Breaking past limits!
The sense of wonder of light

By Ryusuke Hikawa

“Although Yamato was difficult, it was really interesting,” said the late Noboru Ishiguro. What are the thoughts of the man who transformed Space Battleship Yamato into a full-blown work of SF? By introducing the precious storyboards of the first episode, anime commentator Ryusuke Hikawa recreates the on-site atmosphere at the time and answers questions about visual expression in animation!

The appeal of Chapter 3 of the SF Anthology

Space Battleship Yamato 2199 is already up to Chapter 3. Based on the previous two chapters, a “great leap forward” will be presented in this block. Yamato says goodbye to the heliosphere on “a journey beyond the galaxy.” In other words, we will cross into a zone where mankind has never been. Simultaneously, unknown elements that weren’t in the original work are also increasing.

The staff’s statement that “this is not simply a remake” re-emerges, and pleasant surprises will make this a chapter to remember. How will new elements and characters, which were skillfully woven in, develop from here on? In an arrangement based on respect for the original from beginning to end, expectations for the remaining four chapters increase.

Chapter 3 has more of the taste of an SF anthology. “Did this robot come from aliens?” This was inferred by the trailer, but it was also an impressive surprise. You could feel the writers’ devotion to the 1974 Yamato, the catalyst for full-scale SF to be thoroughly developed.

It never had the form of high completion, but it stirred the imagination. We are bound to live within the physical “limits” of time and distance. How are such limits conquered and overcome? This is the essence of an “adventure.” It has been said that the “journey” of Space Battleship Yamato was a story of committing to the concepts of SF. When you think about it, it means that 2199 itself is the meta-development that evolved after a maturation period of over 30 years. That connection across such a long time has a very big SF feeling.

A storyboard from Episode 1 used by the assistant director. Production notes were added to the
drawing by directors Noboru Ishiguro and Leiji Matsumoto. One memo says, “create a feeling of tension
in the ship.” From the technical content and director’s instructions, we can read the nuances.

Knowing the past gives meaning

Between the past series and today, there was one event that gave us no choice but to realize the passage of time. It was the “sendoff meeting” on September 7 [2012] in Kichijoji, Tokyo for Director Noboru Ishiguro, who passed away on March 20. There, I was allowed to introduce Mr. Ishiguro’s achievements on Space Battleship Yamato. A timeless SF image was embodied in the many techniques of Mr. Ishiguro in his role as an on-site director.

I gave a quick explanation of the merest fragments of that, including to those already familiar with the original series. Because the deceased was a person who never forgot humor, it was expected that we would send him off with a smile, so I didn’t forget to introduce scenes that got a laugh, and I lead the “sexy scenes collection” with “nude Yuki” (presented last time).

But the more I carried it out to this degree, it honestly couldn’t help but to become a painful feeling. While caught up in that feeling, it was in deep contemplation that I chose storyboards by Mr. Ishiguro from the first episode to compare with the completed scenes. This material was used by the assistant director (credited as Shigeo Koshi) and also appeared as bonus features on the blu-ray, reproduced alongside the finished footage.

The notes on them gave specific direction and provide valuable evidence to help us understand anime cel techniques. I share these documents, which I have personally saved for many years, with all people in the hope that they can provide clues for deeper individual analysis.

Gamilas destroyers all fire in unison and Okita’s battleship takes a direct hit. Although a pan to the right is indicated to follow the ballistic trajectory from the Gamilas ships, this single shot was in fact divided in the storyboard. The memo field reads “it shines for an instant, then a black hole opens and flame scatters behind.” The directions for finishing the special effects indicate “T-13 brush touch process.” The alphanumeric code is a paint number, and the process is to apply a texture with a “brush touch,” meaning a dry-brush technique. Metal is melted upon impact by a beam, and the spreading effect becomes a ring that flows toward the stern. This is how SF ideas are elaborated in the production. The “B” is a background code.

In a booklet handed out at the “sendoff meeting,” there was a reprint of “An interview with Director Noboru Ishiguro” by Makoto Hoshi from the book TV Anime Complete Works (Hara Shobo, 1999; cover shown at right). It included a conversation about techniques, including compositing, and it was deeply impressive to read again. Here is an excerpt:

“It was an interesting thing. At the time, we weren’t trying to shock people or anything. We weren’t at all conscious that we were making a great thing. We were just excited about making it. There was also the fact that, after all the anime I’d made ’til then, I’d built up a great store of practical techniques and had grown frustrated with the way anime had been made. But I used all my ideas and materials on Yamato. (Laughs)


Yamato was difficult, but it was really interesting. Some parts followed my instructions, and I dabbled in other parts myself, and in that sense I think it is the work that represents my best quality. Compositing is easy now with computers, but at that time it was all I could do to think about how to composite something together, how to make it appear real.

I thought about how to express Yamato’s warp. This is shown the same way, with a filter added and then shifted. In the midst of the confusion, Yuki Mori appears nude just for a moment.”

Throughout this interview, the subtext was that a creator’s feeling of “that seems like fun, let’s go for it!” will always come out on screen in the end. And my response was, “That’s impressive, too.”

In the introduction of the first Yamato work in this essay series, the main purpose is not to pay attention to outdated compositing techniques. It is about how they became easier if we think back on Mr. Ishiguro’s words. What we should pay attention to is how it broke past the limits of the time through the philosophy built by the spirit and enthusiasm of the production staff. That is the point

There should be new limits again now. The presence of a spirit to overcome them always arises from that. It was with the hope of succeeding that I gave this series the title “Lessons from the Past.”

ABOVE: The texture and color of a light beam are also
important elements to represent power. The codes correspond
to a paint number (fluorescent pink system); W white, T trace,
P paint, and “pisu” is short for “pisukon,” which means
“airbrush.” BG is “background,” and a “pull cel” is a longish
cel which is moved across the camera’s view.
BELOW: 1K stands for one frame [translator’s note: the Japanese
word for ‘frame’ is ‘koma’] and depending on how far it moves
in a single frame, the sense of reality changes. A feeling of
movement is an important element in production.

The image of warp navigation overcoming the limit of light

The word “warp” comes up symbolically in Mr. Ishiguro’s statements. In everyday conversation, for example, taking a shortcut in a taxi to reduce time can be called a “warp.” We can be comfortable with that. The Japanese are familiar with it. However, I believe it was Yamato’s achievement to popularize such an esoteric technical SF term.

Of course, “faster than light travel” predates Yamato as being essential for interstellar travel, and was presented ceaselessly in SF novels, manga, and films. On the other hand, the limits of the speed of light are often ignored. Cases where aliens come to Earth or Earth people travel ambiguous distances to the stars are too numerous to mention. There are other things you want to show, so pushing it to the bottom of the priority list was just something you had to do.

However, at its core Yamato flatly challenges the difficult physical laws in Einstein’s theory of relativity, which states that nothing can surpass the speed of light, with the “journey of 148,000 light years.” The word “warp” came up in connection with this hopeless distance, and depicting it persuasively on film took great effort.

You can refer to the last column for many of the warp images in Episode 4.

But first, we should probably pay some attention to the word “warp.” It is based on the Old English word “weorp,” which had the original meaning of “bending or twisting paper and wood.” In SF, it refers to navigation by distorting space and time, subject to the speed of light. Other words such as “jump” or “leap” are commonly used. The Macross series uses “fold,” which is similar in meaning to “warp.”

In Episode 4, Yamato jumps through time and space, and visuals from the past are included, such as primitive man and the age of dinosaurs. However, the main axis of the warp expression is the “technical effect which controls light” that plays a central role. Many of the scenes were shot with a strange distortion of light itself that gave the phenomenon of “exceeding the speed of light” its convincing dramatic power.

The cover page to the first episode
storyboard. It was heavily used on the
worksite and is in a tattered condition.

The mainstream expression of distortion was done with ripple glass, but the major distorting component wasn’t limited to that. Backgrounds and cel paintings themselves were drawn to look squishy from the start, in order to exceed the limits of ripple glass expression. In one shot of Kodai and Shima on the bridge, the background disappears and light is shone through from behind the cel image. The areas where light leaks out through the uneven cel paint coating the back has the full flavor of analog, and it gives me new respect for the bold experimental spirit, unrestrained by a fear of failure over revealing the mechanics of anime through a mistake.

You shouldn’t overlook the point that it’s not all about anime techniques. Without a good general knowledge of filmmaking, you wouldn’t know which technique to use.

There are also shots where we see repeated images of Captain Okita and Yuki Mori doubling up in different monotone colors. This is similar to the shot of aiming at a Gamilas warship in Episode 1, which used the same filter-work with multiple exposures. In fact, it uses the color photography method of Technicolor in the early period of film, in which an image was broken into the three primary colors using a prism and a filter, then recorded on three separate black and white films, similar to the color separation method used in printing. The idea was that if warping brought about a change in the physical laws of light, such color separation could occur. The duplicate images zoom up, repeatedly changing their movement axis, like an “echo” with light rather than sound.

What is especially noteworthy are shots that show all of space with weird, squishy distortion. This was done with an anamorphic lens on a rotating camera. This lens was invented by the movie industry to develop widescreen as a countermeasure to TV. The aspect ratio of 35mm film [Vista size] is 1 x 1.37, and shooting with anamorphic compresses the horizontal direction of the image to about double the ratio, which turns Vista size into 1 x 2.35 Cinemascope size.

This only works when the compression direction of the lens coincides with the optical axis, or it will tilt on an angle. This exquisite blurring under the influence of a lens aberration was a clever way to exceed the budget.

Noboru Ishiguro worked on Episode 7 of Captain Future [1978] under the name Yagi Ishikura, and happily said, “I could use anamorphic” when he was in charge of the storyboard, since the technique was close to his heart. As above, the theme of “distorting light” was a culmination of techniques that were available for the warp scene.

An allied ship is hit with a laser and explodes outside the window of Okita’s warship, which is filled with red
emergency lighting. In order to give a different look to the worlds inside and outside the ship, the words “use mask”
are written in the instructions. A mask is applied not only to the outside window but also the monitors which emit
their own glow, which clearly expresses the light of these separate worlds. Such detail emphasizes its SF quality.

It could be said that the true value of Director Noboru Ishiguro’s impact was to link technology directly with production. In recent years, writers who encounter this siuation express it as “having one’s education tested.” Truly, without an education in film, this would have been impossible to deal with.

In the culmination of techniques cultivated in the history of movies, the “warp scene” exceeded the “limit of light.” “Exceeding light” had a meta-meaning that synchronized with its role in the story. Although, of course, it was impossible for the technique to change the speed of light itself, the idea of using “optical processing” to depict surreal expressions is itself like SF, and links them closely together.

The question may also come up about whether these things take precedent over the story. I would say that since it is about human beings, the emotional side is given priority. Even so, if it was something that could be depicted in a normal story, an SF setting with scientific support would be unnecessary, and there would be no need to adopt animation – with its immense budget and manpower – as the means of expression.

We must not forget the general principle that “animation is visual art.” This principle takes into account the information that reaches a viewer’s brain through an optical device called a lens, and the retina of the eyeball. The idea of controlling light as the intermediary is fundamental.

This principle does not change if it becomes replaced by digital information. “Mask composition” and “transmitted light,” which this series has extensively touched upon, can be included in “optical compositing” as a technology related to light. They merge with the hypothesis of SF, which is the philosophy of “breaking past the limits of humans.” When you consider the adventurous spirit of Space Battleship Yamato, charged with its mission into the unknown, I am convinced that this is the key.

The End

(Images and captions continue below)

An aiming panel is lined up in three rows. They flicker from red to blue when armed, but one line does not change easily. The tension over not being able to shoot until the aim lines up is visualized by color and light. This is something you don’t often see in the world of digital displays, and the expression created by a few cels shot with masks for optical processing produces a sense of reality.

“We can’t beat them with these ships…” This is an excellent line to determine that the first episode begins in defeat. The memo clearly reads “show a sense of impending crisis in the ship.” It says “red para” to the right of the storyboard, and the directions are to apply red paraffin [gel] to the emergency lighting portion through photo-processing. Part of it was removed in the finished film for lighting effects.

The shot in which Captain Okita decides to withdraw was determined to last for a long 20 seconds. Unlike storyboards which follow expression changes in the camera work, this was referred to as FIX. The processing of shooting with blue colors, monochrome, and red paraffin changes the colors with exquisite timing to match the exterior with Captain Okita’s inner feelings. Directing is the art of manipulating this visual language.

Captain Okita watches Sasha’s spaceship. This shot uses red paraffin, but the video (monitor) is designated as normal. While it is strange to consider the distance from here to Mars, it is an important sequence for building credibility for Yamato‘s journey. The point that “the target is seen in the real color of outside space” is also important.

In this shot, the red and yellow colors on the multiple-exposure of the Gamilas ship cleverly change to normal when the aim lines up. Although it was originally Okita’s ship doing the aiming, it was changed to the Yukikaze.

This sequence impressed young SF fans at the time. After a direct hit to the bridge, a crewman is sucked out into space just before the airtight bulkhead closes. This cold-hearted scene is the space version of a navy ship closing its watertight hatch, which intensifies the drama. The instructions on the storyboard for this one-shot scene were for the instruments to spark.

Special thanks to Neil Nadelman for translation support

Continue to Part 6: Empathy evoked by handmade images

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