Conducted by Tim Eldred and Sword Takeda
December 2, 2010
We ought to look forward to a time when Hideaki Ito needs no introduction to English-speaking anime fandom. For he is one of an elite group of benefactors who grew up with the medium in Japan, whose passion drove them to defy the normal expectations for people in their age group, who recognized anime’s potential, and laid the foundations for its success over subsequent generations.
Naturally, Ito and his peers are all dismissive of praise and humble about the roles they played. But the simple fact is that without them doing what they did precisely when they did it, it is doubtful that we could call ourselves anime fans today since anime as we know it would probably not exist.
This interview was conducted at the office of Gin-ei Co., Ltd. (shown at right), in the Jimbocho district of Tokyo. By the time you reach the end of it, Hideaki Ito should be one of those names you never forget.
Part 1: Early Years
What was your first anime?
Tetsuwan Atom. [Astro Boy]
You were a fan of Osamu Tezuka?
I’m still a Tezuka fan. The pinnacle of Japanese manga is always Tezuka. Ishinomori, Fujiko and Matsumoto were below him at the time. Anime was unusual, but manga was very popular.
Were you also a fan of kamishibai [paper theater]?
It was a tradition in Tokyo and often seen, but not in Hokkaido. In winter, children couldn’t go out and the land was very broad, wide open. TV came out there in 1953, so there was no chance to go to kamishibai.
Did you also see tokusatsu [special effects] SF such as Star Trek?
Of course. The first series played in Japan under the name Space Big Strategy. [1969-70] and the second and the third as Space Patrol [1972-74] It was very difficult for children to understand. I missed some of the episodes [since the first and the latter were aired on different TV stations], but I could feel the touch of what was going on with TV shows in the U.S. But I would rather watch Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
In the 1960s you were a young child.
Yes. I was born in 1957.
At that time, when you watched anime as a child, you would reach a certain age and then stop. Is that correct?
Many did, but I didn’t. I liked manga and I kept watching anime. I drew pictures of what I saw. I also liked tokusatsu very much, like the British Thunderbirds from ITC.
So when Yamato came on, you were still an anime fan but others in your age group had graduated from anime?
Ordinary high school students paid no attention to “TV manga” at all. I couldn’t find anyone in my class, but I could find some in other classes who were watching Yamato. I talked with them a lot. One of them took photos of the TV screen and recorded the show with a microphone.
In my case, I used open reel tape, but a friend of mine used cassettes.
Did you watch Yamato from the first episode?
No. The reason was that two different TV stations were showing Heidi of the Alps and Monkey Army separately. Tsuburaya Production was famous for Ultraman  and the second series final, Ultraman Leo was on the air. It was Tsubaraya’s main production as well as Monkey Army, which came six months later.
So if you were a die-hard tokusatsu fan, you had to watch Monkey Army since Sakyo Komatsu worked on it, as well as the famous SF writer Aritsune Toyota. I saw the first episode and I was disappointed that it was so childish. So I changed the channel and found Yamato and I thought, “this must be better.”
Then I asked a friend about it and he said, “Yamato is amazing.”
Did you know that Aritsune Toyota worked on Yamato, also?
Not at that time. There wasn’t much advertising for Yamato. Nobody knew.
What was the first episode you saw?
Episode 2. I was blown away by the first scene. The changing shape of the shadow cast by the sunlight, I had never seen an expression like that before. The following scene of Yamato in the ground also knocked me out. I was quite moved when I realized that anime could achieve such a high level. So I decided to watch it every week.
Did you have any special ritual for watching Yamato?
By episode 16, I learned how to take a photo of the TV screen to get a brighter image, and also how to make an open-reel recording. So I ordered my family to turn the light off. That went on through the final episode. [Note the photos below, far right.]
Did you always watch it alone, or did you have friends over?
In Japan there was no such custom as getting together to watch something. So at 7:30 pm, everyone watched it by themselves after dinner.
Were you able to visit the Academy animation studio?
I was a second-year high school student in Hokkaido. I tried but failed to get into Nippon University’s art division, so instead I entered an art school called Tokyo Designer Academy, in the animation division. So until I was 18, I couldn’t come to Tokyo. I tried to find Office Academy and located the headquarters, but there was nothing being made. It was 1976, two years later, so I just confirmed the location. I also visited Leiji Matsumoto’s home and just looked up at it from outside.
Toei Animation Studio allowed people to come in, and still does. So when I saw Toei Studio near Matsumoto’s house, I realized this was how animation was made. By that time the Academy Studio in Sakuradai was closed. It had closed right after the series ended. Late March or early April of 1975. Some Yamato fans had visited it at the time.
At right: Ito’s first scrapbook of vintage Yamato goods.
Want to see inside? Click here!
We had SF Magazine, and that’s where I learned about the first Yamato fan club.
Did you go shopping for Yamato goods when it was still on TV?
Yes, of course. In December of 1974. I was very passionate about getting a complete set of Yamato mini-cards from caramels and chewing gum.
Did you succeed?
Yes. I still have them today. Academy was a minor production studio, so there wasn’t a huge amount of merchandising. Just childrens’ candy. An artist at Lotte Candy Company mimicked Matsumoto’s style. I was interested in TV anime, but on the other hand, I also hoped to become a commercial artist.
That’s what you were studying to be?
If you became an animator, you had to be focused on a particular project for six months or so, but a commercial artist could take on many different projects in different styles.
The early Yamato product art is quite interesting and unique. [Note: see all the early merchandising here.]
I began to identify all the artists. These were drawn by Hiromi Productions. They were the creator of the story for Majokko Megu Chan [Magical girl Megu]. They were engaged in Yamato goods thanks to producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki. Nishizaki himself once worked for the merchandising division of Mushi Pro and he had some contact with Tezuka. And Hiromi Pro was also the story-creator for the TV version of Thunder Mask, one of Tezuka’s works. Even [Yamato writer] Keisuke Fujikawa wrote scripts for Thunder Mask. So there was a certain stream of artists here and there, put in different positions, all later hired by Nishizaki.
And in the first few years of Office Academy, they made character merchandise.
Yes. Even a calendar for the “enemy,” Heidi Girl of the Alps, although its production company was Zuiyo Enterprises. Ironically, there wasn’t a Yamato calendar at the time.
Do you have a favorite early Yamato product?
A lot of the early goods looked very childish, because the art was all redrawn by different artists. But the mini-card set was taken directly from the program.
So that was probably the first time you could see a still of the anime.
Maybe we could see some in black and white, but as for full color, this was the one. The only way to get a color picture in the remote area of Hokkaido was to collect the mini-cards. The other options were taking photos of your TV screen, or making your own copy-drawings. So you can imagine how important the mini-cards were. The only possible convenient access to the original images.
I needed money for photographic film and to buy merchandise, and also for membership in the fan club. So a desperate high school student had to have a part-time job. I was surprised to find out that in Tokyo they could get copies of the character sheets and design art. That went far beyond my imagination back then.
Part 2: Fan clubs
You were a staff member of the first fan club, Cosmo Battleship Yamato Laboratory, correct? [Note: read the history of the club here.]
No. I joined up just before it closed down and changed to Yamato Association. This was the announcement.
Did you work on any of the doujinshi, or were you only a reader?
I was just a Hokkaido fan then. Just a reader.
Did you notice a change in the quality of the doujinshi when it went from CBYL to YA?
Not especially, but many talented people were gathering under the influence of Yamato. There were experts at editing, experts at drawing, and experts at modelmaking. Experts in specific areas were coming together.
So as the club advanced, more people joined up and they were more specialized?
Yes, to maintain the membership, they were thinking about how to sell more doujinshi and make a profit. So they added scripts.
I drew this. I specialized in drawing cutaways.
Then in 1976 and 1977, Xerox put their machines in stationery stores and anyone could make photocopies.
By that time you were living in Tokyo, correct?
I was 18 then, in animation college, and I became a staff member of Yamato Association. I made my own Analyzer model for a fan event that was held just as I was coming to Tokyo. My friend Hiruta made a Yamato out of styrene board. That was a sign of my talent that allowed me to become a member of YA’s editorial staff.
Ah, so Analyzer was your representative.
Yes. And in high school I also made a wooden Cosmogun. That’s how everyone starts. I knew Star Trek fans were like that.
The time of high school club activity had just been born, and I joined a class in wood carving. I spent six months just doing this gun in class. I began to notice that the Cosmogun’s barrel is too long to put into a holster. Then I thought, if it’s stored in a holster it should shrink, so it was my idea to make the barrel telescope.
Did you make a holster, too?
Yes, and a full costume.
Did you do cosplay at conventions?
Yes. From that moment I was known as the weird guy who did total cosplay. People in Tokyo were beginning to do that. In addition to YA, other clubs began to have screen projection shows, and only on that occasion some cosplay was seen, around 1976.
Was there any cosplay before that?
I can’t think of any before that. Yamato was the origin.
So Yamato started both doujinshi and cosplay?
No, Comiket predated Yamato. It was a very minor group, but doujinshi had started earlier.
What kind of doujinshi existed in the early days before Yamato?
Only Sci-Fi and some very specialized tokusatsu ones written by amateur critics. Some of them later became professionals such as Tatsuya Nakatani (a.k.a. Ryusuke Hikawa) and Noriaki Ikeda. I thought those were good examples and we could go that way with anime, so Yamato was the subject of the first anime doujinshi. When I was living in the Hokkaido area, I created a doujinshi named Star Cross [shown below left]. It was a special issue; the original Star Cross came from Kyushu.
When you were a staff member of YA, was that before OUT Magazine?
Did you participate in the special issue of OUT?
Of course. All members of the editorial staff were invited to work on it. The editor came from Chuo University’s science-fiction association research club, so OUT was a very new type of magazine. For the second issue he asked for Yamato material from YA doujinshi editors, including me. In some cases, direct transitions from YA articles to OUT can be identified.
[See the special Yamato issues of OUT Magazine here.]
How do you think the editor discovered Yamato?
Gradually growing popularity from reruns and projection show events.
How did the word travel from one person to another?
Letter exchanges were done, and students talked to each other about it at school in club activities.
What was your specific work for OUT?
This one. (Points to color character art)
I also drew this, page-by-page animation called para-para manga [flip comics]. And for the encyclopedia when we didn’t have specific images, I created fan-cels.
How did you find out about Iroze?
She was in Akira Hio’s manga, and we had the character sheets from the project plan book. We expected her to be on the TV show.
OUT #1 was not a good seller, but #2 (the first Yamato issue) was a huge seller, correct?
Yes. Many Yamato specialty magazines came later.
[Looking at the last page of Yamato material in OUT #2, which included an interview with Yoshinobu Nishizaki.] Somewhere in here it said we were planning to have a projection party in the summer. That attracted peoples’ attention.
Is that the first time Mr. Nishizaki was interviewed?
Yes. [Note: read a translation of this historic interview here.]
And after this, there was no Yamato material in OUT #3.
But after #2, the fan letters page showed a huge response.
And then the sales went up in later issues when Yamato material came back in?
Yes. It became an anime-oriented magazine. Originally it was a general subculture magazine. The prototype was young-adult and male magazines sold from vending machines, like Playboy. You couldn’t show that you had an interest in those things, since it was adult-oriented. That’s how it used to be.