Isao Sasaki’s voice was the first anyone ever heard when they met Space Battleship Yamato, and he still belts out that theme song as no one else can. Two days before his first-ever livestream concert on April 9, 2021, a pair of interviews with Sasaki appeared online, and as usual he had plenty of stories to tell.
The “legend of the anison world” talks about his trajectory, present and future! Isao Sasaki’s 60th anniversary special interview
Interview and text by Kazuyuki Nagai, photography by Kohei Toriyabe
Originally published by Animate Times. See the original article here.
Isao Sasaki, a legend in the world of anison, has sung many famous anison songs such as Space Battleship Yamato and Galaxy Express as well as tokusatsu songs. To celebrate the 60th anniversary of Sasaki’s debut, Animate Times is pleased to present this interview in which we talked about his impressions of the anniversary and his memorable experiences.[Translator’s note: the term “anison” is a contraction of “anime song,” both singular and plural. The term “tokusatsu” refers to live-action special effects action shows.]
The 60th anniversary has flown by in what feels like 30 years.
The hit of Space Battleship Yamato drastically changed my entertainment life!
Interviewer: Congratulations on the 60th anniversary of your debut. Please tell us your impressions when looking back.
Sasaki: In this day and age, I don’t really feel it. But when the 60th anniversary concert was decided, I thought, “Oh, 60 years have already passed.” When I first entered the entertainment industry, my days were fast-paced, and three or four years passed in a hurry.
After that, I spent some time as an apprentice. I thought, “I need to study hard as a singer,” so I learned the basics of vocal expression and theatrical performance, and it felt like a long time. But then I had a chance to sing an anime song. When Space Battleship Yamato became a hit, I became very busy again. As an extension of that, I’m still singing now, thankfully.
Time flies now, and before you know it, three or four years have passed, so even if you say it’s been 60 years, I feel like it’s only been about 30 years for me. I think I’m lucky to be able to sing until this age. But it’s also a challenge to go to the gym, work out, and maintain my health. Well, it’s been 60 years of both fun and hard work.
Interviewer: You’re still singing new songs, and you’ve been active for a long time. I’m sure many people have been exposed to your songs, and in your concerts there must be people who grew up listening to your songs with their whole family, from parents to grandchildren.
Sasaki: It’s great to have people of all ages come to my concerts, but it’s hard to entertain all kinds of people. (Laughs) People who are into anime and tokusatsu will expect to hear songs from those genres. People of my generation would want to hear pops and Elvis songs. That’s why I have to broaden my song selection. It’s difficult, but I’m happy to have this as a problem.
Interviewer: Please tell us about the memorable events in your 60 years of activities.
Sasaki: The recording of my debut as a rockabilly singer was in 1960. Of course, I have fond memories of my first starring role in Nagisa Oshima’s film The Graveyard of the Sun and the seven films I have starred in since then. (See the trailer for the film on Youtube here; a very young Sasaki first appears 45 seconds in.)
It was also great to be able to sing Space Battleship Yamato. It’s not just an anime song, it’s a hit song that’s etched in time. I still can’t forget it. Thanks to Yamato, my entertainment life changed completely, and I’ve been able to work not only as a singer, but also in drama and voice acting. I’ve been very busy. I realized that the success of one work can have an impact on so many things.
Interviewer: Yamato was released in 1974 and later became a huge hit and a national anime song that is still sung today.
Sasaki: The people who listened to this song and watched anime are now in a position to create anime and anison. That’s a great thing, isn’t it?
Interviewer: I have the impression that your songs, including Space Battleship Yamato, are loved not only in Japan but around the world.
Sasaki: I am grateful for that. I’ve had more and more opportunities to perform in various countries. Recently, I was in Saudi Arabia, where I sang Grendaizer and the crowd went crazy. Many people came to the hotel where I stayed and shouted “Sasaki-san!” and “Grendaizer!” It seems that Grendaizer was very popular in the Middle East, and there are still many fans.
I even did a stage performance with a singer who covered the song on the local broadcast. It was interesting to discover that there are so many different interpretations of songs by different ethnic groups, and that there are so many different ways of singing.
The base of the singing is Elvis Presley. Was there an influence of American culture in anison?
Interviewer: When I mention your name to people, some say you’re an anison singer, some say you’re a rockabilly singer, some you’re Elvis Presley, some say you’re an actor, and some say you’re a voice actor.
Sasaki: But fundamentally, when I sing, it’s Elvis Presley, isn’t it? I like the way he sings, like he’s singing directly to me.
That’s why I started dubbing for foreign films. When someone asked me, “Since you’re called the ‘Japanese Presley,’ why don’t you try dubbing for Presley?” I grew up watching American movies and dubbing American movies was my first job, so I was often told that when I spoke, I sounded like a young American. I feel that I have been helped by the music and culture of America.
Hiroshi Miyagawa, the composer of Space Battleship Yamato, and Shunsuke Kikuchi and Michiaki Watanabe have also created anime theme songs with Japanese minor tunes and American and Latin rhythms. I think that they are influenced by American culture.
Interviewer: While anison has a universality that has been loved for a long time, it also has a diversity that reflects the trends of the times. On the other hand, even now you are still creating songs that value the goodness of the Showa era.
Sasaki: It’s not just anison, music itself changes with the times. For me, the atmosphere of the Showa era is the starting point. It’s hard for me to keep up with the new sound of today’s music. However, I feel that the number of singers who can convey the content and lyrics of anime is decreasing. In this respect, I may be useful.
Interviewer: You are one of the few singers who have been active and loved in the Showa, Heisei, and Reiwa eras.
Sasaki: Thank you very much. There are different ways to look at music. I think it’s fine for everyone to like the anime they watched or the anime they listened to. At the time of Yamato, viewers didn’t have the ability to record, so they had to concentrate every time to make sure they didn’t miss anything.
Also, in those days, anime was broadcasted at golden hour [prime time], and there was one TV in the house, so we all watched it as a family. But now, there aren’t many anime broadcast at that time, and we can record them, so I’m the only one who watches them. It feels lonely.
Interviewer: When Space Battleship Yamato was aired, it was on at 7:30 p.m. on Sundays, and Heidi was on at the same time. My parents chose the channel, so they wouldn’t let me watch Space Battleship Yamato. I watched it secretly when they weren’t around. (Laughs)
Sasaki: Family anime was very strong. Even so, the fact that the theme song was such a big hit must mean that there was a lot of energy in it. Like a Wave-Motion Gun. (Laughs)
Recently, I’ve been receiving e-mails and letters from young mothers who say, “My child is a fan.” There are no other anison singers who sing the way I do, so maybe they feel it’s fresh and new. Maybe they like it. And it’s not because they’re watching it with their parents, like in the past. They found my songs on their own.
Interviewer: Also, from the current anison boom, I became interested in past anisons, and when I went back, I found a legend named Sasaki, and I think some people were shocked by his culture.
Sasaki: We were the first generation of the anison boom. I don’t know what generation we’re in now, and I don’t know how it will change after the boom. I wonder how it will be when they get older. I’m afraid of the boom. (Laughs)
From “Isao Sasaki Anison Live 2018” held on October 13, 2018
The 60th anniversary of the debut of Isao Sasaki, the “king of the anison world,” talks about the secret story of Space Battleship Yamato!
“Singing without any tricks gave momentum to my singing voice.”
Published by Futabanet. See the original article here.
The singer Isao Sasaki (78), is known for his many theme songs for tokusatsu heroes and TV anime such as Space Battleship Yamato and Galaxy Express. In commemoration of the 60th anniversary of his debut, he will present Isao Sasaki Debut 60th Anniversary Online Live on April 9.
We asked the “king of anime songs,” who will perform online for the first time in his life, about the secret story behind the famous song and his thoughts on the event.
Interviewer: Congratulations on the 60th anniversary of your debut! At the age of 78, you are going to perform online for the first time in your life.
Sasaki: This “online live” is different from a normal live where the audience is right in front of you, and I don’t know how the audience will react. It’s also different from recording, where you have to sing to the audience and talk to them. I don’t know how it will turn out until I try it, but I want to use what I’ve done so far and I want to enjoy myself.
Interviewer: Do you think it is important for you to enjoy yourself first?
Sasaki: Sports athletes often say, “I will try my best to enjoy myself.” I used to think, “Is that what sports is all about?” But I have come to think that we entertainers need to enjoy our hard work.
Interviewer: Is this a recent change in your mind?
Sasaki: Yes, it is. To be frank, I’m getting older, and no matter how much I exercise, I’m still going to lose something. I have to make up for that. I think it’s important for me to enjoy myself at the same time as conveying the fun to my fans.
Interviewer: Five years ago, you performed a live show that lasted more than four hours, and you are known for your powerful stage performances that do not show your age. I get the impression that you are not in decline…
Sasaki: No, no, no, I can see it in myself. When I was young, I could do things with just my physical strength, but as I get older, I have to make up for it. That’s why I’ve been doing a lot of training, like strength training and squats, even when I’m not active (during the Corona pandemic). I’ve been going to gyms as well. I can’t sing well unless my back is straight and my abs and back muscles are tight. I’m working on my core.
Interviewer: As a singer, it is essential for you to work out every day, isn’t it? You’re planning to perform a 90-minute show this time.
Sasaki: It’s just a question of how long I can last. (Laughs) But I’ve done shows that lasted up to four hours or more. I think I can handle a 90-minute show. Besides, I lose the sense of time after about 40 minutes.
Interviewer: Because you’re enjoying yourself?
Sasaki: I guess so. I’m hoping to reach a certain point and get the momentum going, and then keep it going until the end.
Interviewer: I heard that you are planning to perform a lot of anison and special songs such as Space Battleship Yamato, Galaxy Express, and Himitsu Sentai Goranger.
Sasaki: Tatsunoko’s works, Leiji Matsumoto’s works, tokusatsu series, etc. I hope you will be able to enjoy as many songs as possible while listening to my talks.
Interviewer: Some of the theme songs that you sing have fans all over the world, and since this is an online live show, overseas fans may also be able to see them.
Sasaki: A while ago I was invited to Saudi Arabia for the Saudi Anime Expo 2019, which is like a Japanese anime expo. There were fans asking for my autograph, not only at the venue, but even at the hotel where I was staying. It was very exciting.
Interviewer: It is known that there are a lot of fans who love Japanese anime in Europe, but I am surprised to hear about them in the Middle East.
Sasaki: After the 80’s, Japanese anime became very popular in the Middle East. The popularity of UFO Robo Grendaizer was especially amazing. At first it was popular in France, and then it spread to the whole of Europe. After that, it became a huge boom in the Middle East as well.
Interviewer: I see. The theme song for UFO Robo Grendaizer was very popular not only in France and Italy, but also in the Middle East.
Sasaki: When it aired in France, the theme song was different from the one in Japan. But when it aired in the Middle East, it was sung by a Lebanese singer, and the melody of the song itself was the same as in Japan, so many local fans knew that I sang the original theme song.
Interviewer: Did you also perform the theme in Saudi Arabia?
Sasaki: Yes, I did. I sang it with Ichiro Mizuki and a singer from Lebanon. There was also an amazing band from Egypt, and it was a grand stage. Even though we sang the same melody, the Lebanese singer sang it in a very different way from me. I was surprised to find out that different ethnic groups have different singing styles.
From “55th Anniversary Special Live・Encore” March 6, 2016
In Space Battleship Yamato, there are some unexpected stories of hardship
Interviewer: Speaking of singing style, did you have trouble singing the theme song of Space Battleship Yamato, which also has many fans all over the world?
Sasaki: Originally, Space Battleship Yamato was sung by someone other than me (at the audition stage), in a higher key. So when I was asked to sing it, they prepared a score with a lower key. But then, by mistake, the key signature was left out of the score. The song was originally in the key of C minor, but it ended up in the key of C major.
At that time, we didn’t have karaoke machines, so we only had the score to rely on. I thought, “Something’s wrong. What’s wrong?” I was told to record the song right away, so I tried my best to learn it and practice it. When I went to the studio, I couldn’t sing well and I was in a panic. (Laughs)
Sasaki: Everyone said different things at the studio. Yoshinobu Nishizaki, the producer of the work, said, “Put some melancholy into it.” The composer Hiroshi Miyagawa said, “Just sing with energy.” (Laughs)
On the day of a concert, we had prepared various versions of the song, including a ballad pattern and a slow pattern. Miyagawa-sensei didn’t say anything at first and kept silent. And then, when it came time for the version with the intro, he told me, “I don’t care what the producer says, just do what I say and sing it cheerfully.”
Now that I think about it, I think that from the very beginning Mr. Miyagawa liked the version that started with the intro the best.
Interviewer: I see. That brave intro is just perfect for the image of Space Battleship Yamato, isn’t it?[Translator’s note: the “brave intro” mentioned here was the fanfare at the beginning of the second version of the main title. The first version began with a slow chorus.]
Sasaki: In fact, the version that starts with that intro was the most popular. That’s why I was forced to sing a lot in the recording take. Toward the end, my voice was getting faint and I was half desperate. But it turned out to be a good thing. It was judged that I was able to express the tragic feeling that the work conveys with a falter in my voice. That take was selected because I sang it without any tricks, and it seemed to give my voice a sense of vigor and scale.
Interviewer: Space Battleship Yamato is not only one of the most famous songs in the history of anime, but it was also included in a high school music textbook in 2009, so it is still loved by people of many generations even almost 50 years since its birth.
Sasaki: That’s right. That’s why I don’t want the listeners to hear me sing Space Battleship Yamato in a bad way. I think it would be disrespectful to Yamato if I didn’t give it my best. Besides, it has a great arrangement, and I never get tired of singing it. It’s a very difficult song to sing, so I still feel like I’m challenging myself every time.
Isao Sasaki, born in Tokyo on May 16.
He made his debut as a rockabilly singer in 1960 and became popular for his “Japanese Presley” catchphrase. He was chosen for the lead role in Nagisa Oshima’s film “The Graveyard of the Sun and has appeared in many films, TV programs, and stage productions.
In 1972, he played the role of Condor Joe in the popular anime Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. In 1973, he made his debut as an anime song singer in the popular anime Shinzo Ningen Cashaan. After that, he sang theme songs for Space Battleship Yamato, Galaxy Express, Getta Robo, Himitsu Sentai Goranger, and other anime and tokusatsu hero works. In 2015, he was awarded a prize for merit at the Tokyo Anime Award Festival.
As a dubbing artist, he has dubbed for Sylvester Stallone and David Hasselhoff in the Knight Rider series.
See a longer list of credits at Anime News Network here.