"There is so much writing in English on Japanese cinema that can't be accepted at face value — not because the writers are careless, but because the differences in culture and language are just too intricate. When I see August Ragone's name on a piece of writing, it gives me permission to place my faith in it completely. Among Japanese fantasy film historians, he's the best working in English." —Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog

Friday, January 15, 2010

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Classic Space Opera Is Reborn


The Good, the Bad, and the Yamato! ©Tohokushinsha

In the year 2199, mankind was facing extinction. The intergalactic Gamilas Empire had declared war against humanity by raining deadly Planet Bombs down on the Earth’s surface, turning it into an atomic graveyard. Even though the survivors are huddled into underground cities, the radioactive pollution threatens to eradicate all life within a year. Suddenly, a benevolent hand reaches out from across the void. Queen Starsha of Iscandar sends plans for a faster-than-light engine, and also offers a device that will restore the Earth... But, there is a catch: In order to retrieve this “Golden Fleece”, these 22nd Century Argonauts must travel 148,000 light years to Iscandar, and return before mankind perishes. Risking everything, the Earth Defense Forces complete their one last hope in making this voyage across the universe: Space Battleship Yamato.

Conceived by producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki and visualized by mangaka Leiji Mastumoto, SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO was an animated television series that debuted in 1974, and challenged the medium in terms of concept, storytelling, and human drama. Unfortunately, YAMATO was put up against the fantastically high-rated animated series HEIDI, GIRL OF THE ALPS (which tapped the talents of a young Hayao Miyazaki), and failing to find its audience, was cut down from 39 episodes to 26. Even though YAMATO was deemed a ratings failure, it had garnered a loyal fan base of teenagers and young adults who, by writing letters and publishing fanzines, wouldn’t let it die. Due to these fan activities, late media attention, and prostrating to Yomiyuri TV by Nishizaki, YAMATO was re-broadcast to higher ratings in 1975, and went on to garner a coveted Seiun Award for excellence in science fiction media.

1974 model kit box art by Shigeru Komatsuzaki. ©Tohokushinsha

In 1977, the first YAMATO feature, created a phenomenon, a chain reaction erupting into the explosive “Anime Boom” of the late 1970s and early 1980s. YAMATO became to the Japanese what STAR TREK was to Americans, launching several television and feature film sequels, and unprecedented fallout of merchandizing. Soon, the “Yamato Boom” would ripple across the Pacific and create its own waves as STAR BLAZERS. Syndicated to stations across the US in late 1979, STAR BLAZERS was a faithful adaptation comprised of the first series and the then-new YAMATO 2, later known as “The Quest For Iscandar” and “The Comet Empire”, respectively. While STAR BLAZERS didn’t quite take the US by storm, it did come to the attention of Starlog and Questar magazines, building its own loyal fan base, and helping to launch Anime Fandom in the US. More than 26 years after FINAL YAMATO premiered, fans in both countries have helped to keep the space battleship sailing.

Another “Yamato Boom” hit Japan in the late 1990s, a wave of nostalgia flooding the market in merchandise of amazing variety and quality, including several sophisticated PS2 games. Both Nishizaki and Matsumoto, had plans to revive YAMATO over the years, but they became embroiled in lawsuits against the other over ownership of the property. Eventually, the court settled the matter in 2004, in which Matsumoto was awarded some of his designs and Nishizaki was awarded rights as creator, with Tokushinsha Film Corporation the owner of the series and films (which they had originally purchased from Nishizaki in 1996) — with any new products or productions going through them. In 2008, Nishizaki began production on the long-awaited SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO: RESURRECTION, an all-new theatrical feature that picks up the narrative where FINAL YAMATO left off. Before opening in Toho cinemas on December 12, 2009, Nishizaki announced his intentions to produce a sequel.

Captain Kodai in YAMATO: RESURRECTION (2009) ©Yamato Studio

Not wasting precious time, yet another YAMATO production is currently underway at Toho Studios. This version is a live action feature — a retelling of “The Quest for Iscandar” story with an all-star cast, top-notch visual effects, and a Japan Academy Award-winning director at the helm. In the publicity blitz for the upcoming film, Toho has unveiled the tag line, “2010: The Year of Yamato”. Anticipation is high, and as a life long fan of YAMATO (even before STAR BLAZERS came to US television), I have forever dreamed of a live action television series or feature film. As long as this SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO is kept true to form, the film could introduce a whole new generation to this fantastic space opera. Many of those who were not old enough (or not even born) to be a part of the “Yamato Generation” might wonder what all of the fuss is all about. Hideaki Anno, the creator of NEON GENESIS EVANGELION had this to say, “If not for YAMATO, Japan might not have anime now… YAMATO started it all.”

Friday, January 1, 2010

Toho's Siren of the 1960s: January 1, 1937


A private 1960 portrait taken by her father when she was 23.

The eternal diva or Toho's fantasy films of the 1960s, or as the Japanese refer to her as the "Madonna", was born as Maya Igarashi in the city of Sanjo, Niigata prefecture where her family ran a photography business. She was a member of the Drama Club while attending Azuma Sanjo High School, and in her Senior year, was the star of their annual stage production. She made her screen debut in the 1957 Shochiku Studios production of Minoru Shibuya's CRAZY SOCIETY.

In 1958, Mizuno was signed by Toho Studios, and a year later, became an alumni of the 8th Graduating Class of Toho's Theatrical Training School. Mizuno went on to appear, and then star in, numerous films at the studio, such as Hiroshi Inagaki's THE THREE TREASURES (1959), Ishiro Honda's SENIORS, JUNIORS AND CO-WORKERS (1959), Kihachi Okamoto's WESTWARD DESPERADO (1960), Okamoto's BIG SHOTS DIE AT DAWN (1961), Hideo Suzuki's WOMAN OF DESIGN (1962), Okamoto's WARRING CLANS (1963), Jun Fukuda's BLOOD AND DIAMONDS (1964), and many others.

But, Ms. Mizuno is perhaps best known outside of Japan for her fantasy film roles, including the Ishiro Honda films, as Takiko Nomura in GORATH (1962), Maimi Sekiguchi in MATANGO (1963), Sueko Togami in FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965), Miss Namikawa in MONSTER ZERO (1965) and Akemi Togawa in THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966). Jun Fukuda, who had worked with Mizuno in several crime films, cast her to replace Noriko Takahashi as sarong-clad Dayo in GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966).

She has continued acting until today, and recently returned to Toho's fantasy films with featured roles in GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA (2002) and GODZILLA FINAL WARS (2005). In October of 2009, she took on the lead role of Dr. Sano in the Toho stage adaption of Honda's 1960 film, THE HUMAN VAPOR. Director Honda said this about the actress in a 1991 interview, "Mizuno was amazing; when she stepped into a role, she actually became the character she was playing!" As an actress, she certainly had it all, and may her eternal, celluloid Je ne sais quoi continue to fascinate future generations of movie fans!