The Mike Toole Show
Yamato's Orphans

by Mike Toole,

A year and a half ago, I wrote about the curious absence of Star Blazers, especially its modern incarnation Star Blazers 2199, from most western media markets. I'd recently purchased the Italian blu-ray release of the fine new series, which I presume is what eventually triggered the sale of the 2199 license for North America to Funimation. Yes, I'm taking credit for this! It was specifically me spending a hundred Euro on a couple of fancy blu-ray sets that made Star Blazers 2199 finally happen in North America. In any case, as 2017 made way for 2018, and we got not just Star Blazers 2199 in English, but also the first half of its sequel, Star Blazers 2202. There was no waiting between these two installments, they just streamed, weekly, back-to-back, with a fine new English dub, until the series reached the halfway point of 2202 and the dubbers had, for the time being, run out of episodes to localize. As an ardent, lifelong Star Blazers fan, this was pretty neat surprise.

As I write this, in Japan, the team at XEBEC, led by director Nobuyoshi Haraba, is on the verge of wrapping up 2202. The final movie installment will ship to theaters on March 1st of 2019. Haraba's retelling of the storied space battleship's fight against the Comet Empire, led by its fearsome philosopher-king Zwordar, doesn't quite hit the artistic heights of 2199, but it's good, exciting stuff, helped along by an expanded cast of characters. The home stretch of 2202 also features the debut of the Ginga, a new starship in the tradition of the Yamato. Here's what the big ol' space boat looks like:

We have mecha designer Makoto Kobayashi, who's been quietly working on Yamato-related projects since the 90s, to thank for this lovely monstrosity. I haven't seen the debut of the Ginga for myself yet, but I am going to assume that the big disc in the center of the hull is where they put the revolving restaurant. When I first saw production art of the Ginga, it was that big circular piece that really stuck out. It reminded me of another ship—not the original Yamato, but the Dai Yamato.

I absolutely love this absurd, unholy monstrosity, which seems to clearly be an inelegant marriage of the original Yamato design to that of the Arcadia, Captain Harlock's space galleon. Putting a giant pair of wings and a big, circular hull on what is otherwise an old naval battleship is garish, absurd, and wonderful. This ship is part of a media franchise that spun off from Space Battleship Yamato, but exists in a weird place, divorced from any real continuity, and in legal limbo.

Here's what happened: in 1997, Yoshinobu Nishizaki, who'd created the story and produced the original TV series of Space Battleship Yamato, was broke. His company, West Cape, declared bankruptcy, and to avoid its intellectual property simply being seized by creditors, he transferred his rights to Space Battleship Yamato to his son Shoji, who then sold them to film company Tohokushinsha Film Corporation in a bid to raise some cash. While this was going on, manga artist Leiji Matsumoto, who'd designed all of the visuals (and written much of the story) for the classic Yamato, started nonchalantly sneaking the Yamato into his own works. It started with quick cameos in the Galaxy Express 999 manga and third feature film, but was soon expanded to other media. Matsumoto had a plan, and that plan was to bring the famous space cruiser into the big, messy shared universe of his own heroes and villains. To the Matsumoto fan, this was terrifically exciting news, but typically of the creator, this was a years-long process involving story proposals, lavish soundtrack CDs for media that didn't really exist yet, and finally, a new manga serial.

There was just one complication: Leiji Matsumoto was never really cleared to act unilaterally with the Yamato brand—he just partnered up with Tohokushinsha, as they kept the name alive with DVD and video game releases. To make it official, Matsumoto eventually sued in order to have himself declared the original creator of Space Battleship Yamato, but the courts ultimately ruled against him, issuing a judgment that it was the story of Yamato (originated by Nishizaki) that had made the franchise popular. Eventually, a legal resolution was reached where Matsumoto retained ownership of the visual elements (original character and mecha designs), while Nishizaki hung on to the rights to the Yamato story and characters.

This was satisfactory enough for both parties to continue their works; Matsumoto was eager to get back to his Great Yamato project, and Nishizaki, fresh out of jail on unrelated matters, busied himself resuscitating an old, stalled project called Yamato Resurrection. The legal problems were over… for about a month, at which point Tohokushinsha gently reminded all parties that, while Matsumoto and Nishizaki could each accurately be described as the creators of Yamato, it was Tohokushinsha that owned the copyright, and no project could go forward without their approval and/or involvement. For Matsumoto, whose thwarted lawsuit now meant he was on the outs with Tohokushinsha, this meant radically redesigning the Yamato itself, into the bizarre winged design we see above. Calling the ship “Yamato” was, fortunately, something that couldn't be copyrighted, but the characters also had to be carefully changed to make them not seem exactly like the original Yamato crew. All of this was done not just in service of continuing Matsumoto's manga, but because of the all-important central element of this new media mix: the pachinko machine!

You can see the above baby in action here. One of the secrets of the anime business is that pachinko manufacturers are hugely important; sure, we would have eventually gotten some sort of Evangelion redux, but it was pachinko money that sped the Rebuild of Evangelion project along. Last year, folks were surprised to see a new sequel to the 2005 anime series Basilisk, but it was no surprise to me, because I'd seen the new pachislot machines based on the franchise at Anime Japan in 2016, and figured that a new anime series was likely. And as weird and vulgar and unseemly as it is, a good pachislot machine is a goddamn amazing piece of pop art—the Dai Yamato FEVER machine features revolving ship cannons, a light up bow cannon, an amped-up version of the famous Yamato theme, and numerous animated vignettes. Pachinko company Sanyko, presumably leveraging the money they made from the Dai Yamato pachislot boxes, was a pivotal partner in getting the Dai Yamato anime made.

But, for the ardent Yamato fan, what is Dai Yamato like? In some respects, it's bog-standard; a thousand years after the original 2199 epic, a new crew has to pilot a bigger, badder version of the space cruiser against a new cadre of sneering space villains. You've got the grizzled captain with a haunted past, his handsome and fiery first mate, and a bridge and flight crew that checks off all of the boxes. At the same time, Dai Yamato is still duly fascinating to watch, a halting mixture of 3DCG and 2D digital animation, with lots of nifty little callbacks to Matsumoto's earlier works. I definitely appreciate certain aspects of Dai-Yamato, like the fact that the grizzled space captain Soji Ozma (no relation to Matsumoto's Lighting Ozma manga, or his 2012 Ozma anime!) is voiced by crooner and seiyuu Isao Sasaki, who'd sang the famous original Yamato theme song, and the scene involving a whole trouple of Analyzer-like robots defeating an enemy battleship and then doing a wacky victory dance. There's stuff in Dai Yamato that you can't see anywhere else, but we're unlikely to see it again—while the series somehow cruised serenely through the legal turbulence of the early 2000s (don't worry, it had plenty of other problems, involving a publisher switcheroo and sagging online-only sales), Tohokushinsha eventually filed and won a lawsuit against the coalition of producers who'd gotten the anime made. Even with Matsumoto's calculated tweaks, the courts ruled that Dai Yamato was just too similar to the original, so they were ordered to quit selling it, and while a scant few copies of the 5-episode set are still extant, they'll cost you a couple hundred bucks.

Not surprisingly, this whole decade-long series of lawsuits and copyright disputes torched Matsumoto and Nishizaki's old partnership. But things weren't always that bad between the two—in the early 90s, Matsumoto sat in on planning meetings for a revival of Yamato, scheduled to drop ten years after the final installment of the classic series, 1984's Final Yamato. See, the funny thing about Space Battleship Yamato is that the original TV series got cancelled, and had to hastily end before it was properly finished. This galvanized fans, who insistently demanded that the story be finished properly, which led to the movie releases, which launched Yamato-mania and made the franchise a household name. Nishizaki obligingly spent the next 35 years, the remainder of his life, trying to get Space Battleship Yamato finished.

This new '94 Yamato was part of that quest to give the series a good, satisfying ending; dubbed Yamato 2520, it would feature radical new characters, new music, and a brand-new space cruiser designed by Hollywood star artist Syd Mead. But like Dai Yamato, Yamato 2520 drifted off course, and hasn't surfaced since its initial release. Unlike Dai Yamato, 2520 was never actually completed.

If you give Yamato 2520 a watch, it's pretty easy to figure out why it didn't quite work. Putting aside its weird release schedule (there were not one but two pre-production documentaries hurriedly released ahead of volume 1), it just doesn't feel like classic Yamato in any way. Here, there's no desperate race against time, no struggle against an occupying force; the heroes of 2520 are kids stuck in the neutral zone after two sides of a war have declared an uneasy cease-fire. One of these kids, Nabu, unearths the designs for the Yamato, a famous warship that had crashed on their planet in the preceding war. Clearly, the thing to do is to build a new Yamato to continue the legacy! We don't get a good look at this ship until episode two.

First of all, the story doesn't scan with the old Yamato expectations. Secondly, the character designs are managed by a 5-person coalition, which means that there's not a strong, distinctive look for the characters; most of them look like they came from one of the designers, Giant Robo and Lunar artist Toshiyuki Kubooka, only they're not as strong and streamlined as his usual work. The soundtrack ditches the old orchestral stuff for a brassy jazz soundtrack by David Mathews. Most importantly, it never achieves the proper level of burnin' romance that Yamato is known for—it's more of an adventure in space than a desperate struggle for survival. The hell of it is, Yamato 2520 is perfectly serviceable; I'd long heard that it was awful, which put it on the list of candidates for those bad anime panels I sometimes do, but when I finally watched it, its only real sin was not being a good Yamato story. That was seemingly enough to sink it, though—like the later Dai-Yamato, it also had a publisher switcheroo (Columbia dropped it, so Nishizaki took sales of the laserdiscs and tapes in-house). If it ever made any money, we can assume that Nish spent the revenue from it on the several hundred howitzer shells that were later discovered by the police in a station wagon in his garage.

The last Space Battleship Yamato oddity I'll look at is the one that actually worked out—Yamato Resurrection. Any longtime fan of the series wasn't particularly surprised when news of its production started coming out in the mid-2000s, because Nishizaki had been publicly trying to make it happen for years. The project was derailed, at various points, by bankruptcy, jail time, and the death of main character Kodai actor Kei Tomiyama. Nish's idea was an interesting one—while the story would include some new characters, it would still focus on Kodai, now a seasoned ship captain in his 50s with an adult daughter of his own. Once again, an intergalactic threat would emerge, and once again, the Yamato would be obliged to save the human race.

Originally planned as a TV series, the Yamato Resurrection that we eventually got was a surprisingly decent feature film, albeit one with very different (and, in my opinion, pretty rough-looking) character and uniform designs. Nishizaki, who'd always been a producer and businessman first, was surprisingly involved in the film's creation, even sharing screenplay and director's credits. One big change was backing off on making Kodai a grouchy old dude—in the final movie, he's just 38. We still get to see this exquisite sight, though!

Unfortunately, once it's time to helm the Yamato, Kodai loses the beard. Listen, if you're gonna make the film about old man Kodai, let him keep the damn beard! This feature film yielded some surprising fruit—it made good money at the Japanese box office, foreshadowing a similarly successful (and also quite decent) live-action movie. Interestingly, Yamato Resurrection was also tipped to end the long drought of new Yamato video releases in the west when it was announced for home video release at Otakon 2012! Delighted by the news, Yamato fans from coast to coast waited patiently for its release. And we waited, and waited some more. Three years later, in 2015, the company sheepishly claimed that they'd never gotten the rights to the animated movie, but just to the live-action one, which they did release in short order. I'm not convinced this is the whole story, but I haven't gotten anyone at Funimation to talk to me about it, so one of Yamato's most unusual chapters, a solid artistic and commercial success, remains in the shadows. Naturally, at the end of the movie, Nishizaki teased a part 2—but with the producer having passed away in 2010, it was up to his son Shoji to finish the series.

The younger Nishizaki got a new Yamato anime going in the form of 2199, and the rest is history—the stylish and well-made reboot of the original has been a big hit, especially with weird old guys like me. The current 2199 release and promised 2202 release are about as good as we can hope for, handsome collector's boxes with all of the trimmings. I've got just one reservation about it all—where's the movie? See, there's a neat little stand-alone 2199 movie called Space Battleship Yamato 2199: Ark of the Stars, but it's unreleased in most territories—I can only find blu-ray release in Japan and Italy. I'm not just calling for a home video release, though—I wanna see this baby in theatres! If you ask me, it's what Nishizaki would have wanted; he always understood that part of what drove Yamato forward was the audience's hunger for spectacle, and few spectacles are equal to the big screen.

In scrutinizing the field of unusual, dubiously legal Yamato products, I can understand why both Matsumoto and Nishizaki were looking to skirt copyright agreements, because I did the very same thing to Space Battleship Yamato a couple of years back. See, I wear this one shirt at conventions, a cool-looking Voltron shirt that I designed myself. Here it is:

Obviously, this shirt isn't going to sit well with the copyright holders; sure, I didn't make it for sale, just for my own use, but I'm still using the Voltron logo without permission, and also, the robot and crew aren't Voltron characters! Can anyone guess who that really is on the shirt?! Anyway, the follow-up to that silly troll shirt was gonna be this one:

There's no Star Blazers 4, obviously, and the artwork is a composite made from Dai Yamato character art and a really good fan-made Yamato 2520 CG model. (I replaced the name on the side with ARGO, because of course I did.) The whole idea was to wear the shirt at cons, and get people to say "There's a Star Blazers 4?!" when they see it, so I can respond with "What, you haven't seen it?" But at this point, my shirt printer got wise, and cancelled the order, citing a potential copyright concern... which makes them a lot quicker to act than Tohokushinsha were!

The big question to ponder here is this: is there any life left in these old Yamato orphans? Dai Yamato most likely cannot be rescued, unless some sort of complicated legal agreement is reached between Matsumoto and Tohokushinsha, and it's arguably not even worth it to try. What about Yamato 2520, though? I'm not lobbying for it to be finished, just maybe released in a more modern format. Finally, will we ever see another official Yamato series with Leiji Matsumoto's involvement, or a sanctioned crossover involving the famous ship and Matsumoto's other heroes? Last year, Matsumoto publicly thanked the late Nishizaki for bringing him into the world of animation, so I wouldn't write it off completely. After all, they still haven't properly finished the story!


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