The Mike Toole Show The Melancholy of Yoshinobu Nishizaki
by Michael Toole, Nov 20th 2011
Thirty years ago, I was four years old, going on five. In the fall of 1980, I saw this totally awesome cartoon called Battle of the Planets on channel 56. I was actually kind of frustrated, because it was really cool but it was on at 9:30, which was right smack in the middle of preschool hours. I didn't actually know it existed until it snowed one day, I spent the morning at grandma's, and got to watch all of the crazy, mysterious stuff that started after the kids left for school in the morning. Yeah, I remember the above details that vividly. I have absolute, total recall of that morning, right down to the episode (it was the one with the space mummy). If I think really hard, I can kinda remember my wedding day, but that day in 1980? Crystal clear. Yeah, Battle of the Planets was my first anime, but instead of dwelling on that, I'm going to join the large chorus of people talking about the second anime I saw: Star Blazers, aka Space Battleship Yamato.
Lots of people are talking about Yamato these days, because it's been an eventful couple of years for the franchise. Shit got real in December of 2009, when a long-promised sequel to the beloved original was finally delivered to Japanese theatres. Expectations weren't high for Space Battleship Yamato: Resurrection, which made the resulting solid, durable, three-star fare a very pleasant surprise. Right as everyone's favorite space battleship crested the wave of hype it was riding, a 30-second TV spot aired-- it was for the big Yamato movie next December, which would be a live-action affair with actor and pop star Takuya Kimura playing the heroic Susumu Kodai. That movie, which dropped in December of 2010 and has spread all over the world since then, played nicely to expectations - it was a critical and commercial success. That brings us to the present day, where fans are counting down the hours to next spring's Space Battleship Yamato 2199, a reboot helmed by RahXephon director Yutaka Izubuchi. You know, it's really kind of a shame that the driving force behind Yamato, its producer and co-creator who worked hard to stoke the hype and get this new wave of productions started, is dead.
I won't dwell on the guy's unusual demise - enough has been said about that. Instead, I want to talk about the stuff Yoshinobu Nishizaki did when he was alive. He came into his own in the anime business at kind of a weird time - his first major success was actually in 1970, when he led the effort to localize, of all things, Hanna Barbera's Wacky Races. The show was a runaway hit, to the point that it's had a significant effect on anime itself. From there, Nishizaki started managing the front office of Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Productions, purportedly because he was such a huge fan of the guy's work. Some of us know that Mushi Productions pancaked, and perhaps inevitably, Nishizaki was involved - his first big project was getting a TV anime deal for Tezuka's quirky sex-ed manga, Mysterious Melmo. Unfortunately, Melmo performed poorly on TV, putting the young Nishizaki under pressure - but you know, decades later, this seems a little unfair. If you look at Tezuka Productions' site, the titular Melmo is right there - the show got reissued in DVD in recent years, and Tezuka would cast the adult version of Melmo (like most of his characters, part of his "star system") as the female lead in Apollo's Song. Things got really interesting when Mushi's finances started to fail just as two TV projects, Wansa-kun and Triton of the Sea, were being developed. It turns out that the copyrights for the TV cartoons were properly filed - but in Nishizaki's name, not Tezuka's. In fact, Mushi flatlined during the production of Wansa-kun - so not only is Nishizaki credited as the screenwriter for the show's second half, the entire production of Triton is credited not to Mushi, but to a new company founded by Nishizaki, Anime Staff Room.
Over the years, Nishizaki has coyly insisted that he had made a mistake, and misfiled the copyrights because he wasn't familiar with the paperwork. Supporters of the producer would point to the fact that his odd gaffe allowed Mushi stalwarts like Masaaki Sugaya and Yoshiyuki Tomino to avoid going down with the company and losing their jobs, but Tezuka was obviously unhappy with the arrangement, and the two men would not work together again. This was only a minor setback for Nishizaki, who in 1973 assembled a new company, Office Academy, for his next big project, Asteroid Icarus. Nishizaki had big plans for Icarus - he envisioned it as a sort of spacebound Lord of the Flies, featuring a crew of quarreling teenagers from all over the globe using a jury-rigged asteroid to thwart the invading Rajendorans. The producer scored a big slam dunk when he signed an emerging manga talent named Leiji Matsumoto to handle the show's art designs. Matsumoto, who'd made his name winning the coveted Manga Shonen prize, was positioning himself as a great teller of war stories with 1971's Senjō manga Tales, aka The Cockpit. After the initial wave of proposals, Nishizaki moved away from the idea of a rocket-powered asteroid in favor of an actual mighty battleship surrounded by rocks, one that would be given the evocative name Yamato. This change in direction suited the talents of Matsumoto, who splendidly realized earth's resistance as a spacebound navy crewing an awesome-looking battleship. With talented writer/director Eiichi Yamamoto (another Mushi refugee) aboard, 1974's Space Battleship Yamato couldn't fail! Even though the sponsors got nervous and cut their order from 39 episodes to 26 after the opening episodes did poorly, it just had to work-- and it did.
Yamato 's decade-long success story is a remarkable one, and one that probably wouldn't have been the same without Nishizaki steering the boat. Any old producer would've been content to soak up the profits from the TV episodes, movie spinoffs, and inevitable toy tie-ins. But Nishizaki was always straining to come up with the next big idea. The Japanese public loved the theme song, sung by the iconic Isao Sasaki, so a tie-in single was obvious, but Nishizaki expanded on this by releasing the entire show's soundtrack on LP - a practice that, amazingly enough, was almost completely unknown at the time. The TV series was popular in reruns through 1975 and 76, but the national obsession with Yamato didn't truly become obvious until 1977, when a digest movie version of the story managed to outdo Star Wars at the Japanese box office. Nishizaki, smelling money, soldiered on with a remarkable two TV sequels, a TV movie, and 3 additional films, finally wrapping up with 1983's ultimately erroneously-titled Final Yamato. He put the Yamato brand on toys, luxury goods, and hilariously, a child's bicycle. He was one of the first anime businessmen to see the potential of book publishing, handing over production materials from the first Yamato TV series to Tokuma Shoten so they could make it the first of their sprawling line of Roman Album artbooks, before releasing an avalanche of artbooks, spec books, and calendars via his own company, West Cape Corporation. And when foreign buyers for his lucrative hit didn't materialize immediately, Nish aggressively moved to get the show overseas-- and history would be made again when Bob Marcella of the Westchester Corporation, seeing the potential in the show, bought the North American rights to Star Blazers.
Nishizaki could've retired a millionaire - as Lou Bega can tell you, you only need one huge hit - but that would've been the easy way out. His next attempt at the bigtime would be 1979's Blue Noah, a story about a flying boat fighting against brutally authoritarian aliens. Wait a minute, that sounds familiar! It is pretty familiar, actually, which has given Blue Noah a bad reputation. If you ask me, this rep is almost completely undeserved - Noah isn't top-shelf material, but its solidly-built little story about earth's last hope being a mighty flying submarine is better than you might think. Nish did a good job promoting the series in Japan, launching the show with a 90-minute premiere episode, and after seeing that some of the money from Star Blazers was staying in American pockets rather than his own, he positioned his favorite tax shelter, West Cape Corporation, to sell the show directly to overseas markets. He was amazingly, phenomenally successful at this - Blue Noah was retitled Thundersub and beamed pretty much all over the world, though it enjoyed much more exposure in Canada than in the US. This show, which has languished in obscurity for a very long time, is starting to get easier to find thanks to the efforts of a crew of Arabic fans, who are patiently using Japanese DVD footage to restore it in a variety of languages. Go figure!
Not everything this guy touched turned to gold or gold-plated comedy, though. Ever heard of Maeterlinck's Bluebird ? Nishizaki and Office Academy produced it in 1980, but it was one of those "got aired in France and Italy, but not really anywhere else" shows. It wasn't a huge hit like Yamato or a solid performer like Blue Noah, so after a few more years monkeying with the profitable Yamato machine (artist Leiji Matsumoto, who many cite as the true driving inspiration behind the original work, had long since departed to make his fortune telling stories about trains in space instead), Yoshinobu Nishizaki geared up for his most ambitious project yet - a trilogy of animated films that would feature the industry's top talent and blow audiences away! Yamato savant Eiichi Yamamoto returned to direct (with 3 other guys-- hmmm), three different guys wrote the script, and an army of animators was marshaled by co-producer Tomoharu Katsumata, who'd scored his own hits with fare like Arcadia of My Youth. Gakken, Bandai Visual, and Toei eagerly came aboard as co-sponsors, and Nishizaki established a new shell distribution company, Japan AV Network, to soak up as much profit as possible from this surefire hit.
Of course, Odin - Photon Space Sailer Starlight was not a hit. It overran its budgets hilariously, so while it wasn't a bomb, it certainly didn't recoup its costs. Either way, those two promised sequels didn't seem likely - not only was money a problem, the movie was a confused mess, a genuinely amazing-looking film that couldn't seem to decide if it was science fiction, space fantasy, or just another Yamato ripoff. I absolutely love the movie; to me, it represents pretty much everything, good and bad, about Yoshinobu Nishizaki - talented staff, intriguingly weird concepts, bloated running time, badly misused resources, bizarre promotional tie-ins (look for an appearance by glam metal band Loudness in the closing credits!), on-screen titles for EVERYTHING from alien weapons to repair boats, and some of the most stunningly gorgeous anime made in the entire decade. The movie isn't good-- it's boring despite its impressive pedigree, and about two hours too long-- but in retrospect, I'm still glad it got made. I want to live in a world where a magnificent freakshow like Odin got made, a film that couldn't have happened without its tireless executive producer.
Nishizaki continued to break ground as the 80s became the 90s - he helped pave the way both for hentai anime's development as a lucrative pursuit in Japan and as a valuable tool for both sales and publicity in the west with 1987's Urotsukidoji, which he sold to western publishers in 1993, leading to nearly a decade of "so, you watch them Japanese porno cartoons?" type-questions for fans of the medium. Final Yamato suddenly wasn't so final thanks to Yamato 2520, a predictably ambitious attempt to revitalize the franchise in 1994. The production looked great at first, with a new Yamato designed by Syd Mead and character designs by the veteran Toshiyuki Kubooka. But you could see the cracks forming immediately, as Nishizaki's company was forced to release an "episode 0" video with a few clips and documentaries to help fund the rest of the first episode. Yamato 2520, on the wings of its crude, bizarre story and indifference from Japanese fans, would limp through three episodes before being unceremoniously canceled. You can't get it on DVD.
That really could've been the last hurrah for Yoshinobu Nishizaki, but in 1997, he did something usually reserved for true big entertainment moguls like Haruki Kadokawa: he went to jail. This news was met with fascination from fans all over the world - a lot of people thought of Nishizaki as a loose cannon, but it turns out he had several loose cannons. After initially being busted for narcotics possession, Nishizaki was discovered to be smuggling a variety of weapons and ammunition on his private boat. To me, this set of gear-- which included, no lie, several howitzer shells-- reeks less of "gunrunner" and more of "gun otaku." Thanks to a variety of other charges and misconduct, Nishizaki was kept from producing exciting new anime by virtue of being in and out of jail until 2007. You really have to give him credit, because that means that he got Yamato: Resurrection done in a matter of two years!
In the anime business, opinions about Nishizaki vary. Plenty point to the Tezuka swipe as a major point of contention. After Nishizaki's death, an uncredited set of remarks attributed to Yoshiyuki Tomino complained about the producer's pushiness but admired his keen business sense. I interviewed Noboru Ishiguro, who worked as animation director for Nishizaki for a portion of Yamato, in 2002-- Ishiguro remembered the relationship fondly enough, recalling a workaholic who excelled at getting unruly groups of auteurs working together, and a party animal who loved to overspend on lavish, showbizzy promotional events, invariably involving pretty girls. Nishizaki's relationship with Yamato artist Leiji Matsumoto was considerably more acrimonious-- Nish's production of Yamato 2520 and Matsumoto's somehwhat concurrent Great Yamato would spark a legal battle that would take the better part of a decade. Nishizaki was ultimately the victor, despite Matsumoto's unflinching remark of "Without my contributions, Yamato wouldn't have survived for even a minute." Hilariously, the war would continue by proxy of pachinko machines; Nishizaki's company would splash the Yamato name all over machines, and in response, Matsumoto partnered with Venture Soft to promote his suspiciously familiar-looking Dai Yamato Zero-go project. I think it's a shame that the two men could never solve their differences - early on, Matsumoto was convinced that Yamato was his just as much as Nishizaki's, and had ambitious plans to weave his Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express characters into the Yamato narrative. Sadly, it wasn't to be.
And what of Nishizaki's latest new company, Engaio? (Oh, Japan AV? That company went out of business, of course. Long story.) What about Yamato: Resurrection? Two years later, there's still no hint of a US release. I get asked about the Yamato live-action film almost every day, but there's no theatrical or DVD release of that one on the horizon, either. This greatly puzzles me, simply because these are high quality productions that would do well here in North America. The Yamato film, in particular, really impressed me with its high-toned visuals - even with a bare-bones subtitled theatrical campaign, this is a movie with the potential to wow American audiences used to Hollywood blockbusters. More than anything else, I feel like this is where Yoshinobu Nishizaki's absence is most keenly felt. He died a year ago this month, on the verge of seeing the live-action Yamato make splashdown, and while his adopted son, Shoji, has done a good job as custodian of the franchise - I have to admit, I really wish the premiere of Yamato 2199 didn't clash with Anime Boston, because I'd love to be in Japan to see it - the absence of the new films on these shores is inscrutable. A guy like Nishizaki wouldn't have just seen fans without their favorite space battleship; he just would've seen money disappearing, the longer the films remained unreleased and only available via piracy. I hope that Engaio and American companies like Voyager Entertainment can get this sorted out, because I'm really itching to go off to outer space once again. How about you?
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