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Saturday, October 30, 2010

11:00:00 pm , 4176 words, 9251 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Yamato 2520

One of the most ambitious train-wrecks in OVA history, Yamato 2520 was released between 1994 and 1996 in an attempt to revive the Yamato franchise. Originally planned for seven episodes, only the first three were ever released. Episode 3 ends as if everything were on course, leading into a next episode. Only silence followed.

It was an ambitious project. The Yamato was re-designed by Syd Mead (Blade Runner) in a sleek, angular, futuristic style breaking with the old Japanese battleship look. Mead also provided reams of beautiful conceptual art that hinted at a new visual approach for anime. For the soundtrack, they traveled all the way to New York to get David Matthews to compose the score. (the one from the Manhattan Jazz Quintet, not the Dave Matthews Band) He composed more than 100 different songs. It was thus an international collaboration. And on the Japanese side, they got some of Japan's best artists onboard - Mahiro Maeda, Toshiyuki Kubooka, Takashi Hashimoto and Shoichi Masuo. It was poised to be something great.

Why did they stop after 3 episodes? Supposedly, the production studio went out of business. But clearly there has to be more to the story that that, because you sense trouble in the waters even as you're watching the three episodes that were released. Despite all of the wonderful animation that was made, much of the show feels awkward and strained.

Yamato 2520 thus joins the ranks of other glorious failures from the battleground of 1990s OVAs: 3x3 Eyes (which ended prematurely on episode 4, although I don't know for sure if it was cancelled) and I'm a Space Miner (which ended after its second episode, definitely prematurely). 4 episodes, 3 episodes, 2 episodes. Even earllier, Relic Armor Legaciam ended prematurely after only one episode. There are probably other examples. Ironically, many of these incomplete OVAs are among my favorite OVAs ever produced. It's strange how the best projects seem to invite disaster.

When Yamato 2520 started coming out, another ambitious 7-part OVA was almost through its run: Giant Robo. 5 episodes had already come out. I watched this show in real time, and I recall distinctly how the space between episode releases became longer and longer, until the last episode took almost two years to come out, leaving many fearing it never would. Yamato 2520 didn't even have that luxury. As it happens, there is a lot of staff overlap between the two projects, so perhaps the resemblance isn't coincidence.

Giant Robo turned out to be one of the best OVA series ever released. Finally, an OVA series that did everything right: Epic sci-fi action-adventure that actually felt epic, a variety of interesting characters, great sense of style, high production values. Would Yamato 2520 have been a similar success had everything gone according to plan? I have my doubts. The first three episodes give a good indication what kind of story we were dealing with. Although for the most part it had good production quality, the story feels too regimented: An introductory first episode, a second episode spent entirely building the ship, the third episode with the crew discovering how to pilot the ship. Too little happens, and what happens is not interesting or surprising. There is none of the constant surprises, twists and excitement of Giant Robo. And the characters feel like cyphers. None of them are developed into interesting characters. They just seem to tag along to man the controls.

But watching it for the first time a few days ago, that's not what I felt was the real problem. It seems clear that there were behind-the-scenes staff issues well before the studio went out of business. After episode 1, some of the best members of the team left the project. The changes impacted the quality of episode 2 and 3, suggesting the studio was already struggling during the production of those episodes. Heck, there are signs of struggle since before the release of the first episode.

In February 1994, fully a year before episode 1 came out, they put out an hour-long documentary on the inception of the project. It showed tantalizing footage of Syd Mead at work drawing designs. Ten months later in December 1994, another documentary was released, labelled episode 0, as if to buy them some more time because they hadn't been able to make as much progress as intended, and it was taking too long so they had to put something out. Episode 0 contained a lot of nice footage of space battles. Episode 1 finally came out in February 1995. Incidentally, the first concept images for the project actually appeared way back in 1988, so the project had a very long inception period.

Syd Mead concept art (click for more)

The interesting thing is that, in episode 0, Mahiro Maeda is credited as the director (kantoku), Shoichi Masuo as the line director (enshutsu) and Takeshi Shirato as the chief director (soukantoku). Shirato Takeshi maintained that credit in episode 1. Mahiro Maeda, however, wound up only drawing the storyboard. There is no credit for director. Three other line directors and one assistant line director were responsible for processing Maeda's storyboard, rather than he himself doing it. This suggests that for some reason he had to step away from the project after having completed the storyboard, rather than seeing his storyboard through to completion himself as the director.

As for Shoichi Masuo, in episode 1 he is credited with visual effect director (enshutsu). The "enshutsu" credit in episode 0 is presumably a shorthand for this. Shoichi Masuo did stay on throughout the project in the same capacity. It's primarily for his and Takashi Hashimoto's special effects that I like this series and find it worth re-visiting.

Episode 1 is an interesting beast in many ways. There's a great structure, but the execution feels wobbly. Maeda's storyboard is excellent, but it's like it's not properly carried out. Sometimes the pauses are just a little bit too long, and it overall feels awkward, clearly a product of someone other than the storyboarder having processed his own storyboard. Not only this, there are no less than four line directors, which is clearly a bad sign.

That's another of the problematic aspects of this show: There are too many cooks in the kitchen. There's a project supervisor, a supervisor, a chief director, a director, a storyboarder, several line directors, and four people working on the script. It seems symptomatic of underlying issues.

If it weren't for the issues with the directing of episode 1, it could have been a nice little film. Maeda's storyboard is great. Every beat is spot on, and he creates a great flow. He's got a good sense for how to present drama in terms of the framing of shots and the choreography of action. It's unfortunate that he wasn't able to process his storyboard on this one.

The character animation is handled by Toshiyuki Kubooka, who coincidentally was the character designer of Giant Robo, not to mention the character designer and chief animation director Anno Hideaki's Aim for the Top! (1988). The combination of Shoichi Masuo, Mahiro Maeda and Toshiyuki Kubooka obviously brings to mind one thing: Nadia of the Blue Water. They were three of the indispensable figures behind the show. Maeda storyboarded episodes 10, 16, 22 and 35 in addition to being the show's main concept artist. Kubooka storyboarded episodes 12, 31 and 39 and sakkan'd episodes 2, 20 and 36. Masuo I wrote about before. Masuo and Kubooka together worked on episode 2 of Nadia, so you can see the two of them together in action years before. Kubooka and Maeda would work together a few more times over the years on Origin: Spirits of the Past and Maeda's own Gankutsuoh TV series and Gala short.

Watching episode 1 of Yamato 2520 feels like a flashback to Nadia, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. All the main aspects were done by one of the main Nadia guys - directing, character animation and effect animation. It felt like, if it had been done well, it could have been the next step in the evolution of that style. I particularly like Kubooka's design work on the show - the simple, universal character style is appealing in itself, and it's well suited to this kind of epic story and facilitates more active character movement.

It's unfortunate that this first episode feels somehow hobbled by the shoddy way Maeda's storyboard was processed. It would have been nice to at least have one perfect episode. As it stands, episode 1 has a lot of very nice work, and if you squint your eyes, you can see the faint outline of a potential classic.

Episode 1 opens with an action sequence involving two kids racing their jets in the sky. The scene where the boy ejects from his jet is tense and exciting thanks to the animation and directing. Masami Goto was an animator in this episode, so I assume he must have been responsible for animating most of this section. It was right around the same time that he did animation on Macross Plus, another great OVA from this era, and the style of the action in episode 1 is reminiscent of the type of jet fighter action you see in Macross Plus. It's a pleasingly earthy and unexpected way to open a show about giant battleships in space - it's reminiscent of the way they opened the Star Trek reboot.

It's actually one of the most memorable parts of the episode. It suggests the magic that could have sparked if the talent of all those involved had had the chance to coalesce perfectly into something beyond the sum of its parts. Maeda did a pilot for a film called R20 Galactic Airport in 1991, but it never got off the ground. It feels like episode 1 gives a basic sense of how it might have felt if he'd had the chance to do it.

It's a shame that pilot didn't come through. I would like to see a feature directed by Maeda Mahiro. His storyboards reveal rare cinematic instinct. It's amazing that, for all of the work he's done in the industry over the years, and all of the talent he's obviously oozing, he never had the chance to direct a feature-length film. At least with his own Blue No. 6 of 1998-2000 he got to do a proper sci-fi action OVA series.

Kubooka's character design work reminds me of yet another great OVA series from this period - Green Legend Ran, whose characters were designed by Toshimitsu Ohashi. Both are among my favorite of this period. It's my ideal style in many ways.

In episode 2, Takeshi Shirato handles the storyboard and enshutsu, and Kubooka is no longer present as character designer or sakkan. He's now credited with "original character design", the ultimate insult. The pacing/directing feels very different from episode 1. Simply put, it's boring and insensitive. It doesn't have the intelligence and the sophistication of Maeda's storyboard. Shirato is one of the figures who worked on the original Yamato, and it shows. The directing feels old-fashioned and bland.

Episode 3 was storyboarded by Shigenori Kageyama and is a scant improvement over episode 2. The animation quality of episodes 2 and 3 is very uneven. Combined with the boring story, which feels like nothing more than filler leading up to the actual events to follow in episodes 4-7, there isn't much that makes episodes 2 and 3 worth watching. It's ludicrous to pace a 7 episode series in such a way that the first three episodes are throwaway introductory episodes. They at least have to be interesting. Things might have been considerably more watchable had they maintained the staff of episode 1 on throughout the rest of the show.

Another issue is the music. The music itself is decent, but badly incorporated. It doesn't match what's going on most of the time. The music is too declamatory, seeming to narrate events that aren't happening on the screen. Either that, or they did a bad job of choosing when to play which piece. The mix is also uneven. Often the music is so loud that I can't hear what people are saying. Getting basic things like this wrong is a sign that there were some fundamental issues with the handling of this series. They had their priorities wrong. They go to New York to get this music, but they don't even bother to make sure it fits the show. They get these great staff to work on episode one, then they get rid of all the good people in episode 2 and 3.

Other little gripes: After seeing Syd Mead's concept art in the preview documentaries, I felt kind of let down by the ordinary look of the show itself. It didn't seem to bring alive Syd Mead's vision. Apart from the battleships, obviously. Also not enough world-building: They didn't show enough scenes of life in this future world to create a feeling of a thoroughly conceptualized fantasy city and society. They instead focus almost exclusively on the character drama. Also too much verbal exposition: Too much information is thrown at us in boring monologues about what happened before this, and who so-and-so is.

A Shoichi Masuo explosion (click to enlarge)

Only the mecha and effect animation maintains a constant level of quality throughout the series. And ultimately, it's primarily for the mecha/FX animation by Takashi Hashimoto and Shoichi Masuo and that I think this series was actually successful as an endeavor (not to mention being the main thing that makes Yamato 2520 worth seeking out 15 years later). The space battles are beautiful and epic as befitting the material. The human sections may or may not work, depending on the viewer.

Takashi Hashimoto is credited as chief animation director while Shoichi Masuo is credited as effect animation director. Hashimoto didn't correct drawings, as the credit implies. He was given that title out of deference for his work by producer Yamazaki. As a condition for working on the show, Hashimoto asked that he have direct access to Yamazaki to give advice as to what to do and not to do, and that he have permission to alter the storyboards of his parts if necessary. Thus he not only drew and corrected a lot of the animation himself, he also made sure the storyboards for the battle sequences were right, and even drew some of the storyboards himself.

I mentioned Macross Plus before. As it turns out, Hashimoto was heavily influenced by Yasushi Muraki's work on Macross Plus. Both knew each other before, and considered each others rivals of sorts. Muraki had even been invited to work on Yamato 2520, but he chose to work on Macross Plus. When Hashimoto saw the amazing work Muraki was doing on that show, it prompted him to do the best he could on Yamato 2520. And that's undoubtedly the reason the space battle sequences have such an incredible feeling of power. Hashimoto worked on overdrive to make them as realistic and impressive as possible. There were no limits on the number of drawings he could use, so he packed those scenes with tons of movement. Incidentally, Hashimoto also did a lot of work on Giant Robo prior to working on Yamato 2520.

You can see a lot of clips from the show on YouTube. This one shows a good selection of the work of Takashi Hashimoto and Shoichi Masuo. Hashimoto would have done the various shots of ships fighting starting here, including the ship getting hit by a laser beam and exploding and the ship on fire falling downwards towards the sun. Masuo would have done the planets exploding at the beginning and the ships exploding later on.

Another Masuo explosion (click to enlarge)

The shot shown above, which you can see in motion here, seems like a shot that would have been handled by Masuo. What gives it away is the style of the explosion mainly, although ironically the layout seems identical to one he drew for a shot of the Nautilus exploding, which I described as an example in my post on Masuo. Masuo's explosions for some reason usually have this pink color, and he adds these specks you see around the rim of the explosion, something he presumably learned from Hideaki Anno. The reason for his credit as special effect director, besides the fact that he drew a lot of the explosions, is because he provided a lot of instructions in terms of how to process the animation - such as what kind of mask to use in certain situations. He had a lot of specialized knowledge of that kind that he put to use.

Hashimoto's explosions look different. They don't have the same color, and their forms are different. Hashimoto also focused on a different kind of movement. Masuo drew mainly the static shots of explosions, whereas Hashimoto drew the scenes with more tricky movement, such as the very cool first-person perspective shot here of an enemy fighter flying over one of the ships and dropping a bomb on it. But clearly Hashimoto learned a lot of technical tricks from Masuo during his experience working on Yamato 2520.

Makoto Kobayashi, the great mecha designer, was one of the few figures who stayed on throughout the duration of the production. Hashimoto also learned a lot of tricks from Kobayashi about spatial concepts - for example if a ship is in perspective, you can use a flat color for the bit further out to make it seem further out, or you can omit certain lines from a drawing to make a ship look suitably huge. He's undoubtedly one of the other figures who helped elevate the show's production values to the next level. As the mecha designer, he would have been responsible for adapting Sys Mead's drawings. It was a good choice. I can't think of many other people in Japan as close in sensibility. He's very prolific as a designer and has a style like nobody else - realistic yet bizarre.

Mecha specialist Kunihiro Abe joined the team for episodes 2 and 3. He has worked on things like Silent Mobius, Steam Boy, the new Gundam Z movies and Gundam 00. He alternated with Takashi Hashimoto doing the mecha work on the 6 episodes of the Orguss 02 OVA series, which came out just afterwards and thus probably shares some similarity in the mecha style with this series. (The opening of Orguss 02 was incidentally animated entirely by Takashi Hashimoto.)

Other notable faces in the animator list include Koji Sugiura, Tadashi Hiramatsu, Norimoto Tokura and Keisuke Masunaga in episode 1, Yasuhiro Irie in episode 2 and Toshie Sugiharu as an inbetweener in all episodes. Sugiura, Irie and Sugiharu are of course now Bones regulars. This shot in episode 2 looks like Tokura's work, but he's only credited in episode 1, so I'm not sure if it is.

Although this project was wobbly on other fronts, they assembled a strong team to support the quality of the drawings of the spaceships. After all, this is a show entirely set in space. The protagonists really are the spaceships, and there are a ton of those. Atsushi Takeuchi is another talented mecha animator who worked on the show. (albeit only episode 1) It would have felt pointless to even bother reviving Yamato if you didn't really update it, and in that sense they did a good job. The mecha animation, at least, was the state of the art for its day. (It looks way better than the mecha in last year's movie.)

Judged overall, Yamato 2520 appears to fail to appeal to Yamato fans, as it's far too removed from the original show, as well as to outsiders like me who never watched the show before and just want to enjoy a good show, as it's beset by technical problems and doesn't gel into good entertainment. What does make it genuinely worth revisiting after all these years, though, is all the hard work put into the show by the mecha staff, led by Takashi Hashimoto, Shoichi Masuo and Kobayashi Makoto. Thanks to their intricate mecha and effects animation, giant battleships combating in space has never been more majestic and epic.

Yoshinobu Nishizaki is the producer and mastermind behind all this Yamato stuff. He has shown a single-minded dedication to Yamato that defies all bounds. He was engaged in an acrimonious lawsuit with the creator of Yamato, Leiji Matsumoto. He won, and now he seems to be devoting his life to creating as many sequels as possible. Apparently the four movies and three TV series made from 1974 to 1983 were not enough. In 1985 he attempted to push the space opera genre pioneered by Yamato in a new direction with the movie Odin, but it flopped. So he made Yamato 2520. And now he's back at it again. Last year he released a film entitled Rebirth Yamato (trailer) helmed by many of the same staff as the original Yamato and the Odin movie - director Takeshi Shirato, supervisor Masuda Toshio, animation directors Kazuhiko Utagawa, Shinya Takahashi and Tomonori Kogawa. Yet another is due for release in December of this year: a live-action/CGI action drama entitled simply Space Battleship Yamato (trailer). You can be sure that if this one is successful (and it stars Kimutaku), that will just be the beginning of the sequel frenzy.

Brief aside about Eiichi Yamamoto's involvement in Yamato: Writing this reminded me that I've always wondered how he came to be involved as a fixture of the series, so I just checked his fictional memoir Mushi Pro Koboki and found passing mention of Yamato at the very end. In the last days of Mushi Pro, Nishizaki had been hired as acting president at Mushi Pro Shoji, the trading firm that managed the Mushi Pro Copyrights. That's how the two got to know each other. Nishizaki soon went freelance and asked Yamamoto for help. Nishizaki wanted to get into anime, so he presumably asked Yamamoto for his help because he was an experienced animation director and he was newly free from Mushi Pro. The two of them put together the original Proposal document for Yamato that started the whole franchise. He helped supervise, structure and write the original series and helped put together the TV compilation movie. Indeed, aside from Yamamoto, many of the staff who worked on the show were ex-Mushi Pro folks.

You can see more images from the show and from Syd Mead's concept art and also get a good run-down of the content of each episode at this site.

Yamato 2520 main credits

All episodes
Future concept design: Syd Mead
Yamato original design: Leiji Matsumoto
Chief director: Takeshi Shirato
Supervisor: Toshio Masuda
Score and arrangement: David Matthews
Music director: Kentaro Haneda
Script producer and supervisor: Eiichi Yamamoto
Script: Yasushi Hirano, Eiichi Yamamoto, Yoshinobu Nishizaki

Episode 1 (released Feb 1995)

Storyboard: Mahiro Maeda
Art director: Yusuke Takeda
Character designer: Toshiyuki Kubooka
Mechanic designer: Makoto Kobayashi, Atsushi Takeuchi, Takashi Hashimoto
SF groundwork assistance: Aigaki Toyoda, Jun Fukue, Masanobu Endo, Hitoshi Nozaki
Layout sakkan: Mahiro Maeda, Toshiyuki Kubooka, Atsushi Takeuchi, Takashi Hashimoto, Masahiko Ookura, Koji Sugiura, Hidetoshi Yoshida
Visual effect director: Shoichi Masuo
Chief sakkan: Kazuhiko Utagawa
Sakkans: Shinya Takahashi, Takashi Hashimoto, Shoichi Masuo
Mahiro Maeda, Jun Matsumoto, Yotoaki Fukushima
Joji Kikuchi
Key animators: Michiyo Sakurai, Shizuo Kawai, Takao Yoshino
Shinji Morohashi, Takashi Koizumi, Masahiro Sekiguchi
Tsutomu Murakami, Koji Kataoka, Tadashi Hiramatsu
Takashi Hyodo, Norimoto Tokura, Kazuhiro Itakura
Jun Matsumoto, Hiroyuki Yokota, Tatsuya Abe
Shigetaka Kiyoyama, Yoshitaka Kato, Masami Goto
Izumi Shimura, Sadatoshi Matsuzaka, Keisuke Masunaga
Masaaki Iwane
Inbetween check: Kazuo Tanaka, Kaname Wakabayashi, Futoshi Higashide
Inbetweeners: Toshiharu Sugie et al.
Line directors: Hideki Takayama
Ryo Yasumura, Shigeto Makino
Assistant line director: Kiyotaka Isako

Episode 2 (released Dec 1995)

Storyboard & line director: Takeshi Shirato
Art director: Yusuke Takeda
Original character design: Toshiyuki Kubooka, Hiroyuki Kitazume
Character design: Aki Tsunaki, Nobuaki Nagano
Art groundwork design: Hiroshi Sasaki
Mechanic design and groundwork design: Kobayashi Makoto
SF groundwork assistance: Arigaki Toyoda, Chiaki Kawamata, Jun Fukue
Masanobu Endo, Hitoshi Nozaki
Literary production assistance: Koji Miura
Chief sakkan: Takashi Hashimoto
Character sakkans: Shinya Takahashi [elder], Shinya Takahashi [younger], Aki Tsunaki, Nobuaki Nagano
Mechanic sakkans: Jun Matsumoto, Ryuji Shiromae, Kunihiro Abe
Special and mechanic genga: Shoichi Masuo
Key animation: Yasuhiro Irie, Shizuo Kawai, Masahiro Sekiguchi
Takashi Sogabe, Kiyotaka Nakahara, Tsunenaka Nozaki
Takashi Hashimoto, Futoshi Higashide, Akihiro Fukui
Shoichi Masuo, Hajime Matsuzaki, Shinichiro Minami
Satoru Minowa, Tatsuo Yanagiya
(Anime Spot)
Kazunori Hirota, Takeyuki Suzuki
(K Production)
Shigenobu Nagasaki, Shirotsugu Ohshima
Masaaki Iwane, Hisao Muramatsu, Toshio Mori
(Studio Yamato)
Mikine Kuwahara, Futoshi Higashide, Shinji Morohashi
Takao Yoshino
Inbetweeners: Toshiharu Sugie et al.

Episode 3 (released Aug 1996)

Storyboard: Shigenori Kageyama
Art director: Kazushige Takato
Original character design: Toshiyuki Kubooka, Hiroyuki Kitazume
Character design: Aki Tsunaki, Nobuaki Nagano, Kazuhiko Utagawa
Art groundwork design: Hiroshi Sasaki, Makoto Kobayashi
Mechanic design and groundwork design: Kobayashi Makoto
SF groundwork assistance: Arigaki Toyoda, Chiaki Kawamata, Jun Fukue
Masanobu Endo, Hitoshi Nozaki
Assistant director: Makoto Kobayashi
Chief sakkan: Takashi Hashimoto
Character chief sakkan: Aki Tsunaki
Sakkans: Kazuhiko Utagawa, Shinya Takahashi, Takeshi Shirato,
Nobuaki Nagano, Ryuji Shiromae
Animation supervisor: Tatsuo Yanagiya
Key animation: Kunihiro Abe, Keiji Ishihara, Minoru Kobata,
Takashi Koizumi, Kobayashi Makoto, Hisashi Saito,
Ryuji Shiromae, Masahiro Sekiguchi, Hikaru Takanashi
Aki Tsunaki, Nobuaki Nagano, Tsunenaka Nozaki
Takashi Hashimoto, Akihiro Fukui, Shoichi Masuo,
Hajime Matsuzaki, Shinichiro Minami, Satoru Minowa
Masaki Yamada
(Anime Spot)
Kazunori Hirota, Takeyuki Suzuki
(Studio Cockpit)
Masaaki Iwane, Hisao Muramatsu, Toshio Mori
(Studio Yamato)
Futoshi Higashide, Mikine Kuwahara, Toshiharu Sugie
Shinji Morohashi
Inbetweeners: Toshiharu Sugie et al.



gingersoll [Visitor]  

It is hard to believe how wrong headed the writing on this series was. Not a spec of the mournful nostalgia and absurdly traditional sense of honor and heroism that the original series was absolutely saturated with.
Epic article, more than anyone could hope to find out about this obscure train wreck.
And once again, love the generous use of images.

11/01/10 @ 02:37
Ben [Member]  

Thanks, gingersoll. I followed your advice about the images. I think your description of the original series is spot on. Well said.

11/01/10 @ 13:06
DRMECHA [Visitor]  

The Yamato 2520 series is spectacular! with a great quality of animation. I’ admires the Masuo’s Studio Graviton who collabored in this OVAs.

11/05/10 @ 05:07
John [Visitor]  

But where is it. I cannot find those episodes anywhere and I been searching the internet for 4 long years.

05/14/14 @ 16:44