by Tim Eldred
I became aware of Masahiko Okura in 1994 when the first wave of news about Yamato Resurrection came out of Japan, before the subsequent collapse of Yamato 2520 brought production to a halt. I can still vividly remember the first image I saw, an illustration in New Type magazine that perfectly captured the scale and majesty of the Yamato in my head. That illustration was by Mr. Okura.
When we all got a look at the documentary called The Quickening we saw more tantalizing glimpses of what was in store. All the mecha illustrations had that same sense of grandeur, and we were treated to a short on-camera interview with the man who drew them. Ever since then, it’s been a delight to stumble across a Yamato illustration that grabs me the same way and see Mr. Okura’s name attached to it. That name came up a few times in Yamato 2199 and again in Yamato 2202.
When I posted some of his work on the Cosmo DNA Facebook page and he magically appeared in the comments to take credit, I knew immediately who I wanted to meet the next time I visited Tokyo. That next time was Yamatour 2019 Mission 2, and the mission was accomplished on the night of October 15 when we sat across from each other for the following conversation.
A little pre-interview research revealed some fascinating tidbits about his career. Not only did his Yamato involvement begin much earlier than I remembered, he also participated as an animator and/or designer in other titles I had absorbed over the years. This included the original Evangelion movies, Giant Robo, Mobile Suit Gundam 08th MS Team, Code Geass, Macross Frontier, and the second Last Exile series. He rose to the exalted level of writer/director on both the Yukikaze OAV series and the Blue Drop TV series, and even contributed to animation for the Transformers and GI Joe movies. (Specifically, he directed mecha animation for Joe and did a LOT for Transformers: design and key animation for the first TV series, design and key animation AND art direction for the movie, plus designing transformation patterns as a guide for animators.)
Art from Yukikaze and Blue Drop
His recent Yamato contributions are substantial; for Yamato 2199, he was an animator on the first two episodes, a layout artist on episodes 8 and 12, storyboard artist on 18 and 25, and also a co-director for Episode 25. He also storyboarded two segments of Ark of the Stars, including most of the climactic fleet battle, and Episode 21 of Yamato 2202. (See more of his credits at Anime News Network here.)
Clearly, this is someone worthy of our attention. I quickly discovered that he’s still as big a Yamato fan as the rest of us, which became especially clear when he shared his candid views of what it was like behind the scenes. Hey, but enough of my yakkin’! Let’s boogie!
Interview conducted Tuesday, October 15, 2019. Translated by Rina Lee.
I’d like to start by asking about your first contact with Yamato.
I was an 11-year old in elementary school when I first watched Yamato on TV. It was a new TV anime.
What was your favorite anime before that?
Moomin. It was a long-running series, and the later episodes were produced by Mushi Productions (the studio of Osamu Tezuka), and I really liked the episodes from that period. Later I learned that Yamato was made by staff members who came from Mushi, like Yoshinobu Nishizaki (exec producer), Toyo Ashida (writer), Nobuhiro Okasako (character designer) and others.
Did you know about that at the time, or find out later?
I didn’t know back then. There was a newspaper ad for Yamato, and the kanji in the logo for Uchu Senkan (Space Battleship) really looked like the Mushi style. I didn’t know about Leiji Matsumoto. I could sense from the logo that it still had the atmosphere of Mushi Productions.
At that time children who watched anime were expected to eventually graduate and move away from it. What was your feeling about that?
Back then they called it Terebi Manga (TV Comics), and my brother who is two years older than me, was in junior high. At 11 I was still the right age, but when you get to junior high you should start graduating from animation. But when Yamato came out it grabbed my brother’s heart so he kept watching.
Did you start watching from the first episode?
I waited for the series to start. Usually they began with the opening music as an intro but Yamato started with a heavy, slow chorus, and that’s what captured me.
Now, let’s jump ahead about ten years. In that time you went from watching Yamato at 11 years old to working on Final Yamato. That’s a long way to go in just ten years.
I watched the first movie version, and they were giving away cells, so I went there to collect them. When Farewell came out, I went so many times that it was almost like I lived at the theater for the first two weeks. After that, my relationship with Yamato ended for a time. Yamato 2 started and I kept watching it, but I wasn’t satisfied with it. I lost my passion.
You were probably drawing from a very young age. Did you draw Yamato and other anime characters?
Before Yamato, I drew Mazinger Z and that sort of thing, but when I watched Yamato I got interested in all that complex mecha and I wanted to figure out how to get better at that.
And by the time you were 21, you were qualified to work on Final Yamato. How did you get there?
When I was 11 I had the Yamato mountain to climb and it was really exciting, but when my relationship with that ended, I had another mountain called Gundam. In the 80s, Gundam was the big anime hit. Yamato was the first step for me to realize that I wanted to work in anime, but I had Gundam fever so I started pursuing that. That’s how I got involved with the industry. I got a job for Studio Carpenter, a subsidiary of Toei Animation, so I couldn’t work for Sunrise to make Gundam and other things, which was a huge disappointment. But then Toei got the contract to make final Yamato and gave the job to my company and I said, “I want to do it!” That was my entrance.
What part of Final Yamato did you work on?
I couldn’t do key animation (genga) but I was an inbetweener (douga) at the lowest level. One of the scenes I worked on was the big flood hitting the Dengil boy. Eventually, I was drawing the love scene with Kodai and Yuki. Also, people drifting in space after being shot by the Dengil, and Shima’s death scene. The whole company worked on Final Yamato, so I did a lot of things.
Studio Carpenter had made Japan’s first longform anime film, The White Snake. My mentor Akira Daikubara did key animation on that. (Daikuhara means Carpenter.) Yasuo Otsuka and Hayao Miyazaki also came up under him, so they were like my brothers.
You worked on Final Yamato in 1982 and 1983, and about ten years later you were one of the first to work on Yamato Resurrection.
After Final Yamato I worked on Odin for Mr. Nishizaki. It didn’t go that well, but Mr. Nishizaki thought I was good so he brought me back for Resurrection.
Did you do key animation for Odin?
I did a lot for it. Animation and mecha design. They didn’t have enough people to fill all the jobs.
The original idea for Odin was to make 12 hours for NHK, but then it became shortened into a movie. Do you know why?
I don’t know about that plan, but at first I heard that they were making a French story called Two Years’ Vacation (by Jules Verne). A French novel about boys lost at sea. They were going to make an anime of that, but changed it to be closer to Yamato.
So they became lost in space, and then it became something like a Yamato story. What was your opinion of the finished movie?
It sucked. The process of making it was really difficult. On its first day in theaters, the directors from Toei were sitting in the front row writing retake notes.
After the movie was finished?
Nobody knew where the finish line was.
Were there any other projects you worked on for Mr. Nishizaki?
After Odin, there was just Resurrection, but the process stopped in the middle, so I moved over to Yamato 2520.
Did you do any work for Dessler’s War?
No, nothing. Makoto Kobayashi did image boards for it, but it didn’t get made.
What year did you first start working on Resurrection?
I don’t remember, but Mr. Nishizaki called me about a year before it started. I had meetings with [character designer] Hiroyuki Kitazume.
Did you work on design and image boards?
Yes. The first image you saw was drawn on New Year’s Day in 1994.
Was there a script, or just ideas?
They had a script, but I didn’t like it, so I started talking with Mr. Kitazume about what it should be, and my art came out of that process.
Were you able to influence the script and story?
No, I couldn’t. Mr. Nishizaki doesn’t listen to anyone, so the script didn’t change at all.
Was it exactly the same script when it came out as a finished film?
Mostly, yes. About 90%. After I saw the film I still thought the script was lame, but Mr. Nishizaki had asked his best friend (Shintaro Ishihara) to write the script, and after that he got arrested [in 1997]. I think he read that script so many times [while incarcerated] it became something special for him. Even if it was lame, it was everything to him.
(Read an account of Nishizaki’s legal history here.)
So you also worked on Yamato 2520. What was your involvement in that?
I helped the art director by doing layouts and fixing things in the animation. They had plenty of people working on designs.
What was the cause of the delays in making 2520?
All of Nishizaki’s works were always late, without exception. But 2520 was the most late of them all, and that made the company collapse.
Was he just too picky?
The big concept for 2520 was that mainly young people would make it, but Nishizaki didn’t trust the newcomers, and they didn’t trust him. I was involved, but I was just helping out. I wasn’t in the inner circle. But I could see that the atmosphere wasn’t good.
Like watching a train wreck in slow motion?
I was there, but I couldn’t do anything to stop it.
When Resurrection came back into production (2008), some people from the beginning got involved again, like Makoto Kobayashi. Were you involved?
One day, I got a call from Mr Nishizaki. I was already involved in another project so I turned down his offer several times, but he didn’t give up. After communicating with him multiple times, he told me that “For this movie, Yamato will be done in CG.” So I agreed and was only in charge of directing the CG Modeling of the ship. Mr.Nishizaki really liked the CG model I did, and I heard that he asked for it to be reused in Yamato 2199, but it had already been decided that they would hire [Mecha Designer] Junichiro Tamamori. The fact that Mr Nishizaki appreciated my CG model made me very happy.
How did you become involved in 2199?
I knew [Supervising Director] Yutaka Izubuchi and I had known [Mecha Director] Masanori Nishii since he helped me with key animation on Yukikaze. [Episodic Director] Akihiro Enomoto was one of my colleagues during the production of the Transformers movie, so they asked me to join them on that project. At that time, I was a little worried about the concept of 2199 so I talked about it a lot with Mr Izubuchi (I usually can’t keep what I’m feeling to myself). I didn’t dislike the concept, so I decided to help them.
Was there any conflict once the project got started?
Once I started working on it, I didn’t say anything at first. It was a job, so I had to listen to the director.
If we watch 2199, what parts of it came from your influence?
I did the storyboards for Episodes 18 and 25, and I was in charge of the staging/direction for other episodes. I helped on the layout for Episode 12 where Domel takes the car with Talan and Deitz, and I also did the scene where Domel goes to visit his son’s grave. Normally, I should have been doing the layout only but I gave some advice on the storyboard and they modified it a little bit.
In another sequence in the same episode, Domel was in a parade in his car and there was a girl with a bouquet of flowers. In the original storyboard, he didn’t get out of the car. He just opened the window and reached out for the flowers. I thought that was more like Galaxy Express 999. It shouldn’t be like that. Domel is a hero, he should get out of the car and kneel to get take bouquet. I talked Izubuchi into that.
On 2199, Izubuchi decided to gather a lot of Yamato fans to try and make a great Yamato series. He wanted it to be like a Yamato fiesta, so the schedule became very tough and tight, but at the same time it was a lot of fun. Every day I went to work was like getting ready for a festival. It was very hard but I really enjoyed working on it.
Did you have some influence on the first half of the series?
The first half was done by Xebec and AIC working together, and they split the episodes, but the quality was very different. When the storyboards and other works came in, [mecha director] Masanori Nishii wasn’t satisfied. So I helped to revise things. Izubuchi is a very talented man, but he wasn’t used to directing, so he needed my help. I was more like backup staff at the beginning. Xebec’s passion was much greater than AIC’s so their work was much better.
Did you have any involvement in 2202?
I did the storyboard for Episode 21, but they didn’t even use one shot. (Laughs) I was sad, but my work was not what the main staff was looking for. I was sorry for bothering Mr. Habara.
The last question: when you look back over your entire history of Yamato, from Final Yamato to 2199, what’s your favorite memory?
That’s a tough one. Overall, I’m very happy and grateful to have been involved with all of them, but the best moment was when I first got involved in Final Yamato as a professional. When I was 11, I was watching the end credits on the TV series and thought my name should be there someday. When I saw my name on the end credits for Final Yamato, it made me cry. Even though I was an assistant to an assistant.
When Toei finished making the film (1983), there was a special screening for the staff and clients with a party at a bar afterward. My friends and I were happy even though we weren’t satisfied with the story. We were talking about how it should have gone and we were drunk, and the CEO caught us and yelled at us to stop.
Another strong memory is when we watched Resurrection at a studio called Imagica (2009). When it was finished, all the clients left and Mr. Nishizaki came over to me in a wheelchair and asked, “How was it?” And I answered, “It really was Yamato.” I couldn’t say anything else. I was so nervous. So I said “Everyone can see that it’s Yamato.” And Mr. Nishizaki started crying.
That’s a great answer, thank you very much.