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July 2, 2011

9

Movie Review – Space Battleship Yamato (2010)

by Master Pillow

Growing up there were two shows which I always wanted to see on TV.  It did not matter what I was doing at that particular time since the mere sight of these familiar images popping up on the TV compelled me to sit down to watch whatever episode was on even though I probably had seen each of them a million times.  The first show is a no brainer to guess for those who follow my blog especially its first incarnation over on Blogger since the entire website header was emblazoned with the USS Enterprise in all her glory.

The other show is only really known by my close geeky friends and I’m not embarrassed to say I was part of that nerdy crowd.  Whenever the familiar fanfare began to play I was immediately inundated with hundreds of images in my head from all my favourite scenes and suddenly I imagined myself standing on the bridge surrounded by yet another crew of colourful characters.  No, it’s not the Enterprise this time but here in the West it was the good ship Argo although anime fans from around the world know it better as its proper name, the Yamato.

Yes, that second favourite show of mine growing up was none other than Star Blazers aka Space Battleship Yamato and though the animation has certainly grown almost pedestrian with age it nonetheless features a timeless narrative of David versus Goliath like proportions yet manages to do so not only with grand space battles but through quieter introspection.  I remember I wrote a review of Star Blazers way back in high school which I will one day paste up here on my blog just for historical reasons but suffice it to say it was a ground breaking space opera much in the same vein of Star Trek albeit with a dash of Star Wars action sensibility.

I won’t bother readers with an entire overview of the series or the various conspiracy theories regarding George Lucas borrowing heavily from the show (the original Japanese series premiered in 1974 a full three years before Star Wars) but trying to recommend Star Blazers to a modern audience is a tough proposition since as I mentioned the animation quality has not aged particularly well.  Those who are a bit more adventurous will find an exemplary tale especially the first season which incorporates so many features and highlights that I would have enough material to write a dissertation on.

Regardless, I had always heard rumours about a Star Blazers movie but back then most of it centered on Hollywood trying to shoehorn the narrative into something more American.  Instead of the Yamato the focus shifted to the USS Arizona but the overall plot remained the same.  Even today after the release of this Japanese live-action movie these rumours of an American remake persist and I figure the pressure has certainly gone up a notch for them to make it work considering that the Japanese reimagining was a big box office success.   Certainly the rumours sound delicious with Christopher McQuarrie heading the adaptation who cinephiles will know as the screenwriter for The Usual Suspects and co-writer of Valkyrie.

For the uninitiated Space Battleship Yamato the live action movie more or less follows the general plot of the first season with a few tidbits thrown in from later years as well as the subsequent animated movies.  Sometime in the future Earth has come under planetary bombardment from the planet Gamilas (or Gamelon in the US translation) which has totally irradiated the surface forcing humans to live in underground cities.  However, the attacks keep coming and soon Earth’s leaders realize that it is only a matter of time before the radiation seeps into the ground and kills everyone.

The movie opens with the remaining Earth fleet’s last stand against the Gamilas forces but it is clear that they are severely outmatched as their laser fire bounces off the Gamilas ships while the return fire rips the Earth fleet to shreds.  Captain Okita (Tsutomu Yamazaki) realizes they are sitting ducks and orders a retreat but in the end only his ship manages to limp back to Earth.  It is at this point that we’re introduced to our hero Kodai played with appropriate hair by good old JDRAMA king Takuya Kimura who has donned a radiation suit to walk on the surface of the Earth when he is unexpectedly thrown to the ground by a nearby blast as what appears to be a meteorite ploughs into the Earth’s crust.  However, this turns out to be an alien device bearing a message from someone named Starsha who has given the humans plans for a revolutionary wave motion engine in order for them to make a trip to her planet called Iskandar where she promises she has in her possession technology that will eliminate the radiation plaguing Earth and make it a liveable blue orb once again.

Realizing that this might be their only chance of survival the remaining Earth forces outfit their last Battleship with the technology and cobble together the best candidates to journey to Iskandar, retrieve the technology and return home all the while evading the invading Gamilas forces.  The anime featured a wonderful countdown to Earth’s destruction that appeared at the end of each episode informing viewers how many days the Earth had left to “live.”  That countdown is understandably nowhere to be found in the film but is sorely missed.

This overarching plot takes up the entire first season of the Star Blazers anime and it is a wonder that the filmmakers have managed to cram tens of hours into a running time of 2:20.  However, this turns the movie into a series of vignettes that take the most familiar sequences from the animation and chops out much of the bloat especially the numerous space battles.  As the movie progresses though the reliance on sticking to established canon slowly goes out the window with the biggest change coming in the third act which plays out very much unlike what most would expect.

I suspect these radical changes will have fans firmly divided into those who can understand the need for dramatic tinkering and those who feel totally robbed.  I won’t say much except that part of what made Star Blazers so great was that it featured an arch villain who seemed like more than a match for the crew of the Yamato which unfortunately does not work as well here in the live action movie.  This forces the focus to shift only towards our heroes which is not necessarily bad since there are so many characters that the film needs enough time to provide needed backstory for each.  However, it also robs the narrative of the kind of duality and “honour in battle” storyline that made the series stand out in the 1970s timeframe.

Other changes that are rather glaring take a page from Battlestar Galactica whereby many major characters get a gender swap from male to female or have their personalities totally changed especially the heroine Yuki played by Meisa Kuroki who goes from passive window dressing in the anime to hot blooded fighter ace much like good old Katey Sackhoff’s take on Starbuck.  However, this is still firmly a Japanese film so don’t expect Meisa to go around kicking ass and spouting obscenities in every scene as it certainly appears that the filmmakers have stuck to the model of making her look like she’s just stepped out of a fashion shoot in virtual every scene she is in.

Viewers are immediately going to notice that the Japanese filmmakers have done an exceptional job with the expanded budget and although it can’t match Hollywood blockbuster status the sets and special effects are on par with what you find on American science fiction television.  It is perhaps no surprise that director Takashi Yamazaki (who won the Japanese equivalent of a directorial Academy Award for his work on Always: Sunset on Third Street) borrows heavily from shows like Battlestar Galactica and even J.J. Abram’s version of Star Trek as there is much steadycam work, lens flares and hectic camera editing.  Still, there remains much anime sensibility although it certainly needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  For instance, the Earth fleet at the beginning of the movie is aligned in a kind of WWI battle formation with all vessels sitting upright on the same plane.  This would work wonders on a flat ocean surface but it is sincerely jarring in space especially when the fighters are weaving much like in Battlestar Galactica flipping around taking advantage of true 3-dimensional strategy.

At other times the Yamato does a violent yaw to one side and everyone onboard does their best representation of original Star Trek by flailing around and pretending to fall all over the set but it ends up with as much sense of reality as seeing William Shatner bounce off the walls of the Enterprise.  Still, these are nitpicking elements to point out and as a whole the Japanese effects team acquits themselves well.

Nevertheless, it is apparent that there were still budget constraints since many of the sets are very cramped or merely redressed existing locations which makes the film sometimes feel very claustrophobic.  The massive engine room from the anime series has suddenly been shrunk to a room about half the size of a trailer home which makes one wonder if the engineering crew does nothing but press buttons instead of working on maintaining the physical workings of the machinery.  In a way the movie feels very much like Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country or parts of Star Trek Nemesis where camera trickery is used to convey a sense of scale that you really know doesn’t exist.  The one negative though is that the claustrophobic sets tend to cut down on a lot of camera movement especially the bridge which I always imagined as being huge.  Instead, with its tight space the director is constrained to a lot of pans and lacks the dynamicism found in J.J.Abram’s Star Trek with a camera that could move everywhere with extreme fluidity.

Additionally, for such a big spaceship the Yamato often times feels like its crewed by two chimpanzees and a trainee since the same dozen or so characters keep appearing a fact all the more highlighted at one point where all the crew pile into a single puny troop transport making viewers finally realize how sparsely crewed the ship is.  This is also apparent in other scenes when the Yamato deploys her entire team of crack commandos and fighter escorts whose numbers can unfortunately can be counted on both hands.

Diehard fans are going to find a lot to like here with virtually the entire first act filled with set piece after set piece that seem almost like direct translations from the source material.  You’ve probably heard it too much by now but I’ll say it again, Space Battleship Yamato feels very much like J.J. Abram’s Trek reboot because it manages to take all the key elements of what made the original series so popular and cram them all into a movie’s constrained running time yet finds a coherent and convincing way to tweak, add or modify enough to make it feel fresh.  There are literally tons of homage moments scattered all throughout the film to satiate long suffering fans such as the attention to detail on the updated uniforms which absolutely pass the test of being influenced by the anime yet appear completely functional except for good old Captain Okita whose anchor hat and anchor adorned cabin door still makes him look more like Captain Highliner.  However, I have to really focus here on two elements which show both reverence to the original series and some modern sensibility.

One of the key episodes in Star Blazers that has stuck with me all these years and is one facet that fans will always bring up is the fact that the series decided to basically wrench the focus away from frantic space battles to character development for one entire episode.  Remember, this is an animated show from the 1970s and as a kid I was immediately amazed the first time thinking, “Huh, nothing is happening in this entire episode at all — boorriinngg!”  Later on a realized upon further viewings the enormity of what was occurring and how it set the stage for wonderful character development.  The movie smartly follows suit and recreates the scene with perfect pitch.  As the Yamato flies further and further away from Earth there comes a time when it reaches the communication range limit thus Captain Okita decides to give each crewmember a short time to call their love ones back on Earth for a kind of final farewell.  Even in the animated show this is a gut wrenching episode as viewers are given glimpses of how each character reacts to talking to their love ones and then getting cut off as their allotted time ends.  Once again, the focus is clearly on Kodai who basically is forced to go into the communication room and call someone but the audience realizes he has no one to call as every family member or person he cares about is dead thus he sits in silence as his time counter ticks down.

The other callout comes with the director’s decision on what to do with IQ-9 which is the series’ R2D2 robot assistant who is often times played for laughs.  Looking at his 70s retro styling it would be more than ridiculous to just animate him as a 3D model with those giant treads for wheels yet it would also be insulting to remove his character altogether.  The filmmakers go the thoughtful route by turning him into a kind of PDA device which can be inserted into other machinery like one of Yamato’s space fighters.  However, in a huge bit of fanservice (no I don’t use the term in the way meaning panty shots!) the filmmakers find a way to bring back the robotic form of IQ-9 in a short scene that is sure to make some fanatics jump for joy that he actually does something useful and heroic.

In terms of performances every actor acquits themselves well here as they all must have realized that the only way to pretend you are flying around in a outfitted WWII Battleship is to give it a sense of gravitas that it deserves.  Of course, as Kodai the entire film depends on Takuya Kimura to step up to the plate as the hotblooded soon-to-be-Captain and fortunately he nails it which is not surprising in the least but the secondary characters are a bit of a mixed bag just because the film strains to elicit emotions from the audience with only the thinnest of backstory for many of them.  As mentioned earlier Meisa Kuroki is simply stunning to look at but the filmmakers gloss over much of her intended machismo and quickly reduce her to stereotypical female sidekick love interest which is a bit of a disappointment considering her character starts off as the ace of the fleet.

Finally, a huge nod of approval has to go to composer Naoki Sato who manages to totally one up Michael Giacchino’s work on Star Trek by taking the already iconic Yamato score and updating it for modern audiences in such a way as to create a soundtrack that will surely go down in the history of space operas as being one of the best.  He does this mainly by ripping away the annoying disco influence that so embedded the original score that was plainly distracting since the main melodies were all fully orchestral.  By focusing completely on a full orchestral sound Sato manages to weave the old tunes into new arrangements while adding some truly inspired new ones that really serve to highlight the film’s numerous emotional highpoints.  Really, every science fiction fan should go out right now and buy the soundtrack or at least listen to it over the Internet as it more than holds up on its own separate from the film.

Space Battleship Yamato might not be the watershed moment in Japanese movie history that it is sometimes advertised as.  Sure, the big budget certainly helps but the narrative is what truly distinguished the anime series from other shows of its era and that is only partially successful here due to the shortened movie time frame and a few odd modern changes.  In fact, the movie simply flies when it stays close to the source material but clearly has some difficulty trying to express its new elements most easily seen in a sagging third act that has some truly odd pacing issues where melodrama takes center stage at the expense of realism.  While these sorts of drawn out emotional outpourings are fine in some instances placing them right in the middle of the climax literally takes the wind out of the sails as many can feel the film beginning to grind.  However, this can be somewhat forgiven since it is clear that the filmmakers are trying for a emotionally heroic crescendo but I can’t help but feel a few snips in the editing room would greatly benefit the film’s rhythm.

For a show that made its premiere only two years after I was born in 1974 Space Battleship Yamato has stood the test of time to become not only one of anime’s greatest science fiction series but a global phenomenon.  It’s story is timeless with universal appeal that speaks to everyone from all cultures.  The movie shows great respect for the source material and though it might not hit the highs of J.J. Abram’s Star Trek reboot it is still a fun ride for most of its running time although the ending rock ballad by Aerosmith member Steven Tyler is a bit over the top and does nothing but dredge up bad memories of Michael Bay’s awful movie, Armageddon.  Ignoring this fact, viewers are going to certainly be entertained and hopefully more than a few decide to go back and watch the original animation to see what all the fuss was about.  At the very least go learn the lyrics and belt out the tune at the next anime convention!

*** out of ****

We’re off to outer space
We’re leaving Mother Earth
To save the human race
Our Star Blazers!
 
Searching for a distant star
Heading off to Iscandar
Leaving all we love behind
Who knows what danger we’ll find?
 
We must be strong and brave
Our home we’ve got to save
If we don’t in just one year
Mother Earth will disappear
 
Fighting with the Gamilons
We won’t stop until we’ve won
Then we’ll return and when we arrive
The Earth will survive
With our Star Blazers

2010 Japan, 131 Minutes, Shogakukan/TBS Pictures
Directed by Takashi Yamazaki
Produced by Toshiaki Nakazawa
Executive Producer Kazuya Hamana
Screenplay by Shimako Sato
Story by Yoshinobu Nishizaki
Original Music by Naoki Sato
Cinematography by Kôzô Shibasaki

Susumu Kodai: Takuya Kimura
Yuki Mori: Meisa Kuroki
Hajime Saito: Hiroyuki Ikeuchi
Juzo Okita: Tsutomu Yamazaki
Shiro Sanada: Toshirô Yanagiba
Daisuke Shima: Naoto Ogata
Hikozaemon Tokugawa: Toshiyuki Nishida
Akira Yamamoto: Takumi Saitô
Mamoru Kodai: Shin’ichi Tsutsumi
Saburo Kato: Kazuki Namioka
Doctor Sado: Reiko Takashima

© 2011 The Galactic Pillow

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Elaine
    Jul 19 2011

    This is the first Japanese live action sci-fi movie that I’ve seen, so I was skeptical at first, but it turned out really good. I almost cried at the end…

    Reply
  2. Ra
    Nov 26 2011

    same disappointing feeling I got from those hollywood incarnations of comics cartoons and games, as if santa gave you popgun instead of a freezeray- kind- of- feeling

    cgi was good, theres a lot of starwars happening (trench run, into the bowels of deathstar etc)

    acting was very much tokusatsu standard cept for the actor playing chief engineer

    wardrobe was good, it could have been more truer to the anime, props could have been better for a big budgeted film, crude plaster cardboard wasnt able to hide the g36 airsoft guns

    and that banzai/kamikaze aspect, and this is not about the real life battleship yamato

    like the american godzilla it could have been good

    Reply
    • Master Pillow
      Dec 5 2011

      I understand your frustration and your issues. For a non-Hollywood production the CGI was fine but it lacked the raw tension building dynamics one can see in something like the re-imagined Galactica which had Vipers and Cylons spinning all over the place in true 3D. I know some didn’t like the excessive shaking but for me the faux-reporting style worked there. I definitely agree that the relatively low budget was obvious in the sets which were far too cramped and looked to be made of cheap materials. About the only thing really missing in terms of American sci-fi influence were JJ Abrams’ use to excessive lens flares!

      Reply
  3. Ra
    Nov 26 2011

    and yes a lot of heavy rips from battlestar and jj abrams’ startrek

    Reply

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