Friday, January 20, 2012

Space Battleship Yamato

Back in the mid 1970s, my friend Bill Gudmundson (visit Bill's Kitchen) sent me a cassette tape with some music from Space Cruiser Yamato, the Japanese animated TV series and feature film. I immediately went all gaga over the stuff. Composed by the late Hiroshi Miyagawa, the scores are loaded with atmosphere, wistful melodies, and rousing energy. The little bit of information about the series I could dig up fascinated me even more. Soon enough, much to my delight, the two seasons of the series extant made its way to our shores under the title Star Blazers. At the time, I was living on campus at the University of Georgia in Athens, and it was one of those situations where, if I wanted to watch TV, I had to settle for one of the dormitory's community sets. The show came on at 3:30 on weekday afternoons, and this was kind of bad, because those students who weren't in class were all watching General Hospital (which actually snared me for a time, a year or so later, when John Colicos of Battlestar Galactica fame was on board as a mad genius out to destroy the world with his homemade freeze ray machine). Many was the day I had to fight with a bunch of irate young women in order to gain control of the floor's TV set. I usually won out by convincing them to visit one of the other floors, where communal GH gatherings achieved legendary proportions. For quite some time I was known as the geek who shut down General Hospital to watch cartoons.

Yeah, I was a Yamato fan. Back in the 80s, I owned, either on VHS or laser disc, all three seasons of original Japanese TV series, all five feature films, every poster, every book, every model kit from the series. This is good stuff we're talking.

These days, I'm not quite so gaga over the whole business, but I will tell you that, a couple of years back, the announcement of a new, live-action Space Battleship Yamato feature did send me into a minor tizzy. The film was released in Japan in 2010 and has been available on DVD for some time now; I finally got around to purchasing a copy and watched it tonight. I'm guessing the only reason I delayed picking it up was to prove to somebody, maybe me, that I control my geeky leanings; they do not control me. (Did you know that Criterion is releasing a deluxe edition of the original Japanese version of Godzilla?)

Space Battleship Yamato, directed by Takashi Yamazaki, is, at the very least, a handsome enough production, with a decent cast; a mostly engaging story; fair special effects; and a satisfying score by Naoki Sato that interpolates many of Miyagawa's signature themes. The script of the original 1974 Japanese feature film, Space Cruiser Yamato, condensed the storyline from 26 half-hour TV episodes into a two-hour theatrical movie, and this film does much the same thing—at least for about the first two-thirds of its running time—oftentimes faithfully reproducing the original scene setup and dialogue. No doubt due to time constraints, the origin of the title vessel itself is skimmed over; understandable, to be sure, yet nonetheless unsatisfying, for it's the Yamato's unique identity that has historically lain at the heart of the franchise. Rather than building up to the revelation of Yamato, the script, for all intents and purposes, presents the ship as "just another battleship." Until near the end of the picture, one never quite gets the sense that the Yamato is as significant a character as any of the human cast.

To one so familiar with the characters and worlds of the animated series, it is both disconcerting and refreshing to find that the origins of the villainous Gamilas, including their illustrious leader Dessler, and the benevolent Stasha of Iscandar have been totally refashioned. For the benefit of other geeks, I'll not reveal much about these fundamental revisions to the mythos other than to say that, in some ways, they benefit the picture, while in others they fall woefully short. Alas, while much of the CGI in the film works nicely, particularly with the mecha, the alien characters don't fare very well.

As the film progresses, certain elements from the second, stand-alone feature film, Arrivederci, Yamato, come into play, particularly at the climax. These are profound enough to insure that Space Battleship Yamato does not represent the first chapter of an ongoing saga, at least not that could follow any previously established continuity. This was a good decision on the producers' part, I believe; this film need not spawn a whole new franchise.

In the overall, the cast members fulfilled and in some cases surpassed my expectations in their various roles. At first, I was a little dubious of lead actor Takuya Kimura as Susumu Kodai, but as his character develops, I found myself quite satisfied with his performance. Meisa Kuroki as Yuki Mori immediately struck me as better than spot-on; her character is tougher and smarter than her anime counterpart, and she's certainly easy on the eyes. When I first saw the film's trailer, I wasn't so sure about Tsutomo Yamazaki as Captain Okita. I feared he might come off as a mere caricature, assuming statuesque poses and offering stone-faced glares. I was pleased to find his character dimensioned and generally likeable. Also particularly noteworthy are ToshirĂ´ Yanagiba as Science Officer Sanada, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi as Company Commander Saito, and Reiko Takashima as Dr. Sado. It's particularly intriguing that the latter character—in the anime, one of creator Leiji Matsumoto's typical pugdy, barely human-looking figures—is portrayed by a fairly attractive young woman, but who expertly conveys many of the character's well-known mannerisms (she even has a cat and drinks sake).

I could have quite done without the closing song by Steven Tyler, thank you very much. The less said, the better.

While Space Battleship Yamato is not without its failings—some of which are admittedly glaring—it's a fun, familiar story, competently acted and directed. To say I was entertained is an understatement. In a lot of ways, this film rekindled the old excitement the original series offered me...back in my long, long, long-gone geeky days.

Space Battleship Yamato poster featuring Takuya Kimura

Meisa Kuroki as Yuki Mori

Poster from 1979 Space Cruiser Yamato film festival

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