The months may be crawling by, but every rotation of the Earth gets us one day closer to the December 1 release of the Space Battleship Yamato movie in Japan. The promotional campaign began in earnest on June 26 with the release of a new full-length trailer to pick up where January’s 30-second teaser left off.
In 90 short seconds, it delivered one surprise after another, from radically-redesigned Gamilas spaceships to characters in full costume and glimpses of completely new action scenarios (some of which seem to have been transplanted from Farewell to Yamato). Interspersed with these were scenes unmistakenly rooted in the anime, such as the ship wrenching free of its bedrock and climbing into space over a burnt red Earth.
At this early point it’s still tough to gauge exactly how much the characters will differ from their 2D counterparts, but there is now no doubt remaining about the production values; the special effects and vast scope are as cutting edge as anything American cinema has to offer. The previous highwater mark for CG Yamato animation was set by the recent pachinko games from the Fuji Company, and the makers of this film have absolutely risen to the challenge.
The Yamato itself is detailed differently from the anime version, but the basic shape is intact and completely authentic, seemingly taking its cues from Bandai’s 2007 model kit which was specifically engineered to capture the essence of the original in a way that had never been done before. With that as a foundation, the franchise seems to be in good hands, at least from a purely visual standpoint.
Shortly before the trailer made its debut, Yamato declared its approach “in person” at the 32nd World Hobby Fair in Japan, co-organized by publishing giant Shogakukan as a bi-annual showcase for the latest in manga, anime, and games. The event took place June 19 and 20, and featured a booth with a 3-meter tall Yamato bow rising up out of the very ground spectators walked upon.
See highlights of the 2008 WHF here.
It was immediately reminiscent of the bow sculpture that anchored the Yamato Expo back in February, but this was an all-new model that more closely followed the revised ship design in the movie. Just like the Expo version, however, its Wave-Motion Gun lit up and fired throughout the day.
The other attractions at the WHF booth were things we covered in our first report, the 30-second teaser, the poster art, and the Yamato News flyer. This time, however, a new bonus item was added: an origami set containing a mini Yamato and Black Tiger…which gave everyone their first glimpse of the all-new Black Tiger design!
The Hobby Fair booth became a traveling exhibit when it was displayed in Fukuoka city from July 17-25, then moved on to the Sapporo, Chuubu, and Kansai districts throughout the month of August. See it in action here..
The biggest boost, however, came from a totally unexpected corner when it was announced in June that the world’s cutest cartoon cat would be celebrating Yamato throughout the month of August. Hello Kitty, it turns out, has almost the same vintage as the anime series, having made her debut in 1975. Therefore, she and her boyfriend Daniel will deck themselves out in the familiar crew uniform and express their fanhood in a live Yamato X Kitty Collaboration” show at Sanrio’s Puroland Amusement Park from August 1-31.
Prior to this, advance tickets for the movie went on sale July 3 with a special bonus for early adopters: buying one ticket earned the purchaser one free “strap mascot” of either Kitty or Daniel wearing “Yamato battlesuits.” For the record, Kitty is a member of the combat group and Daniel is a science guy.
Finally, another type of collaberation was launched in July when Yamato appeared on the website for Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT). For a while it appeared as the headliner on a space-science-themed page along with JAXA, the Japanese space agency.
Meet the Filmmakers
Robot Communications, Inc. Production Company
A subsidiary of Imagica and Robot Holdings, which merged into Imagica Robot Group in 2006. They began with TV commercials as their focus, then found success in live-action film production and high-profile video games. Visit their homepage here.
Shirogumi [White Group] Co. Ltd. Visual Effects Studio
A Japanese company specializing in the planning and production of special effects for animation and film. Member of the Association of Japanese Animation.
Company President Tatsuo Shimamura was one of the first graduates of Toei Animation who worked on The White Serpent (1958), the first full-color anime feature film. His specialty was the production of TV commercials first for Toei, then Gakken, until he established his own company in 1973. It was dissolved the following year and reformed into White Group.
Over time they developed a wide range of techniques from miniatures to computer graphics, and made their mark on the films Juvenile (2000) and Returner (2002). In addition to live-action films, their game credits include Onimusha, Soul Calibre, Final Fantasy VII, Armored Core, Xenogears and Biohazard: The Darkside Chronicles.
Their television projects include the anime series Moyashimon: Tales of Agriculture (2007) and the sentai series Tomica Hero Rescue Force (2008). They currently operate in several different Tokyo studios. Today the studio supervisor is director Takashi Yamazaki, whose films (and those of his wife) are all made in-house.
Visit Shirogumi’s homepage here.
Takashi Yamazaki Director, Effects Supervisor
Supervisor of Shirogumi Co. Ltd.
Born June 12, 1964. Married to movie director Shimako Sato.
(See his Wikipedia entry here.)
Born in 1964, he decided on a career in special effects after seeing Star Wars and Close Encounters at the age of 13. He joined Shirogumi in 1986 to take charge of miniatures production for movies and TV commercials. He expanded his duties as time went on, supervising effects for his wife’s film Wizard of Darkness in 1995 and the live-action movie adaptation of the horror video game Parasite Eve in 1997 (See the entire film subtitled on YouTube here).
He made his directing debut with the SF movie Juvenile in 2000, and over subsequent years he helped to popularize the term “VFX” to replace “CG” in Japan. His second film was the SF action thriller Returner (2002), then he changed pace radically in 2005 with the movie Always: Sunset on Third Street.
Adapted from a popular manga, Always depicted the daily lives of people in a Tokyo neighborhood circa 1958 and made full use of VFX to reproduce the golden age of the Showa era, which resulted in a major box office hit. Yamazaki won numerous awards for his work (Always took 12 of the 13 Japanese Academy Awards for which it was nominated) and firmly established himself as a mainstream director. He responded to demands for a sequel when he released Always 2 in 2007, which repeated the success of its predecessor. Yamazaki invited his favorite band Bump of Chicken to write the end title song for the film; he had previously directed a music video for them in 2006.
His fifth film was another change of pace titled Ballad: A Gift of Time. Released in September 2009, it was an adaptation of an animated Crayon Shinchan movie from 2002 titled The Storm Calls Appare! Big Civil War Battle! He made the film in collaberation with his friend, a cutting-edge animator with the showbiz nickname of “Frogman.” See a discussion with them about the movie here. He returned the favor by collaborating on Frogman’s film Eagle Talon 3, which was released in 2010.
Very soft-spoken, Yamazaki nevertheless describes VFX as his “weapon” as a film director. In a 2008 TV interview he expressed his dream of one day making a live-action adaptation of the Hayao Miyzaki anime classic, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. He is also a friend to the high-profile manga studio CLAMP and was their model for a character in Card Captor Sakura, who is named after him.
Space Battleship Yamato is his sixth feature film, but his work has extended beyond the cinema. He supervised the opening movie for the Capcom game Onimusha [Demon Warrior] 3 in 2003. A unique synthesis of CG and live miniatures, the movie was an official selection at the 2004 Siggraph conference. See it on YouTube here.
Other projects he took on between his films included directing the opening title for the TV anime series Moyashimon: Tales of Agriculture in 2007 (see it here) and supervising VFX for his wife’s film K20 in 2008. The continued collaberation of Yamazaki with his wife/writer Shimako Sato, art director Kamijo Asato, composer Naoki Sato, and Shirogumi, has prompted the Japanese media to coin the term “Yamazaki Group” for this creative enclave.
See an index link to other YouTube clips showcasing Yamazaki’s work here.
Shimako Sato Screenplay
Born in 1964, Shimako Sato is a writer and film director, now married to Takashi Yamazaki. She graduated from Asagaya School of Technical Arts and studied at the London International Film School in 1987.
She won the grand prize at the 1992 Tokyo International Fantastic Film Festival with Tale of a Vampire, based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe and starring Julian Sands and Suzanna Hamilton. The film was subsequently released by Lionsgate and is now available in the US.
She was awarded again at the 1995 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival for Eko Eko Azarak: Wizard of Darkness, which was released (along with its two sequels) in the US on DVD by Tokyo Shock. See the trailer on YouTube here.
Her work in TV commercials brought her into the fold at Shirogumi, with whom she worked on the opening animation sequence for Capcom’s Onimusha Warlords game. This took the Best of Show prize at the 2000 Siggraph Conference for computer animation. Her credits also include directing CG animation on such mega-hits as Biohazard [Resident Evil] Code Veronica.
Her 2008 film K-20: The Fiend With 20 Faces was released by Toho in 2008, and is reviewed below. Her next project was to co-write the screenplay for Ballad with her husband Takashi Yamazaki.
See an index link to other YouTube clips showcasing her work here.
Naoki Sato Composer
Born in 1970, Sato became a composer after graduating from the Tokyo College of Music. His career has encompassed a wide range of genres from classical to rock to anime and TV soundtracks, but he is chiefly involved in movie scores including the composing and arrangement for songs. His style is sweet, memorable, adventurous, and always comfortable.
His television career began in 2001. He has composed music for anime series such as X, Mouse, Machine Robo Rescue, Eureka Seven, Pretty Cure, Heroic Age, and Moyashimon. (Click on each title for a YouTube clip.) He has also created music for many commercials, games, TV specials, and other projects.
His film career began in 2004, and his collaberation with Takashi Yamazaki on the film Always won him the Japanese Academy Award in 2005. His other scores include Lorelei, Always 2, K-20, Ballad, and the 2009 Eureka Seven film Good Night, Sleep Tight, Young Lovers. Yamato will be his fourth film with Yamazaki.
See an index link to other YouTube clips showcasing his work here.
As of this article’s publication, four long months still lie ahead before the Yamato movie is released in Japan, and an untold amount of time before it finds its way across the ocean to the West. One can always use that time to revisit the original animated saga, but if you’re looking for something else to build anticipation for the new experience, an excellent use of your time would be to seek out and absorb other movies with a built-in Yamato connection.
We’ll start with those of the Yamazaki Group and go from there.
Written and directed by Yamazaki, this light-hearted SF adventure had everything that would later become a staple of his work: action, time travel, and ambitious special effects. In the story, three boys and a girl are at summer camp where they discover a tiny robot named Tetra, who claims to already know Yusuke, the lead character. Yusuke takes Tetra home where he begins working on a strange, inscrutable project. It turns out aliens are about to invade the Earth and with the help of the local “mad scientist” (actually, a computer/physics whiz), a heavy-duty battle mecha, and the power of first love, our young heroes might just have what it takes to turn the tables.
With Juvenile, Yamazaki demonstrated his penchant for riffing on films you’ve already seen (in this case, E.T. Aliens, and Independence Day) and twisting them to his own ends. The twist in this movie actually comes close to the end after the crisis is dealt with and Tetra’s origin is revealed. While it certainly isn’t Yamazaki’s best work, the movie overflows with youthful exuberance and enough humor to balance out the occasional wonkiness and dated CG. It also has two actors who Yamazaki would work with again and anime voice actress/pop idol Megumi Hayashibara for both the voice of Tetra and an onscreen cameo. The film is only available on DVD in Japan, but includes English subtitles.
See the trailer on YouTube here.
The Yamato connection: the spaceship scenes are still impressive over ten years later and bode well for what we can expect to see next.
The remarkable thing about this film is that it ends up being greater than the sum of its parts, which are lifted wholesale from The Terminator, The Matrix, Independence Day (again), and a dash of Transformers. A girl named Milly jumps back in time from a wartorn future and finds herself teamed up with a cynical hitman named Miyamoto to stop an alien invasion that will scorch the Earth. Pitted against them is crime boss Mizoguchi, who thinks an alien invasion sounds like fun.
The movie’s obvious influences fade into the background once Miyamoto signs onto Milly’s crusade and the story makes a smooth left turn into something wholly original with a clever twist ending. For its time, the action choreography was cutting edge and still holds up well today. Returner is available on DVD in the US by Columbia Tristar.
See the trailer on YouTube here.
The Yamato connection: The wartorn future is very similar in tone and texture to the teaser scenes of planet-bombed Earth in 2199.
Yamazaki’s third film was an abrupt change of pace after his first two. Based on a long-running manga titled Sunset on Third Street, it is an ensemble piece that depicts a year in the life of a single neighborhood. It is 1958, and as Tokyo Tower rises steadily over the rooftops of Third Street, various comedies and dramas play out in the lives of its richly diverse and engaging characters.
Always was a major step forward for Yamazaki that cleaned house at the 2006 Japanese Academy Awards with 13 wins that included best film, director, actor, and screenplay. It was completely devoid of SF-style action, but the special effects challenge was just as great. White Group had to accurately recreate the Tokyo of 1958, and they accomplished it with flying colors. The movie has not been released in the US, but the Japanese Region 2 DVD includes English subtitles. (Amazon.jp is a reliable source.)
See the trailer on YouTube here.
The Yamato connection: Shinichi Tsutsumi plays auto mechanic Norifumi Suzuki, whose explosive rage gives him the power to blow doors off their hinges with his chest. He has been cast as Mamoru Kodai in the Yamato movie.
Always 2 (2007)
Four months after the events of the first film, we return to Third Street…and watch Godzilla smash it flat (along with Tokyo Tower) in the first two minutes. No kidding.
After that is dealt with, we pick up where we left off and enter the year 1959 with all the same characters and a handful of new ones who turn up to keep their lives interesting. Always 2 not only precisely maintains the spirit of its predecessor, it manages to be even more heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time with plot twists and payoffs aplenty. Since both films are based on a serialized manga, they are essentially a string of vignettes that focus on individual characters, all of whom come together when an ongoing subplot rises to the fore. This story structure, along with buoyant performances from each actor, continuously breathes life into the movie from beginning to end.
Like the first film, Always 2 has not been released in the US, but the Japanese Region 2 DVD includes English subtitles.
Visit the official website here.
The Yamato Connection: Same as before. Side note: seeing a fully-realized CG Godzilla at the beginning of the movie makes one long for an entire monster movie directed by Yamazaki.
The year: 1949. The place: Teito, the capital city of Japan on an alternate Earth where the world wars never happened. Instead, society stratified into nobility, proletariat, and an underclass. In this time, public enemy number one is K-20 (the K stands for Kaijin, meaning “fiend”). He is Batman, the Shadow, and Lupin III rolled into one, a master thief with a lust for power. His goal is to find and activate an energy transmission machine invented by Nicola Tesla, which he will use to subjugate the world. Part of this scheme involves framing circus star Heikichi Endo. Anyone could be K-20, and when Endo gets targeted he has to lose himself in the lowest rung of society to survive. But K-20 will get more than he bargained for with this patsy; Endo is an expert magician and acrobat, and with the help of his mentor Gendo he sets out to turn the scheme back on the schemer.
Based on a Japanese adventure novel, this film was adapted, written, and directed by Shimako Sato, who wrote the screenplay for the Yamato movie. Her filmmaking style takes most of its cues from American-made action thrillers, particularly the latest Batman series. Takashi Yamazaki and White Group produced the VFX which were primarily used to create the lush, intricate cityscapes of a parallel history.
There is little in K-20 that can’t be found in US superhero movies, but Sato does an excellent job fleshing out her characters, particularly Yoko Hashiba, a duchess from the ruling class who is caught up in Endo’s struggle and gets her first exposure to the real world outside her narrow confines. K-20 is available in the US on DVD from Viz Pictures.
The Yamato connection: other than the production credits (the Yamazaki Group) there really isn’t one, but there are important acting connections to other films described on this page. Lead actor Takeshi Kaneshiro previously starred as the hitman in Returner and was the model for the lead character in Onimusha 3. Jun Kunimura, who plays Gendo, filled similar roles in both Lorelei and Godzilla Final Wars.
The Yamazaki Group’s most recent offering is this time-travel adventure with a very odd origin, which we’ll cover in a moment. But first, the story: a modern-day Japanese boy with self-confidence issues sees a princess in his dreams, then falls through a crack in time and meets her in person. Young Shinichi is now in the era of 16th-century Feudal Japan and his first move is to inadvertently save the life of samurai general Matabe Ijiri. Shinichi’s modern clothing, bicycle, and personal electronics amaze the people of Ijiri’s village, who think he must be an evil demon. Princess Ren steps in to talk sense into them and commands Ijiri to become the boy’s caretaker.
Things go well until Shinichi’s parents experience the same timeslip (while looking for him in their SUV) and bring some bad news with them. This province, known as Kasuga, no longer exists in the future. In other words, they are destined to be swept away by all their rival clans. Ren’s father decides nothing is to be gained by marrying his daughter to the neighboring Lord Takatura, and calls off their arrangement. This is good news for Ijiri, who is secretly in love with her…but it’s bad news for Kasuga when Takatura declares war.
Ballad is set at a specific point in Japanese history called the Tensho era (1573-1592) and the Shirogumi VFX group recreated it with great attention to detail and authenticity. The odd origin of the film is that it was based on an anime featuring Crayon Shinchan. For those not yet in the know, Shinchan is a little boy who would fit right in at South Park. He is the thoroughly vile (and thus extremely popular) star of a long-running manga, TV series, and line of movies. A 2002 Crayon Shinchan movie placed him in the very plot described above, and actually redeemed him as a hero in the end.
Takashi Yamazaki was quite taken with the concept and adapted it for this film, playing up the love story between Ijiri and Princess Ren, and delivering a top-notch samurai battle in the bargain. He chose the name Ballad with the idea that it would evoke a love story told by a minstrel, and composer Naoto Sato turned in a magnificent score to back that up. Unfortunately, this is the least accessible of Yamazaki’s films to Western audiences, since it is only available on a non-subtitled Japanese DVD. Nevertheless, it reaches effortlessly through the language barrier to be completely enthralling.
The Yamato connection: Ballad shows the Yamazaki Group at the top of their game. Since it was their last project before commencing on Space Battleship Yamato, it holds great promise for the future.
More Recommended Viewing
Though not made by Yamazaki or his associates, here are three more films that relate to Yamato in one way or another and will help to stave off anticipation at least for a few hours.
World War II is nearing its end. The Imperial Japanese Navy, losing on all fronts, receives an experimental Nazi I-507 submarine with a one-of-a-kind superweapon that will make it invincible. The potential of this weapon at such a critical moment sends shockwaves through Japan’s corridors of power, the sub’s makeshift crew, and the US Navy as it prepares three (yes three) atomic bombs for the climactic last strike against Japan.
Based on a bestselling novel, Lorelei is cut from the same cloth as Ice Station Zebra and The Hunt for Red October and is about as historically accurate as Inglorious Basterds. Whereas a lesser film would be mired in such a soup, however, this one rises above thanks to a stellar cast, amazing production values, and a tight, suspenseful story with no fat on it whatsoever. Its director, Shinji Higuchi, was the first choice to helm the Yamato movie before script changes prompted him to step aside. The tone and atmosphere of Lorelei would have been entirely appropriate for Yamato, which makes it a perfect movie to watch in anticipation. It has not been released in the US, but the Japanese DVD contains English subtitles.
See the trailer (and related clips) on YouTube here.
The Yamato connection: Four of the film’s actors are in the Yamato movie, the rousing score is by Naoto Sato, and the storyboards were done by anime superstar Hideaki Anno who cites Yamato as the inspiration for his career.
Men of Yamato (2005)
In terms of cinematic CG spectacle, a clear line can be drawn from Titanic to Pearl Harbor to this account of the last days of the Battleship Yamato. The film easily matches the scale and scope of its predecessors with a big cast and a really big set; a large portion of the ship was built at 1/1 scale for the filming, with the Yamato Museum’s 50-foot model helping to fill in the rest.
The story begins with a chartered boat on a trip to the sight of Yamato‘s sinking; the boat’s pilot is a survivor who remembers the final, fateful mission of 60 years ago in vivid detail. (Cool trivia: actor Tatsuya Nakadai who portrays the survivor, was the narrator of Final Yamato.) We are shown the lives of several crewmembers both on-shore and off, following them all the way through Operation Ten-Go and the devastating confrontation with the US fleet. The writing, directing, acting, and special effects are all exquisite, and fans of Studio Ghibli movies (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Ponyo, etc.) are treated to another fine Joe Hisaishi soundtrack. Naturally, the movie was a huge box office success and won many major awards. Unfortunately, it was never commercially released in the US.
The Yamato connection: think of it as a prequel.
Godzilla Final Wars (2004)
Plenty has been written about the last movie (so far) in the venerable Godzilla franchise, so it’s enough to say that the monster battles are even more dynamic, the human characters are even more unbelievable, the world is even more abstract (biologists dress like fashion models and wrestlers are given far too much responsibility), and the plot is even more threadbare than ever. But that’s all part of the charm.
See the trailer on YouTube here.
The Yamato Connection: Masato Ibu, the voice actor for Dessler, plays the supreme commander of the X-Aliens bent on conquering Earth.
Pachinko Game Footage
With a cutting-edge special-effects film on the horizon, this is a particularly good time to go back and examine what else has been done with Space Battleship Yamato in recent years. The very best examples of a CG Yamato in action have come from the Fuji Company’s high-end pachinko games. Their work looks just as good as anything we’ve seen so far in early footage, and may in fact have set the standard for what is to come.
Revisit our coverage of Fuji’s games, which includes links to their CG footage on YouTube:
BONUS! For a limited time only! If you can get yourself to Japan and buy a pair of tickets to the 2010 concert tour of SMAP (the pop group to whom Takuya Kimura still belongs), you can score the exclusive Yamato postcard sets shown here: the “Earth” version or the “Space” version. Come on, what are you waiting for???