After the showing of the Yamato movie last week, I got a chance to think about the progress of anime over the last two decades and how it has reached the far shores here to the American viewers right here at Cornell. Some people posted e-mail comments later that the movie was horrible and wondered why it was ever shown at CJAS at all. I therefore thought it interesting to introduce the newer anime fans to the significance of Yamato and its artist/creator Reiji Matsumoto on modern anime, and to look over the progress that anime has made over 20-odd years to become the form of entertainment you all love so much. Uchu Senkan Yamato or Space Cruiser Yamato (better known in the United States as Starblazers) began life as a 24-episode TV series on October 6, 1974 (wow... old stuff huh? most of you folks weren't even born yet!). On August 6 1977, the first Yamato debuted in movie theaters across Japan. The rest has become legend.
The popularity of Yamato spread like wildfire across Japan and spawned a space craze and revitalized the Japanese animation industry. But here was an odd television series indeed. Many anime fans nowadays look awkwardly upon Yamato's creator, Matsumoto, as "the king of melodrama," but his method of storytelling actually presented a radical new form that had never been experienced by young Japanese or indeed animation fans in general at that time. Here was the birth of an animation series which explored the idea of animation as an epic soap opera, a highly developed story told over time that engaged the viewer with the virtues as well as the flaws and conflicts of its characters. Matsumoto forewent the simplified portrayal of good and bad that had prevailed in storytelling until then and portrayed villains with qualities of chivalry and bravery. Heroes didn't always win but died vain deaths with the strength of their convictions. Matsumoto raised the drama of heroic death and the machismo portrayal of sacrifice and chivalry to its peak. You may still not be convinced, but if you think of what animations we Americans, and indeed people around the world, were watching during that same period, you begin to realize how revolutionary Yamato was as an animated work. Matsumoto and his work Yamato almost single-handedly heralded the age of anime as a viable form of mature popular narrative.
Yamato also arguably single-handedly heralded the modern age of science fiction anime that we all dig so majorly. The original Yamato series and movie spawned two sequel TV series, a TV movie, and 4 silver screen hits. But it didn't stop there. Matsumoto's skill and popularity seemed limitless during that period of a decade. He went on to produce one classic blockbuster after another, including greats like Galaxy Express 999, Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Millennium Queen, as well as mangas such as Ghost Warrior. BUT... it still didn't stop there. During that same period, many classic science fiction series debuted that were clearly influenced by the phenomenon of the epic space opera. In 1978, Mobile Suit Gundam was released. This series caused another crazed animation boom that was arguably even greater and more far-reaching than Yamato. In the year the Final Yamato movie was released, Space Fortress Macross was released (better known to Americans as the first part of Robotech). These series carried the level of storytelling complexity and interstellar conflict pioneered in Yamato to even greater heights of realism and maturity.
The modern evolution of cyberpunk/cyberspace anime in the 90's, as well as its animators, can trace many of their influences to the flood of futuristic genres spawned by Yamato. Yamato may have even influenced many later American science fiction television series of that period such as Battlestar Galactica, which shares many similarities.
Because of his immense influence on my generation and following ones, Matsumoto today is considered by many to be one of the greatest living animators in Japan, in the same league as Miyazaki. The Yamato theme song remains one of the most well known songs in Japan and may still be heard in karaoke bars being belted out by beer chuggin' salarymen.
I hope that you may appreciate that the long, cute, cheesy, and boo-hoo series called Yamato can be considered to be the great grandfather of all that fast-paced, futuristic, funky, and oh-so-serious anime that we relish today.
Reiji Matsumoto was born in 1938, the son of an officer in the Imperial Army Air Force, which may explain his fascination with World War II planes and battleships, even in his science fiction works. :) He grew up influenced by such manga (Japanese comics) greats as Osamu Tezuka (heck he even wears a beret also!). Finally, he decided to pursue his manga career in a post-war Japan where manga was beginning to flourish into the phenomenon it is today.
But the beginning of the 1960s brought the advent of television animation, and a whole new industry began. Matsumoto, who had started off drawing girls comics, and later his beloved battlefield comics, now directed and designed the animation for his most well known work, Yamato. His popularity took off afterwards, and he has become an anime icon of sorts in Japan.
Matsumoto represents the precious first and second generations of Japanese animators that pioneered the field of anime and paved the way for the high level of diversity, quality, and uniqueness that exists in Japanese animation today. Many emerging young Japanese artists have been influenced by him in one way or another.