One of the longest-running entertainment magazines in Japan is Kinejun, published by Kinema Junpo Co. The name translates roughly to “Biweekly Movie Report,” which is as good a description as any of the magazine itself. Concerned as much with the business side of movies as the entertainment, its editors were always on the lookout for a good story, and when the first Space Battleship Yamato movie thundered in seemingly from nowhere in August 1977, they knew they had found one.
Kinejun published this interview with Yoshinobu Nishizaki in the wake of the movie’s explosive premiere. Appearing in issue #717 (dated September 15), it was a bundle of significant firsts: the first mainstream magazine to acknowledge Yamato, the first extended interview with Nishizaki (a prior one in OUT magazine was much shorter), and the first time anime was given journalistic treatment equal to live-action film.
That would be enough to get Kinejun #717 into the anime history books, but the interview itself reveals intricate details of Yamato‘s rise to fame that were never published elsewhere. The discussion is as candid and penetrating as any Nishizaki interview that would follow, but this portrait of his first brush with success is truly unique.
Special thanks to Sword Takeda for translation assistance.
Space Battleship Yamato: Flying in a Quest for Love and Exploration in the Present Day
The Unique Process of a Premiere
Kazuo Kuroi: First of all, congratulations on a big hit.
Yoshinobu Nishizaki: Thank you. However, it doesn’t quite feel that way. (Laughter) If I had made many movies and experienced various cases, the big hit might have been more pleasant. But this is my first-ever case anyway.
Kuroi: In the case of Space Battleship Yamato, the circumstances of its premiere are quite unconventional.
Nishizaki: Yes. It started with the idea of a kind of recital. I didn’t consider premiering it on such a grand scale.
The dubbing was done in Hollywood in January of this year, and when I came back to Japan in February, a certain magazine was doing a feature on Space Battleship Yamato and contacted me at work to talk about it. There was a considerable reaction, especially over the fact that I wasn’t planning to release it in Japan.
[Editor’s note: this reference is to the famous issue of OUT Magazine that is partially credited for the comeback of Yamato. Read all about it here.]
Kuroi: Didn’t you think about bringing it to an established distributor first?
Nishizaki: No. I didn’t think they would take it seriously.
Besides this work, I produced two others for TV, Triton of the Sea and Wansa-Kun. They were all experiments in combining animation with music. The ratings were not good, but the audience reaction was welcoming. So I thought about combining them, renting a concert hall-type auditorium rather than a conventional movie theater, and showing them as if it were a music concert.
Kuroi: This method of working is a very rare case, a producer starting out without a distributor, and preferring to premiere your movie in the form of a recital. You would have had to rent a theater for that, and go directly to them to start a discussion. This is the opposite of the normal flow of a movie, it’s very interesting.
How did things go from that unique recital presentation, to renting just one roadshow theater called Tokyu Meiga-za, to a conventional feature presentation?
[Translator’s note: In Japan, “roadshow” is the term for a movie’s general release, as opposed to a preview screening. But here, “roadshow” describes a second-run presentation. Tokyu Meiga-za was a theater for such screenings, and it was unusual for it to feature a first-run film such as Yamato.]
Nishizaki: I started talks with Tokyu Recreation first, before the [Golden Week] holidays began on April 29 and prepared materials for them to see a preview in May.
Kuroi: Who did you show it to?
Nishizaki: Chief Horie at Tokyu promotion and the senior directors he brought along, as well as some theater managers. However, after they finished watching it, there was no comment. They just simply left without a word. (Laughs)
Kuroi: People from the professional film industry generally don’t give on the spot reactions, either good or bad, when they see something.
Nishizaki: You know that well, but I did not at all. I thought the screening had not impressed or persuaded them, so I went back to the original idea of renting a music hall. Then, two days later, Chief Horie gave me a call telling they were eager to go.
At the time, I thought Tokyu company would buy the film for some amount, say, a few hundred thousand yen [equivalent to a few thousand dollars] or whatever, then they would release it. Therefore, it was about a week later that I came to realize it was up to me to distribute it directly by myself. (Laughter)
[Editor’s note: Tokyu Recreation booked Yamato into just four theaters, thus Nishizaki was became their defacto distributor with all the responsibilities that entailed.]
This promotional kit was sent to the members of various Yamato fan clubs as part of a guerilla marketing campaign
that turned out to be wildly successful. Read more about it here.
I Entrusted it to a Professional in Every Sense
Nishizaki: Needless to say, I understood that I would have to advertise it myself, to say nothing of the distribution. I had some contacts and ties with a few fan clubs in Tokyo, so I could do something with them. But that wouldn’t cover the whole country and I didn’t think it would be possible because there wasn’t enough money. I was too ashamed to admit that at the time. A man should not prepare excuses for possible failure before starting something.
So I was talking with Horie and he introduced me to a promotional company called Major Enterprise. Preparations for the exhibition were all taken care of by Horie. Then I calculated the number of tickets I would have to sell in order to recover the money I had to spend, and I started from there.
Kuroi: When I first heard the story from Horie, the estimated distribution benefit would bring in 50 million yen [about $500,000], so he suggested spending half of that in advance on advertising since you said you’d be fine with simply recovering the cost.
Nishizaki: Typically you need a fund not only for advertising, but also for production costs. My original plan was to spend 30 million yen on advertising prior to the premiere and devote 20 million to sound production, which was 50 million yen in total. Of course, the total production cost eventually exceeded 100 million yen, but I thought we should get our money’s worth to some degree because of foreign sales to other countries.
I didn’t have any money yet, but the Cannes Film Festival in May could draw the attention of many buyers. And I also heard that US nationwide release might be possible by some franchise distributor. And it made me feel easier since I had no idea at all if I would have to distribute it myself worldwide.
Kuroi: If this was done only in Japan it would be serious. The urgency to recover expenses manifests in many ways and creates a lot of pressure. In that sense, that’s why it was possible to take it easy.
By the way, most titles premiered this summer with heavy promotion and advertising, but ended with unexpected, unsatisfactory results. That was not the case with Space Battleship Yamato. The result was also unexpected, but in a satisfactory way. (Laughs)
Initially, there were only four prints for Tokyu theaters, but now it has expanded up to 72 or 73 nationwide. As for the Tokyo metropolitan area, you started distribution by yourself, and now the Toei Foreign Movie Division is taking care of local theaters, right?
[Translator’s note: Back then, theaters didn’t usually carry anime features except for Toei Manga Festivals or Toho Champion festivals for children. After Yamato it became typical to release anime feature films in Toei theaters usually dedicated to foreign titles. Some examples are Farewell to Yamato, Galaxy Express, Heidi and even Nausicaa.]
Nishizaki: That’s right. If anything, I am a producer rather than a promoter, which is closer in nature to a director. So frankly I was not very interested in nationwide distribution.
When you want rice cakes, you go to a professional rice cake maker [Translator’s note: “Mochi wa mocha” is a classic Japanese idiom that means “For a specific matter, go ask an expert”], and in this case I thought it was best to entrust it to a pro in every sense. It was the feeling of giving the ball to Director Horie. And it turned quite well after all.
Kuroi: From the viewpoint of someone in the film world like me, I see it as a work by Mr. Horie rather than you, Mr. Nishizaki, though that’s an impolite way to put it.
Nishizaki: I understand completely. In that sense, I’m very lucky.
Kuroi: Until now, it was the distributor who did such a thing. However, with Yamato, Mr. Horie moved it along and set up the premiere on his own. It’s the first case in which a promoter played a key role.
Nishizaki: My usual concern is how to make a good film. So after it was made, how to sell it is outside of my interest. In that sense, I am a filmmaking producer, not a promoting producer. Besides, this was my first-ever case, so I am quite satisfied with the result and believe it worked perfectly.
The Way of a Personal Producer
Kuroi: To date, Space Battleship Yamato‘s nationwide distribution income is roughly 700 million to 750 million yen [about $7-7.5 million]. Taking advertising and overhead costs off the top, did you personally receive about 500 million yen? [$5 million]
Nishizaki: A certain newspaper reported it as 500 million yen the other day, and it was very annoying. (Laughter)
In fact, advertising costs, print costs, and a percentage of distribution were deducted. In addition, this money covers a considerable amount of work done over two or three years. Those losses have been compensated, not by the film itself, but by other business.
With such a large amount of money coming in all at once, I’m worried about the taxes.
Kuroi: You have your own company so about half of the benefit will be deducted as company taxes.
Nishizaki: Yeah, possibly. Then the remainder will be 250 million yen, certainly a lot of money for an individual. However, when considering the costs of my next production, there are a lot of things I yet want to do, so I will still have to raise money by myself after all.
Thus, some say I should make the sequel to Yamato while others say then I can earn another 500 million yen, but that feels like a big contradiction! (laughs)
Kuroi: But if you remained a genuine individual, the tax deduction swells to 85% since the income is taken as unlabored.
Nishizaki: I guess so. I think it’s very unreasonable. Therefore, the way of a personal producer in Japan is closed. It’s hard to have a good personal producer here as opposed to the US where they work for major studios.
Kuroi: By the way, where did you go on the opening day of August 6?
Nishizaki: From 7am, I toured six theaters in Tokyo. Though I’d heard stories about lines forming at midnight the day before, I didn’t yet believe them. (Laughs) It was probably because we were offering free cels on the first day. However, I was surprised to see lines at the theaters at 7am that morning. The doors were already open and the movie was running.
Kuroi: The showings were increased by one with a 6am screening.
Nishizaki: The line for Tokyu Rex at Shibuya [shown above right] extended up to the famous slope called Miyamasu zaka, some blocks away. I was really surprised at this. Nevertheless, I still didn’t trust it yet since this was only the first day. I finally felt relief when the condition was similar on the second and third days. (Laughs)
What is the Factor of a Big Hit?
Kuroi: This has been asked in many places, but why do you think this was a big hit? What is your opinion as a producer?
Nishizaki: Some say it’s the great hardware designs and sequences where they are shown, others say it’s the great music, drama or action. But fan club members insist that it is great not because of each individual factor but the overall feel, or the sense of combined factors that is the charm of Yamato. And I agree, since film consists of different factors and the final assembly is not addition but multiplication.
Analyzing it a little more, what I wished for as an ideal entity was something like the following:
In our childhood there were adventure novels on a magnificent scale. They were by Yoichiro Minami, Juzo Unno, Minetaro Yamanaka and Hitomi Takagaki. Children today don’t have such novels. They are influenced by TV now, and many of them don’t accept a story that is not illustrated. I assume that they now feel from Yamato something similar to what my generation did from those novels, such as dreams, passion, adventure, first love and excitement.
Although it is said that the times have changed in the postwar era, I think the essence of boys and girls hasn’t changed at all. This is my favorite theme.
Kuroi: The underlying nature of human beings does not change so easily.
Nishizaki: On the other hand, I’m not sure it affected me a lot, and hope you to take this lightly without judging it good or bad, but in my childhood the world map showed Japanese territories in red and they spread here and there to the south and the north. Its background was the spreading spirit of exploration and adventure, apart from nationalism or militarism.
However, Japan is very small when you look at it on a world map now. If you can’t go forward or back or left or right, the only place left to go is up into space. (Laughter)
Star Wars and Yamato
Kuroi: In June of this year I went to America and saw the wild enthusiasm for Star Wars with my own eyes, and the Yamato boom is very similar to it.
Nishizaki: I went to America in the spring and wanted to see it, but the line at the theater was too long so I gave up and came back.
Kuroi: Prior to that huge hit, real-world space programs were mired and slowing down. Then Star Wars came out of the blue and filled younger minds with a blend of SF and fantasy that is totally new and a kind of breakthrough.
Nishizaki: I watched part of Star Wars on a VCR, but it was only about 10 minutes. But one of the similarities I sensed with Yamato was that until now, if one looked at the costumes in SF films, they were ultra-modern. I don’t know if this was the case throughout the movie since I only saw part of it, but from what I saw the costumes looked like they came from the traditional Roman Empire era, and it felt very human.
Kuroi: That’s right, it is very human. The Yamato characters are also very human.
If you depict something totally different from our world or age, it does not work at all since people cannot feel any connection. Depicting space with some touches of fantasy, young people can follow and support it. I think it’s a very interesting phenomenon.
Nishizaki: For the adult audience, I would like them to find the so-called “Naniwa-bushi” spirit; obligation and humanity. For the younger audience, I wanted them to find dreams and passion.
Besides, all the conventional anime before Yamato was just moving versions of manga, comical media, lacking the feel of reality. So I have kept it in mind to make realistic and believable drama. Enemies or opponents should remain human too, so we did not adopt a completely alien look. Drama gets less interesting if the only human dramas are on the protagonist side.
Kuroi: A drama will be interesting only if characters on both sides are depicted. There are many works that forget that.
Nishizaki: Another feature in common with Star Wars is the intensity of the space battles, which work well.
The weapons are modern lasers, but in the firing scenes they resemble the machine gun turrets of an airplane. Same here. Space Battleship Yamato is a story set 200 years in the future, so ultra-modern fighters come out, but actual dive bombers in the film use the same techniques as in World War II battles. This brings a reality to it that modern people can connect to.
Kuroi: Star Wars is much more a fairy tale than Yamato.
Nishizaki: In Yamato, the SF writer Aritsune Toyota and the manga artist Leiji Matsumoto worked reality into it in various ways. Mr. Matsumoto is a history buff about World War II, and I can say that he’s a true Yamato maniac.
Changing the Outlook of Japanese Animation
Kuroi: I heard the opinion from someone in the movie business who is in his fifties. He said that the concept and its inspiration are fascinating. Originally, a warship was a thing of the sea. It is very unique to take it up into the sky.
Strangely, when I gather the impressions of those who saw the film, those in their twenties are ambivalent, but by contrast those in their teens and their forties give it overwhelming support. It brings out the difference in the generations. It’s interesting that it appeals most to those at the top and the bottom, but those in the middle fall out.
Nishizaki: When I talk to those in their twenties who come to the movie, there are many who like SF and have a mania for mecha.
As you said, the audiences who accept Yamato are in their teens and their forties. And I believe part of the reason comes from my age of forty-two.
Kuroi: I get it because I’m the same age, but the concept of this movie comes from our generation.
Nishizaki: It may be so. Earlier, I mentioned “Naniwa-bushi,” respect for obligation and humanity. And Yamato is quite Japanese, I guess.
Yamato‘s captain Juzo Okita is a typical Meiji-era character and reminds me of my father. So yes, basically, it was the intention that teenage boys and girls would overwhelmingly support this work.
Kuroi: George Lucas, the director of Star Wars, has said that his work was aiming for 14-year-old boys.
Nishizaki: It’s the same with me.
Kuroi: It’s an interesting phenomenon that two works with similar ideas were made in Japan and across the sea in America and both became big hits.
Nishizaki: I want to meet that person named George Lucas someday. (Laughter)
Kuroi: Another important thing that came of the opening of Yamato is that peoples’ general outlook toward animation has changed somewhat. Before Yamato, they thought of animation as a TV program and just moving versions of manga, as you pointed out. Perhaps this work has dispensed with that thought.
Nishizaki: I’ve heard from many people about that. In the case of Japan, one might say the history of animation is too young.
Fantasia already existed in the US as early as the 1930s and taught children about the dream of bringing together movies, music, and drama. If anything similar to Fantasia were made in Japan around the time I was born, I would have never had the slightest intention of beating that predecessor.
In Search of a Theme for the Sequel
Kuroi: By the way, will a sequel to Space Battleship Yamato be made?
Nishizaki: Half of me thinks that it has to be done since so many people now support this work.
In various ways this is a drama about growth. Kodai, who is the hero, gradually grows into an adult under the superb leadership of Captain Okita. The premise is that there is only a year left before Earth is destroyed by radiation. Yamato is awokened from a 200-year sleep and rebuilt into Space Battleship Yamato, and to some extent that story has been completed.
When I think about it, I can create a new premise and new hardware, but I have not yet resolved how to attach the major theme of human growth to this work. Half my feelings are that it would be a mistake to make a sequel before that is settled. When I think of it simply as a business move, it’s easy to take the direction of making a simple entertainment product.
Although Yamato is considered a box office success right now, thinking about making a sequel makes this a most difficult time.
Kuroi: In the U.S., sequels of hit films are often made, but the director of the first work doesn’t always do the follow-up. When one goes all-out to make the first one, they don’t often have a sequel in mind.
Nishizaki: That’s the cause of my worry, but looking at it from another viewpoint, if I work as a producer from now on, I’ll want to make a movie that can sweep over all the overseas markets. That’s my dream for a sequel, and after taking that into consideration I want to make one.
Kuroi: What was your reason to appoint the live-action director Toshio Masuda to supervise the Yamato movie? Was it to condense the story into 2 hours and 8 minutes?
Nishizaki: No, it was more than that. I wanted to adopt a cinematic approach as much as possible. Masuda is a director who understands drama and the use of images, and I greatly admire his technique for presentation. The tempo of his action scenes is particularly impressive.
Because Masuda went on to other work, I supervised the final configuration and dubbing, but without his contribution it wouldn’t have worked at all. And as for a live-action director entering the world of animation, this was the first time.
Kuroi: That’s probably why it has the atmosphere of a serious dramatic film. It doesn’t feel like animation.
Nishizaki: It seems like I’m the only one involved with it as a big hit at this time. The man of most distinguished service to the movie is Toshio Masuda. In addition, I cannot forget Leiji Matsumoto, who developed the story and SF settings for TV and Eiichi Yamamoto, who held up the human drama aspect. Since he supervised the previous work, Wansa-Kun, he and I understand each others’ every breath. Also, there was the writer Keisuke Fujikawa who worked on Wansa-kun, and the music of Hiroshi Miyagawa.
Because I put them to various tests on elaborate projects, we all understand each other well when we work together. Above all, I’m glad that Mr. Miyagawa goes to so much trouble in making music that appeals to the nostalgia of human emotions. He’s been my friend for 17 years.
This film was completed with the assembled power of those people and that is all.
I Need to Feel Relaxed
Kuroi: Changing the subject, the first movie performed far beyond expectation, but you seem to think it will only get more difficult from here.
Nishizaki: Certainly. No one is more surprised at this hit than the person who made it. (Laughter) But I’m hopeful in two ways.
First, as I said before, as a producer I want to make something that impacts the global market. I cannot achieve this without some theme. In Space Battleship Yamato, the theme is clearly the “love of human beings,” and based on that I want to depict the various forms of love. I want to depict for boys and girls the thing called genuine love that does not necessarily involve the physical.
On the other hand, I want to continue to make works that appeal to Japanese emotions. That is also integrated into Yamato, and I want to take that into account very slowly.
Kuroi: Yes. There are no restrictions on when you must make it.
Nishizaki: I’m glad there’s no production company. A production company has to start the next work immediately in order to keep the staff fed. Odd to say by myself, but that style never seemed to fit me.
Kuroi: In the creative field, something totally new cannot be made very often. The human brain has some limitations. Once a thing is done, you have to empty your brain and refresh for the next project.
Nishizaki: You should feel some kind of urgency. But if you are inspired and want to make something, at least one full year is necessary.
For instance, you may pick up one theme from your past childhood or boyhood, or another from right now since you are experiencing, seeing and hearing something new in your daily life. Then a few years later you can make something else. If you don’t go that way, you will surely get dried out or burned out.
So, I guess I need to feel relaxed. Those chances are not coming, just sitting and waiting. So after earning some amount, I will move on to the next one.
Kuroi: So you are going to prove the true nature of a producer, then.
Nishizaki: Although it is unavoidable, however hard you tried and succeeded, people just focus on that success and do not look back a decade or two in the past. I’ve been a producer for twenty years, but even if it is said that I’m personally successful, it was Yamato that finally allowed me to get a foothold for the first time.
Whether I work on more projects or not all depends on the future. Now I am encouraged by the press, but I do not want overconfidence to lead to future failure or pull me back to the rough days. Once you get back to that period, it could take decades to return to success. That is very frightening.
And that is what I mean. If success does not continue, the producer system in Japan won’t survive, I think.
The Final Stage is a Dream
Kuroi: Before you entered the animation world, it seems you worked for a long time as a music producer.
Nishizaki: That’s right. I was once a young trainee actor at Bungaku-za, since I was intrigued with new kinds of theater.
I failed and returned to my parents’ home, but my blood starting pumping and I set out again. Then I took such jobs as an MC, a jazz commentator, and orchestra manager. I toured the whole country with live performances and soon got acquainted with music people and started thinking like a producer. From that point, I wanted to produce a musical, but it didn’t work out.
I didn’t think I could become a theatrical producer in Japan, and though I got a job working under a foreign promoter I still wanted to do such work in the future. I thought that I had to learn about the social structure, particularly the financial side of Japanese business, so I worked as a secretary for a businessman. That was how I developed relationships and entered the world of animation.
Kuroi: Today, in addition to producing the movie you also manage a merchandising company.
Nishizaki: Rather than merchandising, it is a creative company in secondary commercialization [licensing]. After all, for a work to depend only on a character is useless. If the character disappears, it’s all over. Therefore, it changes rapidly. Great characters don’t appear very often.
Kuroi: Speaking of that, Disney movies were the first to generate character products. There were examples of popular characters that succeeded as movies, and they all had to be snappy.
Nishizaki: If you say so, yes. I also did that with Wansa-Kun. Originally, he was designed as a piggy-bank character for Sanwa Bank and appeared on their bankbooks. [Editor’s note: “Wansa” is a respelling of “Sanwa.”] After that, Osamu Tezuka applied a story and made it into a TV movie.
Therefore, I had the feeling that such material was to be found everywhere and there were a lot of things I wanted to do when I thought about it.
Kuroi: You seem to have settled into the world of images.
Nishizaki: It’s slightly different from that place. The destination is a theater. That is, theatrical production that I was not able to do in my twenties.
Kuroi: And that thought comes from your background as a prospective actor attracted to theater and hanging around there.
Nishizaki: Yes, I think very much so. What I really like about theatrical plays is that there are no retakes or reshoots. So the condition is much more serious than that of movies.
You can perform it dozens or hundreds of times, but no two are the same. I feel a deeper sense of creativity there. And another charm is that you can feel the audience’s direct, live reaction which makes theatrical plays different from movies.
I like movies, but I love the theater stage. Therefore, based on my experience, I want to make a musical drama that connects movies with theatrical production. This is my last dream.
Continue to our next Nishizaki article: 1978 column from the Yamato Fan Club Magazine
Yamato and Kinejun Magazine were destined to meet again as the story grew larger. Subsequent films would earn cover stories in 1978, 1980, 1983, and even in 2010 for the live-action movie.
Read Kinejun‘s coverage of Farewell to Yamato here.