The Adventures of Walter Amos
by Walter Amos
It’s not what you know, but who you know, goes a certain well-worn aphorism.
I was fortunate enough to accompany Tim Eldred on Yamatour 2010 to see the premiere of the awesometastic new live-action Space Battleship Yamato movie in Japan on December 1, and this old cliche provides succinct analysis of my experience. For I, unlike Tim and the great majority of those I met on this trip, do not work in any of the cross-pollinating fields of animation, comics, video games, or “otaku culture.” I am a physicist by training and a software engineer for space systems by vocation. The only “professional anime” credit I can claim is co-authorship of a DVD bonus feature on the first season of Axis Powers Hetalia from Funimation. Despite that, I somehow managed to do things which many professionals never manage. Like they say, it’s all about who you know.
I have been an anime fan for going on 30 years. Like Tim, I was a member of the Star Blazers generation, that group in the magic age range of 10 to 14 in 1979, when Star Blazers first appeared. This began a lifelong infatuation with the look and storytelling techniques of Japanese animation. Years later, I became involved with AnimeCon ’91 (the first American anime convention to feature a lineup of prominent Japanese guests), and its successor, Anime Expo, as their first masquerade coordinator.
This was out of no special expertise in cosplay, but rather my dogged insistence that these early conventions include some form of staged masquerade (similar to longer-running SF conventions), and being given a job for which no one else on the staff had time or interest. This led to acquaintances with the convention’s translation staff, as well as Mr. Noboru Ishiguro.
Ishiguro is a man who is, or should be, well known to Star Blazers fans. And to Macross fans. And to anime fans in general for having worked as a director on a number of shows such as The New Adventures of Astroboy, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Orguss and Tytania. [Editor’s note: if you don’t recognize his name, there are plenty of educational opportunities at the end of this article.] Artland, the studio he founded, has produced series of more recent vintage as well, from the award-winning Mushishi to the popular shonen-action series Katekyo Hitman Reborn. He is also a sort-of Guest-of-Honor emeritus at Anime Expo, and it is through his frequent appearances there that I became acquainted with him.
Having been brought into anime fandom almost entirely by series Ishiguro directed, I frequently attended his panels at AX. Often these were discussions with his co-panelist Yukio Kikukawa, producer of Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Being a long-time devotee of this series, I suppose that they may have gotten used to seeing me in the audience. In 1999, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Star Blazers, I hosted a panel at AX featuring Mr. Ishiguro as well as Amy Howard-Wilson and Ken Meseroll, the voice actors for both Nova and Derek Wildstar.
It was here that I first encountered someone else whose name I had long heard around Star Blazers fandom: Ardith Carlton. Ardith had pursued her love of anime by working for HobbyLink Japan, doing some outstanding cosplay, and even appearing on Japanese television.
At the Galactic Heroes panel at AX in 2000, Mr. Ishiguro did something quite unexpected. He allowed Mr. Kikukawa to do most of the talking and focused on something he was scribbling on the table in front of him. At the conclusion of this panel, everyone gathered together for a group photo and Mr. Ishiguro handed me a small piece of note paper he had been writing on. For reasons which elude me, but for which I’m nevertheless quite grateful, he had spent most of the panel doodling a sketch of me!
I mention this in part to explain the sketch shown here, but also to point out the generous and unassuming nature of this rather remarkable man. He has become beloved of American fans over the years, even to those too young to have seen many of his works, because of his genuine good humor and generosity.
There can be no better example of this than his accidental invitation to appear as a Guest of Honor at Anime Weekend Atlanta in 2007. Before that convention, I’d been talking with its former chairman, David Merrill, about possible panel ideas, including a panel focusing on animation studios. I suggested that we focus on Studio Artland, but this left me with a problem: I really didn’t know much about their overall history. So I asked Takayuki Karahashi (who always served as Mr. Ishiguro’s translator at AX) if Artland had any sort of resources I might use as references. Mr. Ishiguro didn’t think they had the sort of material I would find useful, but asked if AWA would be interested in having him attend as a guest. Of course, I quickly passed this along and the committee arranged to bring Mr. Ishiguro to Atlanta!
Unexpected events resulting from Ishiguro’s generosity manifested again for Yamatour 2010. I got in touch with various friends to coordinate some get-togethers. These included Ardith Carlton and AX translator Hiromi Hasegawa. Hiromi asked if I had contacted Mr. Ishiguro about visiting his studio while I was there. This was an idea which simply had not occurred to me, so I asked Takayuki Karahashi to pass along the request if Mr. Ishiguro felt he could spare the time. He graciously agreed, and Taka helpfully provided travel directions for how to get to the studio by train.
So it was that on December 1 I rendezvoused at the Shinjuku Picadilly theater with Tim Eldred, Ardith Carlton, and another friend, former AX convention chairman Darold Higa. Ardith had agreed to join us for the film and accompany me out to Artland, helpfully providing translation assistance as well as navigation (since I would almost certainly have gotten on the train going the wrong direction!).
Serendipity intervened yet again when a group of Japanese fans also waiting for the film (who recognized Tim from last year) saw Ardith and waved, shouting “Ardith-san!” This group included the Otakuzake duo of manga artist Kazushi Hinoki and author/filmmaker Keisaku Kimura, whom Ardith will be assisting at the All-Con convention in Dallas, March 2011!
After the film these fellows and their cohorts invited us to join them for lunch. A quite entertaining lunch it was, discussing Yamato and all things otaku. I’d informed Mr. Ishiguro that we would arrive at his studio around mid-afternoon once the movie was over, but the conversation was so energetic it was difficult for Ardith and I to extricate ourselves. Eventually she explained that we had to leave in order to meet Mr. Ishiguro, which prompted envious looks from the others. I felt rather guilty at this point since I, an illiterate foreigner through a combination of luck and bumbling, was about to visit the studio of an anime legend whom none of them (professionals all) ever had the chance to meet!
With Ardith’s help and Taka’s directions we navigated the train and the local streets to arrive at Artland after dusk, hours later than I had originally estimated. Fortunately, I had the studio’s phone number so we were able to alert them to our later arrival. Ardith has much sharper eyes than I do; I would have walked right past the building had she not pointed out the sign.
One might imagine that a studio run by such a well-known director might be quite a prominent edifice. By contrast, Artland is contained in two stories of a nondescript office building.
We were met at the door by Yuka Suguro, a staff member who also spoke English. She ushered us into a maze of piled papers and folders that I’d be afraid to navigate for fear of tipping something over. From the conference room emerged Mr. Ishiguro himself to greet us. He and Yuka took us to the second floor, which had pencil and color work going on in the production department.
We sat down for an initial chat wherein I apologized for our lateness. It was at this point that Mr. Ishiguro noticed Ardith’s bag from the Shinjuku theater with the Yamato movie program book in it. He asked if he could see it, since he hadn’t seen the film yet.
As he flipped through the book, Ardith explained some of the divergences from the original Yamato story which he had directed; among them, the fact that Aihara [Homer] and Dr. Sado [Dr. Sane] were now females, and the radically-altered portrayal of the alien races of Iscandar and Gamilas. Ardith conducted this conversation entirely in Japanese, much less cumbersome and time-consuming than if she or Yuka had translated my comments back and forth.
Far from being annoyed by the changes to the story, Mr. Ishiguro seemed amused. When asked whether he planned to go and see the film himself, he replied that he’d probably wait to watch it on DVD! I couldn’t help but reflect on how bizarre it seemed that two foreigners should be explaining the story changes in Yamato to the show’s original animation director!
After this, Mr. Ishiguro excused himself and asked Yuka to give us a tour of the work area. Along the front wall of the office area was key animation, with one of the animators doing model clean-up. There was another row of people hard at work on in-betweening. A separate office area was focused on color work. Having recently upgraded to one myself, I was gratified that most of the work in this room was being done on Mac Pros.
One young woman seated near the doorway (shown below right) utterly amazed me: the rate at which she selected colors from the computer palette and applied them to digital drawings was so rapid one might imagine it was being done by a machine.
Ardith noted various manila folders on a nearby shelf, some from the animation studio Bones and others from Toei. Artland is a small contractor, so in addition to projects for which it is primarily responsible, it also works for a number of studios whose names may be more familiar to American fans.
Yuka mentioned that animators often work very long hours, and many stay overnight or prepare small meals in the office. They had a bed downstairs for late night workers. This confirmed things I’d heard about the day-to-day trials of animators and also assuaged my guilt about our late arrival. Everyone here would have been staying this late anyway, and hopefully the Christmas confections I’d brought as gifts would be put to good use.
Mr. Ishiguro came back upstairs and we talked more about Yamato. Ardith remarked that in many ways the new live-action movie has the feel of Farewell to Yamato. Some Japanese fans feel Yamato should have ended with that movie, which certainly did bring the story to a close with an unmistakable finality. Mr. Ishiguro remarked that he had also wanted the story to end at that point, but then explained that the key figure who persuaded him to stay aboard for Yamato 2 was none other than Yoshiyuki Tomino (soon to be the author of Mobile Suit Gundam), who expressed jealousy that Ishiguro had worked on a show that had become so well-known and beloved.
At that time Tomino had had some success with series such as Daitarn 3 and Zambot 3 but no home runs, and told Mr. Ishiguro that walking away from something as successful as Yamato would be a mistake. This persuaded Ishiguro to commit to directing Yamato 2, and Tomino got his home run soon after; an outline he showed to Ishiguro at the time, titled Gunboy, eventually became Mobile Suit Gundam!
Mr. Ishiguro found that while making the original Yamato had been stressful, the rapidly-growing number of anime shows on television made Yamato 2 even moreso. Prompted by the 1977 Yamato boom, the number of TV shows in production had roughly tripled between 1974 and 1978, creating a huge strain to keep up the production pace. In retrospect, Mr. Ishiguro feels many more animation mistakes were made in Yamato 2, and as a result he has a hard time looking at it today. He ultimately ended his work with Yamato partway through The New Voyage TV feature in 1979.
Another staff member informed us that the office’s main conference room was now free, so we moved there for more conversation. Seeing that room was a treat, since one wall (which I designated the “Wall ‘o Merch”) was nothing but bookshelves containing model kits, DVDs, and other items from Artland shows. I basically wanted to box up these shelves and ship them all home. I was especially interested in the Galactic Heroes battleship models and Tytania merchandise, but turning around I noticed something even more unique: several framed gold record albums earned by the incredibly popular Macross (below left). Next to these were illustrations from Mushishi (below center) and across the table several drawings from the popular currently-running shonen series, Reborn (poster shown below right).
Ardith and I sat opposite from Mr. Ishiguro and Yuka and continued our discussion. I asked what new projects the studio was working on now, and to my surprise Mr. Ishiguro said, “nothing.” I joked that there seemed to be a number of people working late on a lot of nothing. He noted sadly that they had a number of cool ideas for anime shows but in this market, no one is paying to make them. They simply don’t have any money. I asked whether this situation was affecting only his studio or if it was industry-wide, to which he replied it was the latter.
He blamed it on the decrease in DVD sales resulting from widespread use of torrenting for illicit downloads. Ardith insisted she would only buy DVDs, and was annoyed with people who felt they had a right to obtain the work for free. My innocent question was evolving into a frank discussion of modern media and distribution technologies.
I agreed with the unfairness of content-theft, but also observed that distribution of physical DVDs is simply not the way of the future. There are many shows on commercial TV I’m happy to watch, but feel no need to go out and buy. I’ll only do that for a series I’ll want to watch again or introduce to others. Widespread broadband internet is still relatively new, so until recently the purchase of physical media was the only way to see shows not available TV. But as Internet streaming advances, more sites in America are offering ad-supported video on demand, in my opinion the distribution method of the future.
Ardith wondered if ads alone would generate the same level of profit as a DVD, to which I added that one can purchase entire albums or movies without having to move physical media (via services such as iTunes). The question came up of how such sales supported the original creators. In the case of iTunes, Apple has direct agreements with studios, who certainly get their cut of the sales. What fraction goes to the creators probably varies a great deal, but no less so than the fraction of profits from CDs.
I told the story of one of my favorite independent animated films of recent years, Sita Sings the Blues by Nina Paley. (Check out its website and the FAQ page to learn how this remarkable film came to be.) In short, it is Nina’s own story interwoven with the Hindu sacred text, the Ramayana of Valmiki, as told through the 1920s jazz music of singer Annette Hanshaw. Nina used the parallels between her own split with her husband and how the ancient Hindu prince Rama abandons his wife Sita to fulfill his duties, woven with Hanshaw’s songs of love and loss, to create something entirely unique and new.
The movie’s production was a tale as elaborate as anything in mythology; the music of Annette Hanshaw, integral to the film, was over 80 years old and though her recordings were in the public domain, the music itself wasn’t. Rights to the songs had passed through holding companies down the years and had stayed out of public domain thanks to the constant extension of American copyright terms. As a result, the owners of music that hadn’t been played in decades demanded exhorbitant sums from a single independent artist who made the entire film on a desktop computer.
When it became impossible to meet these demands, Nina took a page from the software world and decided to open-source her film. She voluntarily made copies freely available for download to anyone under a Creative Commons ShareAlike license; this avoids the music copyright fees since there are no exclusive rights to be granted. She now makes money through the merchandise she has designed, as well as speaking about our bizarre and labyrinthine copyright laws.
I suggested to Mr. Ishiguro that this suggests methods by which content can be monetized beyond physical media. He joked that perhaps Nina should have checked the music copyrights first. Of course, she argues that this music was absolutely integral to the film’s creation, and just using something else or writing “sound-alike” songs simply wasn’t an option.
Bringing the subject back to Artland’s domain, Mr. Ishiguro mentioned that The Legend of the Galactic Heroes would soon be opening in Japan as a stage production in the town of Aoyama, certainly an unexpected announcement. Its initial performances are over as of this writing (January, 2011), but others based on the “extra stories” of both “Mittermeyer” and “Reuental” are scheduled for the summer. See the production’s official website here.
I then asked, considering the wide-ranging ad blitz for the new Yamato film, whether Mr. Ishiguro had been contacted by any media for quotes. He hadn’t, and of course he personally had nothing to do with the production. He wasn’t really concerned about it, and felt that if anyone had reason to be inflamed it would be Leiji Matsumoto, given the highly-publicized court battles he had fought over ownership against Producer Nishizaki.
It was getting late, so Ardith and I thanked them for taking time to meet with us. After a last photo outside the now night-shrouded studio, we headed back to the train station, amazed at seeing where so many of the cartoons that made us into fans had been produced.
For anyone reading this, if you have an opportunity to attend a convention with Mr. Ishiguro as a guest, don’t miss it: hearing his stories of a lifetime in animation has the feeling of jewels slipping through one’s fingers. A career spanning the rise of anime on TV, its meteoric growth in foreign markets, and into the Internet age is not something easy to come by. I am pleased to have caught a few precious stones to pass along here.
Walter’s path crossed that of other superstars over the next few days, including Leiji Matsumoto and anime song goddess MiQ. (She was known as “Mio” in the golden age of the 1980s when she sang the themes for such classics as Dunbine and L-Gaim.)
If anyone had told me in the late 1980s that someday I’d do the Star Force salute alongside Leiji Matsumoto in his home, I would have suggested they be tested for hallucinogens. It was a little surprising getting to stand next to MIQ and realize that she’s nearly a head shorter than me (and I’m fairly short myself). For this woman to belt out the songs she has over the years, (in the words of Ardith Carlton) her lungs must go down to her ankles.
So, on my first trip to Japan, lasting just a week, this illiterate foreigner was able to see Noboru Ishiguro and tour his studio, visit with Leiji Matsumoto for three hours, and hang out with MIQ. Not to mention also meeting a host of anime and manga professionals and, of course, seeing the opening of the live-action movie version of the show that got me into anime 30 years ago. This trip has utterly ruined Japan for me, because there’s literally no way to top it!
Explore our complete collection of Noboru Ishiguro interviews and essays:
Read our tribute to Mr. Ishiguro here
Read a 1975 interview here
Read a 1977 interview here
Read a 1980 essay here
Read a 1992 interview here
Read his updated career history here
Read a 2007 interview here
Listen to a live 2007 interview at Anime World Order here