Yamatour 2012, Part 3

Back up to Part 2

Tuesday, January 31

When we last left our heroes, they were stuffed full of hope and Italian food after a productive evening at the Space Battleship Yamato-themed “Cafe Crew” restaurant in Tokyo. There were still a few more days to go before the end of Yamatour 2012, and many items to strike from the agenda.

Shopping is always near the top of the list, so after spending the morning of January 31 on the February 1 website update, I joined up with Anton Kholodov and we set out for Akihabara, rallying point for otaku from around the world. My personal shopping mission for this trip was to fill all the holes in my anime magazine collection from 1980 to 1983. The purpose is a simple one: starblazers.com is a beast that demands constant feeding. Over the next year or two it will subsist on a steady diet of background material on Series 3 and Final Yamato as we cover the making of both.

Animage and The Anime followed both productions closely at every step, publishing articles, profiles, and interviews. Animedia and My Anime joined the fray during that stretch, which means there are a LOT of back issues to track down in order to assemble the full picture. But they’re not difficult to find if you know where to look, so it was with great relief that my mission was successfully completed on January 31 at Akihabara’s towering Mandarake store.

This particular Mandarake (named “Complex”) is literally a tower with each floor dedicated to a different interest; one for books, one for games/music/video, one for toys, one for cosplay, etc. The toy floor is always the most colorful (if you don’t count the hentai doujinshi floor, that is), and always has something to offer from the world of Yamato. This time I was delighted to see Imai’s massive 1/350 Andromeda garage kit (above left), released in 1999. It’s priced through the stratosphere and would require its own seat on an airplane, but if your 1/350 Yamato model starts to look lonely on the shelf, there is a remedy.

After Akihabara came the second interview that had been arranged for me by Sword Takeda, one I’d wished for since the fall of 2008 when I first learned about a young man named Tatsuya Nakatani.

I basically stumbled upon his story while researching articles for this website, and the more I looked into it the more important it became. It is, quite literally, the story of how anime fandom began and you can read it for yourself right here. In a nutshell, Mr. Nakatani and his friends inadvertantly saved the original Space Battleship Yamato from oblivion by visiting Academy Studio while Series 1 was still in production, collecting all the materials they could possibly get their hands on, then publishing it in fanzine form after the show vanished.

That’s what built fandom itself and created the conditions for Yamato‘s triumphant return in 1977. We’re all reaping the benefits of that today. If not for the actions of Mr. Nakatani and his friends, anime history would be completely different (this website would certainly not exist, for one thing) and who knows if it would ever have become a worldwide phenomenon.

Today, Mr. Nakatani goes by the name of Ryusuke Hikawa, and he still fights the good fight. If anime were a nation, he would be its ambassador. He appears on talk shows, writes books, delivers lectures, blogs like a madman, and consults on all manner of projects.

One of his current projects is to write promotional text for Space Battleship Yamato 2199. He was initially credited as the “chief writer” for the show, but is quick to point out that this is misleading since he doesn’t work on the scripts. He appeared on stage at the February 18 Launch Event for 2199, where he described his input as conceptual, stating that he and director Yutaka Izubuchi had many long conversations about what they’d like to do if they ever got the chance to remake Yamato. We’ll all get to find out what they talked about as time goes on.

Sword and I greeted Mr. Hikawa at our meeting place in Shinjuku, where he had booked a private room for us for two hours. My list of questions was long, but since he speaks English, I thought that would be plenty of time. What I didn’t anticipate was that he’d bring with him an astonishing collection of cels and production art rescued from Academy Studio 37 years earlier, all of which still looks like it was made yesterday.

About half our time was spent leafing through them as Hikawa regailed us with numerous stories of his personal experiences interacting with the animation staff. Our two hours evaporated quickly and my prepared list of questions had barely been touched. He was game to continue, always excited about any opportunity to share his passion, so we extended our reservation for another hour and kept going.

Naturally, the whole conversation was recorded, so it will be presented here in full in our next update. Even so, it felt like we barely scratched the surface. When we parted, he happily agreed to meet again. To my great surprise, he revealed that he has been a reader of this website for quite a while (describing it as “very useful”), and had been looking forward to meeting me. We agreed that the unique subject of Yamato history is one that must be preserved for all time, and we’re both comforted by the knowledge that someone else is on the job.

Wednesday, February 1

The entire morning was spent working on the update for starblazers.com, writing and assembling photos for the previous segments of this travelogue. Morning in Tokyo equals late afternoon the previous day in the states, so even though the calendar read “Feb 1” I was still ahead of the dreaded deadline. There was so much to process (you’ve read it all by now, I hope) that it took until 2pm Tokyo time to finish, evening in the homeland. That’s when I zapped it out to our able webmaster, who cranked up the midnight oil and put it together for you to read the next day. This had all been plotted out to the hour before the trip even started, so that I could use the dateline to my full advantage.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to actually speak to anyone during that stretch of time; the cold, dry Tokyo air had reduced my voice to a rusty hinge, but if it was a choice between laryngitis and a head cold, there was no contest. I joined up with Anton again for a return to Akihabara where I could console myself with some of the best Tonkatsu on Earth (shown at right). If anyone knows a better source for it than Maru Restaurant, I’d sure like to hear about it.

With all the magazine hunting behind me, embarked on a rare quest for model kits. I say rare because I’ve cut way down in recent years. I’ve still got models from the 80s that haven’t been built yet, so it isn’t in my best interest to make the pie higher. But once in a while, something irresistible comes along.

During Yamatour 2010, it was the new 1/500 Yamato that turned out to be the redesign for 2199. This year something else was reeling me in, and after all the hobby stores in the Akihabara strip came up empty, we went to the awesome Yodobashi department store on the other side of the tracks. If you haven’t tasted this place yet, put it on your list. This is where you step out of the otaku bubble and into the world of Japanese mass marketing. It’s a monument to consumerism, with everything a nuclear family could ever need in massive quantities, including an enormous hobby department with row upon row of freshly-baked plamo. (Plastic Models.)

Of course, a staggering amount of floor space is occupied by the inescapable Mobile Suit Gundam kits, but there’s plenty more including an aisle partially devoted to Yamato. Both the old and new 1/500 Yamatos were there, along with a handful of others. Even the giant 1/350 Yamato was still around, having been reissued to capitalize on movie premieres.

But the objects of my affection on this day were outside the Yamato universe: a newly-released Captain Harlock Space Wolf fighter from Hasegawa, and an equally-fresh Blade Runner Spinner from Fujimi. After much digging, both were acquired. Check back with me in about ten years, and they might even be built.

Prior to this day, Anton had made an interesting discovery in Harajuku that I’d walked right by on Monday morning. There was enough of a window in our schedule for us to make the run back there so I could see it for myself: a second-hand clothing store that served as a sort of Island of Misfit T-shirts. Here, by complete accident, Anton had spotted a few Yamato Resurrection shirts left over from early 2010. They were part of a well-intentioned but badly-timed product wave that hit after the film’s theatrical run and before it arrived on video. Previous merchandising hadn’t performed to expectations, so sales for this followup wave were predictably moribund.

Nevertheless, it was the first time I’d seen any of these with my own eyes, so it was a nice thrill. Even nicer was turning around and finding a bunch of Fist of the North Star T-shirts, remaindered from their own movie campaign. Happily, there’s always room for more T-shirts in the luggage.

Our last destination for the day was back where the voyage began, Cinemart Shinjuku for our second viewing of the Yamato Resurrection Director’s Cut. As before, there was only one screening at 8:45pm. The crowd was predictably smaller on a weeknight, but the slender lobby outside the theater still felt packed.

I had a feeling as I sat down that jet lag wasn’t quite done with me yet, and it didn’t help that I was now seeing Resurrection for the third time in less than a week. This made me a Droopy Don for the first half, but Anton nudged me back into full consciousness for the second half so I could pay full attention to all the changes.

As I’d said during the podcast recording the previous night, I’m still slightly biased toward the original ending for two reasons. First, I’ve had more time to become accustomed to it. Second, it’s more satisfying as the ending of a story with our heroes achieving victory against overwhelming odds in classic Yamato fashion. But ask me which one I’d prefer to see sequelized, and the Director’s Cut gets my instant vote. It provides a much stronger lead-in for the next story, and the stakes are far higher.

In the 2009 version, the final scene is a denouement. In the Director’s Cut it’s a ramp-up. It could work perfectly well as the opening scene of Resurrection Part 2, and for all our sakes I hope it will serve that purpose one day.

By the time I made it back to my hotel room, it was early morning in the US, and I was immensely relieved to see the website update all put together and ready for an audience. I put the word out to all the usual suspects via our Facebook community page (join up now, won’t you?) and called it a Wednesday.

Thursday, February 2

I prefer to take the day off after a website update is posted (since the runup can get pretty intense), but this isn’t possible in Tokyo. Today had to start early with the third of my superstar interviews, this time with designer/director Makoto Kobayashi.

When I got into anime in 1980, I slowly began learning the names of those who created the stuff I liked, and Kobayashi first came to my attention as a mecha designer on the Zeta Gundam TV series. I also started noticing his modeling work in hobby magazines, which was tied into manga he created with intriguing titles like City in Labyrinth and Dragon’s Heaven.

His work stuck out for its obvious European influence, an interesting mixture of Moebius comic art, World War II aesthetics, and the same noir overtones that made Blade Runner a cult favorite. He was smart to render his name in English as often as possible, which spread his fame quickly among fans outside his home country. It drew our attention to his later projects like Venus Wars, Giant Robo, Steamboy, Samurai 7, and Last Exile. And this barely scratches the surface of his career; he was also a key player in the 1993 attempt to revitalize Space Battleship Yamato, contributing to both Yamato 2520 and early development on Resurrection. He even had a small hand in Dessler’s War, one of the few who got deep enough to have stories to tell afterward.

When Resurrection returned to production 17 years later, he was called back into service as the primary designer and ended up with an Assistant Director credit on the finished film. When Yoshinobu Nishizaki died, Kobayashi stepped up to guide the Resurrection Director’s Cut over the finish line. With such a unique perspective on the saga, he had easily made it onto my “wish list” of interview subjects, and a chance meeting in summer 2010 had allowed Sword Takeda to secure him for me.

We met at a Starbuck’s in Nakano (which I recognized as a refueling stop from my first visit in 2007) and got right into it. At his request I’d submitted my questions to him the previous week, and he took the time to answer them via email, so I could focus on new questions that had come up after seeing the Director’s Cut.

It was easily most intense interview of the week, ultra-sharp and laser-focused. He had plenty to say about both incarnations of Resurrection, clarifying the depth of his respect for Yoshinobu Nishizaki and crediting him with all decision-making. I had a lot to ask about the 1993 projects, since comparatively little was ever publicized about that time. He couldn’t answer every question, but I wasn’t disappointed with what I heard.

Read the interview here.

With that done, my work was finally over and I could spend my remaining time as a tourist. This year I was determined to finally see something that had always been bumped from previous trips: the Miraikan, or Museum of Emerging Science.

Located on the man-made island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay, it took a while to reach. Anton Kholodov agreed to meet me there, which initiated the latest in our ongoing series of land races. He seldom travels by train in Tokyo, choosing instead to rent a bicycle. We’ve used this arrangement a few times to test the efficiency of both. Train or bike; which one gets you there fist?

So far, the results have been about 50/50. Truthfully, they seem about the same going cross-town, but if I’m only traveling one or two stops by rail he always wins. It’s the extra time getting in and out of stations or waiting on platforms that puts me at a disadvantage.

Going all the way from Shinjuku to Odaiba was a new experiment for us. That’s a lot of city to cover, and it requires three different train lines. I knew the transfer time would slow me down, but I also knew Anton would have a lot of ground traffic to contend with and a long bridge over the bay. We kept in touch by cel from time to time, and for a while it looked like we were neck and neck. In the end, it was a traffic jam that did him in. I arrived first, even with five minutes of walking from my last station to the doors of the Miraikan.

Nevertheless, we both lost when it came to the ultimate goal: a 2pm planetarium show in high-resolution 3D, touted as one of the best in the world. I walked in the doors at 1:58, just as the “sold out” sign went up. Anton screeched to a halt five minutes later, at which point we had no choice but to fall back on a 3pm show. Which was NOT in 3D. Poop.

Since we had the better part of an hour to wait, we took care of our second reason to visit Odaiba: to see with our own eyes the magnificent 1/1 scale Mobile Suit Gundam statue. This was its third appearance since the original 2009 debut. It was first erected elsewhere on Odaiba to commemorate Gundam‘s 30th anniversary, then spent some time in front of Bandai’s plastic model factory in Shizuoka. It was now back here in connection with Tokyo Diver City, a mall set to open in the spring. (Diversity. Get it?)

It was still a couple months before the grand opening; Gundam was fully assembled, but the area around it was under construction so we couldn’t get up close and personal. Odaiba was rather deserted that day, since it’s primarily a weekend destination, but we somehow managed to get there the same time as two other English-speaking visitors. They’d come to see a nearby Toyota plant, and were completely shocked to spot Gundam from the train. Planned or unplanned, he somehow gets on everyone’s agenda.

Back inside Miraikan, we lined up for the 3pm planetarium show, titled Tender is the Night, which was one of the most challenging I’d ever seen. Not because of any language barrier (multi-lingual audio headphones took care of that) but because of the theme itself: bedtime around the world. The show took us from country to country and as the projected stars whirled around to match the local vantage point we were treated to poetry from that country. Poetry about night. Night and sleep. Sleep and dreams.

Sleeeep. Sleeeeeeeeeeeeep. It took everything I had not to give in to that command. But the body clock can’t be fooled and that voice in my headphones would NOT relent. Sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep. So inviting, so unfair. Dreeeeeeeeeeam. The presentation was only twenty minutes, but there was only so much I could take, my eyes fogging over with a few seconds of delirium before the end. This show was positively lethal. It should have come with a warning label.

Not a single Tokyoite I asked before or during this trip had ever come to the Miraikan. Living close to Hollywood as I do, I understand that there’s no real urgency to see famed local attractions, but it still seemed a bit odd that I couldn’t find another SF/anime fan who had even made the effort. Judging by the emptiness of its massive interior, it seemed few other locals were making the effort themselves. We saw maybe a couple dozen people in all, including the employees.

In the end, other than the planetarium, the only attraction that grabbed me was a huge globe covered in video panels that played back recently-gathered satellite data. This provided a continuous view of Earth that was only a few hours old. It was suspended over a lounge area with recliners positioned to let you stare up at the globe until it hypnotized you. It was like the Miraikan’s entire purpose was to make you unconscious.

We had one more thing to do here before heading back to the mainland. Since my first trip to Tokyo, I’ve always made it a point to see multiple movies on every visit. In addition to the latest Yamato film, I look for something else in my wheelhouse. This time, there were two: the third installment of the Always series directed by Takashi Yamazaki (who also did the live-action Yamato) and a World War II biopic titled Isoroku Yamamoto.

He was the Admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and has appeared many times in both live-action and anime set in this period. The trailer for this one looked quite good, invoking the magnificent Men of Yamato (2005) for comparison. It was hard to find a decent showtime, since it was in limited release and oddly-scheduled. Thus, our best option turned out to be a 5pm show at Odaiba and we had the theater all to ourselves.

The story begins just prior to the war and goes all the way to Yamamoto’s death in 1943. The sea and air battles are stunning but all too brief, making up maybe 10% of the film. I was hoping for something more action-oriented like Men of Yamato told from the officers’ POV, but this wasn’t the case. It focused on personal drama and intrigue, lots of dialogue-heavy meetings and strategy sessions. I could follow only the broad sweeps, but the acting was enough to communicate Yamamoto’s charisma and rock-steady outlook, which became more evident as everyone around him was losing their nerve. Anton could follow much more of it, and gave it his unqualified endorsement afterward. I really hope I get to see it subtitled eventually.

The day finished with a return to my hotel room, where Anton collected something he’d left with me the previous night. When we saw the Director’s Cut again, he bought a copy of the gigantic 2012 Resurrection art calendar by Makoto Kobayashi. Unlike other calendars this size, it’s packaged flat. At roughly 1.5 x 2 feet, it’s not built for convenience. (I could just imagine other moviegoers struggling to keep it from being ruined on the train ride home, or having it wrenched out of their hands by an errant gust of wind.)

Anton hadn’t wanted to risk damaging it the night before, so he planned to take it back to his apartment tonight after opening it and rolling up the pages (which aren’t bound, so it’s actually a set of posters). This gave us both the chance to inspect the thing before he left, so I shot photos to share with everyone else. Click here to see all six.

Fair warning: if you manage to buy this online, you’ll want someone to roll it up for you before shipping. It’s not travel-friendly.

Everywhere I went, there was Meisa Kuroki (our live-action Yuki). After a few days, it got sort of spooky.

Friday, February 3

The last day of any visit is always an exciting one, since there’s a series of can’t-miss deadlines like hotel checkout and making the train back to Narita. Previous travelogues have covered last-minute discoveries that always make for a memorable finale.

This time I decided to spend it at Nakano Broadway, still an unstoppable juggernaut of Otaku power. Anton joined me once again and we explored a whole new level: the basement. Here we found grocery and clothing stores, reinforcing my theory that if there was also an apartment level, you’d never have to leave the building. One day a movie must be made about this.

I’ve also occasionally heard tales of “secret” floors and “hidden” rooms that are probably mythological, but fit nicely into that misguided sense of wonder you feel when wandering around here.

We stumbled across a couple previously-unknown stores, one for misfit toys and one for vintage model kits. In the latter I made some unique discoveries: an ancient, still-unbuilt Blue Noah from 1979 (at a magnificently optimistic price), a bundle of Redhawk Yamato models, and a long-forgotten Yamato 2520.

Seeing that last one reminded me of how often the subject of 2520 had come up during this trip. Hidetaka Tenjin had told me in our interview that it was the single hardest ship to paint for Yamato Fact File magazine, because he had no 3D reference. Later that day, I saw Makoto Kobayashi’s studio model on display at Cafe Crew restaurant–exactly what Tenjin had needed.

Also, at one point I was told that the cancellation of 2520 after its third episode was not necessarily permanent and that it’s not impossible for the series to return from the dead. The coincidence of finding the model kit here made me think that I shouldn’t leave it behind, so I didn’t.

Incidentally, the same store also had one of the most obscure kits I could ever imagine finding: Iron Man Ultra Z from the completely-forgotten 1984 comedy anime Okawari Boy StarzanS. I’ll be surprised if more than 1% of you have ever heard of it. That’s the best thing about the world of anime; no matter how much you know, there’s always something else waiting to be discovered.

As Anton accompanied me to Shinjuku station where I would catch my ride back to the airport, I was reminded of one other truth: no matter when I choose to leave here, I’m always given a reason to curse that choice. In this case, I was departing on February 3, and the first of the new Berserk movies would open on February 4.

There’s no help for this. Plan ahead all you want. You will either arrive just a little too late or leave just a little too early. Ground crew at the airport laugh at you both coming and going. It’s a massive prank to make you feel like you can never get enough of this place. And it works every time. The proof is that as I type these words in early March, I have already booked my next flight for early May.

May 5 is the date for Yamato Party 2012, and it would just feel wrong to miss it after so many things were set in motion by the previous one, three years ago. It was like grabbing onto a giant spinning wheel and being flung off into new, wonderful territory.

So although we’ve reached the end of this installment, Yamatour 2012 was merely paused by my departure.

Continue with the next trip here!

PS: As planned, I flew home on my beloved Singapore airlines, in which I had an entire row to myself. All scales were back in balance.

Bonus Shots

Anton Kholodov remained in Tokyo for another week and a half, which allowed him to attend Yamato Cafe the 4th on Saturday, February 11. This is a little bit like Yamato Party, a moveable feast in which Yamato fans gather at a pre-determined restaurant, some in costume.

The inaugural outing happened February 2010. As the number indicates, this was the fourth time, and it was also the first year they could convene at an actual Yamato restaurant, since Cafe Crew opened in late 2011. 45 attendees turned up to celebrate, and Anton grabbed these photos.

Click here for photos from Yamato Cafe the 2nd, held November 2010.

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