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Cartoon Intro Cavalcade: Leiji Matsumoto’s “Star Blazers,” “Yamato 2199,” and “Galaxy Railways”

by on May 27, 2014

The opening credits sequences to the seminal Japanese anime series Space Battleship Yamato and the more recent Galaxy Railways have three things in common:

  1. Terrestrial transportation vehicles converted into unusual spaceships
  2. A powerful sense of duty and shared sacrifice and the glorification of those who serve
  3. Leiji Matsumoto

I don’t think those commonalities are a coincidence.

The opening sequence embedded above is for Star Blazers, the version of Space Battleship Yamato imported for American audiences in the late 1970’s, and which was the introduction to anime for the generation of American kids who were born too late to get into Astro Boy or Speed Racer. Star Blazers stood out from the average kids cartoon because it had true continuity, as the crew of the Argo (as the battleship was renamed) made their year-long round trip to the distant planet Iscandar in a last-ditch effort to save the Earth. Unlike the shows from Filmation or Hanna-Barbera, Star Blazers also had real violence comparable to what we’d just seen in theaters in Star Wars, and real consequences.

In the opening credits, you can find all the elements that made Star Blazers such an enduring touchstone for a generation of kids. The military march theme may be a little undermined by the cheesy English translation, though I admit I kind of snicker at the deeply intoned “YA-MA-TOOOO!!!” in the original, too. We get plenty of the Yamato in outer space, plowing through the empty void on its mercy mission and blasting away at the vaguely biomorphic enemy starships that stand in its way. I love how the lyric “who knows what dangers we’ll find?” gets mated to an image of the Yamato taking a mighty hit from a massive laser cannon, and how the tone of the lyrics changes from determination to an almost forced optimism: it’s “when” they return, not “if.” The reasons why Space Battleship Yamato resonated with American kids might have been slightly different than those for Japanese kids, but either way, the show made an irresistible mixture of action and drama, bound up in themes of duty, honor, and sacrifice.

The opening credits to the more recent Space Battleship Yamato 2199 anime pay homage to the original, with a significant boost to the animation quality and an even more cinematic feel due to the high-definition widescreen formatting.

I love how these credits incorporate the Yamato shaking itself loose from the Earth as it lifts off for the first time. There’s a tremendous sense of weight in those opening scenes, subtly showing the raw power coming from the Yamato‘s Wave Motion Engine. I also love how the Yamato suddenly seems more buoyant once it’s free of Earth’s gravity, just as the first crescendo drops into a rhythmic march. There are also numerous visual quotes from the original credits, all given a bit more gloss and finish thanks to modern animation techniques. As much as I value the art of hand-drawn animation, the CGI Yamato in these credits is a real work of art.

The opening sequence to Galaxy Railways closes out this collection of Leiji Matsumoto’s work. The battleship is replaced by even more incongruous steam train spaceships, but you can pick up on the theme song’s sense of duty and sacrifice even if you don’t speak a word of Japanese.

The music for this opening sequence feels consciously retro, pulling off its cheesier aspects by resolutely refusing to apologize for them. And it works marvelously: when the music shifts to a march at around the 55-second mark (right after Manabu draws and fires his laser pistol), it’s all you can do to avoid rushing out to enlist for the Railways.

Both Space Battleship Yamato and Galaxy Railways have strong pacifist bents, but they also have an outsized fascination with military trappings in uniforms and equipment. They do their level best to glorify those who serve, and while they don’t gloss over the price they pay or the consequences of their actions, it’s hard not to notice all the destruction and havoc wrought in the name of peace. In all honesty, there’s just something inescapably cool about the Yamato, perhaps because its ample, bristling guns make the purpose of the vessel abundantly clear. Turn off the sound to these opening sequences and it would be much harder to believe that these shows aren’t glorifying an overtly violent life.

However, I think the push-and-pull between what’s said (or sung) and what’s shown is actually a strength. From a young age, we’re taught not to solve our social problems through violence. “Use your words” is the way it’s usually phrased today, but the sentiment is the same: you’re not supposed to use force to get what you want. However, it’s also an inescapable truth that sometimes (though not as often as some would claim), force is the only alternative you have left. Rather than try to gloss over that reality, as most American cartoons did (and, to a degree, still do) with their squeamishness over depictions of violence, these anime embrace that contradiction, attempting to define the bounds under which the use of force can be justified. These points come through less in these opening credits than in the shows (which, of course, have the luxuries of dialogue and genuine plots to express their themes), but they’re still visible. The opening to Star Blazers goes out of its way to ensure that the Yamato is never the first to fire on another ship. The credits to Galaxy Railways are nearly half over before a weapon is shown, and even the imagery makes it feel like Manabu’s decision to draw and fire his sidearm was the product of significant deliberation. Subsequent scenes again ensure the Railway crew doesn’t fire unless fired upon, whether from the ominously threatening black star fighters or the terrestrial tank. Given that, it’s a bit odd that the newest Space Battleship Yamato opening shows the Yamato opening up with every gun it has, but doesn’t show any targets. There’s only one enemy ship in the entire sequence, and it’s blown up from behind by a flight of fighters. It’s an interesting distinction, though I’m not sure it’s safe to draw too many conclusions from it.
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