Dynamism of the image centering on explosions

By Ryusuke Hikawa

The portrayal of “explosions” is a major highlight in film. The extraordinary technology and effort poured into Space Battleship Yamato have been previously discussed. How was the portrayal of explosions as depicted in Japanese entertainment established? Anime commentator Ryusuke Hikawa examines the history and essence based on his own experience!

The trials that connect the possibilities of the past to the future

Over the years, there has been a joke I’d tell my friends. The gag that I’d tell to get a smile from them was, “Considering the approach modern anime takes, I can’t help but believe that a Yamato remake would show little appreciation for the feelings of the world as it was 40 years ago. I wonder if this long-held dream wouldn’t just send my high-school senior self into a coma.”

However, when I saw the trailer for Yamato 2199 Chapter 4 at the end of last year [2012], I felt a shiver as I said, “This is not a joke.” It came from Episode 14, Whisper of the Witch. The mind attack has a strong feeling of multi-layered deja vu. One might say that the plan was to combine the complex elements of, “Okay, what sort of production shall we suggest at the outset” and “the testing of the culture,” but I was also met with a growing sense of unreality as I wondered, “Am I, the viewer, also experiencing an assault on my mind?”

At the theater, I sat down by chance next to Mr. Masanobu Komaki (the former editor-in-chief of Animec magazine). General Director Yutaka Izubuchi was also nearby. We had a shared history being in Yamato fan clubs and collaborating with Mr. Komaki on the Yamato special feature in issue 2 of OUT magazine, our commercial debut as writers. I also had ties to both of them before Yamato, which must have come from our introduction to Triton of the Sea. Discussing our memories of the Animec editorial department days brought a “place” from the past back to life.

By and by, the progress of Chapter 4 on the big screen showed us “Domel’s wife” and “the enemy spy infiltration with mind attack.” There in the darkness, I suddenly began to notice I’d broken out in a sweat. Wait a minute, this was deleted material from the 1974 version of Yamato that was in documentation I’d obtained from the studio. And the person who told the young Yutaka Izubuchi about this material…was me!

In other words, the “potential Yamato” I wanted to see back in my school days had been embodied in “a future anime of the 21st century.” Impossible! The joke I told at the beginning here overlapped with this stunning fact, and I shuddered with the feeling of reality slipping away. As the story progressed, Kodai came to see his past on a screen. His situation perfectly overlapped with what I was experiencing in the theater.

When the lights came up after the screening, Komaki and I naturally looked at Izubuchi and we started with the usual, “What did you think?” talk, but I felt as if it was impossible to awaken from the dream we call “a movie.” I felt such a violent sense of unreality that it left my legs trembling. It was as if I alone had experienced the phantasmic sensation of the boundary breaking down between reality and fiction…and my recognition of this in itself meant that I was already the target of an assault on my mind.

Of course, I knew full well that the purpose of 2199 wasn’t just, “Yamato as it could be.” Be that as it may, that it was possible for me to experience something so far beyond this theory is something that I’m literally thankful for. Yes, this production does give us a “legacy” and a “connection” that joins the past and the future, but it’s almost miraculous in a way that defies the narrow classification of “remake.” I have to say that it provokes powerful feelings in its flow and inner connections.

By the way, the origin of the gag at the beginning of Episode 14 can be found in earlier SF. It is a short story titled The Inner Space of Shinichi Hoshi by Kazumasa Hirai. If you’re interested, look for it by all means.

At left is a storyboard from Episode 3 by Noboru Ishiguro. Since it was drawn before a design was completed, a real-world ICBM was referenced for the giant missile and launch site. The more alien-looking artillery-shell design is different on the finished film (below). The details in the rifling and exhaust area are meticulous.

The position of “Explosions” in effects

From the outset, this series has explored the origin of Yamato with a focus on “effects.” Among these, “explosions” are a special item that demands non-stop study from different angles. Since the words “Space Battleship” are in the title, it goes without saying that “explosions” are indispensable as a catharsis and the main spectacle of a battle scene. At the same time, when considering typical visuals that would characterize the SF point of view in this work, an “outer space explosion” is also symbolic.

But to proceed with the discussion, I definitely want to verify the “essence.” For example, Taro Okamoto’s famous expression “Art is an explosion” flowed from a TV commercial in the early 80s, and I’m fascinated by the aspect of how “explosions” conceal a power and energy that seems to fundamentally appeal to the human heart.

To begin with, the chemical phenomenon of an “explosion” is essentially the same as combustion. In combustion, a reaction proceeds in an instantaneous chain reaction in which volume expands all at once in an explosive vaporization effect. It’s also important that the word begins with “EX,” which gives it an outward property. The engine in an everyday car ignites fossil fuel to vaporize it, and the expanding energy of the explosion creates movement of the pistons. If you think of an internal combustion engine, it’s a familiar phenomenon.

Speaking of familiarity, even in entertainment “explosion” is a term for exceptional visual excitement. In early films, the sound of gunpowder and the stimulation of light with firecrackers and fireworks was indispensable. And not only live-action film, but “special effects” in live theater or amusement parks refers to “gimmicks” that use gunpowder. Furthermore, the development of movies also strongly relates to World War II. “Explosions” have been repeatedly portrayed as movie spectacles, playing on public memory of explosions that caused destruction and mass killing. Thus, it is a phenomenon with multi-faceted meanings.

I haven’t counted exactly how many shots of explosions there are in Space Battleship Yamato, but the emotions they arouse are a big part of its appeal, and there is no doubt that they make a strong impression on the sensational side of the story.

The intense light of the giant missile’s launch discharge fills the screen. Although it was simply light from beneath the photography stand that diffuses across a transparent cel to leave a ghost, it creates a sense of reality. The plume was done in reference to an Apollo launch, which clings to the rising missile and spreads out to a surprisingly large extent. Another stylistic point is the three-color smoke, which is suggestive of an ukiyo-e print. The need for the control room to keep its distance from the launching ground is inferred through this intensity.

The missile continues to gradually approach Earth and cut its jets. Conversely, its rotational movement increases the suspense. As it enters Earth’s gravitational field, it accelerates into a curve and friction with the atmosphere creates a contrail. The heartbeat quickens from this scientific change of action.

The distance narrows and the missile looms over Yamato in one fell swoop. At the moment the main guns are fired, the background switches from realistic space to a stylistic world. Black and white frames flicker behind the structure of the ship. Rather than depicting the explosion of hellfire as in a movie, it is represented by fire and smoke swirling violently in random single frames.

The evolution of explosions in the development of “TV Manga”

Too keep the discussion from becoming too broad, I’ll gravitate toward anime to present “explosions” as a special effect in “TV Manga.”

January 2013 is the 50th anniversary of Mighty Atom [Astro Boy], making it half a century since anime was established as 30-minute TV shows. However, pleasurable memories of pictorial explosions in the dawn of the era are unfortunately fading away.

Explosions in those days were very symbolic. The shock wave of an explosion was portrayed by an expanding jagged edge referred to as a “shock,” and an abstract form of fire was ignited. Smoke also rose, usually a poor-looking thing commonly described in old anime textbooks as “drawing moving circles.”

In this “moving picture,” the approach was not to capture and reconstruct the “scientific phenomenon” of a realistic explosion. By saying, “It exploded here,” “The enemy was defeated,” or “The machine was destroyed,” the minimum necessary information is conveyed in the story, so only a “symbol” was needed rather than something more elaborate.

The TV anime that started out with such symbolic expressions would be greatly shaken up in terms of realism by the rise of TV tokusatsu in the mid 1960s. [Translator’s note: tokusatsu, meaning “special effects” refers to live-action monster and superhero shows.] Full-scale TV tokusatsu, which began in January 1966, increased the amount of information with such details as the feeling of hair and reptilian skin on monsters. This attracted the attention of child audiences. The improved realism in such things as waves and storms, fire and explosions, and the destruction of buildings came to equal special effects in general.

However, in the depiction of monsters in Ultra Q, “exiting with an explosion” was a routine that had not yet been established. The elaborate end was devised according to the individuality of the monsters, with such things as melting, dying in fire, turning to stone and collapsing, or simply losing power and stopping.

Because this tempo was not suitable for 30-minute stories, a giant hero was called for, and a monster terminator appeared in Ultraman, a sequel that came out in July of the same year. In the third episode, the invisible monster Neronga took a direct hit from the killer move “Specium Rays,” and pieces of molded styrofoam were blown to smithereens in an extraordinarily exciting full-color visual climax (see it on Youtube here). Although ways to defeat monsters were devised in these early days, “exiting with an explosion” gradually became routine.

What’s fascinating to me is how you could even see the transition to this representation of a finish in 1971’s Kamen Rider. In the early episodes, which started out as a “mystery series,” a Shocker Phantom was hit by Rider’s killer move, melted into foam and died. There was a surreal image like unspooling thread, and when he disappeared the audience wondered, “What’s happening?” and demanded to know. The central technique was determined to be the “Rider Kick,” and the routine shifted to “a phantom greets his last moments in an explosion” so as not to cause misunderstanding. This lead to a major shift in fixation on bright entertainment works.

When that happened, the evolution of devising detailed images of the “explosion itself” began. From cement-based explosions, which scattered white smoke that neatly dispersed, to Napalm-based explosions, in which the combustion of gasoline expanded as a fireball that changed to complex black smoke, “special effects” with gunpowder were a big success. Also, with the openness of outdoor photography, artistic explosions became inseparable from henshin [transforming] heroes. Even on the giant hero side, Ultraman A (’72) and Ultraman Taro (’73) gained colorful death rays, and the gimmicks for blowing up monsters continued to escalate.

In Episode 7, the Black Tigers launch from Yamato near Pluto and violently engage Gamilas ships. Although the depiction of a fighter attacking and sinking a destroyer is questionable, the explosions – animated by Noboru Ishiguro himself – are impressive enough. Rather than a simple expanding fireball, parts called “horns” explode outward from a focal point in a 3-dimensional trajectory, and the aspect of filling the screen in a free form way, with no gravitational shackles in space, is fantastic. No one had yet seen such a realistic explosion in space conveyed with dynamic animation.

The pursuit of explosions is in the blood of an effects enthusiast

Although some may ask, “What do stories about special effects have to do with Yamato?” to me they both share a deep relationship. Just before I became devoted to Yamato in 1974, my soul belonged to stories about monster battles, the realism of special effects and optical compositing, and “climactic explosions.” Packing material was full of styrofoam at the time. I picked up a large piece of scrap kapok wood from somewhere, stuck firecrackers in it after school on the roof of my high school building, and connected a fuse to get the experience of recreating a “dispersion blast” special effect.

I didn’t have the courage to light it, so I pathetically got a friend from my club activities to help. The sound and light of the fluttering debris popped and danced before my eyes, and even after 40 years have passed, I can vividly remember the excitement of the timing and the changing shapes. The image is branded to the extent that I could “draw it” as an image if I had to.

“Interest in effects” is the sort of thing that sprouts spontaneously. Managing to study and learn about it is the limiting part. But before splitting hairs, the act of observation is a real thing, and the means of “doing” is different depending on the person and the times.

If I were to insist that “art is an explosion,” then it would follow that “an explosion is art” (faulty logic). The visual stimulus to the brain from the “explosion” crosses over from theory into an artistic impression. That’s why I want to use the word expression. I call the entire mechanism an explosion.

The human condition of being attracted to visual appeal of this kind of effect is an inherent pleasure in the explosions of Space Battleship Yamato. What I want to emphasize is how the fundamental appeal of explosions proceeds from a basis of studying them.

After the source of my interest was clarified in conversations with director Noboru Ishiguro, and after several decades of tenacious consideration, I can now finally reach the fruition of verbalizing it. It seems that the high school student who fell into a coma turns out to be a pretty persistent guy (laugh).

Although it is often said that Yamato gives priority to drama, story, and settings, if “God dwells in the details,” then clearly I can assert that God dwelled in such details as the development and action of Ishiguro’s Yamato explosions

Of course, the special effects in contemporary programs each delivered their own respective shocks, such as the textures of smoke and flame in Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (’72), the opening explosion of Triton of the Sea (’72) and the explosions and destruction of Mazinger Z (’72), which opened up a new age of robot anime. But for some reason, I remember that the only time I looked forward to “watching explosions” was in tokusatsu and Yamato.

After all, the explosions of Space Battleship Yamato were unprecedented, and I can certainly say that I felt a special “rush.” Like Yamato‘s voyage, analyzing that “rush” is a journey that will last forever.

The End

Special thanks to Neil Nadelman for translation support.

Continue to part 9: A chain of attack and defense produces suspense

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One thought on “Dynamism of the image centering on explosions

  1. The explosions and “fireworks” in Yamato have always stuck out in my mind as unique and beautiful. The giant missile launch plume stood out to me even as a pre-teen as being something “special”.

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