Space Battleship Yamato – Can it triumph over corniness?

“Space Battleship Yamato” / 2010. Japan / Yamazaki Takashi / 131 Minutes / Drama

In the year 2199, the Earth’s surface is a radioactive wasteland, deserted from continuous meteorite bombardment by the alien Gamilas race. The last few human survivors have descended underground while others lead desperate battles against the space invaders. One day, disillusioned ace fighter pilot and ex-member of the Earth Defence Force Kodai Susumu (Kimura Takuya) witnesses a space capsule falling from the sky carrying the blueprint for a faster-than-light engine. Captain Okita (famous for his apathy cold-bloodedness in combat and his fake beard) uses this to refurbish the wreck of World War II battleship Yamato into a laser canon-equipped space battleship that soon embarks to the distant planet Iscandar, not for kebab but for getting mankind rescued by the capsule’s mysterious sender… After seriously kicking some Gamilon asses with the Yamato’s new wave motion gun Kodai and his ethnically-cleansed Japanese crew under Captain Okita depart at warp speed for the corniest space adventure of all time.

I always had a love-hate relationship with the original Space Battleship Yamato movies.
The space saga started out as a popular anime series in 1974. Comic artist Matsumoto Leiji was behind the design and the old school battleships and Nazi uniforms of the Gamilas army made the series like WWII with laser guns. The success called for several movie adaptions, each in which the brave Yamato crew gave sacrifices to avert another alien apocalypse. In that way the saga nourished the nostalgia revolving around the actual battle cruiser Yamato, that was sunk by the US Airforce in one of the last big battles of World War II, despite being the mightiest warship ever constructed. Japan may had lost the war, but resurrected as space cruiser with superweapon the science-fiction Yamato transcended the dream of a reinvigorated Japanese military into a cosmic realm, saving whole galaxies from doom. It is interesting to note the parallels of World War II aesthetics in space between the YAMATO saga and STAR WARS which were released at roughly the same time.
Besides feeding a latent nationalism (the theme song became so popular that even the Japanese Navy adapted it), many of the anime movies of the 70’s and 80’s were a trial of patience, with their phlegmatic narration and humorless war settings. With almost three hours, FINAL YAMATO (1983) remains the longest animation movie ever made. On the other hand, the Yamato videos that I had at home were the only food of a teenager hungry for space battles. I knew the Yamato long before I knew the Millennium Falcon, and that’s probably true for most Japanese kids. The films were so exchangable in their apocalyptic scenarios and so long that I could never tell the video tapes apart. Thankfully, Yamazaki Takashi’s SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO – the first real-live version – is a much more watchable film, scrapping the lengthy immersions into militaristic cult for a cookie-cutter approach storyline so predictable you don’t have to be a Yamato-fan.

If you are a Japanese under 50, you’re most probably familiar with the Iscandar adventure anyway and need not expect much surprises from this version. In fact, after 40 years of the Yamato franchize, spawning video games, toys and comics there is little new in this movie that could conceal the clear intention of making this battleship merely another box-office vehicle for the production company TBS (Tokyo Broadcast System). Despite its qualities as decent action flick it seems that SBS YAMATO is one of these heartless exploitation movies that are calculated out by a necktied production committee. Just take the next best anime, cast some pop idols, mash insane CG effects together and hire the Aerosmith singer to ensure high revenue, while exercising as little creative imagination as possible.
It’s therefore no wonder that the film shamelessly steals elements from J.J. Abrams’ 2009 STAR TREK (the light effects, the villain spaceships, the free fall to the planet surface, the opening fight) and the re-imagined BATTLE STAR GALACTICA series (virtually every battle scene is a copy-paste from there, even the “Adama Maneuver” on Iscandar’s surface). Since the movie draws so heavily from these, it must be measured by their standards. Plus, all of these three are updates of popular 70’s TV shows. But while the new versions of STAR TREK and BS GALACTICA succeeded in propelling their cult sagas to new levels of excellence, SBS YAMATO remains little more than just another translation from animation to a mainstream action movie, although it gets credit for not sucking completely at it.

The movie actually attempts to keep CGI-laden space fights in balance with human drama. Like in the orginal series, the comradeship of the crew members builds a major part of the story. Uber-sex symbol Kimura Takuya gives Kodai some nice twists as bold but honest leader, and his anger towards Captain Okita (he blames him for abandoning his brother in battle) makes him the only character with a convincing emotional ground. The rest of the ensemble is all cliché and the usual cheeziness. They tried to reinvent Kodai’s love interest Yuki as top pilot and Japanese Starbuck, but forgot to copy all the other antagonies and weaknesses which made the character play in BS GALACTICA so tense. And despite the fate of the Earth at stake, SBS YAMATO also lacks the mood of lurking panic that keeps the audience of BS GALACTICA thrilled throughout.
I also noticed the limited number of sets… whereas in STAR TREK you get a sense of the U.S.S. Enterprise’s roominess, you feel that the Yamato has not much behind its hull. This movie had a pretty high budget for a Japanese film (22 billion yen), so one wonders if all the money has been eaten up by the dozens of CGI-workshops that appear in the credits, or if Kim Tak’s guarantee was so high. I do not want to judge SBS YAMATO too harshly, as it is easy to consume and effects-wise a pretty spectacular work (that wave motion gun rocks!). After an hour I got used to it and was well entertained. But you also have to consider that great CGI work had been done before in the most recent Yamato games and the (unsuccessful) animation movie SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO: RESURRECTION (2009) and they recreate the epic scale of the series better than this movie…

Fans of the series will be pleased by the retro style of the production design, from the 70’s  uniforms to the outdated interiors. There is also a plenty of citations from the original movies and tv series. Of course, we have the wonderful music and a destructive grand finale. The live-action film sticks firmly to its anime original(s), and only deviates where it makes sense. The biggest (and only) surprise were the Gamilons. In the original these were just blue humanoids in fascist costumes, here they are more “alien” to a point where some appear as floating energy crystals – pretty cool if you ask me. That doesn’t mean that Kodai’s arch rival Deslar and the Iscandarian Queen Starsha (Matsumoto Leiji had a faible for godlike female characters) do not have clever cameos. I somehow have the impression that this could have been a fabulous movie, if it had bursted the bonds of its own legacy.

It seems my love-hate relationship with the space battleship will continue.

The official English website

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