1993 Staff Interview
The 1990s were a heady time for Space Battleship Yamato. After years of trial and error, a breakthrough had finally been made in the struggle to bring Yamato back to life. Not just one, but two new projects had been conceived to revitalize the saga in different ways: Yamato 2520 (for home video) and Yamato Resurrection (feature film). By this time, artists from the generation that grew up watching Yamato had joined the anime industry themselves, and key members of the original staff were still active. Together, they would work to breathe new life into a legend.
This was also a time in which the Laserdisc still reigned as the supreme format for home video; The entire Yamato catalogue was released several times on LD in deluxe packaging with lots of square inches for the sort of bonus features that would later be found on DVDs. One particular set of the movies was released by Bandai/Emotion in 1993 to herald the approach of the new projects, and the bonus feature was a pair of staff interviews serialized across five LD jackets.
Looking back from 2010, these interviews fell almost in the middle of Yamato history, 19 years after the start of the saga and 17 years before the present day. The six participants in the first interview, presented here, discussed their experiences from the early years and their work on Yamato 2520, which at the time was simply referred to as New Yamato. The fact that 2520 would not work out as planned makes this snapshot of Yamato history a particularly interesting read.
1. Eiichi Yamamoto
A director and producer for Mighty Atom [Astro Boy] and Jungle Emperor [Kimba] at Mushi Pro. Afterward, served as the supervisor of A Thousand and One Nights and Belladonna of Sorrow. He participated in Yamato from the early development phase.
2. Takeshi Shirato
Began as an animator on Mazinger Z, Getta Robo, and others for Toei Animation then became a unit director on Series 1 and finished as Chief Director on Final Yamato. One of the very few staff members who was involved in storyboards for every Yamato production.
3. Hideki Takayama
First participated as a production assistant on Farewell to Yamato, became assistant director on Be Forever and effects director on Final Yamato. Achieved international recognition as the supervisor of Uratsukidoji [Legend of the Overfiend].
4. Syouichi Masuo
Assistant director of Gunbuster, Nadia, and Wings of Honneamise, mecha designer for Irresponsible Captain Tylor. Serves as mecha design supervisor for New Yamato.
5. Atsushi Takeuchi
Animation supervisor for Sol Bianca 2, designer for Tenchi Muyo, animator for Silent Mobius 2. Animation director on New Yamato.
6. Mahiro Maeda
Participated as an animator on Nausicaa while attending Tokyo University of Art and Design, continued as a production designer on Wings of Honneamise and Nadia, the Secret of Blue Water. Serves as a supervisor on New Yamato.
Interviewer: Can you talk about how you came to be involved in Space Battleship Yamato?
Yamamoto: The planning began in the fall of 1973, but I was working for Mushi-Pro in those days and participated in Wansa-Kun. This was the first anime that Mr. Nishizaki took charge of, and my position was Chief Director.
There were many plans being made for his next project, but as for myself, I didn’t think a children’s SF program would work. I thought I could do space fantasy, but I knew I was not good with SF. At that time, Mr. Nishizaki had an image in his head of a battleship flying in the sky. It seemed it had been a dream since his childhood. Then Mr. Aritsune Toyota brought it together as an Asteroid Ship, a spaceship with fragments of a planet attached to it.
But some questioned the appearance of a ship that looked like a planet. Then they said, how about having the spaceship inside fly out in an emergency? Before that time, all images of spaceships had been slick and shiny, as in Osamu Tezuka’s manga, but we wanted to give the spaceship rugged feeling which had a more human touch. We decided to go with the image of irregular iron.
Maeda: Where did the concept of Yamato come from?
Yamamoto: We had had the name of Yamato since the time of Asteroid Ship. It was also rooted in Japanese tradition. But it was much later when it became more closely tied to Space Battleship Yamato. In the original concept, it was more like a carrier that traveled to and from Iscandar, but “Space Carrier Yamato” sounded dumb for some reason. (Laughter)
Maeda: When I saw the name Yamato for the first time with Leiji Matsumoto’s design, the impact was amazing. It wasn’t a name from the Western language.
Shirato: However, it was completely defeated by Heidi. (Laughter)
When I came on board, it was already well-developed. At the beginning I had a lot of resistance to scenes with firing cannons. My first storyboard was for an episode with no battle scenes at all. (Episode 10, the “goodbye to Earth” story.) My first animation was the Battle at the Rainbow Star Cluster. The episode was full of tremendous battles one after another, right? Thanks to this, I was able to completely overcome my hesitation. (Laughter)
What I remember is, at that time, copies [of animation drawings] were not as widely distributed as they are now, so we needed to cut the heads and arms off the characters to recombine them. I drew a lot of Captain Okita faces, and the face was put on the body drawn by someone else.
Maeda: That’s unbelievable…
Interviewer: What about you, Mr. Takayama?
Takayama: My first participation in anime was Getter Robo G, produced by Toei Animation. Then I was invited by the Animation Director Mr. Katsumata to work on production for Farewell to Yamato as an assistant animation director. I knew there was a work called Yamato before then, but I had rarely seen it.
Shirato: You watched Heidi? (Laughter)
Takayama: No, when working at a studio, we were busy when Yamato was broadcast, and unless I was very careful, I could not watch TV. Farewell was a very tough job and I honestly swore that I would never work on a project for Mr. Nishizaki again. (Laughter). But shortly after I thought, “This man will do something interesting…”
Yamamoto: Mr. Nishizaki is a producer who thinks of the quality of the work as most important, so in order to make the work better, he pushes the schedule to the limit. This was intolerable for us who worked under him, though. (Laughter)
But in thinking about that, if a producer doesn’t use his full power to make the work its best, would Japanese movies be able to aim for the global market? Especially anime; the only Japanese movies that can target the global market right now are anime movies.
Interviewer: Yamato has also been shown abroad. I think Yamato has surely changed the anime genre.
Yamamoto: There were anime that made a hit even before Yamato, like Astro Boy and Q-Taro the Ghost, but on the whole they were the minority. Yamato proved that anime could be a viable business, and “animator” became a cool job after that.
Shirato: When I was young, I never knew there was such an occupation. I remember when I told my parents, “I want to become an animator,” they thought, “a gas meter?” (Laughter)
Yamamoto: When we made the first TV series, we intended to target elementary school grades 5-6, but it became for the upper age group. To tell the truth, I wanted from the beginning to make it for junior high students. But in those days nobody thought anime goods would sell to that generation.
Maeda: I remember that the stately scene of Yamato appearing on the screen appealed to my father a lot, so he came to watch it. He pointed out the rifling inside the tip of the main guns and said whatever it fired would come spiraling out, even a beam. That was what he watched for.
Shirato: I am guessing the so-called Yamato boom occurred first in Hokkaido. A lot of fan letters came in from girls in Hokkaido at that time.
Masuo: Many people in the anime industry come from Hokkaido, including Mr. Kubooka who is working on New Yamato with us. It seems Hokkaido got a lot of reruns.
Interviewer: The first Yamato feature film was made possible as a result of this boom. I’ve heard that the production of the film was very hard.
Shirato: Although I am told it was hard, there is no standard to judge it by. But the situation was like, some said, “is filming complete?” two days before the screening. (Laughter)
Yamamoto: Films at that time considered quality as most important. In order to make the work better, we kept at it. The rise of TV made this impossible. But Mr. Nishizaki was the type who really stuck to it until he was satisfied.
Viewers stood in line at the theater even the day before the screening, which had never happened before. And this us made feel that our effort was rewarded.
Interviewer: Did any of you line up?
Masuo: I did. The content was very good, but the tricks used to liven up the public in advance were great. I was in the fan club then, and they sent out a postcard. It encouraged us to request the Yamato song on radio. Various details came from the fan club one after another–how many new scenes were included in the film, or this would be the content of the film, and so on. This was all spread by word of mouth among the fans.
Maeda: Everybody was happy to do so, not forced by anyone.
Yamamoto: Yamato built a culture of fans that supported the underdog. By participating in such an activity, you gain an awareness of being involved in the creation of the work. Since Yamato, fans have apparently become the nurturers. The culture of fans fostering a work really took hold from this.
Maeda: But we were not satisfied, and we ended up as creators.
Masuo: There was definitely a wall between fans and creators, wasn’t there? I have not felt such a wall since Yamato. When we took the initiative to say what we wanted to see, or express what we wanted to do, Mr. Nishizaki responded to it. We were able to build a consensus, not a one-way [communication]. Therefore, fans got the feeling that “Yamato is ours.”
Maeda: Fans had a common ground on which to raise topics.
Masuo: For fans, Yamato was worth bringing up. There was a solid story that was done well and characters we can like.
Maeda: Yamato was a work that encouraged our imagination.
Masuo: Kodai is after all a normal boy. He has no particular super-power. Most anime became trivial, too childish when the viewers reached junior high school age. But Yamato was different.
Shirato: They were supposed to graduate from anime and study hard. (Laughter)
Maeda: There is a generation that wants to play in the field of imagination. For example, watching foreign films their friends speak highly of. Yamato came on the scene with very good timing for them.
Takeuchi: When they were about to graduate from anime, there was nothing they wanted to watch.
Maeda: At that time nothing was dramatic or SF-ish Even the giant robot thing was getting boring in their eyes.
Shirato: I didn’t think it could possibly be shown in a theatre. When I saw it on a big screen, I thought, “wow,” because the picture was dirty.
Yamamoto: Not enough density. Those of us who created it couldn’t stand to watch it. (laughter)
Masuo: But compared with its appearance on TV, the Rainbow Star Cluster was quite beautiful.
Shirato: There were some animation retakes in there, because we kept all the key animation. We did the Rainbow Star Cluster in the TV series in our studio, but the work was seriously difficult. Our company almost went bankrupt twice. There were 40 cuts per person, and it took 2 months for 8-9 people to complete key animation.
Yamamoto: When the popularity started to rise from reruns, there was the premonition that maybe this could become a hit. My first thought was that the defeat of Gamilas would be the first volume and the rest could be volume 2, with substantial changes on Iscandar, to be released at the New Year holiday. But the whole story was done in the summer, and it made a big hit. I thought it was wasteful (laughter). It would definitely be a hit during the winter.
Interviewer: And the next year, Farewell to Yamato was released.
Takayama: Farewell was, I believe, the first time Toei Animation became involved as a subcontractor. It was the first time such a mecha story was seen in theaters. We planned out a schedule from our previous experience, but the [actual] schedule was horrendous.
Yamamoto: It was only possible to make that film because of Toei.
Shirato: There were many difficult scenes, such as a mob scene, that could only be done at Toei.
Yamamoto: When we talk to young people now, what they want is not films with literary quality, but those that show what they’re eager to see. Last year, Jurassic Park was a big hit because it met such demands. However, there’s a lot of technology in it, and of course technology is expensive. Such a thing [a filmmaking culture that invests in cutting-edge technology] has not developed yet in Japan. [George] Lucas bought a valley to use for shooting while setting up a studio equipped with the latest technology.
I think TV is like a CD, and films are expected to have the quality of a live performance. [The Japanese movie industry] has no future unless they can materialize this [infrastructure].
Interviewer: Speaking of technology, CG has begun to flourish recently, too.
Maeda: Disney is good at using it. They have a good command of, for example, cels used to animate people and CG used for the rest, such as a carpet. [As in Aladdin.]
Yamamoto: I think that American movies have become very interesting visually since the appearance of CG.
Masuo: However, such technology would not make it any better unless there is a need for it. You put the cart before the horse if you try to come up with an excuse to use such technology. Drawing by hand is better than using such things with no good purpose.
Pictures with some “human noise” are better, I think. We’re planning to use CG in Yamato this time, but we want to use it effectively.
Interviewer: As you mentioned, Yamato is coming back this year at last. What do the new staff members want to do with Yamato?
Maeda: It’s something like this: it is Yamato, and in a way it isn’t…but it is still Yamato, after all. Currently, the number of SF films has gone down, and I think fans are starving for the genre. I also would like it to have continuous action elements.
Masuo: There are many fans who asked [for us] not to call this Yamato.
Maeda: My first thought was that although the design of Yamato is totally new, I would be happy if they think, “Yes, this is Yamato,” after they watch all seven, if there will be seven. [Referring to a seven-episode OVA series.]
Masuo: Truthfully, there was resistance to the New Yamato at first, but as I became accustomed to drawing it, I started to think, “this is Yamato.”
Interviewer: When I saw Yamato moving in The Quickening [documentary], I could think, “Ah, this is Yamato.”
Maeda: After all, it depends on how we present it.
Masuo: Didn’t the Enterprise change in the new Star Trek, also? There was resistance to that, but there is no incongruity with the story when you actually see it.
Maeda: I thought a lot [about it] while working on the new project, but all I came up with was just curve balls [variations] of what had been done before. In this regard, the first TV series is the only Yamato. I tried to come up with something with an impact equal to Yamato taking off to save the Earth which was about to die, but this is quite difficult. Maybe this is my limitation as a fan.
Then, rather than tinkering too much, I thought it better to keep the standard. That is, I tried to make it simple; the protagonist grows up by boarding Yamato, and Yamato will eventually come back to the Earth. As a video work [OVA], I tried to make it something many people could enjoy. I think this is my challenge.
Yamamoto: I think Yamato was similar to a simulation game experience; we actually felt the “roman” [poetic drama] of the journey. I think the next Yamato will have to have this, too.
Maeda: Yes. I have been wondering how to help the viewers understand such an ambiguous concept as “roman.”
Yamamoto: Yamato has the strength to defend us without fail. There is the absoluteness of the mission. Yamato rises up again and again even in defeat. This is the core of the hit, isn’t it?
Interviewer: Is the new Yamato difficult to draw?
Takeuchi: It is difficult. It cannot be drawn quickly.
Maeda: We have model sheets as we did for the old Yamato, but as we draw we begin to grasp how to make it cool. It takes time to find which angle is the coolest or what pose is the best.
Takeuchi: This Yamato is composed of geometric lines with a lot of curves, so the structure can be mispresented if the deforming is not done well. If it’s done wrong, the realism is compromised.
Masuo: If we draw it simply, with a figure or three-dimensional sample, we can manage it. But it will just be boring. We’re struggling to make it cool without fiddling with the design too much.
Takeuchi: In order to properly understand the entire structure, it’s necessary to draw it in three dimensions. That’s my job this time.
Masuo: But to be frank, I think it is good that Yamato Resurrection, which is simultaneously in production, can use the old Yamato. A lot of people on the staff want to draw the old one.
Maeda: Since it continues the time line of the previous Yamato, I think it would be interesting if the new Yamato met the old-style Yamato when it comes in contact with the EDF. That Yamato is the authentic one, officially inheriting the name, and this is one is the self-declared Yamato (laughter).
But in the next new work I think we need to strongly present New Yamato just as we became accustomed to the old Yamato as we grew up with it.
Special thanks to Michiko Ito for translation assistance.
Read the full history of Yamato 2520 here
Read a 1994 Yoshinobu Nishizaki interview here
BONUS: Here’s an unusual piece of 2520 development art that trickled out to the world via an online auction in 2021. The description at upper left reads as follows:
REUNION WITH YAMATO – PART 2
It sat like a temple in the green corridor.
The artist’s signature is very difficult to interpret, but could be “Ryo Katayama.”