Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Making Of A Legendary Anime Documentary

This piece began in 2005 as a review of the then-just-released documentary "Space Battleship Yamato: The Making of an Anime Legend." It has been revised and expanded to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the premiere of Star Blazers.

If you’re like me, forty years ago you ran home every day from school just to catch the latest episode of Star Blazers, the seminal Japanese anime SF serial about the derelict WWII battleship resurrected from the seabed to save Earth in the year 2199. When you found out originally it was a Japanese TV show called ‘Space Battleship Yamato that had inspired films, comics, model kits, toys, and books, you vowed to do whatever it took to get your hands on those things. Soon you connected with others who shared your obsession and before you knew it, you had a fandom.

And here, forty years later, after several generations of North American anime fans dragged the medium into the spotlight, after premieres of Hollywood-optioned anime-inspired films and record-breaking anime convention attendances and international media corporations running former kitchen-table licensing operations, here now that anime is finally a thing, well, the kids that ran home from school to watch Star Blazers are asking, where’s the Star Blazers

These days just about every cartoon IP has been remastered for DVD and BD box sets, been rebooted as an edgy show for grownups, has at least one bad live action film adaptation, and has engendered rafts of licensed bobbleheads and keychains and Hot Topic knickknacks;  fodder for an always hungry maw of nostalgic marketing eager to sell us retro themed everything everywhere all the time. Again we ask, where’s the Star Blazers?

Talk to anyone that was 10 and anywhere near a TV in 1979 and they’ll speak fondly of that show with the outer-space battleship. But the ability of us nostalgic nerds to actually go out and spend money on this thing we’re nostalgic about is almost non-existent; the invisible hand of the marketplace is keeping very invisible indeed.

As a Gen Xer, I can file it away as one more grievance of our in-between generation, one more reason to be angry at the boomers and jealous of the millennials. Licensed by Westchester films and localized by Sunwagon Films for distribution by Claster Television, Star Blazers hit American airwaves in September 1979, catching that last burst of Star Wars fever among American children. Once Westchester’s sponsorship deal with toymaker Hasbro ended, the show vanished quickly from broadcast. After a second, faltering attempt at syndication with an extra 25 episodes of Yamato III added to the Star Blazers package, Westchester tried to capitalize on the growing home video market with what amounted to a vanity-press edition of poorly transferred VHS tapes under the Kidmark label. 

all three box sets for only $449.95!

As the 80s turned into the 90s, the Star Blazers license reverted to the American arm of Yamato producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s company Voyager. Though more active than Westchester, Voyager’s US branch was basically an entertainment lawyer’s office in New Jersey, and Voyager’s approach was also a day late and a DVD short in keeping Star Blazers in the public eye. They released more Star Blazers VHS titles with confusing box art, and capriciously altered versions of the Yamato films, all priced for the serious collector rather than the average consumer.

When compared to the rollout of any other contemporary properties like, say, Sandy Frank’s release of Battle of The Planets, Star Blazers seems positively neglected.  BOTP aired across the country for years, was re-dubbed and broadcast on cable TV superstations as G-Force for several more seasons, received a wide home video release courtesy pop-culture label Rhino, was then licensed by ADV in both Japanese and English versions, and is now repped by Sentai in both physical and streaming media. That bird ninja show achieved a level of success that Star Blazers simply didn’t get, both in the 1970s and beyond. 

Japanese fans waiting forever to see Be Forever Yamato in WARP DIMENSION
Part of this is because Space Battleship Yamato wasn’t a Toei property or a Tatsunoko property or a Sunrise property, it was a sole proprietorship owned & operated by Yoshinobu Nishizaki Incorporated, a hand-crafted artisanal object that wouldn’t get bundled or packaged or promoted with anything else, a property without an engaged American office in the field trying to make things happen. Compare this to Harmony Gold, which for all their many and egregious faults, is always trying to keep Robotech The Trademark in the public eye, or with Speed Racer Enterprises, which spent the 1980s and 1990s selling Speed Racer magnets and coffee mugs and getting Speed Racer on MTV.

Nishizaki’s Voyager didn’t market Star Blazers with anywhere near this energy. Their initial VHS releases of the property were flawed, expensive, and poorly distributed, and later DVD releases were also flawed, expensive, and poorly distributed. For interested outsiders, getting licenses for other merch like the Star Blazers Role Playing Game or TCI’s model kits was like pulling teeth.

One exception? Star Blazers comics. In the mid and late 1980s, a creative team including Phil “Girl Genius” Foglio produced two decently-selling Star Blazers series for Robotech comics publisher Comico. A few years later, longtime Yamato fan Tim Eldred was working at then-ascendant Malibu Comics just as Voyager was seeking to promote their property. Malibu passed on the offer to publish Star Blazers comics, but Eldred sensed an opportunity. He convinced Voyager US president Barry Winston to publish Star Blazers comics under a new publishing line, Argo Press. Eldred would produce the actual comics as Studio Go, a licensed property comics production service. Alongside other anime-license titles like M.D. Geist, Gall Force, Project A-Ko and Votoms, Studio Go would publish 12 Star Blazers comic books as well as an actual honest to gosh official, licensed Star Blazers book, the now out-of-print “Star Blazers Perfect Album.”

Eldred's involvement with Voyager and the Star Blazers franchise would also lead to something unique in the annals of Japanese animation; the English-language anime series documentary Space Battleship Yamato: The Making of an Anime Legend. Today, every YouTube account with the ability to splash misleading Impact font headlines across screencaps considers themselves a documentarian, but in 2005, serious documentaries about Japanese animated films were rare to nonexistent.  As a Star Blazers fan Tim was unhappy with the decrepit look of previous Star Blazers DVD releases and he'd done the legwork sourcing high quality video for the DVD release of the show's little-seen third season, now titled "The Bolar Wars." He'd arranged the translation of a wealth of Yamato images, text, and video for the official Star Blazers website, and of course he’d produced hundreds of pages of Star Blazers graphic story himself. In hindsight it seems an obvious next step: he had the translations, he had the artwork, he had the music, he had the DVD rendering skills, and he had the blessing of the actual copyright holders. He could produce an honest-to-gosh Star Blazers documentary.

Nishizaki and Matsumoto in the 70s; an early Yamato design

The end result is unique. Not only is this DVD a comprehensive look at the work it took to animate the three Yamato TV series and the five Yamato films, but it places Yamato firmly in the context of both the Japanese and the American animation markets of the time. Yamato producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s career is detailed from his start with Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Production, and his tireless and sometimes outlandish efforts to promote Yamato are shown in detail. We see the roots of the series, first conceived as funky looking live-action SF involving a rocket-propelled asteroid. Yamato chief designer Leiji Matsumoto’s influence on the final product is shown through original design sketches and interviews. We see eccentric publicity stunts like a Yamato ocean cruise in a liner tricked out with deck turrets and a mystery Yamato train trip reportedly to the asteroid Icarus.

Many of the fan legends that surround the series are brought to light; the seldom-seen Yamato pilot film is on this DVD in its entirety, and there’s a comprehensive look at the English-language theatrical version of Yamato, titled “Space Cruiser,” that screened in Europe before Star Blazers even existed. This of course leads into a long-awaited explanation of the strange “ghost Starsha” variation of that first Yamato feature film. We also learn the stunning truth behind the cinematic innovation “Warp Dimension” that was unveiled with the premiere of the third Yamato theatrical film, Be Forever Yamato.

some of the Star Blazers voice cast

Narrated by original "Derek Wildstar" voice actor Ken Messeroll, this DVD also features interviews with other Star Blazers voice actors like Amy “Nova” Howard-Wilson, Tom “Venture” Tweedy, and Leader Desslok himself, Eddie Allen. Also throughout the DVD are transcribed interviews with the Japanese Yamato voice actors, director Noboru Ishiguro and Yamato composer Hiroshi Miyagawa, the designers of Yamato characters, costumes and mecha, rare footage from Yamato concerts, original theatrical trailers, material deleted from Star Blazers, and some amazing footage of the massive crowds that greeted each Yamato film as it opened in Japan. It may be difficult for Western audiences to grasp just how insanely popular this franchise was in Japan, but this DVD is itself incontrovertible evidence. Yamato spawned festivals, concerts, speaking tours, hundreds of fan clubs, a weekly radio show, and all-night radio dramas; the series went beyond mere popularity and became a pop culture phenomenon, further proven here by a fine selection of vintage toy TV ads, including the famous Yamato Bicycle commercial.

we just want to ride our machines without being hassled by the man

Those expecting a “warts and all” look at the scandals and convoluted legal issues facing both Yamato and producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki in the 90s and 00s will be disappointed, but remember; this documentary was produced by and for Yamato's corporate owner. A certain amount of discretion and some glossing over of uncomfortable subjects is to be expected. Yamato fans new to the franchise may be surprised the doc fails to mention the live-action Space Battleship Yamato film, or Yamato Resurrection, or the Yamato 2199 and 2202 reboots, but remember - all these had yet to happen in 2005. 

the offices of Nishizaki's production company Office Academy

2005, of course, marked the peak year of DVD sales in the United States market. From here on a glutted market, a consumer base choosing between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, and new options for home video would whittle the once-mighty market segment down to fragments. With a vanished Suncoast and Best Buy reducing their once-mighty anime section to a few shelves, there’s barely any room for any DVD titles, and without a strong marketing team and good distribution, a 25 year old cartoon about a space battleship is going to be lost in the clearance bin shuffle. Which explains why you may not have even known this documentary even existed. 

early Yamato character designs, early fan clubs

If you’re a lifelong Yamato or Star Blazers fan, or if you’re just finding out about the show, or have any interest at all in the creation, production and marketing of Japanese animation, you’ll find Yamato: The Making of an Anime Legend fascinating. I was impressed with this documentary in ‘05, and as the years pass it only gets more impressive, a testament to Eldred's ability to make things happen and to capitalize on opportunities. When was the last time you saw the main cast of Star Blazers make anime con appearances? There aren't many documentaries about anime TV this comprehensive or this well produced – actually, I think this one is it, this is all we get. Why we don't see something like this for Speed Racer or BOTP or Robotech or Sailor Moon is anyone’s guess. Apart from a third of Otaku Unite, the odd DVD extra, and myopic, click-baity YouTube videos, nobody even tries to gets close to the comprehensive scope of Making Of An Anime Legend. These days Tim is busy directing animation for Marvel Productions and producing another original SF webseries; he's done his part, he’s made his Star Blazers documentary. Now it’s time for someone else to pick up the torch, or the camera, and carry on to Iscandar, or YouTube, whichever is closer.

-Dave M

Thanks to Tim Eldred, Steve Harrison, and Mike Toole for their assistance.

indeed it was the final chapter, for a little while anyways