Thursday, March 3, 2016

Space Battleship Yamato: The Movie

Roughly 35 or 36 years ago, I turned on the television one afternoon after school and found an action packed space battle taking place in gloriously drawn animation. I had no idea what I was looking at, but smack-dab in the middle of all of the high-tech looking spaceships, both single pilot fighters and larger base ships, was what looked for all the world like a seafaring battleship.

But it was in space.

That actually seemed really cool to me back then. I kept watching that episode and then continued to watch the show, Star Blazers, every day after coming home from school. I had lucked out and ended up coming into the first series before it had been going for too long, so it was very easy to get into it and follow the story. What I watched was the epic adventure of mankind’s last hope to save the Earth from deadly radiation inflicted upon it by an enemy from across the stars.

The Earth is left with a little more than a year to survive. Her space fleets have been all but decimated in battles with an enemy, the Gamilons, who have bombed the planet with radiation bomb after radiation bomb. An unknown ship comes into Earth space, damaged and out of control, and crashes on Mars. It’s only occupant dies, but she delivers information, technical knowhow beyond Earth’s science, star maps, and the promise of a device on her home world that can save the Earth, that gives the people of Earth hope and allows them to build a ship capable of traveling farther than any Earth ship has traveled before, as well defending herself with weapons unlike any seen on Earth.

With resources severely limited, the governments of Earth agree to rebuild a sunken WWII battleship, Japan’s Yamato, into their new space battleship. Once launched, they have just one year to fight their way across the universe to the planet Iscandar where Earth’s promised savior is to be found and then return home with the device. Along the way, there’s some great action, some involving character moments, more than a few devastating losses, and overall a rollicking good story.

I would learn in later years that Star Blazers was the brainchild of Leiji Matsumoto, creator of such other properties as Galaxy Express 999, Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Queen Emeraldas, The Galaxy Railways, Cosmo Warrior Zero, and Maetal Legend among others. I would also learn there were films that were a little darker and more mature than the American version of the series.

Star Blazers was basically my gateway drug for anime. For a very long time, it was even my measuring stick for space opera. While it seemed like I was the only person I knew in my little area watching it, it turned out that it was a very popular series in the US. How popular? Popular enough that by the mid-90s we had Disney planning a live action feature film version with an early script written by an Oscar winning writer. That film, after much delay, finally succumbed to Hollywood’s famous “Development Hell” zone, and it, like the many rumors of American live-action film versions to come after it, never came to pass.

Fast-forward to 2010. A live action Japanese film, Space Battleship Yamato, is released in Japan to great fanfare. Fast-forward again to April 29, 2014. It’s finally released in America as a DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack. But reviewing this film is actually kind of difficult because there are two things going on when you first watch it.

On the one hand, if you are a longtime Star Blazers fan, there are geek-out moments a-plenty. There are scenes that you remember from the anime that were reproduced here in amazingly well done CGI scenes. The Yamato launching for the first time, under attack, raising up out of the dirt, and seemingly destroyed before emerging triumphantly from a cloud of smoke and dust, is amazing to see in live action. The effect of pulling your nostalgia strings is made all the more powerful due to the fact that the film’s score is largely comprised of musical cues taken from the series itself, rearranged into a full, soaring orchestral score. If you were a Star Blazers geek as a kid, it’s scenes like that in the film that will turn you into a giddy 10 or 13 year old all over again. This was a film that very much feels like it was made by fans, for fans.

Now, the mood of the film does feel darker than the American animated TV series, and there are also changes to story elements that tend to have you scratching your head from time to time. But taken as a whole, at least on first and second viewings, seeing so many familiar moments brought to life so well and scored as they are; the nostalgia effect is powerful and easily overrides reasonable viewing judgments.

On the other hand, the film does have weaknesses that are likely far more glaring to anyone who hasn’t spent years or decades being a fan of the show and thus blinded by feelings of nostalgia. Pulling out all the bells and whistles to use nostalgia to cover for some weaknesses in a film doesn’t work if there’s no nostalgia there to play on.

The above mentioned head scratching moments can’t totally be saved by a dip back into the familiar that’s accompanied by a rousing rendition of the old show’s score. The cuts to the story caused by condensing an entire season of story into a film that’s a little over 2 hours in length creates a CliffsNotes feeling with much of the narrative structure, and some of the important relationships formed by members of the crew come off as forced without the proper pacing and room given them with the luxury of far greater storytelling time.

Additionally, as well as they did the CGI effects, the apparently limited resources and/or budget for those same effects, combined with the shortened room for storytelling, rears its head in some pretty ugly ways. Several space battles, and one in particular that I can’t discuss without it being a spoiler, feel like they were taking shortcuts to either save time or to save on the CGI/FX budget. A few battles that should have been wild roller coaster rides just sort of happen and then fizzle out.

The foundation for the story of the film is solid, some of the actors portraying the characters, especially Takuya Kimura playing (Wildstar) Susumu Kodai, are very much spot on, and the overall level of the production values is pretty high. Unfortunately, unless you’re just a hardcore collector for Yamato/Star Blazers, this probably might not be a film that you’ll want to buy.

Space Battleship Yamato is one of those films that you want to be so much better than it turned out to be. It’s certainly worth a look by the casual fan as a rental, but I just can’t recommend it as a buy to the person who has never seen it before.  While I’d highly recommend that any longtime fan of the old anime watch it at least once, I’m not even sure that I can recommend it as a buy for many unless they’re as hardcore a fan as I am. My wife however, who was a casual fan at best, did say I should mention that she enjoyed the film.

Oh, yeah… The film’s initial success in Japan and general buzz has once again sparked talks of an American remake film from David Ellison's Skydance Productions with Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie, X-Men) tapped to helm the thing. That might be the other reason to give this version a watch. Given Hollywood’s recent track record with American adaptations of anime, manga, and Asian films, this may well be the best live action version that we ever get.

Space Battleship Yamato is available on the American market in a DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack. The film’s audio track is in Japanese with optional English subtitles.

 Jerry Chandler is a serious horror geek with a lifelong love of trying to find books and movies that can scare the spit out of him. When not watching and reading horror, he can sometimes be found helping to make horror with his filmmaking family in NC, Adrenalin Productions. He loves Halloween slightly more than Christmas, and almost as much as Dragon Con. When not writing here, he can be found at his other homes on the web by looking at his own blog, his Twitter, and his Facebook.

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