The impact of Special Effects

By Ryusuke Hikawa

Born in the year 1974, Space Battleship Yamato became a milestone that shines brilliantly in the history of SF anime in Japan. Yamato 2199, which goes far beyond the category of a remake, shows one way SF anime could progress in 2012. Anime critic Ryusuke Hikawa reveals the nature of the “passionate soul” that was inherited between the two works!!

The sense of Past transforming into Future

April 7, 2012, was the premiere date for Space Battleship Yamato 2199 Chapter 1. While watching the Pluto battle unfold with a boom on the big screen at Yokohama Brook 13, I was overcome with emotion. While there was a sense of deja vu from the “past,” there was also a clear sense of looking from “now” into the “future.”

I still have a deep impression of the original Yamato from 38 years ago, when I was 16 in 1974. Through the buildup of images both novel and evocative, my reaction was one of renewal. This chain would connect to the future more than 38 years later. Mixed with tension, that sense was accompanied by the wonderful impression that something previously closed was now open.

It goes beyond “preparing an image with present techniques.” Everyone on the staff wants to preserve the sense of “surprise” that was received in those days, and the body tenses with the thought that a “will” has been handed down. At the same time, there was a fleeting feeling of regret that “Mr. Noboru Ishiguro didn’t get to see this.”

Chapter 1 in particular shows a strong respect for the origin of corresponding parts made under Mr. Ishiguro’s direction. That’s why I was overcome with emotion. Although it is a remake, it is not merely a simple copy with the same arrangement and composition. It is produced with a will and passion that fills each scene with the desire to “exceed the limits of anime.”

Now it is impossible to hear it reflected by Mr. Ishiguro, but as one who witnessed his passion back then and heard the story in real time, I strongly felt that I must pass down something important.

On March 20 of 2012, the anime director Noboru Ishiguro was called to heaven at age 73. I was deeply indebted to him as a benefactor, so please permit me to speak of him with formality.

A few days before he died, I visited my friend Mr. Ishiguro at the hospital. It became our last conversation. However, not anticipating that he would pass away so suddenly, I proposed that, “one more time I’d like to hear about…” and since it would “help with rehabilitation,” I received his ready consent. I heard that he planned to look at a DVD of 2199 when his condition improved, but I’m sorry that he never got to it.

This year, in addition to Yamato 2199, the 1974 version will come to Blu-ray in the summer. [Translator’s note: this release was co-produced by the author.] Miraculously, it is also the 30th anniversary of Macross, which Mr. Ishiguro also directed, so it was justly a year of re-evaluation. Since I’d planned on detailed coverage with contributions from Mr. Ishiguro, using Yamato as a starting point, it is regrettable.

However, it is possible for me to do some things myself. While keeping that perspective in mind for this series, I want to investigate how the passion put into Space Battleship Yamato 38 years ago is inherited into the future, based on the materials I received at the time. As a first step, let’s focus mainly on the work of Noboru Ishiguro as a way of adding meaning to his memorial.

A scene upon which the eyes of SF fans were glued at the time. The bridge deck of Okita’s battleship is hit, and the crew is sucked out into space. An airtight partition closes right in the face of a crewman clinging to a rail in the passageway. It vividly represented the cruel environment of space. This is an “SF image” exactly.

1974–the First Impression of Yamato Scenes

After being anxious for a long time, I was finally able to tell Mr. Ishiguro something a few years ago. I confessed that “when I talk about anime, everything I say came from you.”

“It’s nothing like that,” he replied with a smile, but it was not flattery.

My interest in anime took root during my exchanges with Ishiguro in the mid-70s, and it’s an undeniable fact that the “core” of my knowledge was obtained from our conversations. As a high school student who liked SF, the secret behind my interest in Yamato was the “effects anime” directed by Mr. Ishiguro, whose experimental mind was at the core of the appeal. To hear about it in specific terms from someone directly involved is where the study of anime is ignited.

Although I’d like to explain many aspects of effects in detail, I think it’s very important to recognize that the visual world of special effects in live-action movies plays an important role in “special effects” in the world of anime.

At the time Office Academy made Yamato, the production studio was in the Sakuradai [Cherry Tree] district of Nerima, Tokyo. I was certainly under the impression that there were buildings where “anime production companies” did constant work, but it was a multi-use building I visited for what I considered a tour, sometime around December, 1974.

It was a space set up just for this production in a typical apartment building. There was a bakery on the first floor. The second floor was an art room with office space. The third floor was a workshop (though my memory is vague since entry was strictly prohibited), and the fourth floor was a production room centering on art matters and office work. Tatami mats covered the floor of the production and design room, a kitchen had been converted into an art room, and a bathroom was used to store large-format cels.

I’ll never forget the first words I heard when I met Noboru Ishiguro in the production room. It was the calm, warm voice of “Ishiguro the foreman.” At the time I didn’t know to check the opening credits, so I didn’t recognize the name and I thought it was a joke that he was compared to a construction worker. Although Mr. Ishiguro’s on-screen title was “director,” he was called the “CD” (Chief Director) in the studio. The meaning that connected this with “foreman” was revealed later.

Regardless of being a nuisance, I visited the studio several times. After Yamato was over, my fanzine coverage stormed many homes. As a result of repeated talks with Mr. Ishiguro about various angles, it gradually became clear why I was attracted to Yamato and thought its image was so special.

A companion vessel is hit and completely destroyed outside the bridge window of Okita’s battleship. The interior was illuminated by red emergency light by applying red paraffin to a cel that was painted in monochrome. However, the action outside the window is colored normally. The scene was first shot with a mask, then rewound and re-shot with the paraffin removed. This created the difference between interior lighting and exterior space.

The “Effects” in Anime Tokusatsu

“Effects Animation” was the biggest keyword I first heard spoken by Mr. Ishiguro. On a Disney movie, there is a division separate from character animation that draws natural phenomenea, such as waves and flames, and animators are given a separate credit for it. It requires special skill and expertise with a deep and interesting art background.

The Disney work Ishiguro appreciated above all was Sleeping Beauty. It was the last work of the hand-tracing era, designed for a large 70mm screen, with the spectacle of a confrontation with a fire-breathing dragon in its climax. Effects took a leading role there. In depicting effects properly as a highlight, reality and fantasy occur simultaneously in a movie. In other Disney films, big-scale effects scenes like the eruption of a wave or a volcano, the ground cracking, or a big explosion create excitement and enhance a story.

Although Mr. Ishiguro entered the industry as an animator, he showed me text written by Kenzo Masaoka, a pioneer in the world of Japanese animation, that was used during the war. It discussed natural phenomenea such as water and a flag that caught fire in the wind, and I was absorbed in the persuasive fun of “moving pictures.” I was especially interested in the animation of “waves.”

Effects drawing becomes inefficient when it is all subjected to the same unit pricing, so some tended to avoid it, but Ishiguro liked such scenes and accepted the challenge. He was also such a dedicated SF fan that he read SF Magazine from the first issue. It was surprising to hearing how everything was so carefully selected for this anthology was surprising, and also the impressions he had after reading it.

“If I were to do a full-scale SF anime of my own,” he often dreamed, “I’d use a device like this to shoot a picture like that…”

He continued to accumulate experimental ideas like that. When he entered the scene on Yamato, he was like a fish taking to water, carrying them out and opening them up one by one. When I first heard effects talked about like this, it was like being struck by lightning. It meant that there was also “Tokusatsu” in the world of anime.

[Translator’s note: “tokusatsu” is the native Japanese term for special effects, used to describe the genre of live-action action/fantasy TV shows.]

Below right: Ryusuke Hikawa talks Yamato in a September episode of Bandai Namco’s Anime Beat internet talk show.

Simultaneous devotion to Anime and Tokusatsu

At that time, this writer also hung out in Kaiji [monster] movie circles. Ultraman Leo was being made at Tsubaraya Productions, and a meeting was held by producer Hiroshi Takeuyushi (now deceased). I was a member of a group called “the Kaiju Club.” I was attracted to super weapons, monsters and characters like Ultraman, but my interest was deepening in “tokusatsu” and how films were made.

Now, “tokusatsu” and “anime” are treated as separate genres. However, although “live action” and “anime” sre certainly separate, the similar interests of “anime SF treatment” and “live-action SF treatment” are one and the same. Just as there is a specific filmmaking technique called “special effects,” there is “effects animation” in the world of anime. Noboru Ishiguro referred to his work on Yamato as “a director specializing in effects,” and since this is equivalent to “tokusatsu,” it will be called “special effects.”

After Star Wars debuted in America in 1977, “SFX” became a popular abbreviation for “special effects.” That fits very snugly into the relationship puzzle. I had thought my interest was somewhat multi-directional because I encountered them separately, but it showed me that they can be united into a consistent context. That’s what Mr. Ishiguro lead me to.

Incidentally, among all 26 episodes of the 1974 Space Battleship Yamato, I felt the first episode was particularly exceptional. I think it was around 1976 when a VHS video deck was introduced into the home of Mr. Ishiguro, so there was an opportunity to watch Episode 1 together, recorded from a rerun, and get a live commentary.

At the time, I was impressed to hear him say, “after all, Episode 1 was special. There is a ‘scent’ to a well-made film, and it’s there in this.”

He was satisfied with Episode 1 as a director. I certainly recall remarks like that from elsewhere in the production. It was so when I visited Academy studio again in early 1975. At the time, the battle of the Rainbow Star Group in Episode 22 was being prepared, and I remember Mr. Ishiguro saying, “I want to take the challenge of using 7,000 pieces again, in the spirit of Episode 1.”

[Translator’s note: in this context, “pieces” refers to all the individual sheets of art, cels and backgrounds, needed for a half-hour episode.]

I learned about the number of sheets by asking at the kitchen. I’m amazed now at the audacity I had back in my high school days, but I learned that it took 6,000 pieces to make Episode 1, about 5,000 each for Episodes 2 and 3, and 4,000 or less in the episodes that followed. Sometimes it got down to 3,000. While thinking about the difficulty of production, it occurred to me especially around the time of Episode 10 that, in my personal opinion, nothing on par with Episode 1 had come up again.

In fact, this recognition was also a mistake. Mr. Kazunori Tanahashi (now deceased), the assistant director supporting Mr. Ishiguro at the time, surprised me when he chided that, “anime doesn’t get better just because of the number of sheets.”

So then, what becomes the decisive factor? I took such things seriously in my school days and thought about it. I didn’t get the correct answer by talking to experts, but I got fragments and hints that I considered and verified, and what I discovered from both positive and negative input became the basic strength that trained my mind for research.

Other than the number of sheets, one hint about that decisive factor was a fragment I picked up from Mr. Ishiguro, that the idea of an “effect” is not just something drawn in a picture.

In Episode 1, Sasha’s spaceship falls to Mars. At that moment, there was the “feel” of explosive fire and smoke rising from the surface, but this didn’t come from the paint on the back of the cels; this touch was added on the front. Mr. Ishiguro added it by painting with his fingers and to provide that “feeling.”

In other words, regarding effects, an element of “texture” acts as greatly as the movement of the drawing. A cel narrows down information only to an outline and a coating of paint. To express the changing of forms, which is the main point of animation, there are difficulties and limitations in using line drawings with respect to amorphous effects like “fire” and “water.”

That said, there is also great work that is extremely stylized, and if we consider reinforcing that “feeling” with secondary information when it is oriented toward realism, that becomes one solution.

Research by photographing the real thing

Back in those days, “[film] material” was handled like industrial waste. When Yamato went out of production after extra scenes were made for the theater version, I paid for and received a vast quantity of data, such as cels and layout drawings. Since the lines traced on cel images deteriorate over time because of chemical changes, I shot photos for preservation.

My parents taught me to use a camera during my junior high days, and it helped to have some skill in developing monochrome film at home. The cel and background were flattened under non-reflective glass, and in hindsight it was very close to the handling and checking of film material in the photography department.

As I inspected the cels thoroughly, I found effects “gimmicks” that reminded me of the words Mr. Ishiguro always said. I found a glimpses of things he polished to his preference and then sublimated into a sensibility that sank deeply into the audience’s mind.

For example, one of the things that impressed me in Episode 1 was the firing of “light” in the decisive fleet battle. Generally, it was an SF visual with a gorgeous feeling, like the “light” of Ultraman’s immortal Specium rays.

The first item on the list of things to be expressed as effects is “something that doesn’t actually exist.”

Another prominent thing was that the origin of the light was clearly divided with pink from the Gamilas forces and Green from the Earth Defense Forces. The light from the Gamilas side fades away after it grazes Okita’s ship and melts a hole in its armor like a large crater. This was very much the result of scientific logic.

By contrast, when the rays from the Earth side bounce off their opponent’s armor, the overwhelming difference in scientific power is visually communicated in an instant. It is Tokusatsu=effect exactly. This higher-level element brings structure to this dramatic introductory act with a feeling of overwhelming defeat at the hands of an invading army, and builds up a sense of reality. When such things accumulate, they have an instant, explosive impression on the mind that is the true character of Yamato‘s image shock.

It can be especially said of the first episode that it was supported by the SF expression of Noboru Ishiguro’s special effects ideas.

Later, I was surprised to see the problem of the “light” in the cel painting. Because the pink glowed so vividly, I thought it was printed by a special machine. In the case of special effects, an optical printer is used to process multiple exposures of transmitted light, which is not like painting an anime cel. However, these rays were drawn on the cel, so the full presence of the “light” was in the cel paint itself.

The “special effect” was the finishing technique of airbrush gradation, a touch that blurs the paint and allows it to dry quickly. Or the leading edge could be expressed with a sponge rather than solid color. Because it is an “effect,” its true value is demonstrated in conjunction with the animation.

Cel layers for a scene of the three-barrel beam firing from a Gamilas ship. The beam is drawn on a different cel. The rays tend to be misunderstood as transmitted light, but the cel is finished with special effects including airbrush and touch-painting. The fourth image shows the back side. Here the emission of light from around the cannon muzzle and the circumference of the beam were painted in.


I was doubly surprised when I turned the cel over and saw that the airbrush was also sprayed on the back to represent the fluorescent pink glow of the color flare. Since the touch was applied to the surface around the cannon muzzle, it took twice the amount of labor on both the front and back to bring the special effect together.

When all this processing of the light from the Gamilas ships is finished, it is arranged with a pink-colored core (the energy nucleus) that becomes white in its trajectory (overexposed to look white) with a structure of thin, high-energy flare (diffused light) around it. In order to express light, a convincing method is for the pink and white to ripple in the animation and give it a mysterious presence.

Why did they go to the trouble of running the brush over the back? Probably out of consciousness for “texture.” When airbrush paint dries, it looks powdery on the surface. When more is added to the back, a moist, wet texture comes through the translucent cel.

I watched some other works on blu-ray the other day, and I was amazed at how different it looked in an explosion scene when airbrush was applied to the back side. The finishing craftsmen of those days were probably scrupulous about their work.

Scenes with airbrushing are intermingled throughout Episode 1, and some could have been made under different circumstances, but the process to capture the feeling of transmitted light certainly supports the reality of Yamato, and I think the entire focus on the processing of effects for an SF-style result came from the accumulated leadership of of Noboru Ishiguro

By the way, it cannot be expressed only through this special virtue. The true character of “scent” and “taste” comes from the photography processing. I was planning to talk about multiple exposures in particular, but my number of pages has run out.

In the next column or one after that, I want to convey the enthusiasm of the staff from back then by discerning their techniques.

Special thanks to Ryusuke Hikawa and to Tsuneo Tateno for translation support.

Continue to part 2: Picture Magic That Manipulates Light

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