Yoshinobu Nishizaki, who died today, was a colourful and controversial character in the anime world. Born as Hirofumi Nishizaki in the old samurai town of Aizu-Wakamatsu, he rebelled against his traditionalist family by founding a jazz club. By his late twenties, he had moved into music production, but suddenly switched careers to become an office manager for the “god of manga,” Osamu Tezuka.
Nishizaki claimed that he had fallen in love with Tezuka’s comics, particularly the future trilogy of Lost World, Next World, and Metropolis. Joining Tezuka’s studio, Mushi Production, Nishizaki threw himself into legal and operational work, and scored what he hoped would be a landmark success when he sold the rights of Tezuka’s Marvellous Melmo to a TV channel. However, ratings were a disaster for the series, which attempted to turn sex education into a kids’ comedy, and Nishizaki found himself taking the blame instead of the credit.
As Mushi Production drifted towards bankruptcy, Nishizaki came to resemble the first mate on a sinking ship. Industry gossip associated him not only with the departure of many animators, but with the disappearance of company property. When Mushi’s doors were shut for good, Nishizaki somehow sprang back into business as the owner of Anime Staff Room, a company that appeared to use talent and materials liberated from the beleaguered Mushi Production. Nishizaki even managed to walk away from Mushi with intellectual property. One of Nishizaki’s jobs at Mushi had been to register copyrights, and it appeared that although both Wansa-kun and Triton of the Sea bore Tezuka’s name as creator, their ownership had somehow been assigned to Nishizaki. Depending on who you talked to, Nishizaki was either a canny accomplice who dutifully kept Tezuka’s people working through a legal loophole, or a traitor who broke Tezuka’s heart.
The anime business suffered its worst crisis since WW2 at the turn of the 1970s, with multiple studio collapses, a change in the value of the yen, and a recession brought on by the rise in Middle Eastern oil prices. Nishizaki likened the period to “a winter struggling towards spring,” particularly after neither of his liberated properties recouped their production costs on broadcast. Tezuka, perhaps, had had the last laugh by not telling him a vital truth – that even Astro Boy had been produced at a loss, in the hope that merchandise and foreign sales would make up the shortfall. With no foreign sales forthcoming and reduced public interest in merchandise, Nishizaki was dead in the water.
But Nishizaki fought on. His most famous creation came in 1973, when he and two other Mushi refugees dreamt up a sci-fi quest narrative, Asteroid Ship Icarus, in which a crew of teenagers crewed a space vessel built within a hollowed-out asteroid. After the manga artist Leiji Matsumoto was brought in to refine the idea, this gradually transformed into Space Cruiser Yamato, in which a group of Japanese heroes embarked on a desperate mission across the cosmos, in a ship built from the hulk of a WW2 battleship. Eventually broadcast abroad as Star Blazers, the serial became a long-running franchise, and would eventually become the subject of a bitter court battle between Nishizaki and Matsumoto, as each claimed to be the true creator.
In the 1980s, Nishizaki changed his company name from Office Academy to Westcape Corporation (Japanese: “Nishi-zaki”), under which he became the executive producer of The Legend of the Overfiend, the first and most notorious of the “tits and tentacles” genre that repurposed animation for erotic horror. Despite soaring success in multiple foreign markets, not even the Overfiend could rescue Nishizaki’s fortunes, and he would file for bankruptcy in 1997.
Shortly afterwards, he was incarcerated for a potent cocktail of cumulative offences: he had been smuggling illegal firearms into Japan while already on bail for possession of narcotics. He consequently spent much of the first decade of the 21st century in prison, and only recently returned to form with a new animated Space Cruiser Yamato movie, Yamato Resurrection. Ever one to look for a gimmick, he infamously focus-tested the ending with an audience of fans.
When I wrote the biographical entry on Nishizaki for the Anime Encyclopedia, I commented that he could sometimes seem to be a one-hit wonder, constantly returning to the Yamato as his only trusted source of revenue, and becoming increasingly spiteful in his claim to own the idea. But I also suggested that Nishizaki’s greatest, as-yet untold story was his own autobiography: surely a tale fraught with enough scandal, drama and adventure for any TV series?
Nishizaki died as he lived, in a manner that was both odd and suspicious. The 75-year-old producer reportedly fell from a boat, itself called the Yamato, not far from the harbour of Chichijima in the Bonin Islands, about 150 miles north of Iwo Jima. It is difficult to imagine that he is really gone. There are sure to be several figures in the anime industry who surely wonder if this is not yet another larger-than-life chapter in his life, and if Nishizaki might not suddenly reappear next week leading a band of pirates, or having discovered the fountain of youth. Some might even suspect it is a last-ditch moneymaking scheme: an attempt to encourage old-time enemies to speak out against him, all the better to return from the grave armed with libel suits.
Still, as the news spreads through the Internet and it appears not to be a cruel hoax, we are left with the news that 2010, anime’s annus horribilis, has claimed yet another high profile figure. It is all the more ironic that Nishizaki should die at sea, even as the publicity machine gears up for the film that will now be surely seen as his final epitaph: the live-action Space Battleship Yamato movie that will have its official premiere on 12th December.
Unlike many anime figures, Nishizaki never published his autobiography. He did, however, write a brief memoir for the inaugural issue of My Anime magazine in 1981, in which he acknowledged that he was a volatile figure in the industry, but that his intentions had always been honourable.
“I have made many mistakes,” he admitted. “But I have no regrets.”
Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade.