Space Battleship Yamato is a popular Japanese franchise that has had as about a complex history / continuity as one could imagine. First an animated TV series, followed by an animated TV movie which killed off just about the entire cast, followed by a remake of that movie in animated series form minus the killing off of everyone, followed by various other TV movies, TV series, theatrically released re-edits of episodes, a live action science fiction spectacular which adapted the original series and included elements of the second one, and now a new animated series (which again retells the original story). All that is not to mention the English-language dub / re-edit of the series which played in America when I was a kid under the name Star Blazers.
The first season of Yamato has got the makings of a truly awesome plot. It’s got some absurd elements, but then what science fiction does not? In a nutshell, the story involves friendly aliens telling humans how to refit the non-fictional World War II battleship Yamato so that it can fly through space to look for a desperate cure for poisonous radiation that evil aliens are using to destroy the earth. As Star Blazers, it was first truly serialized animated science fiction TV series (and thus an early example of non-animated serialized science fiction TV as well) to find its way to America. It’s a pretty influential story, with the Babylon 5 sequel series, Crusade, was built off of almost the exactly same premise.
I never really watched Star Blazers when it was first on, though various friends of mine always spoke very highly of it. I managed to catch most of the first season as an adult on video, where I appreciated the enormous potential of the show, but was disappointed by the denouement (it seemed rushed, but that might be explained by the fact that it was originally meant to have 50% more episodes than it did). Later I found an English dub of the sequel movie, Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato, in which just about the entire cast is brutally killed off. But then just the other night my friend and I watched the 2010 live action version of Space Battleship Yamato – a movie that I can only describe as spectacularly awesomely ridiculous. It’s got so many problems that it’s hard to point them out, but it’s a lot of fun – certainly a lot more fun than the English Battleship or some other films that I’ve seen recently.
Part of the appeal to this movie, even to a non-fan like myself, is its slavish devotion to the look and feel of the cartoon that it is based on. The look of the Yamato (or Argo, in Star Blazers), the Wave Motion Gun with it’s little video game joystick firing device and all the gravitas of it’s operation, Captain Okita’s goofy antiquated dress style, the overall character designs (even if some of them have changed gender) down to the drunken doctor and their pet cat, the regular officer’s uniform’s with their cool arrows…they all look exactly like I remember them. But the movie also takes enough liberties with the story to be surprising. For example, there is an interesting twist to the ship’s mission to retrieve a promised anti-radiation device that adds a different dimension to the story. The female lead has a few funny action sequences which were not present in the original. And there’s also enough elements from the original sequel to the first series that are blended in – including the death of not quite as many characters, but nearly – to give it a truly epic quality.
Even though I said it has too many problems to really talk about, I can’t avoid mentioning them to some degree. And I think the best way to do this is to give a bit of a blow by blow of what happens in the third (and the surprise twist fourth) act of the movie. So don’t read this if you don’t want spoilers. But really, this is the kind of film where spoilers don’t really hurt things. They just make you want to watch it more:
So, the Yamato finally arrives at Iskander, the planet they’ve been heading to all this time. But suddenly, they are under attack! After a bunch of on-bridge hysterics amongst the lead officers (whose Captain is infirmed and not present, by the way), they eventually “warp” to safety – a dangerous procedure if not done carefully. Luckily it works, and they wind up on the other side of the planet, where their enemy apparently has no means to detect them, for some reason. Realizing that this is both the planet of their hoped-for salvation as well as the planet of their enemies, they decide to sneak down and find out who sent them the plot-motivating message in the first place. This involves a lot of piloting heroics, and the end result is that four of our main characters (the Hero, the Girl, the Smart Guy, and the Crazy Marine) and a bunch of other dudes land a planet absolutely teeming with monstrous enemies. The movie then turns into to a combination of Starship Troopers and a video game from the early 2000’s with decent graphics, as this little band of soldiers fires their way through the attacking hordes. When things go really bad, a talking walkman that the hero’s been carrying around turns into a giant robot and kills a lot of the aliens, before he is overrun. A lot of “red shirts” (although they’re dressed in black marine uniforms) die as do the entire squadron of fighter pilots that the hero used to lead. The four main characters manage to get to the middle of the aliens power center, where the sender of the original message temporarily possesses the Girl and inexplicably rips her outer space suit off. She’s still fully dressed but more evidently attractive, especially as science fiction energy wind billows her hair around appealingly. The possessor tells everyone that the Good Aliens and the Bad Aliens are really the Same Aliens who had an internal disagreement. The Good Aliens turn give the Girl the power to remove the poisonous radiation from the earth (although this is a bit unclear). During all of this, the Bad Aliens for whatever reason don’t attack during any of this, which allows the Smart Guy and the Crazy Marine to sacrifice themselves to destroy the Bad Alien’s (and I guess, the good ones too) Power Source, destroying them all…or so it appears!
The Hero, the Girl, and the rest of the crew (the Friend, the Goofy Doctor, the Terminally-ill Father Figure, the Funny Guy With Glasses, and whoever else) return to earth where they stare out the viewscreen, in awe of the homeworld’s beauty, before they are suddenly and devastatingly attacked (if only anyone had stayed at their posts when they arrived at earth, this might have been avoided). A lot of people (including the Gruff Uncle Figure) are killed. The Bad Aliens turn out to have a few guys still alive, and one of them roams around on the Bridge in a strange crystalline form that appears to breathe in and out, promising to use the last of their power to destroy the earth with what turns out to be the slowest moving space missile ever. How do we know this? Because after it’s fired, there turns out to be a good 15 minutes or so of time for the main characters to stand around, be confused, feel hopeless, discover that the Captain has finally passed away, beat their heads against some walls, and eventually argue with each other over who will stay behind to make the Ultimate Sacrifice. Well, actually they all know the Hero will do it, but the question is whether he will do it alone. First, he has to convince the Friend to go without him, and then he actually has to shoot the Girl to convince her to go. After they finally leave, he is joined by the Titanic-like ghosts of all of his dead friends as he flies the nearly destroyed Yamato to it’s final mission – proving, incidentally that the ship is a lot easier to fly than it’s been made to appear up to that point – to destroy that deadly missile that is still on its way to wipe out all life on earth.
Of course, he succeeds, and as the credits role, we get a brief glimpse of the Girl on a now-restored earth, with her small child whom we all know must belong to the deceased hero, because it’s obviously too soon for her to have connected up with anyone else by then.
So, Space Battleship Yamato: not a great movie, but quite entertaining, and so committed to its principles that it makes you stop and wonder for a moment.