If one chooses the eclectic pastime of digging through decades-old Japanese media for original coverage of Space Battleship Yamato, the bulk of it resides in the colorful pages of anime specialty magazines aimed at kids and teens. But once in a while you might accidentally trip over something quite rare by comparison. When Yamato first rippled across mainstream pop culture in 1977, it caught the attention of editors across a broad spectrum of publications. In this case, it was Weekly Bunshun, a literary magazine from a publisher named Bungeishunju Ltd. Naturally, a Bunshun journalist would bring different questions to an interview than someone from an anime magazine, which makes this 1977 interview with exec producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki a unique piece of the Yamato puzzle. (Even more so given the background of the interviewer; more about that at the end.)
Space Battleship Yamato carries romance and 500 million yen
Yoshinobu Nishizaki, Producer of the big hit anime movie
Interview by Edith Hanson
Translation by Tim Eldred and August Ragone.
The feature-length animation Space Battleship Yamato is now a sensation. It is a big hit that attracted as many spectators as Jaws. Its producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki (42) filled the triple-post of planning, script, and production, but says he still cannot believe its popularity.
Hanson: Did you expect Space Battleship Yamato to be this popular?
Nishizaki: I still don’t believe it.
Hanson: Approximately how many people have seen the movie?
Nishizaki: We don’t have the nationwide count yet, but they say that in Tokyo it is approximately 270,000. It was decided to keep it running until October, so we expect that eventually it will reach 500,000 across the country. It will probably break the records of Jaws and The Exorcist.
541 fan clubs nationwide
Hanson: Yamato began when you made it for TV.
Nishizaki: Yes, it was broadcast over six months from October 1974, but because of Girl of the Alps Heidi on a different channel, the average rating was only about 7%. Each episode cost five million yen and it was a very stressful and risky process. So, I doubted myself when it failed to become a hit.
[Translator’s note: 5 million yen converted to approximately $17,123 USD in 1974, or $80,017 adjusted for 2012 inflation.]
Hanson: Ultimately it was because the TV audience rating was considered to be a problem. But it was re-evaluated because of all the fan clubs formed by young people.
Nishizaki: Do you know how many Yamato fan clubs there are across the county?
Hanson: No, I don’t
Nishizaki: We believe it to be 541. Approximately 60,000 people.
Hanson: Oh, that’s amazing. What kind of things do they do?
Nishizaki: The movement began with the reruns on TV, and it seems related to information exchange about Yamato.
Hanson: Then these people are the foundation for the movie becoming a hit.
Nishizaki: That’s right.
Hanson: But it still failed on TV and became a cause of despair.
Nishizaki: If Japan was hopeless, I made an foreign movie edition to sell abroad. I was at a loss in the beginning whether to make it a movie or a TV series.
Hanson: Why did you go with TV?
Nishizaki: When making a movie, you need one huge sum of money at that point. If it is for TV, the funds are raised from the TV station.
Hanson: This is remarkably candid talk. (Laughs) How did you raise the money to make the movie?
Nishizaki: I made the money by selling the rerun rights for TV. I also did this and that, making royalties on books and records of Yamato. We were able to sell 1.4 million books in two years.
[Translator’s note: this refers to early novelizations, manga, and children’s books. Higher-end publications didn’t appear until after 1977.]
Hanson: It was a good idea to sell the rerun rights after all.
Nishizaki: In order to recover the initial up-front monetary investment, I also had to act as a broker to TV Stations across the country, which became a promotion for Yamato at the same time. These TV Stations were then inundated with the voices of fans calling for reruns.
Caption under the Nishizaki headshot above:
Yoshinobu Nishizaki [producer] Born 1934 in Tokyo
Nephew of Midori Nishizaki, born into a prestigious family of Japanese dance. After leaving Nihon University of the Arts, he worked on a number of music shows as a band manager, producer and presenter at nightclubs before entering the world of anime. He produced Wansa-kun and Triton of the Sea.
Hanson: A reaction appeared little by little.
Nishizaki: The overseas version was finally made at the beginning of this year. When I spoke about it in magazines, the reaction over not releasing it in Japan was great. Because I wanted to do it in Japan anyway, I buzzed around here and there looking for a theater, and finally arranged for it to open at four Tokyu-affiliated theaters in Tokyo. At that time, the reaction around it was relatively cool.
Hanson: Was it an atmosphere of whether or not such an animated movie could be a hit?
Nishizaki: Now, shamefully, I didn’t want to write anything [about this experience]. Here I am, a Lone Wolf Producer, with his first production a failure, so I thought my business cards should be printed with the phrase, “This Guy’s a Loser.”
Hanson: That’s different from a producer in an organization.
Nishizaki: If 100,000 moviegoers go to the four theaters in the Tokyu system, it is said to be a hit. So I thought I would try to sell half that number of tickets in advance.
Hanson: “I’m going to do this by selling tickets myself,” said the Producer! (Laughs)
Nishizaki: You really get to know yourself, because I’m a man who took a risk, and sold it in desperation. But on the other hand, I sought out the cooperation of the fan clubs. While it’s a shame to have let it come to this, Yamato is still held together because of these people.
Hanson: Wonderful fans. What kind of cooperation did you carry out?
Nishizaki: On the condition that they would spread Yamato flyers around, I agreed to give them a poster after the release of the film. And wouldn’t you know it, the posters spread like Ayu [a sweetwater fish], and 10,000 went out to Tokyo alone!
Hanson: Wow, great!
Nishizaki: That’s right. On the other hand, since one poster equaled one advance ticket sold, it instantly broke the record of Towering Inferno, then Jaws and then The Exorcist, so it set a new record for the sale of advance tickets.
Nishizaki: Still, I couldn’t feel relieved. It’s possible the advance tickets were sold only because they wanted the poster.
Hanson: It is suspicious.
Nishizaki: I was nervous that after the curtain rose and ten days later the theaters were empty, it would be a disgrace. But no, now it’s a funny story.
Hanson: Your bad dream didn’t come true?
Nishizaki: In those days I couldn’t sleep at all. At that time, my stomach was in its worst condition.
I couldn’t sleep a wink the day before
Hanson: But the audiences started lining up before the first day.
Nishizaki: Yes, lines had begun to form at least in the afternoon of the day before.
Hanson: More than for a public lottery.
Nishizaki: The theaters were surprised. About 300 people stood in line from the evening of the day before, and stayed up all night.
Hanson: Delightful. That would be a scene.
Nishizaki: But I couldn’t yet feel relief. They had lined up for the opening day present [giveaway prize], and I wanted to know how many other customers would buy tickets at the counter and enter the theater.
Hanson: You had so much trepidation, so it’s not a big deal anymore, right? (Laughs)
Nishizaki: I didn’t get any sleep the night before the premiere. When 7am arrived I was too restless, so I went out to the theater. People were lined up in Shibuya all the way to Masuzaka Shrine. At that moment…
Hanson: Very inspiring.
Nishizaki: My greatest fear did not come out. I hurried to the theater that would start showing it at 8:20, and there had already been an early show at 6:00.
Hanson: Whoah, from 6 in the morning?
Nishizaki: Yes. People had rapidly lined up from the time of the first morning train, so it was useless to keep the customers out. They started the film at 6:00. It was the same at six other theaters in Tokyo. And yet… (Laughs)
Hanson: You had to take into account that this was the first day.
Nishizaki: At the end of the day, the ratio of advance tickets compared to those sold at the counter would make it clear whether this movie was really strong, or just a thing for fans. As for the audience on the first day, 45% were sold at the window and 55% were sold in advance. This ratio was reversed as the days passed, and after 65 days, about 35% were advance sales. So the box office told us this movie would continue to be a hit. But there was another problem.
Hanson: With all that was said, there was still more? You really had some doubts, didn’t you? (laughs)
Nishizaki: Namely, I didn’t know if this was a movie only for young people during summer vacation or if adults were watching it, too. It was based on whether the evening shows were strong or weak.
Hanson: Ah, I see.
Nishizaki: For about three days, I went every evening to see the audience that went into the theater. The number of couples increased from 6pm to the last showing. So at last I knew it was OK in Tokyo.
Hanson: You believed it might only be limited to Tokyo? But, we know that wasn’t really true.
Nishizaki: From my perspective, while the box office receipts were raising eyebrows, planning and booking the advance screening was laborious. Though, I’ve got to say, we blew away The Exorcist‘s record.
Hanson: It’s probably not nice to say that, but it’s true. But I wouldn’t really want to make that call. (laughs)
Nishizaki: After all, rural areas had the same situation as Tokyo, with record sales of advance tickets. Finally, there were those going two and three times. Ah, anyhow, this…
Hanson: That’s when it’s the real thing.
At last, relief that it is also popular with adults
Nishizaki: Now, on the other hand, there was a tough question I had to ask myself, only a scant three months ago: “Is this good enough, or not?”
Hanson: Will you also make a sequel? If the reputation is this good, it can’t just be random.
Nishizaki: That’s right. I intend to make a follow-up, but a lot of sequels are not well-made, such as Planet of the Apes.
Hanson: It’s hard to find something that will top Yamato. It must be something not only unique, but it has to have an element of surprise, and also be cool, as well as a little bit funky.
Nishizaki: That’s a crude way to put it, but I understand.
Hanson: I guess so. But, I feel that I’ve nailed it on the head, because it seems to be the core of this production.
Nishizaki: I surrender! (laughs)
Hanson: Even so, I can’t do what you have. But I have a question, about a battleship flying in the sky. Where did the idea come from?
From such books I received a sense of grandeur that made my heart race. So I wanted to do something with an SF story to fulfill the yearning for dreams and romance. After all, this wouldn’t have been a hit if it was just about Yamato.
Hanson: In other words, you cherished the dreams of childhood.
Nishizaki: If it’s an SF story in space, you need a space ship, and if it is a ship it can be a battleship, and if it’s a battleship it is Yamato. That’s the simple reason.
Hanson: It’s very well known, right? It would be a wasted opportunity if it were not a Japanese ship; this is something that shouldn’t be overlooked, since the Yamato is symbolic on many levels. However, why is it a literally a flying ship?
Nishizaki: I don’t think anyone really understands that either. (Laughs)
From 500 million yen, about 60 million left
Hanson: Though the concept doesn’t seem to have an original author, it was you who started the ship flying in the sky.
Nishizaki: Yes, that’s right. Therefore, I did the original treatment. It was done on the premise that Space Battleship Yamato saves the Earth 200 years from now, after it is exposed to radioactive contamination. I supervised the story development with various people including an SF expert, a scriptwriter, an illustrator, etc. After it went through a lot of brainstorming, it was completed.
Hanson: By the way, it has been said that you are likely to make a profit of hundreds of millions of yen.
Nishizaki: I anticipate a distribution income of 500 million yen, and after 200 million in expenses, there will be 300 million left. About 25% of that goes to the distributor, so the gross profit in the end will be about 225 million yen. Not only that, but because I created a hit, as a soon as it made 100 million, I would be asked to pay out three or four times on everything we earned.
Hanson: Then there’s not much left.
Nishizaki: The personal tax rate on 200 million yen is 70%, so that will leave me with about 60 million.
[Translator’s note: 200 million yen = $744,851.21 USD in 1977 or $2,844,286.86 USD, adjusted for inflation. 60 million yen = $223,455.37 USD in 1977, $853,286.09 USD adjusted for inflation]
Hanson: There’s almost nothing left, isn’t there?
Nishizaki: While this cut isn’t due for six months, why is it a problem? Because if I consider making another film in the coming year, there will be no income to finance it. This may be considered an expensive problem, which is the big contradiction of movie production. A studio makes 10 or 20 a year, but as an independent producer, I can make only one in three years.
Hanson: That’s especially true in Japan. I think anything that an organization does would be difficult for an independent producer to do. However, what do you think of the independent producer Haruki Kadokawa, who recently bathed in the footlights with Proof of Humanity or The Inugamis?
Nishizaki: Putting it plainly, I think Mr. Kadokawa and I have different stances. While still selling books, he started making movies as part of promoting and producing titles owned by his company; so his title as “producer” is very general. On the other hand, I prefer to start with themes, since my thrust to produce is to create something from the ground up.
[Translator’s note: Haruki Kadokawa’s father, Genyoshi Kadokawa, launched one of the largest publishing houses in Japan, Kadokawa Shoten, which has been producing NewType magazine for nearly thirty years. In 2002, Kadokawa Shoten purchased the studio facilities and library of Daiei Motion Picture Company, which was eventually combined with Kadokawa Herald Pictures to form Kadokawa Pictures. Interestingly, Haruki was brought up on drug possession charges in 1994, and forced out of the company. The main corporation, Kadokawa Group Holdings Ltd., is now run by his young brother.]
Hanson: It feels like you have a slightly different starting point and purpose.
[End of interview]
A Word or Two About My Impressions
The making and selling of a dream is a mysterious existence. Someone can write a book, but if he can’t make music or direct it, he must gather people together who can do the work and create a situation for them to do it. He has a responsibility to make money after the results are sent off into the world. He must understand both the dream and the reality, so to speak; the artistic side and the economic side. But it can’t work without talent and judgment, with both passion and calm to keep it all together. Even if you don’t have a dual personality, it is certainly necessary to have a versatile character that can adapt as needed. Mr. Nishizaki speaks with a feeling of calm burning, and since he beautifully meets all the conditions of a producer, I’m looking forward to the results the next time he makes a dream.
Postscript by August Ragone
Edith Hanson herself is noteworthy for a resume that goes far beyond this interview. Born in Northern India, she has lived in Japan since 1960 and appeared in a fair number of TV series and feature films (and is still acting today). She was a featured character in the first half of the series The Space Giants (1966) as “Liz,” a news photographer. She also played “Tom’s Mother” in the infamous Gamera VS. Guiron (1969), which was lovingly lambasted on MST3K.
She was the director of Amnesty International Japan (1986-1999) and is now the director of EFA Japan (Empowerment For All). Currently residing in Wakayama, Japan, she is the younger sister of World War II ace fighter pilot, Robert M. Hanson.
Click here to read a November 1974 article about American Women in Japan, and a bit about Edith Hanson.
Click here to read a 1993 interview with this interesting lady.