Space Battleship Yamato
Best to get the anime disclaimer out of the way first, as I press forward in my quest to experience the pillars of Japanese science fiction. Yamato is the second of the Holy Trifecta of Japanese SF Anime, the others being the original Gundam and Macross series. Yamato is the oldest of these, predating even Star Wars. Savvy anime veterans will know that Yamato blew through the US as Star Blazers back in the day. Like a lot of Japanese creations, this enjoyed life as a TV series, a movie, and a manga. And, like pretty much every Japanese export, I missed the boat as a youngster. I am addressing the movie in this review.
I have mixed feelings on whether to recommend the movie condensation of this story, or push readers to invest the time in the whole series. Here, at least, my decision was influenced mainly by the contents of the public library: Star Blazers was available as an English dub, but to get Japanese language I was restricted to the movie version. Movie it was. (Also, the time commitment required for a 40+ episode series is more than I was comfortable with. As it is, the movie is long at three hours.) I suspect that, if language and time are of no concern, the full series may provide a more emotional experience. Language may not be a problem anyway, as I think I saw Yamato on Crunchyroll somewhere.
First, a quick summary and review. Earth has been pounded into submission by the evil Gamilas. The only survivors live in underground cities that are threatened by radioactivity from the surface. A spacecraft crash lands and gives humanity a message: build a ship with the enclosed plans and travel to the planet Iscandar. The mysterious Stasha awaits there with technology that will save the Earth. The lucky humans dig up the real-life Battleship Yamato (sunk during WWII) and retrofit it with new technology, at which point it flies off into the stars to save everything.
What works about this? As a stylized space opera, this is good fun. The bad guys are nefarious, the crew of the Yamato is plucky, the fate of all humanity hangs in the balance, etc. Also, seeing a WWII-era battleship flying through interstellar space and firing its wave cannon is awesome in a crazy kind of way. There are twists and turns in the plot to keep viewers engaged. There is a kind of fake complexity and moral ambiguity that gives the impression of watching something challenging and profound, without actually being taxing in any way. I was happy at the end, when (spoiler alert) the good guys save the day.
What doesn’t work so well? Many of my complaints might be a result of seeing the movie rather than the series. The characters are a big problem for me in the movie – only one of them has any real impact (the captain), while the rest flit in and out of the story without ever distinguishing themselves. Two characters fall in love at some point, but those scenes must be on the editing floor somewhere, because I never saw it happen. I would also question some other editing decisions, as aspects of the plot that seemed important were skipped over quickly, while side stories that could have been addressed in five minutes, if at all, bogged down the main story arc. Beyond that, my complaints are rather predictable. This is, after all, a story whose target audience includes boys in upper elementary school grades. While I don’t expect total plot coherency or an absence of incredibly random problem solvers in my cartoon space operas, it would have been nice.
What really grabbed me, however, was not the story or the canonical importance of Yamato, but the relationship of the events on-screen to Japanese history. I’m uncertain if the creators were conscious of this, but Yamato is basically re-fighting the end of World War II. The parallels are far from iron-clad, but within the first 30 minutes similarities were leaping off the screen. The Gamilas reign radioactive death from the skies, launch from a forward base taken from Earth and now beyond the reach of Earth’s ships. Humanity fights bravely, but is ultimately helpless in the face of superior technology and production and reduced to suicide attacks. The battleship Yamato, originally launched (and subsequently sunk) in a hopeless attack against the invaders was Japan’s last gasp in the naval war. For those not up on Pacific War history, this would be roughly analogous to, in order, be the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Okinawa, and the end of the war in general, when the full might of US industry was bearing down on Japan.
Miraculously, the story somehow tucks this into the narrative without ever addressing more controversial (from Japan’s point of view) circumstances surrounding the war, or caving in to nationalist cliché. I don’t mean to imply that Matsumoto Reiji and the other creators are trying to rewrite history in Yamato, indeed I am uncertain if the parallels are even intentional, but I couldn’t ignore the possibilities inherent in this kind of tale. Even if it is just a reflection of the history embedded in Japanese culture at the time, the reference to the war is fascinating.
What is my final verdict then? I’m still not sure. Yamato is worth seeing as a part of the canon, as a cultural artifact, and probably as a way to relive Star Blazers if one is so inclined. It is not without faults, so I can’t give it a whole-hearted recommendation. My feelings on compilation movies vs. TV series are mixed; Macross could certainly stand to make a quarter or so of its episodes vanish, but Yamato loses a lot by cutting out so much character development. I felt more invested in Macross when it ended, even if I was gnashing my teeth every time Minmay started talking. Yamato never irritated, but never provided that final catharsis either. In the end, I will give it a rating just this side of lukewarm, with the caveat that increased time put into the TV series may generate increased emotional rewards.
Rating: The Carling Cup. Drama to be had, if one is into that sort of thing, but nothing compared to a full season of play.