This edition of the sheet music covers all four movements, allowing symphonies around the world to take up the challenge. Order it from Rakuten (ships to Japanese addresses only) here.

Introduction to the Sound Almanac CD by Masaru Hayakawa

Along with Final Yamato, the Yamato Grand Symphony was planned as a musical work to conclude the first decade of Space Battleship Yamato. It was performed at the Postal Life Insurance Hall on May 4, 1984 by the NHK Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Naoto Otomo. The audience was invited to attend completely free, and the live recording was released in the autumn of the same year. A video program directed by Akio Jissoji was broadcast on NHK in the summer of 1985.

It is especially noteworthy that it was released on CD simultaneously with Symphonic Suite Yamato prior to the TV broadcast in June, 1985 (with the fourth movement replaced by a remixed version), and the program was released on laser disc on the Emotion label by Bandai Visual in 1994, ten years after its premiere. Since it first went out into the world at the dawn of the digital era, it was suitable for the Grand Symphony of Space Battleship Yamato to evolve in step with the development of multimedia. [Translator’s note: it also came to DVD in 2005.]

The composer of this symphony, which Producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki once called “a longtime dream” was not the previous Yamato maestro Hiroshi Miyagawa. After his achievements participating as a musician and as a composer on Final Yamato, this feather was added to Kentaro Haneda’s cap in recognition of his towering genius.

Prior to this, the previous symphonic suites of Yamato summarized the motifs in a particular work, weaving them into new compositions to become special versions of the soundtrack music, similar in position to a movie soundtrack. On the other hand, this work can definitely be called a “symphony,” since the goal was to frame the music for a classical symphony. It can be described as the epic culmination of Producer Nishizaki’s demand for symphonic quality for the Yamato sound.

The four movements conform with the format of a classical symphony. Both Hiroshi Miyagawa and Kentaro Haneda are credited for theme and motif, and Yamato‘s excellent melodies are quoted as the material of the musical pieces. The first movement is a sonata using the subject of Yamato and Iscandar as the main theme. The second movement is an allegro of battle music from Final Yamato played by Haneda. The Universe Spreading Into Infinity is at the core of the adagio in the third movement, with a piano performance of Great Love representing love as the grand theme of Yamato, which develops into a concerto of violin and orchestra. Kentaro Haneda himself plays as a soloist at the height of the fourth movement with violinist Tsugio Tokunaga, reminding us that the piano melodies of Miyagawa and Haneda were an important piece of the Wave-Motion Engine that propelled Yamato.

In late 2009, the Grand Symphony was used in the soundtrack of Yamato Resurrection along with a Grieg piano concerto and other classical music. Naoto Otomo returned to conduct a new session recording by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. It was released as the Space Battleship Yamato Symphony 2009, but the version on this disc by the NHK Symphony Orchestra was the one used in the film itself. It was created as a work of pure music, intimately connected to the original piece, but this version was the moment that breathed soul into the film.

Further, on the cover page of Kentaro Haneda’s written score of the original piece is grandly recorded as “Symphony Yamato.” For Haneda, the original was a work he put everything into, so I wonder if that spirit has come through.

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