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Thursday, September 23, 2010

SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO (1974) Episodes 1-9

If you’re a fellow aging child of the STAR WARS generation, you no doubt remember the sci-fi mania ignited by that landmark film’s from-out-of-nowhere arrival and the subsequent avalanche of movies and TV shows that appeared in an attempt to scratch that itch (translation: “cash in”). Studios and distributors scrambled to release anything that might ride the coat tails of George Lucas’ lightning in a bottle, scouring the planet in search of product, and more often than not their efforts yielded mixed-to-lackluster results. However, one of the unforeseen side-effects of this trend was the second wave of imported Japanese cartoons — the first wave occurred during the 1960’s, bringing ASTRO BOY, SPEED RACER and several others to these shores — and one of the cult juggernauts that hit the U.S. during that period was STAR BLAZERS, a military science-fiction epic that originally aired in Japan starting in 1974 under the title SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO.

The series had a well-conceived and detailed visual style — the signature look of manga artist Leiji Matsumoto — that bolstered its 26-episode narrative, and it has since gone on to become a landmark in anime and Ground Zero for a seemingly endless series of sequels and a cornucopia of merchandising that continues nearly forty years after it kicked off. There’s even a soon-to-be-released live action adaptation on the way, so before I see that film I figured I’d revisit the series that started it all. I was a fan of STAR BLAZERS when it first aired, but I didn’t get to see as much of it as I would have liked, thanks to the Monday-through-Friday logistics of dealing with adolescence, ninth grade and homework. STAR BLAZERS ran at a time when I might make it home in time to see it, depending on whether our questionable school bus driver was bombed again, but more often than not I was shit outta luck. It wasn’t until over ten years later that I finally got to see some of the theatrical films in uncut, subtitled versions, and what I saw was terrific, so I longed to see the original series as it was intended, and not in the edited-for-content American version that also featured annoying and ridiculous names for the characters (“Derek Wildstar?” Oh, puh-leeze…). That opportunity finally presented itself recently when an anime site that I occasionally purchased uncut/subbed DVDs from announced a fall clearance sale. I checked to see how much the first two YAMATO series were marked down to — along with 1979’s CYBORG 009 reunion movie, THE LEGEND OF THE SUPER-GALAXY — and when I saw that both were priced at under $25 each, I pounced. The transfers look very good, although I would not say they are remastered, and they display the expected signs of age that would be evident in a show that’s nearly four decades old, but that in no way detracts from the overall strength of the series. The subtitles are better than most fan-subs and it’s clear that the translators have a genuine grasp of the English language, but at times they have a tendency to over-formalize in their translations, which results in the English-speaking viewer having to do a little contextual linguistic juggling to fully get what’s being said. Anyway, that’s the specs. On with the review!

NOTE: I’ll be using the original Japanese names for the characters, so if you’re already familiar with this series, it will be pretty apparent whom I’m talking about. I’ll also mostly be using the Japanese names for assorted bits of tech, with the exceptions of the few American re-namings that in some cases are more appropriate translations into our idiom.

The mysterious planet Gamilas. Why do its inhabitants want to destroy the Earth?

The story begins in the year 2199, as the Earth is being saturation bombarded with massively radioactive asteroid bombs that have reduced the planet’s surface to an unlivable, scorched expanse of sheer desolation. Why this is happening is unknown, but it’s the work of hostile aliens from the planet Gamilas and as a result humanity has retreated to underground cities in order to survive. Nonetheless, the vast doses of radiation are seeping into the cities and the total extinction of life on Earth is estimated to occur in approximately one year. As the Earth’s space forces wither beneath the swarms of Gamilas spacecraft, help unexpectedly arrives when an unidentified vessel crash lands on Mars, where Earth Defense Force cadets Susumu Kodai and Daisuke Shima are dispatched to investigate. They find the body of the ship’s pilot, an alien later identified as Sasha, and in her hand is a strange object.

Message from space: Sasha sacrifices herself for strangers in a galaxy nearly 300,000 light years from her own.

Upon analysis, the object is revealed to be a message from Sasha’s twin sister, Stasha, queen of the distant and dying planet Iscandar, who offers the Earth the means to reverse the effects of the Gamilas’ bombing with a device called the “Cosmo Cleaner-D.” (Exactly how she is aware of the Earth’s peril is left unclear, so just go with it.) The problem is that in order to get the device, an expedition must be mounted that will require a spaceship to travel from Earth to Iscandar and back before time runs out, a journey of 296,000 light years (!!!). Fortunately, Stasha provides the plans for a faster-than-light engine, and once built it gets incorporated into the refurbished remains of the Yamato, the legendary flagship of the Japanese fleet that was sunk during WWII.

From the ashes: the remains of the Yamato, soon to be refurbished and emerge as a science-fiction landmark.

Led by combat-hardened veteran Captain Juzo Okita, the all-Japanese crew takes off on a damned near hopeless mission in the hastily-assembled space-battleship, bearing an untested warp drive and the potentially devastating “ripple cannon” as their firepower trump card, with a round-trip deadline of 363 days. Standing between the crew of the Yamato and their goal are the innumerable and more technologically advanced fleets of the Gamilas and their ruthless commanding officers, led by the smug Leader Dessler, so any way one cuts it, things look pretty goddamned bleak.

The Yamato leaves the Earth and the countdown begins.

One of the things that made SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO a timeless classic is that its 26-episode length affords the creators time to give the story room to develop, allowing the viewers to get to know and care about the characters and their plight, and it's simply impossible not to want the crew to win and save their — our — homeworld from a slow and horrible death. The seeds for what was to come are firmly planted during the first nine episodes, a run that introduces all of the principal characters, shows us the gathering of the crew and the building of the ship, their solemn departure from Earth with the realization that theirs is a do-or-die quest and that the final fate of humanity hangs on their shoulders, several harrowing space battles with the Gamilas, and assorted interpersonal angst, all before they even get out of our solar system. There's a lot going on and it's all fueled by a compelling cast:
  • Susumu Kodai, Daisuke Shima and Yuki Mori
(L-R) Daisuke Shima, Yuki Mori, Susumu Kodai: as classic to Japanese sci-fi fans as Kirk, Spock and McCoy are to us Yanks.

The show's protagonist is young cadet Susumu Kodai, a hotheaded pilot who burns with anger and grief over his older brother Mamoru's death at the hands of the Gamilas while under the command of Captain Okita. We see him grow and mature over the course of the series, and he is accompanied through all the horror and tribulations by Daisuke Shima, Kodai's best friend and the ship's helmsman and chief navigator, and Yuki Mori, initially the ship's nurse — and one of the apparently minute number of female crew members — but also filling multiple roles, including scanning, making calculations and other aspects vital to the success of the mission. She's also Kodai's love interest, but she conducts herself as a total professional.
  • Captain Juzo Okita
The aging, battle-hardened ship's captain who is wracked with guilt over the death of Kodai's elder brother during an early skirmish with the Gamilas near Titan, one of the moons of Saturn; the elder Kodai's sacrifice allowed Okita's flagship to return to Earth and therefore live on to possibly defeat the enemy. Now leading the mission to Iscandar, Okita vows to live to once more see the planet of his birth, but while his heart is stout, his body is old and his time is running out...
  • Doctor Sado
The sake-guzzling ship's physician and chief source of comic relief, Dr. Sado does what any sane person would do when faced with a scenario as bleak as this: he stays perpetually drunk and is virtually never seen without a huge bottle of sake in hand. He even memorably gets sloshed in deep space while the Yamato is stopped for repairs, actually managing to imbibe while clad from head-to-toe in a space suit.

Dr. Sado, boozing it up while in orbit above Pluto.

Sado's drunkenness was altered for the American version by stating that he was constantly guzzling soy milk for health-related purposes, but we all knew better. Though drawn in a wildly comedic style that has him resembling a shaved gorilla, Dr. Sado is the rare comic relief character who is never annoying and instead frequently comes off as an understandably sad everyman whose drunken excesses cushion his crushing fear and melancholy. He's pretty much my favorite character.
  • Analyzer
Also mostly comedic but played utterly straight, Analyzer can be seen as the direct antecedent to R2-D2. Capable of many functions and possessed of great bravery, this robot is another in the long line of very "human" automatons, even going so far as to volunteer his services on the mission to Iscandar with the intent to "prove" himself. His fatal flaw, however, is his uncontrollable lust for Yuki, and his frequent molestation of her is flat-out sexual harassment that some may find quite offensive. (Needless to say, that aspect of his behavior did not survive in the American edit.) Often paired with Dr. Sado, Analyzer's progress during the series is both intriguing and heartbreaking.
  • Shiro Sanada
The Yamato's science officer and the resident "big brain." The guy's a serious thinker whose ideas frequently pull the crew's fat out of the fire, but he doesn't make much of an impression until the ninth episode, when he suggests the kickass "asteroid defense" (more on that shortly). There's a lot more going on with Sanada that will be explored in subsequent episodes.
  • Leader Dessler
The smooth military commander of the Gamilas forces, Dessler is a smug prick who is utterly sure of his own power. Unfortunately for him, time and again he severely underestimates the human spirit and will to survive (and kick ass), much to his chagrin and growing frustration. But what is this guy's beef with the Earth, and why is he out to wipe out the human race? All will be revealed in subsequent installments...NOTE: the shot of Dessler seen here is from the first nine episodes, during which there was some sort of mixup on the part of the show's cel-painters, so the familiar blue skin tone of Dessler and the other Gamilas was rendered as conventional Caucasian pigment. I'm curious to see if there's any attempt at explaining this away in the later episodes.

The thrust of the first nine episodes is getting the mission off the ground and each step in that goal holds the viewer riveted. Among the highlights:
  • A jingoistic flashback to the Yamato's WWII glory days that was deleted from the U.S. version.
  • The introduction of what's essentially a holodeck, some thirteen years before STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION.
  • The parade of the crew as they embark on the mission, an event met by the public with equal parts hope and fear that the soldiers are simply running away from a slow death to be shared by the rest of the populace.
  • The explanation of how the "ripple engine" works, namely that space can be perceived as a series of ripples like waves — hence the English translation as the "wave-motion engine" — and that space between the peaks in the ripples can be warped and skipped over, vastly reducing travel time. For example, when the ripple drive is first attempted, the Yamato makes the jump from Earth's moon to Mars in roughly a minute. The one snag is that the jump can only be made when the two points in space are in perfect alignment, otherwise the Yamato may end up stuck between dimensions forever.
  • The first deployment of the completely fucking devastating "ripple cannon" — known by the far more butch moniker of the "wave-motion gun" in the U.S. version — is spectacular and shocking, to both the crew and the viewer.
Look no further than this for the roots of the Death Star.

Clearly meant as an analogy for nuclear weaponry, the cannon's initial deployment completely annihilates a floating continent over Jupiter, an effect so devastating that Captain Okita decrees that it only be used when absolutely necessary, because no one has the right to destroy the universe's wonders willy-nilly. Appalled by the weapon's power, the crew wholeheartedly agrees with his order. Coming from the storytelling point of view of the only culture ever to experience the horror of nuclear warfare firsthand, this sequence is very effective and genuinely chilling.
  • The first nine episodes end with a harrowing three-chapter faceoff between the Yamato and a Gamilas base on Pluto as the ship prepares to leave our solar system. Initially intending to avoid combat that may slow down the mission's progress, Captain Okita changes his mind when he discovers that the Pluto base is the source of the radioactive meteors that have been killing the Earth, so he orders that base destroyed. But once again things are not easy for the Earth Defense Force: they have to destroy the base without using the ripple canon, and that will be a stone-cold bitch, largely due to the opposition having the "reflector cannon" — translated in the U.S. version as the "reflex gun" — a beam that is focused and amplified by a planet-wide series of mirror-equipped satellites. During the course of that sub-mission, the Yamato sustains heavy damage and several casualties before a stealth assault team led by Kodai manages to sneak down to the planet's surface, infiltrate the base through a ventilation port and blow the shit out of the weapon and the base. When the surviving Gamilas flee, including base leader Shiru, Leader Dessler makes it clear that they'd better not even think of coming home unless they engage the enemy in what will obviously be a potentially suicidal face-saving conflict. Resigned to his fate, Shiru orders his men into the fray, only to face complete and utter defeat when the Yamato employs Sanada's brillaint "asteroid defense." This entails remote controlling the asteroid field the Yamato had hidden in (to evade the Gamilas sensors and buy enough time to effect repairs) and use it to form an adjustable, rotating ring-shaped shield that can handle the enemy missiles and ray-weapons while the Yamato unleashes a barrage of its own.
The start of the "asteroid defense" strategy.

After vanquishing the Gamilas forces at Pluto, the Yamato survives its first true gauntlet and takes its voyage beyond the solar system, leaving 338 days in which to get to Iscandar and return with the Cosmo Cleaner-D. And so ends the first third of the seminal space-epic.

Wow!

I'd forgotten just how good this show is, and I can't wait to get back to it. Though suitable for those age ten and up, SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO is by no means a kids' show and it's one of the bleakest examples of TV anime out there, perhaps the chief aspect that appealed to those of us who discovered it thirty-one years ago. Even censored, the material was quite strong, and it's a gas to see it un-neutered.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Care to share what site you got this from? It doesn't seem to be available from my usual shopping suspects.

Bunche said...

Oops! In my zeal to get this written I forgot to mention a link for purchasing. Go to http://www.buyanimemovie.com/index.asp