Masahiko Okura interview, 2014

In November 2019, we had the pleasure of presenting our first in-person interview with anime artist and lifelong Yamato fan Masahiko Okura (which you can read here). A few years earlier, a previous interview was published in issue 6 of the Yamato fan club magazine Ship’s Log (February, 2014). It was another instance of Mr. Okura generously sharing his deep Yamato passion from the bottom of his heart, and it demanded a place in the Cosmo DNA spotlight.

Entertainment and Refinement: the exquisite balance of both is the appeal of Yamato

Interviewer: Right off the top, how do you feel about participating in Yamato 2199?

Okura: All I can say is, “It’s fascinating!” I directly participated in Episode 25, just one before the finale. The atmosphere at the studio was like a last blast before graduation. At the time I was staying overnight and working at Xebec [studio]. I ate snacks and chatted with the others who were staying there. When I came on the scene, the schedule was tight, but really interesting.

Anyway, everyone on the staff is like, “This is Yamato to me.” No matter where I go, if it’s editing or the sound department, all the talk goes to “My Yamato.” (Laughs) Then someone says, “No, Yamato isn’t like that.” And I don’t have time for it. (Laughs) Each person’s personal view of Yamato is quite clear. I think that’s why the finished product is so dense. I think it must be really hard on Yutaka Izubuchi to pull it all together. (Laughs)

Interviewer: “My Yamato.” (Laughs) You’re a famous Yamato enthusiast. You sometimes go to fan events as a general customer, and you’re one of those who can sing all four verses of the Yamato theme song without looking at the lyrics at all. (Laughs)

Okura: No, there’s nothing special about my “Yamato love.” I don’t think that way any more after going to the studio. Everyone there is a serious Yamato fan. (Laughs) Izubuchi, Enomoto, Niishi, Imanishi, Yoshida…all the way through the animation crew to the photography department. I was keenly aware of being an amateur.

Interviewer: In addition to storyboarding and directing Episode 25, you were also in charge of the storyboard for Episode 18. You just did the storyboard for that one, right? What’s the specific difference between drawing a storyboard and being in charge of the production?

Okura: A storyboard is like a blueprint for a film. On the other hand, when it comes to directing, the simple way to put it is that you’re like a foreman with a helmet and megaphone. “That should be different. The welding there isn’t strong enough.” You actually go to the site every day, and my job is to make a film by giving detailed instructions to craftsmen. A storyboard can be received differently depending on how it’s interpreted. I decide on the subtle nuances of a character’s performance. “This is right. This is left. This is right, but a little more to the left side.” You make a lot of subtle decisions about what they do. It’s like in a manga, where you define the concept of time.

The atmosphere of a film changes greatly depending on these decisions. For example, when you meet with the animators and look at a storyboard, it might say “Yuki Mori turns around.” But I might tell an animator, “Yuki is more emotional here, so I want her to turn around with a sharp look!” If the acting is the same, but she turns around faster, the movement of her hair would change, wouldn’t it? A film is made up of detailed instructions like that.

By the way, it’s really easy when you’re working with good animators. A skilled animator will expand on the storyboard and bring more to it. But in this day and age, you usually hear, “Do it in three days.” (Laughs) If someone is still inexperienced and they’re in a hurry, they may not understand the atmosphere of the work. It’s also my job to give detailed instructions to them.

Interviewer: I think you’re someone who was attracted to Yamato 40 years ago. What was it that attracted you most?

Okura: Hmm, don’t you feel helpless when you’re a child? Even though you have parental protection, kids can’t really do anything. They can’t even make money. At least, I felt helpless. I grew up in Akita, and Akita in winter is amazing. It’s already dark outside at 4pm. In that dark sky, the wind sounds like “gohhh” or “bohhh,” an eerie sound that I can’t imitate. You can’t imagine it in Tokyo, but I walked home alone from elementary school in the midst of that terrible sound. That made me feel helpless as a child. When I saw an anime that started just like that, I felt the same “helplessness.” That’s how I encountered Yamato. Now we have the convenient term “eighth-grader syndrome.” but can you project that lost feeling onto kids back then?

After that…well, isn’t it frustrating when you lose? Any fight you get into is everything. It becomes a feeling of, “DAMN IT!” But when I was a kid, my generation was taught, “You’re not supposed to feel that way. Don’t get upset when you lose. Don’t have that ‘DAMN IT’ feeling.” I had to keep my head down. Well, it’s a story about war. I think Yamato was the first anime to describe that feeling of, “DAMN IT!” Isn’t that what you react to the most?

The first thing you see in Yamato is the Earth losing, so isn’t it a story that starts by saying, “DAMN IT, DAMN IT” right away? I’d never seen that in a movie or in anime. I’d only had about a dozen years of life experience, but I’d never encountered anything like that in a children’s work. It remains intense. When you think about it again, it’s normal to be upset if you lose a war, right? But I couldn’t say that as a kid, or my parents and teachers would yell at me. In some cases, there would be social punishments. In an environment like that, wasn’t it a work that took on the true feelings of people right from the start, including joy and sorrow?

Interviewer: How old were you at the time?

Okura: I was in fifth grade. Kids are most impressionable from third grade to when they graduate from junior high. You’re influenced by a lot of things during that time, aren’t you?

Interviewer: I was in first grade when the first series was broadcast, and I could feel something from it, but I was in no position to analyze it at six years old. Of course, I didn’t know the words “romance” or “tragedy.”

Okura: I didn’t either. (Laughs) But when you watch it, it’s full of those emotions. “It’s such a pinch! They’re so cornered!” and that sort of thing. Was it hard for a first grader to follow?

Interviewer: You can receive something from the story, and you can delve into it. But even if you see the same work just one year later, you can feel completely different about it, can’t you?

Okura: I’ve always thought Farewell to Yamato was the greatest masterpiece of all time, but when I talk with people one generation older, a lot of them say, “That’s not true!” Those who were a little older than me were moved by Part 1, and when they watched Farewell it conversely felt cold. They’d say, “In Part 1, Captain Okita said, ‘I still have my life,’ so he wouldn’t say that [in the Farewell finale]!” and I’d say, I know, that’s Kodai’s hallucination… (Laughs) I think there are many ways to absorb the shock of Yamato depending on your circumstances at the time and the character of the person. A difference of just two or three years at that time is very big. The impression you receive from the work can change a lot.

Interviewer: [The Farewell finale] is like getting chased and cornered and you turn to a phantom when there’s no one left to rely on. (Laughs) I cried a lot in the theater as a fourth grader.

Okura: This is a dumb story, but I didn’t cry and it had nothing to do with the movie. I stood in line all night to see it on opening day. In the morning I got an animation cel [given away by the theater], went into the theater, and fell asleep as soon as I sat down. (Laughs) When I woke up and opened my eyes, I saw Teresa up on the screen. The story had already gotten up to Teresa on Telezart and I didn’t understand it at all. (Laughs) When I came to my senses, there was a naked woman on the screen. “Oh no, I passed out.” But the story was fascinating, and I was really impressed.

Interviewer: The way we received a story and how to experience a subculture changed a lot in just a few years. When Farewell came out, I hadn’t stayed up all night yet, and I wasn’t old enough to stay up all night at a theater. That’s why it’s interesting to talk to Yamato fans from different generations.

Okura: I stood in line at several theaters for Farewell. Now that I think about it, I wonder what clothes I wore. (Laughs) Of course, there was the delight of getting an animation cel, but movie theaters in those days had a unique atmosphere. I think I was very conscious that if I went there I could share time and space with other people who liked Yamato the same way.

Interviewer: For me it was the declaration of a “new anime century” at the end of seventh grade [1980]. (Laughs) When we were elementary age, didn’t it feel like the neighborhood, the school, and the local train station were the whole world? When you become a junior high student, you jump out of that world, and I think it’s the age when you come into contact with another world and look for familiar things there. By the way, what cel did you get for standing in light all night?

Okura: It was of a tiny Command Tank just a few centimeters wide with a cloud of dust running behind it. That’s all it was. (Laughs)

Interviewer: After that did you get a cel for standing in line overnight for Be Forever?

Okura: No, I graduated from Yamato with Yamato 2. I watched Be Forever, of course, but I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as before. I mean…I have to be honest about Yamato to a fault, and I guess I have to say that it had a “Showa scent.” It certainly was Showa. (Laughs) I guess it was a feeling I didn’t accept any more. I was an adult then, and it was around that time that more sophisticated anime was coming out, like the “white monster” [Gundam] and others.

[Translator’s note: the “Showa era” was the stretch of decades that encompassed the 70s and 80s. Okura uses the term here as a synonym for “outdated.”]

Interviewer: Is it weird that I still cry when I hear Akira Fuse’s song [from the end of Be Forever]? I was simply happy that Yamato was continuing in the days after Farewell, but was it because I was still a kid?

Okura: It’s the same as the gap between me and the older generation. A difference of three to five years is big, isn’t it? But it’s fine now. As I grew up, I thought “Chiyoko Shimakura’s song [from The New Voyage] is the best!” and then “Mr. Hirata is the best!” and so on. I thought it was true from the bottom of my heart. (Laughs)

Interviewer: What is this gap that I feel for each work? I don’t think it’s just a generational difference.

Okura: My theory is for an entertainment work to be a hit, there needs to be an appropriate balance in the two factors of “entertainment” and “refinement.” In the old days, “entertainment” was whatever a movie star was doing, like a distinctive work with Hibari Misora playing a strange princess. When you say “Refinement,” on the other hand, it embodies the aesthetics of style, like Tokyo Story directed by Yasujiro Ozu, things like that.

When you were a kid, you may not have understood the meaning of Mr. Ozu’s movies at all. There was no police car chase or flashy action. But when you grow up…that’s where it’s at. (Laughs) Do you know the work called the Company President series? It’s a comedy movie series by Director Shue Matsubayashi starring Hisaya Morishige. It’s a series that went on for a long time [1956-70]. They were productions which had a set cast and roles, and every time, you’d have the same sort of slapstick, with the adults of old doing their utmost to to run through gags that were like pre-established harmonies. It feels like the apex of the performing arts, which carried through to the skits performed by groups like The Drifters and Crazy Cats.

Of course, the Company President series doesn’t make a lot of people laugh out loud today, but when you consider the context of the times, it’s something that I totally love. So, I don’t know if that gives you the adequate context, but maybe Yamato Part 1 was filmed a bit like Director Ozu’s Company President series. I don’t know if it’s what they were aiming for, but I think the balance of “entertainment” and “refinement” was really exquisite in Yamato Part 1. As the series continued, it might be that the ratio changed. Like Tokyo Story by Director Matsubayashi…but maybe nobody will understand that expression. (Laughs)

Interviewer: No, no, it’s a good metaphor. It’s a wonderful thing to hear from someone who knows Yamato well! I respect that. A more direct definition of “entertainment” and “refinement” would be the difference between commercialism and craftsmanship. In any industry, the story is often recorded in business and sales, but it was particularly strong in the Showa era.

Okura: Back then, Yoshinobu Nishizaki had prepared a “formula,” and I wonder if Farewell was the pinnacle where I obediently enjoyed that part. A strong enemy appears and a great Earth fleet comes out but it’s no good, and in the end it’s Yamato’s love for all of space…that’s what I’m talking about. The “entertainment” element was strong, but I think the balance of “entertainment” and “refinement” was taken to the limit with Farewell.

Oh, jumping off topic, there’s this great karuta [flashcard] set that came out at the time. I managed to get a set via net auction. (Laughs) The “RO” card has a picture of Kodai and Yuki, arm in arm, and the haiku says “Even though romance bears fruit…” (Laughs) That was good!

Interviewer: Really makes you think about the transcience of life. (Laughs)

Mr. Okura’s favorite karuta, as mentioned here; a set of hiragana
flash cards with corresponding haiku.
Kodai and Yuki occupy the card for “RO.”

Okura: The appeal of Farewell is a sense of romance and a sense of tragedy. It keeps building and building, and the biggest point of the story is to overturn it at the end.

Interviewer: What was the work that made you want to become an animator?

Okura: Naturally, the stereotypical answer is…Yamato. (Laughs) It was the first time I watched the end credits after a show…in other words, I was conscious of the staff. Who had made such a great work? Before that, an end title was just a background for listening to songs. “Mitsuru Kashiwabara…Studio Nue…who are they?” It was like, “What do these people do, and how can they make such a great story?” After that I managed to get an anime job, and I was glad that I got to work on Final Yamato!

Interviewer: That’s a fan’s dream, isn’t it? Were you really happy?

Okura: Not just happy, it was ecstasy!! “I don’t need a guarantee!” I said!
I leaped at the chance. [Translator’s note: a guarantee is a deposit paid to secure an artist or performer.]

Interviewer: Do you remember which shots you drew in Final Yamato for your debut?

Okura: I didn’t do very many, but I liked mecha and I talked to mecha-centric people. At the beginning of the story, Yamato descends for a rescue on Planet Dengil, and the whole area is shaken by a big wave…there was a big “Kaboom” that took about a month to draw. After that, the schedule got worse. (Laughs)

(Pause to look through the Final Yamato Roman Album; in the middle of the Pluto battle, Lugal’s troops attack as injured people are being taken aboard lifeboats.)

Okura: I also worked on this part. There was no time back then, so it was divided up and drawn by everyone in the studio. Kind of like, “I’ll draw the machine gun, you draw the explosion.” Later I worked on the final scene.

Interviewer: Eh? You also worked on? [the ending song sequence] Love Supreme? Well, that’s an unexpected story.

Okura: I remember it! I watched the first screening on opening day and it was talked about in newspapers, and after that the visuals for that scene came up endlessly for some reason. (Laughs) “What sort of thing is this?” (Laughs) We ended up reluctantly doing the same sort of thing in 2199 Episode 25. I am really sorry for all the trouble it caused.

(Pause to look through Yoshinori Kanada’s art in the Final Yamato Roman Album.)

Okura: When I saw this, it set me on fire! A copy [of the book] went around the studio, and we all copied it…so nostalgic!

Interviewer: Some time later, how did you come to participate in Yamato Resurrection?

Okura: I suddenly got a phone call. “This is Nishizaki…I want to meet with you.” (Laughs) I said, “all right” and he and [his son] Shoji Nishizaki came all the way to where I lived. The project was moving forward and they wanted me on board as the Mecha Director, but I had to decline at that time. I really wanted to participate, but later on I was able to bend a little and agreed to it. “I can help you a little…” However, since production had already begun there wasn’t room for me to be the Mecha Director of the main story, so I said, “If that’s the case, then let me play with the 3DCG model of Yamato.” If I could be involved with the basic 3DCG model, it would be the same as being involved as the Mecha Director.

3DCG model for Yamato Resurrection by Masahiko Okura and Station T.T.B. The bow and stern are smaller and the volume has increased in the center of the hull, but to the contrary it can be said that it’s a closer to the silhouette of the old Battleship Yamato.

Interviewer: Then the so-called Resurrection version 3DCG model is the “Okura version.” How did that model come about?

Okura: Everyone calls it the “Okura version.” It was made in collaboration with Station T.T.B. From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, they produced a lot of high-quality Yamato and Star Trek CG models for the web. They became sort of famous among Yamato lovers, and I was very impressed by their work. After that, I was introduced to the person in charge of 3DCG at the production site. “Hello, my name is Mori.” When we first started talking about Yamato, he seemed strangely familiar. So when I asked him, it turned out he was the one in charge of Station T.T.B. I knew his work, so “If that’s the case, then we’re safe.” When we started the real work and I gave my notes and requests, he took them into consideration very well.

Interviewer: What kind of discussions did you specifically have?

Okura: At that point, a printout of the 3DCG model had already been completed for verification. I drew my proposed changes onto a rough view. “Please do it this way.” And the model was modified. Then it was output again with the corrections and we repeated. After that, we finished it by direct discussion. I remember endlessly playing around with the surface structure of the Wave-Motion Gun. (Laughs)

Mr. Mori did his best…but it was tough. I’d say, “It’s almost done! But let’s play with the proportions from this angle…” (Laughs) In order to reduce the bow and stern the central part of the hull was widened and we further increased the length of the hull…and then, “Let’s make the bridge smaller.” I was told “The scale is different,” but I’m not the type who cares about specs, so… “Let’s extend the overall length then!” It’s a ship that Sanada redesigned anyway, so it could be about 333 meters. And Nishizaki said it looked like a “turnip.” (Laughs)

In fact, when we first tried to make Resurrection in 1992, I suggested to Mr. Nishizaki, “Let’s extend the overall length” and got the OK. So when we presented the 3D model that was made with these strange proportions, I got the OK in one try. Finally, he said to put the anchor mark on it and change the color of the third bridge, and I made the bridge windows orange. He was really obsessed with that area.

Interviewer: The Resurrection version of Yamato does have some unusual proportions, doesn’t it?

Mr. Okura drew this in his pocket notebook during the interview.
It shows the difference between telephoto and wide angle,
illustrating the “size logic” theory that he specifically explained.

Okura: That Yamato does make a strong impression at the front and rear when it passes by. It’s really memorable, isn’t it? But when you see it from the side, the front and rear are bigger.

Interviewer: There was a plastic model like that, too. (Laughs)

Okura: Right, but this style wasn’t as carefree as that. Conversely, when you balance it with a side view that looks cool, you end up with the proportions of a small front and rear. When you do it this way, you end up asking “Maybe we shouldn’t do the pass,” but like it or not, when the camera moves in, the bow and stern get bigger. (Laughs)

For myself, the impression I wanted to give was, “Yamato is a very long ship.” I looked at the “wraparound Yamato” scenes created by Tiger Pro back in the day [on Series 1] and thought, “Like that…” I had played around with 3DCG on other works and thought, “What makes it look big is going more telephoto than wide angle!” So my approach came from the desire to capture that telephoto look. After that, when Taito’s prize model came out, I took a photo of it from a distance with telephoto, and the silhouette had a huge feeling, so I wasn’t wrong.

Interviewer: Mr. Nishizaki seemed to have a lot of feelings about Yamato’s style of drama, which you’ve referred to as “The Nishizaki formula.” How do you feel about it?

Okura: I thought about Yamato in various ways for this interview, and I think the characteristic of Mr. Nishizaki’s style of drama is “fatherhood.” It’s consistent from Part 1 all the way to Resurrection. You could say “Nishizaki’s Yamato” has a “fatherly aura.” It comes out so deeply…so deeply that regular people can’t follow it. (Laughs) We have to talk about how far it can penetrate in modern times. It’s so deep that viewers of Yamato Resurrection in particular can feel it hitting them over the head. There may be a variety of tastes depending on the person, but I think that’s one of the appeals of Yamato. You can say Yamato Resurrection wasn’t successful, but there’s no doubt that its aesthetics were unique to Mr. Nishizaki. You can debate over whether or not it’s a good movie, but if you look at it as Yamato, it got a perfect score. That’s what I think.

Interviewer: Everyone who talks about Mr. Nishizaki says the same thing, don’t they? You could say that the “Nishizaki formula” isn’t dramaturgy, but it’s about how to carry a story and give it presence. He liked you a lot, too, didn’t he? You’ve said, “He fought with a lot of people, but I was never yelled at even when he was scolding me.”

Okura: Yeah, he really liked me. The timing of his departure was bad, and I’m sorry I wasn’t able to return the favor with satisfaction. I used to go to him and say, “Let’s do a remake of the old days!” and I’d show him a plot and some pictures I drew. All I can do now is say, “I miss you!” It was a great ride, Mr. Nishizaki.

Interviewer: I’ll never forget the wrap party.

Okura: There were flowers offered to him from the staff in the morning, and others sent by outsiders starting in the afternoon. And then, at 3 or 4 in the afternoon, while walking along the street, if he saw someone he recognized walking alone, he’d call out “We’re going for drinks now. Want to join us?” At the time, he said “I feel like, once I go home, it’ll all be over.” Those sorts of feelings may come out in that film.

Interviewer: I was surprised to hear the story behind an illustration you drew for this magazine, titled Arrivederci: “A picture of those who died, becoming birds and traveling with Yamato.”

Okura: The voice actor Goro Naya [Captain Okita] passed away right before I drew that. So many voice actors and staff members who were involved with the old Yamato have passed away over the last few years. Mr. Tanahashi [director], Mr. Ishiguro [director], Mr. Miyagawa [composer], and of course Mr. Nishizaki. “Everyone is passing away,” I thought. So at the time I wanted to make an image with the feeling of “goodbye, but not Farewell!” without actually saying it.

Interviewer: Those “birds” are filled with that feeling. But I think what you’re doing now is returning a favor to Mr. Nishizaki. By all means, please revive the plans that were frozen.

Special thanks to Neil Nadelman for translation support.

Below: experimental 3D model created by Mr. Okura

Below: illustrations for Yamato Fact File magazine by Mr. Okura

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