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Monday, December 3, 2018

In Remembrance of Yu Yamamoto, the Most Unique Mech Anime Writer We Barely Knew

Last week, anime fandom found out about the passing of anime screenwriter Yu Yamamoto, who died on November 25, 2018, just a month shy of his 72nd birthday. To most anime fans outside of Japan, this news isn't really too shattering, as most of the titles that Yamamoto worked on did not see release outside of Japan. Those that did, like Green Legend Ran & Dark Warrior/Makyo Senjo, weren't highly notable releases, either. Looking into the man's resumé, however, showcases that Yu Yamamoto actually has a bit of a legacy, specifically for mech anime, and it's one that should be celebrated, so let's look over it.


Born in Niigata Prefecture in 1946, Masaru "Yu" Yamamoto graduated from Tokyo's Hosei University before entering the anime industry in 1973. He got his start on comedies & action shows like Dokonjo Gaeru, Jungle Kurobee, Zero Tester, & Hurricane Polymar, but eventually found himself working on more & more mech anime episode scripts. Titles like Dino Mech Gaiking, Gowapper 5 Godam, & Super Electromagnetic Robo Com-Battler V all featured Yamamoto on the writing staff to varying degrees. For most, he'd only be responsible for no more than a handful of episodes, but in the case of Super-Combining Magic Robo Ginguiser, which was infamous for being utterly absurd in what the robot could transform into (because magic), he wrote 12 episodes, out of a total 26. Yes, half of the show was done by Yamamoto himself, with another five people handling the rest of the episodes. While certainly not the most amount of episodes he had to write for a single show by any means by that point, he had previously written 33 of the 108 episodes for Yatterman (including the finale!), Ginguiser was effectively the first time a good majority of an anime's plot followed the stroke of his pen... Or maybe not.

You see, upon further research, I came across something interesting. There's another writer for Ginguiser, Akira (or maybe it's Rou?) Hatta, who was only credited for writing the unreleased two-part finale of that show, plus the two recaps that took the place of the final episodes. His only other notable credits are for Blocker Corps IV Machine Blaster, where's he's also listed as "Original Creator", & 1977's Her Majesty, The Queen Petit Ange, also known as Angie Girl or The Casebook of Charlotte Holmes, both of which Yu Yamamoto also wrote for (& even was the credited creator of, for the latter). Similarly, Ginguiser's head writer, who never actually wrote a single episode, is listed as Rei (or maybe it's Rai?) Hatta, and his name never appears again from what I could search. It's not unheard of for an anime writer or director to create pseudonyms that allow them to work on more episodes, possibly due to studio restrictions & the like, so it's possible that Yu Yamamoto created the Akira/Rou/Rei/Rai Hatta name(s), which would mean that he was the original creator of two (admittedly obscure & forgotten) mech anime of the 70s. Anyway, moving back on track, Yamamoto would continue writing throughout the 70s, & in 1979 was brought on by Sunrise to help write for a new mech anime that was being directed by a bit of a loose cannon named Yoshiyuki Tomino.


Yes, Yamamoto was part of the writing staff for the original Mobile Suit Gundam, and its his work here that's generally brought up by sites reporting his passing. To be fair, Yamamoto was a notable part of the production, writing 11 of the 43 total episodes, and he was responsible for writing some of the show's better-known moments, like the first battle with Garma Zabi, the death of Garma Zabi, the fight with the Black Tri-Stars, the assault by Conscon, & the Newtype battle with Challia Bull. This would be the only time Yamamoto would ever work on a Gundam series, though he was credited for the later compilation movies (but I doubt he actually helped write anything new, and was just credited for the fact that the movies used story that he originally wrote), but this wasn't the only mech anime he was working on at the time. Over at Tatsunoko, Yamamoto was given his first job in series composition (a.k.a. being head writer), at least under his "real" name, with Toshi Gordian, which debuted in late 1979. While today the series, which focused on a rebellion against an evil empire in the middle of a giant wilderness, isn't one of Tatsunoko's most well-remembered, it did have a more-than-respectable 73-episode run, with Yamamoto writing 28 of them himself. I actually covered the first three episodes, which Yamamoto himself wrote, back in 2015 during The Winter Sols-tice, and found them to be quite enjoyable, with a brisk pace & being more than happy to be silly. Following the end of Gordian, & some work on various Tatsunoko anime, Yamamoto would join forces with Kokusai Eigasha/Movie International Co. Ltd., a smaller studio that was trying to find its way to notoriety, especially with an upcoming mech anime boom on the horizon. It's here that Yu Yamamoto would truly create a legacy of his own, and where his life should truly be celebrated.


Having worked on mech anime for nearly a decade, it's likely that Yamamoto had noticed that many of them followed the same basic concept of two sides facing off against each other, usually with the fate of Earth at stake. Sure, Gundam changed things up by focusing on telling as realistic of a war story as it could, but it was still mainly a variant of the same concept. Therefore, Yamamoto decided that he would challenge the status quo, & create mech anime that bucked the trends & went in different directions. The first one would be Galaxy Cyclone Braiger/Bryger (your choice), which debuted in late 1981 & had no care with war or the like. Instead, the 39-episode series followed J9, a quartet of young adults who joined together to become a mercenary group that was willing to take on any job that standard law enforcement wouldn't handle. Their only goal was to stop any sort of criminal activity, though only when paid to do so, and they would show no mercy to those in their path. Eventually, the story would coalesce into stopping Khamen Khamen, the leader of the Nubia Connection, from blowing up Jupiter in an attempt to create 30 smaller planets that he can rule over, at the expense of the Earth, but for the most part Braiger was an episodic story about the various jobs J9 would take on, all while our "heroes" did so in as laid back a fashion as they could; they were serious about their jobs, but they weren't too serious.

Alongside the casual nature of our leads were character designs by Kazuo Komatsubara, who was apparently asked to give everyone a Lupin the 3rd-esque look, which was effective; for a time, it was a common misconception that Monkey Punch contributed to the show. What really set Braiger apart, however, was the primary inspiration Yamamoto used: The Hissatsu Series. This was a long-running TV series, which originally debuted in 1972 & still sees new productions to this day, that followed a group of seemingly innocent merchants living in mid-1800s Japan who were actually secret assassins, and the various jobs they were hired to accomplish; to this day, it's one of the most beloved jidaigeki stories in Japan. Using Hissatsu as the general motif for Braiger, plus apparently some influence by American TV like 77 Sunset Strip & Surfside 6, gave it an identity that no other mech anime of its time could match, & that argument could still be made today. Even though MIC's animation wasn't known for being much to look at, Yamamoto's original concept, engaging characters, witty banter, rocking music, & simply cool style made it a success for the small studio, and to this day it's still fondly remembered in Japan, especially its ear worm of an opening theme. In fact, I honestly feel that the international hit Cowboy Bebop was influenced in some way by Braiger, as the two do share some interesting similarities in style & execution. While I don't believe he's ever been directly asked about it, director Shinichiro Watanabe was 16 when Braiger first aired, so it's not outside the realm of possibility that he was a fan of it back in the day, & it possibly helped influence the direction he went with Bebop, even if only subconsciously. Regardless, with such a notable hit on their hands, MIC put Yamamoto back to work as Braiger was winding down, which resulted in him having to create & write two different mech anime at the same time in 1982.


First up was Makyou Densetsu Acrobunch, which has so many ways to translate, including the amusing Acrobunch in Devil-Land, that I'll simply use what ANN has for an English title, Acrobunch: The Quest for Treasure. Debuting the day after Episode 31 of Braiger aired, this series once again eschewed the usual mech anime plot concept for a different motif, this time the adventure movie craze that Hollywood was going through following the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark the year prior. In particular, Acrobunch followed the globe-trotting adventures of the Randou Family, lead by father Tetsuya, as they search for the mysterious treasure of Quaschika & fend off attacks by the Goblin Clan, who live underground & want Quaschika's treasure for their own purposes. Still, this was a mech anime, so an underground clan like the Goblin have an army of giants, while the Randou Family have giant motorcycles that can combine together to form the giant robot Acrobunch. Even more so than Braiger before it, Acrobunch's treasure hunt concept remains rather unique for the genre, and the show even marked the debut of Mutsumi Inomata as a character designer & gave legendary voice actor Norio Wakamoto his first major role (at age 38) as Hiro Randou, Tetsuya's oldest son. Unfortunately, that uniqueness was also the show's downfall, as it didn't last as long as most mech anime of the time, ending with the year after only 24 episodes; at the very least, the ending is known to be a true mind trip. Still, Yu Yamamoto once again showed a willingness to stray from the status quo, and he spread his writing skills even further here, as he wrote the lyrics for the OP & ED of Acrobunch, effectively putting more of his own touch to the show; he had previously written only two insert themes for Braiger.


The other 1982 mech anime, debuting a day before Episode 6 of Acrobunch, & replacing Braiger, was Galactic Gale Baxinger, the second entry in what Yamamoto was now calling the J9 Series; Yamamoto would later explain that the name came from Sony's SL-J9 Betamax player. Unlike other franchises, though, this second series wasn't a direct sequel to Braiger, but rather simply followed a lot of the same aesthetics & style, while telling a completely different story with a new motif. Similarly, Kazuo Komatsubara returned for character designs, as well as composer Masayuki Yamamoto for music, while the main voice cast returned to "reprise" their spiritual successors. Braiger director Takao Yotsuji would be replaced by Yoshikata Nitta, however, as Yotsuji went to direct Acrobunch. This time around, instead of basing itself on a piece of 1800s period drama TV, Baxinger was based around an actual piece of 1700s Japanese history, the revenge of the 47 ronin. Some confuse it with the Shinsengumi, which may have also been an inspiration for characters themselves, but the story was definitely based on the 47 ronin. Taking place 600 years after the events of Braiger, the solar system is now under the control of the Domestic Bakufu government, one where lawlessness runs amok, which prompts Digo Kondo, under the alias Don Condor, to form a group of honorable warriors to combat the Bakufu, and they name themselves J9-II, in honor of the original group.

Now, to be fair, Baxinger's general concept does sound similar to your usual mech anime that was coming out during the 80s. That being said, however, one merely has to look up how the actual revenge plot of the 47 ronin worked out (hint: it didn't end well for the ronin...) to get an idea as to how Yamamoto's story wound up finishing, so at least he still tried to bring his own little twists to an otherwise crowded market. Interestingly enough, it also had the titular giant robot be formed by combining together motorcycle-esque vehicles, ala Acrobunch, though they weren't outright copies; I guess Yamamoto just really liked motorcycles. Today, Galactic Gale Baxinger isn't quite as widely remembered as Braiger, but it's combination of sci-fi sensibilities with with a Chuushingura aesthetic remains fairly one-of-a-kind in a genre that tends to stick to your standard war between nations or "Earth vs. aliens" storylines. MIC was still doing well enough at this point, so Yamamoto's two-series-at-a-time mech anime workload continued on after Acrobunch's finale, because a month later at the start of 1983 (& while Baxinger was still on its last third or so), he & MIC debuted yet another mech anime. Unlike most of Yu Yamamoto's output, however, this next series did actually make the trip outside of Japan back in the day, though it was forced to share a room with another.


Mission Outer Space Srungle was inspired by the American TV show Mission:Impossible, called Spy Daisakusen/Spy Mission in Japan, but it's kind of hard to really tell outside of the absolute general concept. Taking place in the 26th Century, the story follows the battles between a special organization called Gorilla, lead by Captain Chance, & the evil organization Crime, lead by Fork Lazer (I'm not sure if that's how it really should be spelled, but I'm going with this, because I love it). The series became known for mixing together tight plotting & storylines with a generally bizarre execution. I mean, seriously, Gorilla had people with names like Super Star, Baby Face, & Sexy, the villains were lead by a man whose name was a blatant reference to Star Wars' Darth Vader, & the leader of Crime itself was literally named Crime Boss, with the "true" leader being simply known as Overlord. Still, Srungle did manage to have one of the more retroactively notable staffs in MIC's entire history, as Yoshitaka Amano did the character designs, Koichi Ohata got his start in the industry here as part of the "Mecha MIC Group" that did the mechanical designs, & Shou Aikawa also made his debut as part of Yamamoto's writing staff. In fact, even Akira/Rou Hatta "came back" for a few episodes, before disappearing forevermore.

As mentioned, Srungle did actually get brought over to Western shores, but in two different forms, oddly enough. Saban Entertainment, around the same time Harmony Gold was producing Robotech, licensed both Srungle & Ashi Pro's Sengoku Majin GoShogun & combined the two together to make Macron 1 for North American television. In this version, Captain Chance was turned into David Chance, a test pilot who gets accidentally sent to a parallel universe, which was where the Srungle story came in. Effectively, Macron 1 tried adapting two completely unrelated shows with an extremely flimsy link of them being parallel universes, & the villains (now named GRIP & lead by Dark Star, making the Star Wars reference even more blatant) want control over both. The show also featured covers of popular music of the time, like Michael Jackson's "Beat It" & Glenn Frey's "The Heat it On", which effectively makes Macron 1 next to impossible to ever re-release in full now. In Europe, though, Saban made a different version of Macron 1, as it only adapted GoShogun, excising Srungle completely. Before all of that though, in Japan, after 11 episodes of Srungle come April of 1983, Yu Yamamoto also finished up Baxinger, and MIC put him to work on yet two more anime to work on, alongside already leading the writing staff in Srungle; to no surprise, Yamamoto wound up writing only 14 of the 53 episodes. The first was Nanako SOS, an adaptation of the seinen manga by Hideo Azuma, while the other debuted just three days later, and was the third entry in Yamamoto's successful J9 Series.


After using a popular jidaigeki TV series & a popular Chiuushingura story as inspirations for the prior two entries in the J9 Series, it's definitely a bit of a surprise that Yu Yamamoto went with a completely non-Japanese literary source for his third entry, Galactic Whirlwind Sasuraiger. Basing itself on Jules Verne's legendary 1873 novel Around the World in 80 Days, the story, which took place roughly 200 years after Baxinger, followed a bet made between Blues Carl Burnstein, a notorious gambler using the alias I.C. Blues, & "Bloody God", the head of the Bloody Syndicate, over if it's actually possible to circumnavigate the entire 50-planet solar system in a single year, with over a hundred-million in money at stake. Naturally, Bloody doesn't want Blues to win & tries to constantly take him out, but Blues find support in the form of Rock, Beat, & Birdy, who manage to get themselves a space train called the J9-III that can transform into the giant robot Sasuraiger; the group calls themselves JJ9 (Double J9). While Yamamoto, Braiger director Takao Yotsuji, Kazuo Komatsubara, & a lot of the same voice cast returned once again, the music this time was done by an up-&-coming anime composer named Joe Hisaishi (a year before he would hit it big with Hayao Miyazaki's movie Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), as Masayuki Yamamoto was busy working on Srungle; he would make time to compose the catchy OP theme, though.

Without a doubt, Sasuraiger is probably the most non-traditional mech anime to ever get made in the 80s, if not ever, simply because the concept is as far away from your standard war story, or at least "Good vs. Evil", as one can get. Sure, there's still a villain in the form of Bloody God, but for Blues & the rest of JJ9 it's simply about getting past Bloody's roadblocks & fulfilling the bet; as the mech's name implied, they were simply wanderers, or "sasuraibito" in Japanese. In fact, it makes one wish for more novels to get re-interpreted into this kind of genre, because it is a quaint little idea, and the series has remained in the minds of Japanese fans. Sure, once again, it's not as iconic as Braiger, but the truly unique concept & nature of Sasuraiger makes it hard to forget, and like the original J9 anime, the OP has become a bit of a standard; here's a video of legendary wrestler Jushin Thunder Liger singing it, in fact! Unfortunately, though, a combination of factors, the biggest of which being MIC being mostly unable to continue operating like it had once Tatatoku Toys (which MIC worked heavily with for its mech anime) went out of business, lead to there being no more J9 anime being made once Sasuraiger ended. MIC would debut two more anime at the start of 1984 following Sasuraiger's finale, mech anime Super High Speed Galvion, which Yu Yamamoto had no involvement with, & historical series The Tale of Souya, which Yamamoto did lead writing on & was based on the actual icebreaker that both saw use during World War II & was the first Japanese ship to reach Antarctica. Unfortunately, both shows would end before July, with Galvion infamously having a 35-second spoken epilogue explaining what happened to everyone, and both shows were followed up with re-runs of Psycho Armor Govarian & Space Sheriff Gavan. MIC would manage to get one last anime produced, based on Kaoru Shintani's motorcycling manga Twin Hawks, before going out of business itself in 1985.


Following his time with MIC, which saw him be head writer for seven shows across a four year period, Yu Yamamoto would continue writing for anime, but only rarely heading up the staff as in charge of series composition, like for 1985 kendo anime Musashi no Ken, and he also contributed to tokusatsu series Choudenshi Bioman, the Ultraman Tiga Gaiden video special, & Ultraman Cosmos; his last time as head writer would be for children's anime Astonishing Human Batseelor in 2001. Still, his work at MIC earned himself a fanbase, and even a fan club called Lemon Club, which produced a novel called Galactic Hot Air Onsenger in 1988. Written by J9 Series music stalwart Masayuki Yamamoto, the novel was a loving parody about a hot springs-themed giant robot (that's never actually featured, though it was drawn for the cover above), & even had an image song for it called "Galactic Shampoo Rinseger" by Taoru Miura, which was about the benefits of hair care; you can listen to them here. Another notable parody was "Galaxy Irresponsible Tylorger", which was produced for drama CD The Irresponsible Captain Tylor: Ichirentakushou & turned Braiger's memorable OP into one about the eponymous Justy Ueki Tylor. The J9 Series would see the occasional reference in anime & manga alike throughout the years, and the legendary Super Robot Wars video game series has included Braiger numerous times in its history, & even had all three J9 groups come together for the first (& only) time ever in SRW GC/XO in the 00s. Likewise, Acrobunch also saw inclusion once via SRW Compact 3 in 2003.

Still, as the years went on & anime production became more & more prevalent, Yu Yamamoto didn't like that so much of what was getting made was simply adapting from pre-existing work, like manga & light novels. He wanted to make sure younger writers were learning how to create new stories from scratch, so he came up with an idea...


In April of 2014, just a little over 30 years since the end of Sasuraiger, and organization named GDW Project opened Twitter & Facebook pages to promote a new anime project lead by Yu Yamamoto titled Galaxy Divine Wind Jinraiger. This was to be a brand new entry in the J9 Series, this time using the legendary Chinese novel Water Margin as the motif; you might also know it by it's Japanese name, Suikoden. Yamamoto wanted to use Jinraiger as a way to help bring "original anime" to the forefront once again, & even started a "Practice Anime School" to help teach new & coming anime screenwriters what he knew after decades of experience, with Jinraiger itself being the teaching material. After a good amount of time passed, new information came out in November of 2015, showing off the initial character & mech designs by Kanhou Murase, as Kazuo Komatsubara had passed away in 2000 due to cancer, as well as two songs meant to act as the OP & ED for Jinraiger, "Galaxy Devine Wind" by Yukio Yamagata & "Terra Amata" by MIQ, that featured lyrics by Yu Yamamoto & were composed by Masayuki Yamamoto. It seemed to be a promising fusion of old talent with young, and the plan was for the show to debut sometime in 2016, but that wound up not happening. To his credit, though, Yu Yamamoto did keep fans updated through the production's website via the "Jinrai Talk" show, and this past October it was announced that production would go on hiatus due to Yamamoto's busy schedule.
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Which brings us to the current day, & the news of Yu Yamamoto's passing. Unsurprisingly, the Twitter account for Jinraiger has stated that the fate of the anime is now "undecided" due to Yamamoto's death, and one can only hope that it won't simply join the ranks of Appleseed: Genesis, the Mardock Scramble OVA, Despera, or Astro Kyudan as anime that were once conceived of, only to never actually come to light. Sure, it would likely wind up being pretty different without Yamamoto's guiding hand, but I'd imagine that following through with his dream of making an original anime that young anime writers can cut their teeth on & learn with would be the perfect way to honor the memory & life of a man who, when given the chance to create, always went against the grain, made anime that challenged the status quo &, for once, was celebrated & successful with it.

So "Letsu" make a toast to the life of Yu Yamamoto, a man who left his "Wolf Mark" on the anime industry by making it his "Mission" to give fans some truly unique "Treasures", & wish him "Good Luck" in the afterlife.

"イェーイ! Yeah!"

Man, where's Netflix when you need them? With Voltron: Legendary Defender coming to an end, Galaxy Divine Wind Jinraiger could be a cool next mecha series to produce.

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