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"Space Battleship Yamato": A Poseidon Adventure

by on April 29, 2011

The worst thing you can do is judge a TV series based on a theatrical movie that’s been stitched together from its episodes. Rendering a judgment on the movie itself is scarcely easier, and it’s even harder to do when you haven’t even seen the original show. So why give myself grief by reviewing Space Battleship Yamato, an icon that seems to be widely beloved in anime circles?

Well, because this was the first anime I ever saw, and the recent resurrection of Star Blazers on SyFy is an excuse to revisit it. I can’t have been more than nine years old when I caught this feature-length entertainment on a Sunday-afternoon broadcast on an independent Los Angeles TV station, and it was the first time I’d ever seen a cartoon that wasn’t American produced. I wish I could say it turned me into an anime fan, but probably it did just the opposite. Its turgid, incomprehensible mess of a story and its static imagery seared in me a long-lasting impression of Japanese animation as something too alien to bother with. It took Basilisk, Full Metal Panic, and Hayao Miyazaki to finally cure me of this misperception.

The movie is adapted from the aforementioned Star Blazers. It’s set on a future Earth, which has been poisoned and stripped of most of its life by a war with the faraway planet Gamilas. Humanity is only a year from extinction when a message arrives from another planet, Iscandar, promising a radiation cure if the humans come fetch it, and giving plans for a faster-than-light drive that will make possible a round trip to Iscandar in less than a year. So the Earth forces build and install the drive in the refurbished hull of the old Japanese battleship Yamato, turning it into a space-going dreadnought capable of standing up to almost anything thrown its way. Under the command of the Earth’s highest ranking fleet officer (who is himself slowly dying), the Yamato makes the perilous journey, which climaxes in the destruction of Gamilas itself.

The main problem with Space Battleship Yamato is that it is all action and very little drama. It is very hard to sustain interest in a plot when it is just one set piece after another, and it’s even harder to keep your interest up because those set pieces aren’t purely action, either. It is quite clear (even before a quick glance at the internet confirms your suspicions) that the original series had some long-running character arcs and that it probably spent quite a bit of time humanizing and explaining even the villains’ actions. This is especially true of the movie’s central sequence, which pits the Yamato against a fleet led by Gamilas’ best admiral, and which plays him as a careful, thoughtful, and highly principled warrior. But all the bits that would really develop the characters have been dropped in order to get the story down to a 130-minute running time. As a result, even central protagonists like Susumu Kodai turn into personality-free ciphers, and some of their big speeches at the end, when they summarize what they have learned during the campaign, are woefully unmotivated.

The plot itself is not that hard to follow, since it basically consists of getting the Yamato from Earth to Iscandar, and the dropped bits are mostly covered by a narrator who pops up long enough to tell us what has happened in the meantime. But there are too many spots that are inexplicably obscure or just implausible. For instance, if there’s any reason for refurbishing the Yamato, a long-sunk and rusted-out seagoing vessel, instead of building a new one, it’s not given. The Yamato itself turns out to be the Superman/Swiss Army Knife of spaceships, since it can act as a starship, a sea-ship, an airship, or a submarine, depending on what the plot requires. It also has the magical ability to destroy four enemy battle carriers with one shot after being nearly crippled in an ambush. One well-aimed blast from its superweapon annihilates Gamilas. These sorts of things might have worked as one-offs in a long-running series, but when shoehorned into a relatively short running time they really call attention to their implausibility.

I’m not even sure I can say that the visuals have aged well. The Yamato itself is quite handsome, and the producers took great delight in centering it in one iconic shot after another. But the battles mostly consist of ships hanging in the middle of the screen while laser shots play around them, so they are not terribly kinetic. The characters all look too much alike—a fact that almost turns into a plot point late in the story—and there are some visual tics that grate after awhile. For instance, the movie is very fond of showing Captain Juzo Okita with the brim of his cap pulled low over his face. I suppose this is meant to give contrast to those moments when he raises his head and we get to see his eyes, but the trick is used so often that soon the already phlegmatic captain just looks like he’s napping on his feet. His seeming sleepiness, even during battle, only becomes worse after he takes to his sickbed.

I would like to forgive Space Battleship Yamato as a work of art that is trying to do the impossible, but I also have to grade it as a potential rental or purchase. Anime fans should probably have it in their library, because of its historical importance if nothing else. But there are only two sorts of viewer who should worry over whether to watch it. Those who have already seen the series in one form or another probably won’t get anything out of it that they haven’t gotten from the series, and they will probably be even more sensitive to its cuts and omissions than I was. Meanwhile, those who haven’t seen the original will find it a frustrating viewing experience, and should probably skip it in favor of the series instead.

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