Friday, 8 May 2015

Space Battleship Yamato | review by Jacob Edwards

A wave motion gun blast from the past.

The animated franchise Space Battleship Yamato holds a similar place in Japanese popular culture as Star Wars does in that of America and other countries of the Hollywood-suckled West. Debuting as a 26-episode series in 1974, Space Battleship Yamato continued its interstellar voyage through two further seasons (1978, 1980) and spawned five feature films between 1978 and 2009. When it opened late in 2010, Takashi Yamazaki’s remake – the first live action production of Yamato and a retelling of the space battleship’s original mission – blasted Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1) from the #1 spot in Japan’s box office.

Australian and American viewers of a certain generation will remember Space Battleship Yamato as Star Blazers, under which title the first two series were dubbed, edited and broadcast in 1979/80 (USA) and 1983 (Australia). Some of the adult themes were toned down and the character names romanticised – Kodai and Yuki became Wildstar and Nova respectively; the ship itself was stripped of its WWII origins to become instead the Argo – but Star Blazers nevertheless retained much of Yamato’s darker tone. Yes, Dr Sado was renamed Dr Sane and his drunkenness pitched as inexplicably zesty exuberance, but humanity remained on the verge of extinction and the Yamato/Argo’s last-ditch quest carried a real sense of import.

Space Battleship Yamato begins with planet Earth on the verge of succumbing to radiation poisoning, the result of a sustained bombardment by the alien Gamilas, whose armada has just annihilated the Earth Defence Force’s last fleet in a battle near Mars. The situation appears hopeless, and yet a message is received from the planet Iskandar, offering salvation by way of a device to counter the radiation, as well as schematics for a warp drive and a prototype Wave Motion Cannon. Grasping at this straw of hope, the EDF dredges up the old battleship Yamato, refurbishes it with the new technology and launches it on the (series one titular) Quest for Iskandar.

Under Leiji Matsumoto the 1974 television series of Yamato was innovative in plotting a season-spanning narrative (rather than self-contained episodes), and also for its focus on characterisation, relationship dynamics and expressions of conflict and loss. It was, in short, a mixture of space and soap opera, borne aloft always by Hiroshi Miyagawa’s stirring incidental music. Along with the iconic visuals, these defining elements have, for better or for worse, made their way into the 2010 film. Composer Naoki Satō follows in Miyagawa’s footsteps, albeit through leaving the seventies behind and elevating his accompaniment to a fully fledged big screen score, while director Takashi Yamazaki and writer Shimako Satō have honoured Matsumoto’s predilection for strong-willed heroines: Dr Sado and Aihara (aka Glitchman) are rewritten as female, while Yuki/Nova is Tiger Squadron’s ace pilot, whose first interaction with Kodai/Wildstar is to knock him down with a clinical and surprisingly hefty punch. As for the soap/space opera…

Live action Yamato carries a $24 million budget and the same glitzy, ground-breaking feel as did the original Star Wars, albeit it thirty-three years divorced from the cinematic context that would afford it an equivalent impact; and as much as Yamazaki’s Yamato is about action, adventure, heroic self-sacrifice and one-in-a-million long-shots, it also dwells heavily on its human aspects and in particular the discord between characters. The supporting players all have individuality hinting at greater depth, but the emotional crux of Yamato is the strained dynamic that exists between Yuki, Kodai and Captain Okita (aka Avatar): Yuki sees Kodai as a fallen idol; Kodai blames Okita for his brother’s death; while Okita perceives something of his younger self in Kodai and feels he must reconcile him to the burdens of command. Actors Takuya Kimura (Kodai) and Meisa Kuroki (Yuki) are both excellent, bringing real substance to their roles. Tsutomu Yamazaki (Okita) is unfortunately less expressive even than his stony-faced anime counterpart, but his explosive cries of “Warp!” – rendered in English; a loan word, presumably, used here almost as a martial arts kiai – remain something of a highlight.

If Space Battleship Yamato has been diminished at all through transposition from serial to feature film, this doubtlessly manifests in the compression of screen time, one consequence of which is fast-tracked relationship arcs: as per the Han/Leia rapport, Kodai and Yuki go from rubbing each other up the wrong way to becoming life partners, but over the course of one movie, not three. The abridgement of Yamato’s outbound quest also throws up some quite odd emotional juxtapositions, such as when the ship is about to warp beyond communication range and the crew send their heart-rending final messages to loved ones: unlike in the more protracted voyage of the original series, this moment is reached within a day of their initial departure!

Yamazaki and Satō in fact evince a curious overall disregard for the constancy of time, especially where action or drama dictate. We have, therefore, a situation whereby the Yamato cannot take off quickly enough to avoid incoming Gamilas missiles, yet can power up her Wave Motion Cannon and so destroy these same, incredibly slow-moving warheads. Furthermore – and maybe there is some form of martial arts film convention being adhered to here across genres – the Gamilas ships and warriors seem always to break off their attacks if the crew of the Yamato need some alone time to work through their emotions. There are no detention centre arguments or “I love you; I know” moments played out amidst the action; instead, the soap and space elements remain clearly delineated and the poor old Gamilas have to sit around twiddling their second fiddles until the humans are done soul-gazing. The fact that the Yamato can, when pressed, twist and roll like a sparrow, surely is just rubbing salt into the Gamilas’ wounded pride and their inability to bend spacenarrativetime. Truth be told, such manoeuvres probably looked less unrealistic in animated form.

Space Battleship Yamato is an odd mix, and would likely evoke both rotten and fresh verdicts if somebody were to set up a website (wince, Rotten Yamatoes) by which to critically review films with English subtitles. This duality is perhaps best captured by the inclusion, both in the end credits and in trailers for the movie, of the gravelly soft-thrash rock song “Love Lives”, which Steven Tyler (of Aerosmith) composed and recorded having been shown clips from the final scene. It is a tacked-on piece of commercialism, about as congruous as dubbing the Village People’s “In the Navy” onto footage from Darth Vader’s flagship. For fans of the original Space Battleship Yamato, however, or those who grew up with the rebranded Star Blazers, such bafflements will be of little consequence. All that matters is that the journey to Iskandar at last may be undertaken again: re-envisaged in live action form and warped with some unmissable implications for the series’ canonicity.

Glasses on. Firing the Wave Motion Cannon in five, four, three…

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