SciFi Japan

    SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 4: We’re Off to Outer Space

    YAMATO 2 and the genesis of STAR BLAZERS Author: Tim Eldred, and SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 1: The Anime Classic That Nearly Wasn`t SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 2: From Valley to Peak SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, Part 3: ARRIVEDERCI YAMATO Goodbye Dark Ages, Hello Global Village As reported last time, ARRIVEDERCI YAMATO (A.K.A. Farewell to Yamato) was the biggest thing anime had ever seen when it was released in 1978. Hugely popular, amazingly successful, groundbreaking in every respect, it ignited a whole new world of anime and was loved by all…except one. Just one guy among millions thought it was a big mistake. And his opinion counted for a lot, because his name was Leiji Matsumoto. It’s well-documented by now that he was invited onto SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO at just the right time with just the right skills to turn it into a classic. The story originated with Producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki and his writing team, but Matsumoto’s involvement made the difference between a well-intentioned SF cartoon and a true game-changer. More than any other individual, he gave it a look and spirit that set it apart from absolutely everything else. When Nishizaki announced that he wanted to write a sequel, Matsumoto was right there ready to stir in the magic ingredients all over again. He’d always presumed YAMATO would get a sequel, even when the early TV ratings indicated otherwise, and argued against irrevocable plot twists like the death of Captain Okita. Since the character was based on his own father, Matsumoto was understandably attached to him, and was very disappointed to see him go—even more so when the sequel he predicted eventually got the green light.

    This was just one instance of conflict between Matsumoto and the new film. Another one was founded on precisely the same issue, but the stakes were much greater—Nishizaki wanted ALL the major characters to die at the end of ARRIVEDERCI. Matsumoto hated the idea right from the start, arguing passionately at every turn that (A) true human beings fight to survive against all odds rather than give up their lives and (B) it would be even more difficult to keep YAMATO going afterward. He didn’t give an inch on this battle, refusing even to attend recording and editing sessions where he would be expected to sign off on scenes he categorically rejected. But before everyone else in Japan would even see a single frame of the film, before animation was completed, even before the first press conference took place on May 24, 1978, Nishizaki had relented. ARRIVEDERCI was too far along to change by then, but the Yomiuri TV Network was more than happy to sponsor a brand new TV series. Thus was born SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO 2. Pre-production began the very same day of said press conference as the writers started expanding the movie script into a 26-episode series. This allowed them to restore material that had been cut from the movie and spend much more time developing characters in the ranks of both the heroes and villains. The series also had a huge amount of ready-made assets, since designs for the movie could be instantly repurposed. This would actually turn out to be a double-edged sword since all the major stuff was designed for big-budget cinema. The mecha in particular, co-created by Matsumoto and Studio Nue (primarily artist Kazutaka Miyatake), had much denser detail than TV animators were used to. Fortunately for them, scenes by Toei’s superstar animators could be freely plugged in wherever they worked.

    Return of the Unsung Hero The line was drawn (or, rather, NOT drawn) with the Comet Empire characters, however, whose costumes had to be simplified now that they would be getting a lot more screen time. Oddly enough, one of the last people to learn about YAMATO 2 was arguably its MVP: animation director Noboru Ishiguro. He was buried so deeply in ARRIVEDERCI that he didn’t even know about YAMATO 2 until he wrapped the final scenes (just a week before the film’s August 2 premiere) and was told to report to his new job the next day. That gave him about three months to get the entire production into shape, because the first episode was to hit the airwaves on October 14. ARRIVEDERCI would still be in theatres for another week after that, but by then it was a distant memory for Ishiguro and his team, who were back into the familiar crush of weekly deadlines. By all accounts, Ishiguro was the true hero of YAMATO throughout the entire experience, enduring all-day script meetings, struggling to get by with about half the talent pool he was accustomed to (YAMATO’s success spawned a lot more TV anime, which in turn spread the artists quite thin), and sacking out on Nishizaki’s couch when he didn’t have time to go home. The need to stay close to the studio caused him to rent an apartment nearby that was later to become the nerve center of his Artland Studio, which is still going strong today. But this time the rewards for the hard work came much quicker than they did on the first series. The ratings started high (25.3%) and ended even higher (27.7%). Merchandising was brisk, particularly for toy sponsor Nomura, and a Yamato production finally got the benefit of advance media coverage. Animage magazine was well-established before YAMATO 2 hit the airwaves, and others were soon to join the party. The official fan club magazine also offered month-by-month reports that kept fans hungry, revealing in a February ’79 interview with Ishiguro that the ending still had not been determined even by that late date, two months before the finale.

    The last four episodes in particular gave Yamato fans a wild ride, altering the most dramatic events of ARRIVEDERCI and playing out the weekly cliffhangers for all they were worth. Character deaths were plentiful (more so than the US version would have you believe), but Leiji Matsumoto’s greatest wishes were finally granted in the concluding episode—aired on April 7—when the main cast survived to fight another day. As reported in our last installment, this was the point where fandom divided itself into two camps; those who thought ARRIVEDERCI should have lived up to its name and those who wanted Yamato to launch again ASAP. There was a third camp that didn’t know much about any of this, but by the end of the year they would have their ticket to ride in the form of a 52-episode extravaganza called STAR BLAZERS. YAMATO Conquers America (Finally!) To this day, precious little is known about the exact chain of events from April to Labor Day weekend of 1979, a four-month stretch in which a lot had to happen to get Yamato ready for an American audience. According to an indispensable article in the June 1980 issue of Starlog magazine, Bob Marcella of the Westchester Corporation had zeroed in on YAMATO even before the second series got off the ground. He in turn presented it to John Claster of Claster Television (a syndication company), who sealed the deal as early as September 1978. This was a bold move, considering half the package hadn’t begun airing on its home turf yet—which meant the smash success of ARRIVEDERCI must have played a crucial role in convincing everyone to join the parade. (See? It’s hard to overestimate just how important that movie was!)

    Very early documentation indicates the series was initially marketed under the name STAR FORCE, which was probably changed because of its aural similarity to STAR WARS--another franchise with considerable wind at its back at the time. It certainly wasn’t going to be called YAMATO, since nobody knew what the American response would be to a kid’s show named after the symbol of a WWII enemy. So STAR BLAZERS it became, in just the first of many changes for its new home. The chief architect of those changes seems to have been Tom Griffin of the Griffin-Bacall advertising agency. If it sounds a little strange for an ad man to be put in charge of a children’s TV series, be thankful. As someone whose job it was to be conscious of every utterance of every syllable within a 30-second commercial, Griffin was ideally suited to endow STAR BLAZERS with above-average production standards. (Just look at some of the show’s American contemporaries—or the dubbed SPACE CRUISER movie from 1976—for a taste of what might have happened under less exacting stewardship.) From there, the production chain gets a little murky. It is known that a lady named Kit Carter chose the voice cast, mainly from talent at the Weist-Barron acting school. They recorded the dialogue at a New York studio called Filmsounds, and further work (probably audio mixing) took place at Sunwagon. Claster Television stood at the top of this multi-tiered pyramid, touting itself in the TV credits as a division of Hasbro Industries. That was the only name American viewers were likely to recognize, since it was on toys they probably owned. That relationship didn’t lead to any STAR BLAZERS products, but it stood Claster in good stead during the 80s with such mega-toons as G.I.JOE and TRANSFORMERS.

    (And if you’re looking for any other six-degree connections here, Claster was later to import an anime series called MAYA THE BEE to US TV. This series was based on a German children’s book published in 1912 that later became a childhood favorite of one Mr. Leiji Matsumoto. He grew up dreaming of one day animating it, then coincidentally found himself invited to join the TV production in 1974. Since it didn’t match his vision, he turned down the job—which freed him up to make YAMATO instead. Is your head spinning yet?) Tom Griffin’s biggest challenge in 1979 would have been keeping ahead of the calendar. He would have had considerable time to work on the first 26-episode series, writing scripts and editing footage, but might not have been able to start on YAMATO 2 until after April. Actress Amy Howard Wilson (voice of the beloved Nova) recalls no significant break in her recording schedule, so it’s quite possible that the bulk of the work was done in a very short time—which makes its high quality even more impressive. The series premiered right on schedule, Labor Day 1979, and was a huge breath of fresh air to American viewers, equal in dramatic scope to STAR WARS and unapologetic about its demands on the audience. You had to watch it EVERY DAY (if it was broadcast that way) to keep up with the story, which made for an almost universal experience of running home from school in time to tune in. The huge leap in quality between episodes 26 and 27 (the transition from series 1 to YAMATO 2) created an awareness of production values and brought home the notion that it must have originally been a break from “season 1” to “season 2.” That terminology persists today, even though most Japanese anime doesn’t follow the seasonal pattern of American TV (and, at any rate, there was a five year gap between shows).

    Most of the character names were different, the deaths were papered over, and the scripts were peppered with clunkers like “space java” or “turn left at the next star,” but the best parts of YAMATO—the sophisticated drama, the masterful suspense, and the exquisite music—were irreducible. Just as YAMATO had done in Japan back in 1974, STAR BLAZERS proved to America that cartoons were not the sole domain of children. But the single most important signal of change that STAR BLAZERS brought to America was an ending credit that probably didn’t seem important to many people at the time: “Originally produced in Japan by Yoshinobu Nishizaki under the title SPACE CRUISER YAMATO.” There were ample Japanese names in the credits (as in many other imported shows of the 70s), but prior to this none had so openly advertised its origins. From that moment on, Americans had been placed on notice. The revolution was indeed being televised. In Japan, it had already taken the next step. Next time: New Voyages (plural) Keep watching SciFi Japan for more installments of Tim Eldred`s look back at the classic SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO! Bonus Images: YAMATO 2 Novelizations YAMATO 2 Storybooks Read much more about Yamato and find STAR BLAZERS DVDs at STAR BLAZERS is ©Voyager Entertainment, Inc.

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