Comic Box Interview: Bandai President Makoto Yamashina on Royal Space Force

Or rather, former Bandai President Makoto Yamashina. Further below is a translation of Comic Box magazine’s interview with the man, from the No. 38 May 1987 issue. You can find the original source text here. I hope you’ll indulge me in the following aside; otherwise, skip ahead to the main text.

I want to give some behind the scenes details on this translation. I’d like to thank ehoba (@htGOIW) for sanity checking a few sections where I was too unsure of my interpretation to be comfortable continuing with the article. ehoba is a native Japanese speaker who has a YouTube channel where he subtitles other English language YouTube videos about anime into Japanese, providing insight to Japanese anime fans on how anime is perceived and discussed outside of Japan. I am particularly fond of his efforts, perhaps because bridging the regional fandom gap happens to be one of my goals for this blog. Besides his YouTube channel, you may not be surprised based on his online alias that he is quite the Mamoru Oshii scholar, and occasionally tweets in English about Oshii. You can find him on Twitter here, and his YouTube channel here. He’s also translated and summarized bits of Japanese Oshii related reading material into English on his blog here.

I have this unfortunate habit of severely underestimating the effort involved in translating certain pieces before I actually do it. That is no different with this piece. While I had most of a first draft done for some time, a remaining 5% or so felt like I was wading far too deep into guessing territory. I just did not feel I could proceed in good conscience, as I do not take lightly the risk of rendering someone else’s voice inaccurately. It is not the first time I’ve stared at a piece of text and wondered if my Japanese comprehension is too poor, or if the source text is inherently incomprehensible. Well, at least for some sections that ehoba gave me feedback on, he asserted that indeed, those sections were incomprehensible and offered his best guesses as to what Yamashina was trying to say. The source text itself also contains various typographic errors which, when combined with occasionally obfuscated sentence structures, made the task of deciphering its contents much more difficult. When translating, I regularly reality check my internal confidence metric and assumptions, and try to ensure my own biases do not get carried away. I always go through this process, but the frequency rises sharply with more complicated pieces.

When it comes to matters of historical record, my highest priority is in a factual presentation of the material. I have my shortcomings as a translator—I don’t enjoy doing it for one—and so I welcome anyone else out there who’d like to fact check my work to consult the original source text here, and please let me know of any errors in the comments below or by some other avenue. I mean this sincerely. Also, while ehoba gave me some assistance, any translation errors in the text below (or any of my translations on this blog) are entirely on me. In the spirit of full disclosure, an addendum follows after the translation which explicitly notes the aforementioned “best guesses.”

Okay, that’s enough from me. Enjoy!


I don’t really understand this movie. Therefore, it’s a success.

The Wings of Honnêamise is famous toy company Bandai’s first foray into film production. After investing a staggering 800 million yen into the project, they’ve finally completed it. Shortly before the theatrical premiere, we interviewed executive producer Mr. Makoto Yamashina.
Bandai President
Mr. Makoto Yamashina
comic_box_makoto_yamashina_bw

 

A grand experiment in theatrical film

Could you explain simply the production process this movie underwent from the very beginning to the end?

Yamashina: We’ve been working in children’s toy merchandising for some 14, 15 years, but recently felt it’s crucial to better understand the perspective of children. Of course we can look to media in comics, animation, TV, and movies as sources of information for this. We have Yamato and Gundam, and up until a certain point animators and production staff have progressed with those properties too. However, the children have moved on, leaving creators lagging behind a bit. We felt we couldn’t continue to proceed this way, so we had to look for something new. But if we didn’t utilize all forms of merchandising, then this endeavor could be difficult. For instance, toys alone wouldn’t suffice, so we also looked at print publications and other media. That said, we didn’t want to make a theatrical movie based on someone else’s property. We wanted instead to partake in a grand experiment entirely with our own concept, to be in complete control, and to make something original. We didn’t want to borrow someone else’s property to make a movie.

In animation.

Yamashina: We weren’t particular about doing it in animation. The goal was to reach children, teenagers, and young adults. The one condition I had was that even if we do some of the same things as other productions, we also have to do something only we can do. As for what that is, I figured we could let some young people do as they please. I work in the toys industry and have always thought the things someone like myself could grasp wouldn’t sell. It’s only natural with such a large generation gap between myself and the target demographic. That’s why this Honnêamise-thing targeted towards young people could become a big hit. If it does, it will flip everything we’ve known up until now upside down. I didn’t want them to make a movie people like us would understand. Put differently, even if a movie I can comprehend became a hit, in the end, it wouldn’t be particularly significant. Since the beginning, we weren’t aiming for the success of Star Wars, although I still want it to land with audiences. To do so, we couldn’t just make those pure and earnest young creators compromise so quickly on their ideas and concepts, but we also couldn’t let them run wild. In a broad sense, they couldn’t do the tasks of a producer by themselves, so we had to pick up those responsibilities and bring the project to completion. In this regard, I think we were successful.

So on the contrary, it was because you didn’t fully comprehend the movie that makes it a success.

Yamashina: Yes, I think so.

As a commercial product

Of course, it’s possible the movie will fail at the box office.

Yamashina: No matter what kind of strange film we make, the responsibility lies on me to ensure the costs are recouped. I am working to try and get the return on investment as much as I can through box office sales, but I also intend to take a broader approach to monetization. I think it will work out, all things considered.

What do you mean by broader?

Yamashina: We can also monetize the movie in other formats such as home video, print, and records. At Bandai we have an affiliate corporation called Network, which is a major company in the home video space. As a home video release, I think the movie would stand out as a very impressive animated film, so I expect it will succeed quite well in that market.

I thought aspects of this movie’s production values might cause problems for you, but it seems this wasn’t the case.
 Besides the production values, I thought other aspects of the film were problematic. At the very least however, the fact that a bunch of creators in their 20s could take on such an ambitious project and create this movie is itself a breakthrough. This hasn’t ever happened in Japan’s movie industry prior. Moreover, it feels like they were able to do it in ideal circumstances, because the producers are taking on all the responsibility for the outcome.

Yamashina: I had the same feeling during both the screenwriting stage and when I saw the answer print. I told them, “Cut it down!” For about 3 weeks we wavered between cutting it down and leaving it be. The same thing happened with the Toho-Towa folks, but during the process of determining what to cut, the discussions started from why it was crucial certain sections be left untouched. From those discussions, I understood better and was convinced those sections couldn’t be cut. I feel apologetic towards Toho-Towa, but I pushed them to leave the film as-is. This is why ultimately the running length is still 119 minutes. From a commercial perspective, it could have worked at around a running length of 100 minutes, but if we cut the film down, then the aim of this movie would have just flown off the rails. The hundreds of millions of yen invested into this project would have lost all meaning. I pleaded with them, “We will bear the responsibility whether or not the film succeeds at the box office, so please let us proceed with the movie as is.”

In a sense, you took the side of those from the animation studio.

Yamashina: Well, it was more that they made this movie with a particular vision in mind. Had I understood their vision earlier, I probably would have made them do it differently. But I didn’t understand it, so…

Then you finally understood after the answer print screening?

Yamashina: Yes, it wasn’t possible otherwise. What they were trying to say was that it’s a visual world, so there were aspects which could not be conveyed in the written screenplay nor in spoken words. There was no way to understand what they were going for unless they actually made it. Hence, we had no way to adjust what they had done after the fact. The world of Honnêamise is so well constructed; it would be wrong for us to go in and change it.

They weren’t concerned about the fact that it was completely different from films like Laputa and Nausicaä, and instead they focused on what they wanted to make. In this regard, I do think the movie is novel. However, overall it doesn’t strike me as financially—

Yamashina: Well, I am the company president after all, so I am very concerned about this. I have thought, “Oh this is going to be a problem. Is this really going to work out?” I took the issue quite seriously, but I just don’t understand this field at all. What I understand are toys. This movie wasn’t meant to be seen by us. If teenagers watched it and find it boring, then that will be problematic. We’ve conducted test screenings and done a lot of research, paying attention to how people react to the film, and well, I don’t know if it’s going to be alright.
 I’m concerned about deserted movie theaters; the thought scares me. Whether or not the theaters are fully packed or the movie succeeds financially is a different dimension of concern from my perspective. What I can say is that this is a subjective world; it’s okay for different kinds of movies to exist. There’s movies everyone goes to watch, and there’s also more anime style movies. We have our own metrics of quality, but how many tens or hundreds of thousands of people can we attract with those metrics? It’s about the caliber of the work.
 However, the problem is that some movies are hopeless, right? In the world of toys, it would be the ones which don’t sell—not a single one (laughs). That’s a predicament. As long as I’m credited as the executive producer, it falls on me to explain why we made this movie. It’s just not logical, you see, but it is a somewhat subjective issue. I think there are good and bad parts to the movie, but well, we will do our job properly so I figure it’ll be alright.

Movie making by sensibility

In the future do you want to produce something else in the same manner?

Yamashina: Yes. Even though I primarily work in the toys industry, fundamentally I take the same approach: to not overly interfere with the products. I stay hands-off because it’s a world based on sensibility, which in some regards is extremely similar to the arts. Consider automobiles or washing machines. They are products that are tuned strongly towards real life practicality. To some extent, this practical quality is dependent not so much on feel but more on theory. But when you talk about things done by sensibility—well, it’s not as if you’ll die if you don’t watch a movie, and it’s not as if children will die if they don’t get toys.
 That’s not at all the case with food products, for instance. It’s different because in this world, feel determines whether or not something is enjoyable. If you just shove a bunch of strange stuff into a packaged thing, everything breaks down. This time for Honnêamise, we didn’t cut it down because there are probably people who would come see the movie as is. Perhaps this will only be a minority of the audience, but I was concerned that if we cut the film down, then this minority may no longer come and watch the movie. One may argue if the film is cut down, then it may draw in a large audience. But conceptually the movie wasn’t made with this choice in mind; it just won’t happen. That’s why we deliberately left it uncut.

The production costs total 800 million yen, but how much of this was actually spent on the making the movie?

Yamashina: Well, approximately 300 million was spent on advertising. So about 400-500 million was spent on the actual production.

Save the early Tōei Dōga films, I feel content-wise this may be the richest movie in the history of Japan’s animated theatrical films.

Yamashina: Even a layman such as myself can appreciate its impressive quality.

What about the rumor that Bandai made Honnêamise as part of a tax avoidance strategy on their large profits?

Yamashina: No, that’s not the case at all. We run a proper business here.

I’d like to talk specifically about the story. As just another viewer (although I imagine you aren’t able to distance yourself like that), after the answer print screening, what impression did you come away with?

Yamashina: Hm, after the first answer print? Well certainly in my case, I can’t see the film purely as just another viewer: I know too much about the script and story. What’s running through my mind is roughly what the movie will be like overall, and how certain parts shape up to what I had imagined. It’s impossible for me to have an unbiased viewing. There are parts which I would have done differently were I the director—parts that I thought were not so interesting.

The younger generation is different

If you were the director, how would you change the story?

Yamashina: You know what, fundamentally it would be the same, but the biggest difference from what I expected was their presentation was so flat. If it were up to me, I’d make everything just a bit more emotional—even the rocket launch scene at the end. I think it’s one of the methods of Yamaga and the others, but the film is just constantly flat. Emotionally speaking—well, I think the scenes, the story concepts, and the plot developments are fine as they are, but I would tweak it to be more emotional. I do think the audience would react differently than I would to the same scene though. What I’m about to say is my interpretation of Yamaga’s mentality, but it’s meant to be a movie I could have watched tens of times—or however many times—and not get tired of it. I do think there are many kinds of movies though. Recalling my younger days, I enjoyed watching movies, and on the way home with my friends or a girl, we’d excitedly talk about how great some scene was and describe it to each other. Recent movies have been thoroughly steeped in the realm of entertainment, and those moments are a lot of fun, but that’s not always how it should be. By the way, it’s not on the same level as Top Gun, but the airplanes are great in the movie. Basically just that part… Well, recent films lack coverage on subjects such as the lifestyle of the protagonist, the philosophy of life, the depressing aspects of life, or questions about our way of life. We’re lacking the great films which tackle those topics. I believe this movie is Yamaga’s bold take on those topics.

Parts of the movie struck me as being like those nature videos.

Yamashina: Well, I don’t know about that. I think this is something for friends to discuss among themselves, then maybe go watch the movie another time, and after two or three days come to a conclusion. I think it’s that kind of movie.

After the first viewing, I left the screening room bored out of my mind from the lack of excitement.

Yamashina: Well, I’m sorry to say this, but isn’t that because we’re from the same generation? (laughs) Us old folks need more emotion and excitement. I think the younger generation is fine without so much spice.

According to them, they have more support from the younger—

Yamashina: That’s what it is, you know. They’re just so young. That’s why the movie is so remarkable. If I were to say why, it’s because this is the first time a movie has been made by the younger generation for the younger generation. If they were allowed to, they could have made it a bit more cutting-edge, but there’s no way we could comprehend such a thing. Of course we’d find it boring.
 I had an interesting conversation the other day. After the movie becomes a hit—(laughs) well, I don’t know if it will actually do so. But if it does, then I think the following will come to pass. After I saw the film with a friend at the first test screening, we sat down for a meal somewhere. I asked him what he thought of the movie, but he didn’t respond. After some silence, he began to stammer, “Eh, Yamashina, I’m sorry. I didn’t understand it at all. Next to me I saw a young girl cackling joyously. I was shocked someone sitting next to me was so inexplicably excited while I was just so bored.”
 He continued, “Yamashina, this could movie could revolutionize the film industry. If this becomes a hit, no one is going to be able to make the films of today anymore.” Well, if the filmmakers’ concept lives up to the target audience’s expectations, then the movie should definitely become a big hit, right? I’ve considered for some time why movies such as Sayuri Yoshinaga’s don’t succeed. You see, young people don’t know who Sayuri Yoshinaga is. The perception of the filmmakers did not actually match the expectations of those on the receiving end. So extrapolating from this line of reasoning, perhaps Yamaga’s ideas will result in a situation where films from creators afterwards will flop unless they continue a trend set by this movie. Everything will be blown to bits. That’s why from my perspective, whether or not young people support the film is what matters. Whether or not we happen to support the film is irrelevant. It’s not a film meant for us in the first place, so there’s no need for us to go watch it. In summary, it boils down to whether or not teenagers or young adults in their twenties go watch the movie. If the people who watch it think it’s interesting, and the movie becomes known by word of mouth, I think it means Yamaga will have succeeded. The problem with this success however, is that movie making in the future is going to be extremely difficult, because it won’t be possible to make films that aren’t for young people. To sum up, people like America’s Spielberg and George Lucas are still of our generation, if we had to classify them. There isn’t such a big divide between them and America’s youth. On the other hand, the gap between Japan’s generations is about 25 years.

And even with Lucas and Spielberg, fundamentally their films do not demonstrate new methodology.

Yamashina: Yes, they are thoroughly steeped in the realm of entertainment—made easy to consume. That’s why it’s going to be tough if young people take to the contemplation of the sophisticated and outstanding parts of Yamaga’s movie. If the movie was designed from the beginning in a way that took someone like me tens of serious viewings to figure out what the filmmakers intended, then that’ll be tough. But really, the issue is whether or not young people get it immediately. If there’s a lot of young people today who will understand the film, then today’s youth is quite remarkable to me.

So how many people have to see it in the theaters for you to consider it a success?

Yamashina: Tentatively, we’re shooting for one million tickets. Well, we have about 500 thousand advance tickets up for sale. If the people who go can spread the word to another person and bring them to the theater, then it should be possible to reach one million. Well, even if we just surpass 700 or 800 thousand, I’d still consider that a success for a 24 year old director.

Ah right. If I recall correctly, this is because one million people saw Nausicaä in theaters.

Yamashina: Yes. The content of our movie is completely different from the likes of Nausicaä and Yamato. No one’s ever made a film like ours before, which is why it’s such a big risk. It’s just that I’ll be at quite a loss if the theaters end up being deserted, and we only manage to get some 50 or 100 thousand people to show up (laughs).

There’s been quite a variety of reactions across the spectrum, from anger to contentment, or fundamentally supportive despite some complaints.

Yamashina: Well, I think that’s natural. Taking it to the extreme, I don’t think it’s so much about being boring or not being understood. It’s just that it might be a little dated. It took until Yamaga became 24 years old to turn his ideas from when he was 19 into a reality. In that regard, perhaps he should have made this movie when he was younger, in order to succeed with the teenage audience—generations shift quickly. Some parts of the film may be too dated now, putting the technical aspects side.
 From this perspective the film is—well, it’s really hard to say this. Whether or not it becomes a hit, the whole ordeal stresses me out because I really don’t understand the movie. We don’t know what will happen unless we try and open the lid.

We cannot make something that will surpass this

Fundamentally, I think their conceived methodology is correct, but I was curious about one thing. I saw the conversation (in Kinema Jumpo) with Miyazaki, and it seems like they were mostly at odds with each other.

Yamashina: I feel bad about that. In the end, we’re the ones who are responsible. Okada and the others are just so young. I do mean this in a good way as well, but on the other hand, it also means they’re naive about the world. That’s why this may be their last movie. In short, they were stuck in their own world. If the movie flops, then they will be derided. If it becomes a hit, then there will be immense pressure on them to produce another success. Either way, they won’t be able to make another movie in such a pure, earnest way like they did up until now. This is what I mean by “their last movie.” I doubt that in future business dealings, they’ll do things like clash with the advertising department of Toho-Towa. I believe they will conduct themselves more productively next time. But when we talk about how far they can persevere with their purity, to do things more smoothly they have to make compromises somewhere. This is why it’s quite the feat that they were able to make a movie without compromise. Taking into account financial concerns, doing something like that in the anime industry is impossible now. This is a bit of a strange direction to take this story, but I understand this now. Next time we will produce animation in a collaborative manner. We can’t do this—a movie on this level—anymore. It’s not just the financial issue. It’s not possible for us to do something with so much passion poured into getting each and every frame just right. Whether or not the story is interesting is a separate concern. We just can’t do anything at that level of quality anymore, probably.
 That’s why I really think they’ve made something amazing. Speaking in a professional capacity however, I feel like they’ve made something quite undesirable. Speaking from the perspective of the anime industry, it’s quite a feat that they made something so high-level. Recently, I’ve really understood just how difficult it was for them to craft each and every frame. It’s obvious when you see the result. If what comes next does not match or exceed the quality of this movie, then we will have gone one step backwards. You can try to adapt a story onto what you’ve made to bring out something interesting, but quality-wise you get something undesirable instead. (In terms of animation) Walt Disney just cannot be defeated. Fifty years ago, Disney pushed the field in that direction to its peak; there’s nowhere further along this path it can proceed. Even if the likes of Spielberg tried to do something, all of it by extension wouldn’t surpass Disney. This time around, it’s likely that Yamaga’s way of doing things differently from Disney has shown us another possibility—another kind of animation. Putting aside whether or not it becomes mainstream, I think it has potential. That is why I think he’s really made something quite amazing.
 One thing I’ve learned is what is involved in crafting at that level. Next time, trying to produce something properly in the Spielberg style won’t be hard.


Source: Comic Box No. 38 May 1987 Issue, p48-51.


Addendum:

For full disclosure, there are two sections I want to point out as being “best guesses” from a native Japanese speaker.

“If they were allowed to, they could have made it a bit more cutting-edge” is an interpretation of 「あれでもちょっとズラせるんですよ。」

“Well, if the filmmakers’ concept lives up to the target audience’s expectations, then the movie should definitely become a big hit, right?” is an interpretation of 「ということはターゲットとね、映画がね、製作者側のコンセプトと映画を見てあたったら絶対ヒットするんですよ。」

Those who are so inclined will likely want to see the full context, which you can find in the original source text here. There could be other issues lurking about, so let me know in the comments if you find any.

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