Saturday, 9 July 2011

Film Review: Space Battleship Yamato

I won't lie. I knew fuck all about Space Battleship Yamato when I first came across it. If you were to ask me before, I might have told you it was about a battleship. Named Yamato. In space. But hell, why not? It's tiresome watching Americans save the world from aliens all the time. Let's give the Japanese a shot. When Americans save the world it's never really 'the world', is it? It's Americans, plus a token shot of a European city or two (usually London) to ward off any accusations of self-aggrandising moral grandstanding. You'd actually be lead to believe that only Americans populate this planet. So imagine my grin when it became apparent in the opening scenes that this film uses the exact same device, only replacing Americans with Japanese. I can only assume this was done with a heavy hint of irony where, for example, each Earth ship of the 'combined Earth fleet' has a Japanese name. And even if it wasn't in jest, so what? It's refreshing to see the world inhabited by people other than Americans for a change.

2199. Five years ago an unknown alien race, nicknamed the 'Gamilas', appeared from nowhere and started lobbing meteorites at Earth. With the surface irradiated, humanity has fled underground, teetering on the brink of extinction. When civilian scavenger, Susumu Kodai (Takuya Kimura), discovers an alien capsule containing coordinates to a planet called Iscandar said to have device which can remove radiation, Earth risks its only surviving space battleship, the Yamato, to investigate this last glimmer of hope.

Yamato's characters are perhaps the most stereotypical you could imagine. Hero Kodai is your typical effeminate-looking anime character with wavy hair to match. He jumps from being civilian scavenger one moment to ship's super-weapon controller the next, only to end up in the Captain's chair without ever really doing anything to merit it, other than some vague acknowledgement that he was in the military once upon a time. Likewise we have obligatory heroine/love interest Yuki Mori (Meisa Kuroki) who starts out as a feisty young cookie giving it all girl power only to instantaneously flip to whimpering emotional wreck when Kodai inevitably has his way with her. And even that comes out of nowhere, their chemistry together so patently awkward that they barely even talk up to that point. Indeed, it would turn out all you have to do to sort out any strong, "unfeminine" female is to give her a good hard fucking. Only then will they know their place. You'll also find all the other archetypes here, from Japanese Scotty to inexorable tough-guy. The problem with this is that, minus a generic backstory of some personal tragedy, the characters don't feel particularly well fleshed out. And yet, despite their genericness, Yamato's characters are still likeable, all emanating a warm glow.

Indeed, while characters are important in any film, Yamato places them as secondary in favour of an intense, over-the-top use of melodrama devoted to the story. Certainly there is definitely a cartoonish emotional tone to the point where this film is can be so emo that even the serious parts are borderline hilarious in a cringeworthy kind of way. Cheesy cliches which over-emphasise the 'epic' often occur, to the point where I even counted four separate 'end' speeches before the film was finally over. As a side note, it also features Steven Tyler's 'spiritual successor' to the famous Armageddon theme, 'I Don't Want To Miss A Thing'. Apparently Tyler was so moved having watched a prescreening that he was inspired to write 'Love Lives', a song which perfectly encapsulates the film's emotive core. Fortunately, Yamato is so much fun that it just about prevents itself from capsizing under the weight of its own melodrama. The fact that the narrative bounds along at such a pace means that it never dwells on the emo, maintaining a competent enough script to keep events moving and its audience to remain emotionally invested in proceedings.

Aesthetically Space Battleship Yamato gives a visceral nod to Hollywood style visuals. Indeed, its Western audience might notice it looks incredibly similar to the 2005 reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Certainly, if you didn't know Yamato was based on a seventies Japanese anime series you could be forgiven for thinking the whole concept was a total ripoff. Ironically however it might be worth noting that the original seventies BSG apparently lifted much from the Yamato anime before accusations of shameless copying arise. Regardless, it's undeniably stunning. The vessel herself is essentially a second world war capital ship in space, rendered with striking attention to detail. The space battles, of which there are no shortage of, are fantastic and the colours used to paint the cosmos are beautiful. However, it would seem the budget was spent predominantly on the space sections as visuals take an inexplicable dive when the crew arrive on Iscandar. What ensues might resemble a Halo movie should the Sci-Fi channel ever get a chance to make it.

Space Battleship Yamato is essentially a live-action anime. If you can see it for what it is and don't take this too seriously you'll definitely have a blast. Yes, the screenplay is questionable in places and it is overwrought on the melodrama, but its production values are high and it still remains incredibly fun to watch. Moreover it is solid, even when its structural integrity suggests that it perhaps should break up upon reentry. Yamato is undoubtedly a flawed sci-fi, but one thing it is not is boring.


Anonymous said...

Yamato was actually among the first anime (after Astro Boy and Speed Racer) to be successfully imported into the US. It began as a televised anime.

In the early '80s, when America still called anime "Japanimation," a translated and edited version of the 1st two seasons was syndicated in the US under the name STAR BLAZERS.

STAR BLAZERS introduced a whole generation of geeks to long-form storytelling with adult themes like honor and sacrifice, and its realistic portrayal of death and its consequences was unlike anything else aimed at kids.

I'm psyched the live-action movie turned out so well! I'm actually glad they kept the level of melodrama pretty high -- the fate of the world is literally in their hands, and things don't get much more serious than that. And if there weren't a few overly sappy scenes, that godawful Steven Tyler song never would have worked at the end.

I'm going to edit the subtitle file to replace the names with their STAR BLAZERS counterparts (Captain Avatar, Derek Wildstar, Nova, IQ-9, Dr. Sane...) since I know the characters much better that way.

If this movie was released in the US, dubbed into English using the Star Blazers character names, every male over 35 would be dragging their kids to see it.

Especially if they put the theme song's English lyrics in the trailer! "We're off to outer space/we're leaving Mother Earth/To save the human race..."

Alekazam said...


Thanks for the background on Yamato. I picked this film up on a complete whim, having known next to nothing of its anime history.

But I agree with you, I think in this case the melodrama worked incredibly well for it when it so often has a tendency to go wrong.

Appreciate the comment. Stick around =)