Review: "Space Battleship Yamato" - Battlestar Yamato Doesn't Quite Take Off
The original Space Battleship Yamato TV series was one of my gateways to anime, although it was called Star Blazers at the time and we didn’t have a fancy special word for it other than, “that cool Japanese cartoon.” Leiji Matsumoto’s space epic was gripping to a generation for whom Star Wars was the latest hot, hip thing on the block, well before science fiction became mainstream. That emotional connection to the original made me pre-disposed to liking the live-action feature film adaptation released in Japan in 2010 and just released on a Blu-ray combo pack by FUNimation. While it does justice to the original in many ways, it also suffers from some questionable creative choices, budgetary constraints, a severe lack of screen charisma in many of its central actors, and the side-effects of packing an epic-sized story into just over two hours.
The year is 2199, and Earth is under siege from mysterious aliens from the distant planet Gamilas. The Gamilas assaults have rendered the Earth’s surface lethally radioactive, and the opening scene of the movie makes it clear that Earth’s space fleet is completely outgunned. While searching the surface for usable scrap metal, a young man named Susumu Kodai (Takuya Kimura) is nearly hit by an interstellar communication capsule, containing intricate schematics for a new kind of starship engine along with a map to a distant planet. The engine is quickly retrofitted into the old hulk of the World War II Japanese battleship Yamato, turning it into a powerful starship capable of faster-than-light travel and armed to the teeth with laser cannons and the massive Wave Motion Gun. At last, humanity has a fighting chance for survival, as the Yamato makes a desperate dash to the planet Iskandar for a means to counter the radiation that will render the Earth lifeless within months. However, tensions soon arise, since Susumu blames the death of his older brother on the Yamato‘s grizzled commander, Captain Okita (Tsutomu Yamazaki), while the hotshot pilot Yuki Mori (Meisa Kuroki) seems to have a grudge of her own against Susumu.
The best thing about Space Battleship Yamato is the way it translates the animated designs into live-action, capturing their essence without making everyone look like a live-action cartoon character. Much to my surprise, the uniforms of the Yamato crew members are translated intact, complete with the iconic chest arrows, without looking completely ridiculous on real people. The movie also chooses to radically re-vision the Gamilas, dispensing with the green/blue-skinned Nazis of the original and turning them into…well, something radically different that I don’t really want to spoil. Unfortunately, the Gamilas are one of the less successful translations to this new Yamato world, looking rather out of place when they finally do appear in the flesh. Overall, Space Battleship Yamato feels like a hybrid of the original show and the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot. It certainly shares Battlestar Galactica‘s grungy, sharp-edged industrial design, and its darker color palette and set lighting. It also shares the overall tone that the crew’s Herculean struggles were merely stalling the inevitable outcome of a hopeless battle. Like Battlestar Galactica, Space Battleship Yamato also re-casts some key roles with women instead of men. The ship’s Doctor Sado is intact after the gender change, but Yuki’s superlative piloting skills and bad attitude make her a dead ringer for Battlestar Galactica‘s Starbuck, rather than the token female nurse/navigator/gal Friday she was in the original series.
Unfortunately, it also seems like Space Battleship Yamato was working with a comparable budget to Battlestar Galactica. Most of Space Battleship Yamato was shot with minimal sets and green screens, with CGI adding in the sets later. Watching the bonus features reveals how many scenes were shot with little more than a wall or two. Several scenes that can easily stand up next to an average Hollywood special effects extravaganza; I’m especially fond of the movie’s opening shots, which start on a close-up of Yuki’s eye and pan out smoothly to take in a pitched interstellar battle. Unfortunately the seams show often, and the illusion is severely strained by the visible budget limitations. I think it’s a real problem when one of those underwhelming moments is firing the Yamato’s famous Wave Motion Gun, which is curiously anti-climactic for all the dramatic build-up. In addition to the effects work that brings the Gamilas to life, several other sets look shabbier than I think they were meant to. If the movie’s rumored budget under $20 million is accurate, the crew got an unbelievable bang for the buck, but Space Battleship Yamato still looks more like an expensive TV show or a very high-end video game than the effects-driven tentpole movie I think it’s aspiring to.
The adaptation of the original series is quite faithful, at least for the first half of the film. It shares the same deeply compelling themes of duty, service, and loyalty to one’s comrades-in-arms, and finds interesting ways to express those traits in its many characters. However, one reason why Star Blazers had staying power for us way back in the 70’s was that it was one of very few kids cartoons with an ongoing storyline. The nature of serial fiction allowed it to tell a sprawling story with recurring plot elements and genuine depth. Space Battleship Yamato runs about 130 minutes, which means much of the slow-burn development of the TV show is lost strictly due to running time. The 365-day ticking clock for the Yamato‘s round-trip to Iskandar is dropped to about 70, and the Yamato ends up at the far-end of its journey within three warp jumps of Earth. As a result, we never get a sense of genuine hardship or struggle in the Yamato‘s journey; it’s just over too quickly. The compression also makes the sizable cast far too unwieldy, with few getting enough time to make a very deep impression (with one notable exception being the tough space commando Saito, played by Hiroyuki Ikeuchi). This perceived lack of depth is not helped by the decision to anchor the last third of the movie with an extended combat scene, which ends up being too drawn-out and surprisingly boring for all the explosions and sharp plot twists. The vicious last-minute surprise that extracts another 15 minutes of run time feels even more unnecessarily drawn-out, as people burn too much screen time making long speeches and demonstrating their feelings for each other. These moments feel especially idiotic, considering the major threat staring them in the face.
My colleague Grant White had issues with the way the Yamato is lionized in the middle of the movie, as it invokes the real-world Yamato‘s inspirational role for Imperial Japan during World War II. While it is a bit hard to swallow Susumu’s exhortation that the Yamato represented hope and salvation, I still appreciate the Japanese sensibility in those moments. Globalization means it’s easier than ever for pop culture to cross borders, but it also leads to homogenization as cultural markers are sanitized out in favor of the lowest common denominator. Numerous foreign countries have shown they can produce vapid action thrillers as well as Hollywood can, so I appreciate this distinctly Japanese element of Space Battleship Yamato, even as it sets up significant mental hurdles for me to empathize with the message. For that matter, the ending of the movie takes an approach that no American movie would dare. Without revealing spoilers, I’ll say that they definitely do not take the safer route and stay in keeping with the themes of Space Battleship Yamato in all its incarnations, even if I suspect some choices are sure to infuriate older fans.
Finally, many of the cast members aren’t terribly memorable. Takuya Kimura is a good looking guy, but his Susumu Kodai feels thin and underdone. Tsutomu Yamazaki’s Captain Okita is even worse, coming off as dazed or wooden when the role calls for stern and stoic. Yuki is a bit better, at least until the end of the movie defangs her and turns her into just another weepy, wimpy girlfriend. And, as mentioned earlier, nobody else in the very large cast can manage to make much of an impression due to the running time. The crew of the Yamato ends up being little more than an array of military movie stereotypes that stick with you only if you recognize the original character they’re based on.
Regardless of the movie’s flaws, FUNimation’s presentation of Space Battleship Yamato on Blu-ray is exemplary. The 1080p video is flawless, and we get a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack in both English and Japanese. I paid little attention to the English dub, which was surprisingly good from what I saw of it, but still felt out-of-place. There are enough small changes to the translation to make me think we have true subtitles rather than dubtitles. Bonus features include a lengthy feature on pre-visualization shots in the movie and a making-of about the visual effects. There is also a short and mildly amusing featurette which sends the CGI Yamato model flying over real-world Japanese cities (all of which look like someone dragging a CGI model over a still photo of a city skyline). The last bonuses are a variety of trailers and TV commercials, all of which slice and dice the same set of clips in different ways and become repetitive rather quickly.
For all my criticisms, I don’t think Space Battleship Yamato is a bad movie, just a somewhat disappointing one. I suspect some of my disappointment is from old-school fan expectations, but I’m not positive that the movie will win new fans unfamiliar with the franchise. At the time it came out in the 1970’s, the animated Space Battleship Yamato was bracingly new and exciting. Over time, the elements it exploited have become far more commonplace, evolving even further than what Space Battleship Yamato could do (even in Leiji Matsumoto’s Galaxy Railways). The consequences for the live-action Space Battleship Yamato are that it feels like a rehash rather than something truly original.