The Making of Yamato, Part 1

Now that the live-action Space Battleship Yamato movie has run its course in Japanese cinema (it closed in major markets February 25 and had limited engagements in March), the waiting period for home video and international expansion has begun. We’ll help to fill that wait with continuing coverage, starting with interviews from the movie’s program book. (See the book from cover to cover here.) Many of the stills included here were taken from a TV special on the making of the film.

Special thanks to Sword Takeda for translation assistance.

Interview with the Director

The live-action Yamato was a magical experience and a childhood dream come true

Director/VFX supervisor: Takashi Yamazaki

Born in Nagano Prefecture, June 12, 1964. After graduating from Asagaya Art School, he joined special effects studio Shirogumi [White Team]. He worked on Critical Patient [1993] under director Juzo Itami and mastered imaging techniques on A Quiet Life [1995]. He made his directorial debut with Juvenile [2000], which was entered in the Giffoni Film Festival in Italy and won the grand prize in the children’s movies division. His second film, Returner [2002] caught the eye of Hollywood for VFX when it was released in North America. Always/Sunset on Third Street was released in 2005 and swept the Japanese Academy Awards, including Best Director. The sequel was released in 2007. Ballad [2009] continued and expanded his reputation for excellence and made him one of Japan’s most popular directors. One groundbreaking film after another has elevated him to become one of Japan’s top creators.

Interviewer: Space Battleship Yamato is the first space film you’ve directed.

Yamazaki: I’ve wanted to do a space film since I started working in VFX. But since there was no readily-available movie in Japan that took place in space, I couldn’t work on one unless I became a director. That’s the reason space people and space scenes appeared in my first film, Juvenile.

Even before that, I knew a live-action Yamato movie was brewing under the surface of the water, and I was extremely envious. By accident, I learned that it didn’t have a director and I rushed forward saying, “let me do it!” (Laughter) However, I thought it was risky at the same time. Science-fiction films set in space have not done well in Japan. It’s because know-how is at the core of CG.

Interviewer: It was necessary to overcome this.

Yamazaki: After all, there is the passion to make a work in this genre. Passion, experience, and a budget were all necessary. It was budgeted as a Japanese film, but it wasn’t enough for a large-scale production such as this. There wasn’t enough experience, either. (Laughter) In such a situation, making something out of the ordinary, I felt it was necessary to take a risk in order to avoid making something inadequate.

This is a work with many fans, each of whom sees it as “My Yamato.” While I respect those important feelings about what they want to see, I thought it would be difficult to make this a story worthy of the 21st Century. Actually, before I took it on as a director, the story was completely different from the original. A plan had been thoroughly developed. But if I were to do Yamato, it had to show respect for the original and use that story as a base. At the same time, there were some good parts in it, too. The choice was difficult.

Interviewer: It was decided to do it despite the expected difficulty.

Yamazaki: In the first place, isn’t Yamato about confronting an impossible mission? Precisely because it was such a story, I agreed to take the risk and move forward. If you don’t do your favorite things because they’re risky, your life will be over in no time. Therefore, I felt I had to take this chance. In Japan today, science-fiction films set in space are not readily approved, so it was a rare chance. There is both chance and risk, and even though my mind wavered, my heart never did. (Laughter)

Interviewer: You seem to have always liked Yamato.

Yamazaki: Of course, it isn’t just a space project, Yamato is remarkably deep and contemplative. Though Star Wars awakened the present style of VFX, Yamato was my starting point for SF. I feel like watching Yamato in my childhood decided my path for later life. I was glued to the TV when it was time to watch Yamato and I cried when I saw Yamato in the theater, and thought if it was ever possible to make a live-action movie it had to be done by my hand. The moment when my childhood dream was fulfilled became a magical experience.

Kimura’s remarkable energy lifted everyone up

Interviewer: What can you say about the star, Takuya Kimura?

Yamazaki: Kimura is a huge fan of Yamato. If he weren’t starring in it, neither a cast nor a staff of this caliber would be involved. I think Kimura has a far-reaching image with an SF sensibility. He’s a stylish top star. However, maybe his mind is remarkably close to mine. He also happens to like SF.

When I saw the SMAP special Kamen Rider G [January 2009], it was made very carefully, but Kimura looked upon it with some regret. I knew that feeling well, and immediately felt that I didn’t want to let him down. I thought it would be interesting to make a great science-fiction film for Mr. Kimura to appear in.

Interviewer: How was it to work with Kimura for the first time?

Yamazaki: His remarkable energy lifted everyone up. I didn’t think anyone could last as a big star over a long period. I thought it would be hard to be in such a position, always having to be at the top of your game to stay in first place. But for some people it comes naturally. A big star expects to shoulder great responsibility.

Interviewer: Did you sense Mr. Kimura’s interest in SF?

Yamazaki: I brought a computer to the set to work on the shape of Yamato during downtime. Mr. Kimura seemed deeply interested and said, “should’t it be like this?” When I fixed it, it was good. He was pleased that his opinion was reflected in Yamato and watched the basic work of CG with great interest. His attitude gave me a positive feeling that I adapted into various things and it showed.

Interviewer: What can you say about Kimura and the character of Susumu Kodai?

Yamazaki: Kimura liked Kodai because they are of similar minds and there was a feeling of unspoken understanding. Of course, it’s not totally the same as the original. In Yamato [the anime], Kodai was properly depicted as a man raised in harsh conditions, and in the story he becomes a true captain.

In the movie, Kodai starts from a very low position with a sense of great personal loss. He starts out as a human being who deals with his feelings on a personal level and changes into one who deals with things on a much larger level. I understood that to be the theme from the script stage and went forward with full consent.

The cast made me seriously consider making this movie better

Interviewer: How was the shooting?

Yamazaki: It was hard. After all, because it takes place in space a lot of it had to be synthesized, and none of the sound was useable. Therefore, I could only make it by working backward from the completed form to determine the composition and sound. So I was ashamed that I had to force the cast to endure a lot of deep, dark allegory. They had to carry the weight of the world on their backs until the sound and effects were completed.

In a contemporary drama, I think it’s relatively easy for the actors to get the feel of it. But because this was set in a battleship in space in the future, I think it seriously raised the tension.

Interviewer: In this Yamato of the 21st century, the female characters have increased and gotten stronger.

Yamazaki: Even though Yuki Mori was pretty in the original, she didn’t have enough of a role. I thought that should change, since she was a character of the 70s and 80s. The number of female characters has increased to reflect modern military forces. I wanted a setting in which female crewmembers would take an active part.

Interviewer: How was Meisa Kuroki [Yuki]?

Yamazaki: I think Kuroki’s public image has a good feeling, on the cutting edge of style, and I wanted her to make the best use of it to the maximum. I wanted to show a glimpse of the pure, girlish cuteness that she usually hides. Although I think it’s hard to play the part of a serviceman on a battleship, she responded very well. Yuki is a big character with great range, and she played it properly.

Interviewer: The scene where Yuki kisses the window of Kodai’s Cosmo Zero wasn’t in the script.

Yamazaki: That was improvised with Mr. Kimura on the spot. He suggested, “Yuki should laugh like a child, wouldn’t that be in her character?” I thought it was good, and that’s how the scene went. Kimura’s amazing, he throws out ideas just like he’s on the staff of the movie. It was close to the feeling of our script meetings, generating ideas.

My thoughts were always, “how can I make this movie better?” and it was great to work together. This time, there were a lot of people like that in the cast. I really enjoyed working with Tsutomu Yamazaki and I learned a lot. His suggestions made Captain Okita a much more mature character. Okita takes a dangerous gamble with Yamato‘s crew because there are no guarantees when they depart for Iscandar. Mr. Yamazaki thought deeply about the character and we had several phone conversations while in preparation.

“I thought a little about this; is it possible?”

“Could be.” And we would meet. Such a great actor. It was impressive that he went to so much trouble to absorb Okita. To me, Yamazaki seems like Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars. (Laughter) I think of him as a teacher. I haven’t had many teachers and I got where I am mainly through trial and error, but I feel like Yamazaki is my teacher. (Laughter)

Interviewer: The actors had good collaboration.

Yamazaki: I’ve never worked on a stage, but there were mostly indoor scenes, so I thought we could make it like a workshop and create a feeling close to that of a stage. It was possible that some of the actors would look down on SF as something ridiculous. Coming in with that kind of perception, the attitude cannot be easily changed. But in fact, none of them thought that way and their genuine enthusiasm made it easier for me to direct.

Anyway, we worked hard and there was the feeling of “make it a good movie” in the air.

Interviewer: Some of the original voice cast also participated.

Yamazaki: Of course, this was to honor the original, since the voices of those who were asked to participate are icons. It’s an important part of those characters. The characters were able to exist for the first time because of those voices. Therefore, I wanted to ask them by all means. Everyone participated and I enjoyed working with them.

I imagined that if I were one of them, it would be fun years later to see a live-action version of what they once participated in. It would have been rather disappointing to hear any of them say “I won’t do it,” but every one of them was quite eager. So my guess was right.

[Note: the original voice actors who participated are Masato Ibu (Dessler), Kenichi Ogata (Analyzer), Miyuki Ueda (Voice of Iscandar), and Isao Sasaki (narrator).]

There were a lot of shots, and new VFX technology was needed

Interviewer: How were the details of Yamato made?

Yamazaki: It was Hoashi Takehiko and I who did the CG modeling. Mr. Kimura suggested narrowing the nozzle of the main engine.

The original battleship Yamato was like a castle on a ship, and I liked the strong impact of that shape. The amount of drawings in the animation at that time was unusual, and the kid in me respected that. Although we’re using CG now and the volume of information has been considerably increased, the impression I wanted for the live-action movie came directly from watching the anime as a child. I wanted to realize what was in my eyes at that time. It’s the same for the non-Yamato mecha.

Interviewer: Tell us about your commitment to the representation of outer space.

Yamazaki: In photographs of real objects in space, white spots are pure white and black areas are dense, crisp black, and though that is very clear it didn’t seem suitable for Yamato. If space were super-real it would feel disconnected from the impression of the original. To capture that sense in a live-action Yamato, I thought it would be best to mix some color into the shadows, so I planned for that.

For example, if it were real the only source of light on a spaceship would be the sun, and a single light source hitting it would create strong contrast. I wanted it to be seen as a solid object, so a lower light would hit it from the opposite side. But it was hard to explain that to the staff.

Everyone has their own way to express the color and texture of an object. I’d say, “don’t make that shadow so black.” But the impression is that in space a shadow is true black, so the staff would blacken it when I wasn’t looking. (Laughter)

“Did you change anything?” I’d ask.

“No, just a little in the shadow.” (Laughter)

“I want some light in that shadow so it looks good as a solid object.” We’d have that argument over and over. (Laughter)

Interviewer: Earlier you said, “there wasn’t enough experience.” How was that addressed?

Yamazaki: There’s the shot of Yamato breaking out of the Earth, and when we were halfway into it, I realized that the software [Maya] used by Shirogumi was not suitable to represent that effect. We have experience in building a realistic Showa-era city [for the Always films], but not in effects like blowing smoke or explosions or falling rocks.

Around four months into post-production, I watched various movies in a fit of terror (Laughter) and I learned about a good software plugin called MAX. From there I began some study sessions. We had to finish that shot to some extent by the deadline for the trailer [June, 2010] so I had to go to someone who could use MAX and ask, “please teach me the basics.”

“Here’s how you move an object…”

It was like learning the ABCs. It was very precarious day-to-day management. (Laughter)

When I heard about someone who was good at effects I’d say, “I’ll only ask you for this number of shots,” and I’d ask them whether or not they knew someone who was good at modeling. There were a lot of shots this time, and it was hard because we didn’t have the techniques that were necessary for many of them. I learned things from various people and felt that I just wanted to somehow avoid the worst-case scenario. Therefore, I brought in far more outside help than usual.

It would have been a disaster if we had tried to get by with only the skills and techniques we used to have. Learning on the job while moving toward completion is the best description of it.

Interviewer: How about the sound?

Yamazaki: In a finished movie, I think sound is 50% of the impact in a VFX battle scene. Because there is such a huge quantity of sound, it was hard on the staff. Various sounds were used, like the roars of animals, not to mention jet engines. The density was remarkable. The animal roars are fully heard at Gamilas.

I wanted to make a passionate movie

Interviewer: What kind of movie did you want it to be?

Yamazaki: I’m very passionate about Yamato, so I wanted to make a passionate movie. I think the true height of Yamato is the risk of one’s life in the fight to regain Earth. That’s the anchor of it.

Interviewer: How do you think the passion of Yamato appeals to the present time?

Yamazaki: There are a lot of people who spend their entire lives avoiding trouble. Terms like, “it’s not worth it,” or “better to avoid getting hurt” are spreading and these days this is considered wisdom. But the peaks and valleys of life never appear if you just continually avoid things. Surely, it’s a dull way to live. Even if you get hurt when you’re moved by passion, you can be happy when you overcome it, and it’s the only way a person can get anything of value.

I haven’t lived my life that way all along either, but I understand how important it is to get free of the “not worth it” mentality. I think the whole world needs to react that way.

Interviewer: And you are one who always takes risks.

Yamazaki: To some extent. Guaranteed success doesn’t give you a very interesting ride. Sometimes entering a dangerous place is more enjoyable.

Younger generations do not know the joy of taking risks. When they reach the end of life, the “ËŔavoiding all trouble” lifestyle may cause them to regret that they did nothing with their lives. Thinking back on all the troubles you endured, your life becomes much deeper and more fascinating.

Surely it is something to remember before dying, and I think I’ll feel that it was interesting even though it was difficult. So in my opinion, you should not give up by saying, “it’s not worth it.”

Interviewer: How do you think about Yamato now that you’ve made six movies?

Yamazaki: The timing was remarkably good, since I was able to make Yamato after gaining a lot of valuable experience. It feels like destiny. It’s a period when the desire to make SF films is maturing, and it’s a time to master the skills required to make an SF movie. There’s the evolution of CG and the digital world. I think it met Yamato at just the right time.

There isn’t much money in Japanese movies when compared to Hollywood movies, and the excuse is often made that there aren’t exceptional crews, but I think the biggest difference is in the level of experience. If you can establish the precedent that an intuition for doing it a certain way makes things better, then things certainly do change and improve.

In terms of this work, the know-how that made this SF film is the way to the future, and I hope there will be an opportunity to make the most of the knowledge and experience that was gained.

The End

Continue to Part 2

BONUS: Photos from the “Tenjin Fantasy of Light” holiday display in Fukuoka, Japan (December 2010).

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