Yoshinobu Nishizaki: In Memoriam

By Tim Eldred, November 2010

This is the tribute I knew I’d have to write one day, but I never could have guessed the timing or the circumstances.

Yoshinobu Nishizaki, Executive Producer and Creator of Space Battleship Yamato, died on November 7, 2010, by accidental drowning. He was 75. Tokyograph.com reported the news within hours of his passing, as did all the other major news outlets in Japan:

At around 12:35pm on November 7, the Coast Guard received word that Nishizaki had fallen into the water from a ship named Yamato (485 tons), while it was docked at Futami Harbor of Chichi-jima (part of the Bonin Islands). A rescue boat was able to retrieve him about 20 minutes later, but he died shortly after that.

Yamato had docked at Futami Harbor the night before. On the morning of the accident, the ship had completed a trial voyage within the harbor. Nishizaki was wearing a wetsuit and was apparently preparing for a dive at the time that he fell from the ship.

An ignoble end to a remarkable life. The best that can be said about it was that, like the man himself, it was extremely unusual.

Right from the beginning, he was a very different sort of fellow. When his college friends entered the shadowy world of the salaryman, he followed his bliss into the music and entertainment industries. He was a showman in his 20s, working theaters and nightclubs as host, manager, and occasionally a bartender. He was a showbiz entrepreneur at 27 with the founding of Office Academy to produce live music events, and a world traveler in his 30s when most of his contemporaries stayed on familiar ground.

Eighteen months of European travel in the late 60s introduced Nishizaki to a larger world which he evidently brought home with him; his career in music promotion taught him that an audience responded to an individual and this lesson would be applied just a few years after he entered the ranks of anime production as Osamu Tezuka’s business manager in 1970.

His tenure at Tezuka’s Mushi Pro Studio embroiled Nishizaki in his first controversy, a bureaucratic mixup that gave Nishizaki himself the animation copyright to two Tezuka properties, Triton of the Sea and Wansa-kun. After Mushi’s subsequent bankruptcy, he turned them both into TV series that received only tepid ratings. That’s when he began to develop Yamato as a last-ditch effort to stay in the business. As we know, its initial ratings were also a disappointment. But even as he backed off from anime (and into foreign film acquisition) he didn’t give up on his brainchild…and three years of hard slogging finally brought it back as a feature film.

That was when Nishizaki the producer became Nishizaki the rock star. When the first news leaked in about the huge crowds massing to see the movie in August 1977, he had to see it for himself. As fans gathered around him in the street, it must have reminded him of the power of celebrity he saw in his days of music promotion. From then on, in the eyes of the fans, he was the voice and face of Yamato. The role of figurehead was something new to anime, and he embraced it with relish. The final crossover occurred when he actually appeared onscreen in Farewell to Yamato, cheering for Yamato‘s success exactly as in real life. (Shown below.)

In an industry where everyone was expected work in quiet support of one another, Nishizaki tilted heads and raised eyebrows wherever he went. Never content with his lot, he always pushed for something better regardless of the inevitable grumbling that emerged from the trenches. This is the fate of all dreamers who can’t keep their dreams to themselves.

This is the kind of man it took to create Space Battleship Yamato and revolutionize an industry: a visionary taskmaster who was impossible to satisfy, who always put the work ahead of the workers, and lived by the mantra that if you push yourself past your limits, you’ll have no regrets afterward. Those who were used to a more stable, regimented production environment where expectations were always carefully managed, had to adapt or break. More than one colleague started out with resentment, evolved to grudging respect, and finally developed admiration for him.

“I’m never going to work for that guy again,” was a common refrain uttered by many throughout the Yamato production years, but more often than not those who said it could later be found plugging away at the next Yamato project. There was quite simply nothing else like it. Demanding? Naturally. Infuriating? Without a doubt. Satisfying? Completely. Moreover, it was empowering; everyone else in the business knew what Nishizaki’s Yamato veterans had been through, and they were welcomed wherever they went afterward.

Even when it was supposedly over with Final Yamato in 1983, it wasn’t over for Nishizaki. The very next year he announced his plans to bring Yamato back and he spent the rest of his life trying to bring them to fruition. Plenty of other projects got done in the meantime; Odin in 1985, a live-action teen romance called A Passenger in 1987, the notorious Legend of the Overfiend in 1989, and numerous businesses that came and went along with their temporary fortunes.

Things finally started coming back together in the early 90s when Yamato 2520 and Yamato Resurrection went into pre-production, but critical errors in judgment knocked them off the rails by the middle of the decade and a new phase of Nishizaki’s life began, one of demoralizing complications with the law, the courts, and incarceration. At the lowest point, he was challenged for authorship of Yamato itself. But this was the one thing no one could take from him. Even those who had ended up on the south side of a business deal with Nishizaki could not begrudge him his greatest creation, the one that forever changed Japanese pop culture. And so he prevailed.

Emerging from this personal morass in December 2007, he immediately put his life’s work back where it belonged, at the top of his priority list. The Space Battleship Yamato copyright was now wholly owned by Tohokushinsha Film Company, but Nishizaki retained the rights to make a sequel, and he exercised those rights by establishing Yamato Studio in the summer of 2008 to pick up where he left off with Resurrection.

We all know the result of that, but only when we have a picture of the personal victory it represents do we begin to appreciate its personal significance. It’s very tempting to imagine Nishizaki in his darkest moments, waiting for the day when creative freedom is back in his hands, Yamato drifting high up in standby orbit until it is called upon to save not just the Earth, but its own creator.

Knowing this, it’s incredibly moving to see the footage of a stooped, 74-year-old Nishizaki on stage at the November 28, 2009 preview screening. His body bent with pain from recently cracked ribs, he struggles to contain his emotions. In what was to be his last appearance before the most devoted Yamato fans in the world, he tries to be the unassuming gentleman his contemporaries would have preferred, but his entire life catches up to him at that moment and his voice cracks sharply as he receives the reward for everything he endured.

The box office returns from Yamato Resurrection were disappointing, but seemed not to discourage him at all. He had already written his scenario for a followup with the intention of simply reviewing the script and storyboards from the comfort of his retirement. Until that day, he busied himself overseeing a Director’s Cut of the film with restored footage to be presented at some future time. As of this writing, no official announcement has been made about that project, but when completed it will almost certainly be dedicated solely to him.

In the final analysis, no one can speak for Yoshinobu Nishizaki better than he himself. We’ve been translating and presenting his words for years at this website and will continue to do so for some time. (The man was nothing if not talkative.) The links below will take you to all the major pieces we currently have to offer.

Those who worked with the man have said plenty about him, and will no doubt add to the record in light of his passing. But to close this particular retrospective, nothing could be more appropriate than this passage from Itaru Yoshida. He was Toei’s liaison during the development of Farewell to Yamato, a full participant in the story sessions and an eyewitness to Nishizaki at the peak of his creative power. It’s hard to imagine anyone disputing Yoshida’s sentiment:

I will describe my feelings about working with Mr. Nishizaki, but I have to grasp for words that might sound bad. It is severely demanding. For example, in any meeting even if the conclusion is that a certain idea is good, there is still a push to find a better one. This is what I reflected upon the most as an employee producer. A typical salaryman begrudges these conditions, but I feel such force from Producer Nishizaki that it wakes me up and pushes me past my limits to do the job. The many people whose minds and talents gather around his strong personality cannot help but make incredible work that challenges the field of animation.

And now that challenge is eternal.

Here are links to our many Nishizaki interviews and essays. Each contains a link to the next for sequential reading.

First OUT magazine interview (1977) about creating Series 1

Second OUT Magazine interview (1977) shortly before the premiere of the 1977 feature film

1977 interview from Kinejun Magazine on the success of the Yamato movie

1978 column from Fan Club Magazine advice for fans and a personal story of first love

1978 essay on the making of Series 1

1978 interview from Kinejun Magazine on creating the sequel and managing a franchise

1979 essay on the making of Farewell to Yamato

1980 essay on the making of The New Voyage

1980 interview on the making of Be Forever

1980 interview from Monthly Animation Magazine on becoming an institution and answering critics

1980 essay on the making of Be Forever Yamato

1981 essay from My Anime Magazine on his pre-Yamato career and looking toward the end

1983 essay about Final Yamato

1983 retrospective about the entire saga

Essays from the Yamato Fan Club Magazine, 1984-91

2008 interviews from Playboy and Otonafami magazines first media appearances since the 90s

2009 interview from Animage Magazine on the making of Yamato Resurrection

Final Message from the Producer

Published in the Yamato Resurrection Complete Box Deluxe Book
October 30, 2010

In the midst of unstable times and an uncertain future, what is the meaning of Yamato‘s continuing fight? Yamato‘s role still has not ended.

By Yoshinobu Nishizaki

Yamato was made again for the first time in 26 years. I am overwhelmed with emotion.

Before the premiere on December 12 last year, a special preview was held at the Tokyo International Forum in Yurakucho on November 28. At that time, the staff was told to give a greeting from the stage. My physical condition was not good and my appearance would be unpleasant to the fans after 26 years, but seeing the crowd swell up to pack the hall, I reconsidered it and thought I should greet them by all means, and I stood in front of the mike that had been set up in front of the screen.

I can hardly put into words the hot feelings that filled my brain until I had a lump in my throat. I was surprised at myself that I seemed to shed tears.

It has been about 40 years since I took the plan book for Space Battleship Yamato to negotiate directly with the producer of the TV network.

“This work will not dissapoint.”

It vividly revived the days of my youth. I loved the Battleship Yamato, which was called the last hope of the Japanese Navy in World War II. Japan had caused a tragic war, and it was very symbolic for Japan to experience a tragic defeat.

I am not militaristic. I am one who hates war. All the nations of the world must love one another and observe eternal peace. Therefore, I think that mankind must spare no effort toward that goal. However, in situations where there is no escape from war, it is necessary to respect the spirit of the soldiers who march bravely into the battlefield with no fear of death to defend the country of their birth and the people they love. That’s what I think.

Even though Yamato is a positive story, I received criticism saying, “doesn’t this story affirm that the human race constantly fights?”

But sometimes people have to fight. Even if it is not in the extreme condition of war, a person living in this world fights many battles. When it becomes necessary to fight for the purpose of defending not just myself but also someone I love, I wanted to depict how we face that situation. But instead of presenting such a heavy theme directly, I was my concept to do so through entertainment that people could enjoy.

I like movies, both Japanese films and foreign films, and not just the old classics. I also have newer films in my DVD collection at home and I appreciate them whenever I have free time.

Some people ask me, “why did you never make a live-action movie?” as well. Of course, I love live-action movies. The first live-action Yamato movie was made recently starring Takuya Kimura. It will be fun for all of you to see how Yamato is expressed in live-action.

However, the reason I am particular about the world of anime is that I can express any kind of thing at will, and I think it attracts people because it is best suited to represent the world of imagination. It was wonderful that it could fulfill my dream of seeing the magnificent Yamato leap out into space.

The origin of my Yamato may be interesting. I think I was about 40 years old. After I produced several anime works, I strongly felt that I wanted to materialize this plan with my own hands. Investigating the science of space, studying the history of real mechanisms, and researching history were all thoroughly undertaken. It resulted in a 30-page plan book that I personally took to the TV network. This was before Star Wars and other famous Hollywood SF movies were produced.

Initially, Yamato was not well-understood by everyone. At that time, the image of anime was established as a work for children. The story and theme of Yamato may have been difficult subject matter for anime. However, I believed that my Yamato was sure to succeed. My faith that it would be accepted by both children and adults was unshaken.

Sacrificing oneself in a fight for the person they love, a spirit the fans would later call “Yamatoism,” lurks in every human heart. Of this I had no doubt. And Yamato became a big hit as I expected it would. Over time, Yamato brought great happiness to me as a producer. Fans still love Yamato even after 26 years have passed. I cried at the preview because it gave me my greatest joy.

The concept for Resurrection was worked out 16 years ago. Yamato had been a big hit on TV and in theaters. Many excellent SF works have been created since it drew to a close. The future world presented in my favorite SF movie, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001, has already passed out of time and mankind’s actual development in space has been delayed since the imagination of the human race has disappointingly lost momentum.

In other words, it has limited certain aspects of SF movies.

When I made Resurrection, I decided on a policy of attaching more importance to the human story than the presentation of unknown worlds and novel SF mecha. People are no longer satisfied by the mysteries of space presented in purely scientific terms. While making this work, I thought it would be necessary to dig deep into “Yamatoism.” But new entertainment as compelling as the mystery of space had to be created.

My friend Shintaro Ishihara conceived that the existence of a “living black hole” would be an attractive point of the story. Thus, Yamato revived after an interval of 26 years.

But it was somewhat unfortunate that Resurrection had to align with general showtimes at movie theaters, which forced me to cut several important scenes. A movie is not just something for me, it is only made with the cooperation of people in various areas and submitted to the rest of the world. This is the reality of it. I writhed in distress while cutting the movie to shorten the running time. Still, I proudly announced to everyone that I would complete the work satisfactorily.

However, I would really like you to see the Resurrection I wanted to make, free of the restrictions of time, so I am moving forward with the production of the Director’s Cut version that will be selfishly edited to my heart’s content. Perhaps this will become an epic with a running time of over 2 hours and 30 minutes. Please look forward to a public premiere and possible DVD sales soon.

Time has been flowing for 40 years since the plan for Yamato came together in the first proposal. I would like that spirit to continue being passed on to everyone in the future. That is my hope.

Yamato was launched again. In the midst of unstable times and an uncertain future, what is the meaning of Yamato‘s continuing fight? Each of you should be able to sense it.

Various unexpected offers have come in for future projects now that Yamato has revived. I smile wryly when I say, “don’t let an old man crack the whip any more.” But for some reason, it seems that Yamato‘s role has not ended.

Yamato will fly to new worlds with all of you.

Yamato is always there in everyone’s heart.

The End

Posted at the Yamato Crew website on November 9:

On November 7, 2010, Space Battleship Yamato author and producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki died suddenly by an unexpected accident.

We assume the will of the deceased and are committed to the continued creative development of Space Battleship Yamato, which is loved by all of you.

We sincerely appreciate the kindness everyone extended to the deceased during his lifetime.

Enagio Inc.
CEO Shoji Nishizaki
Yamato Crew Executive Office

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