Starring: Takuya Kimura, Meisa Kuroki, Toshiro Yanagiba, Naoto Ogata and Tsutomu Yamazaki
Directed by: Takashi Yamazaki
Among fans of manga and anime Leiji Matusmoto is a titan. Beginning his career in 1953, Matsumoto went on to create dozens of mangas including Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999 and, Space Battleship Yamato (Also known as Star Blazers in North America). In my estimation Space Battleship Yamato is to the Japanese what Star Trek is to North Americans and Blakes’ 7 to the British. I’m not sure what the Japanese national anthem sounds like, but I’m fairly certain that if you played the SBY theme before a crowd in Japan, they would all stand up, flex their forearm across their chest and start singing. It might look a little something like this.
All that said, I can’t think of a worse way to try and translate Space Battleship Yamato to the big screen. The movie attempts to compress the first season of SBY, a twenty-six episode story arc, into a two-hour feature. Remember how well that worked for M. Night Shyamalan when he did that to the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender?
The movie’s plot will be familiar to any fans of the series. To the story’s credit, a strong opening scene and a quick narrative info dump sets the stage for any new comers. In the year 2199, Earth is on the brink of extermination from an alien race called Gamilas. During a five-year war, Gamilas has used radioactive meteorites as weapons to render the Earth’s surface uninhabitable. Despite finding shelter in underground cities, humanity is on the verge of extinction due to the radiation seeping into their sanctuaries. After a last stand battle that sees the Earth’s fleet reduced to ruins, the powers that be plan to use their final ship, the battleship Yamato, as a lifeboat for a select few colonists.
All that changes when a civilian salvage hunter, Susumu Kodai (Takuya Kimura) finds an alien message capsule on the irradiated surface of the Earth. The capsule contains plans for an FTL engine and a map to a planet called Iscandar that sits 160,000 light years away in the Greater Magellanic Cloud. With the promise of an anti-radiation device to be found on Iscandar, Captain Juzo Okita (Tsutomu Yamazak) leads the Yamato on a quest that might restore hope to humanity during its final days.
It should go without saying that there are some severe pacing problems within this movie. After all, it attempts to do in one hundred and thirty minutes what the original series did in about five-hundred and fifty. Barring scenes where the Yamato is at action stations, there are info dumps around every corner. As a fan of the show, it bored me that the movie wasted time telling me things that I already knew. At the same time I could imagine neophytes longing for some actual story telling as fighter pilots and bridge officers gabbed aimlessly about their history in some shameless attempt to establish a connection with the audience. The only thing that offset the slow-as-molasses plot was the break neck speed at which the Yamato went from Earth to Iscandar and back again. The whole thing reminded me of a road trip with my parents when I was a kid. There were short bursts of excitement between long stretches of boredom before waking up from that I thought was a catnap to find the car parked at our destination.
But just like the road trips of my youth, there is a lot to look at along the way. Despite a modest, by Hollywood standards at least, production budget – somewhere in the neighbourhood of $25,000,000 – I have to commend the movie for its set construction. Though the bridge of the Yamato might not have the scope of the Battlestar Galactica’s CIC, it remains a well realized set piece. Green screens seem to be kept to an absolute minimum for interior shots so that the actors are mostly interacting with real objects. Similarly, the CG that brings the Yamato, Gamilas’ warships and both sides respective star fighters to life is stunning. However, I’ve often said that a pretty movie is a lot like Ann Coulter; it looks nice but doesn’t necessarily have a soul. Try as I might to forgive Space Battleship Yamato for its faults based on the retro uniforms and pretty space ships, the picture still comes up short.
SBY takes some serious liberties with canonical mythology. I don’t have a problem with the Starbucking of Yuki Mori (Meisa Kuroki), formerly the Yamato’s medic now a hotshot starfighter pilot. I’ll even bring myself to begrudgingly forgive the fact that the movie doesn’t make it explicit that this Yamato is the retrofitted hull of the original Yamato. My beef is with redesigns that make the story seem stupid. Rather than being a blue-skinned race of space Germans who thrive in radioactive environments, Gamilas are now the Borg. Even the relationship between Gamilas and Iscandar has been changed into something wholly unrecognizable from the source material and not really that conducive to strong story telling. These changes feed into the aforementioned excessive exposition and do nothing to support acting that starts strong, but quickly descends into the realm of maudlin banality.
The real tragedy at hand is that this movie does nothing to explore the political and social themes that were at the core of the original series. On television, Space Battleship Yamato managed to balance motifs of environmentalism, historical revision, a post-WW2 feminization of Japan’s traditional masculine national ethos, nuclear paranoia and genocide within its persistent space opera. This movie is not nearly so lofty in its ambitions. When compared to its predecessor, SBY can only muster up the nerve to kill its characters, one at a time, as a means of showing the cost of war. It’s a trifling act especially when some characters are introduced and killed with all the sophistication of a Kirk-era Starfleet Redshirt. Even when set against J.J. Abrams’ Trek reboot, the only noteworthy Western space opera of the last few years, SBY is all glitz and no substance.
In the final assessment there’s just more wrong with this movie than there is right. The ret-cons will no doubt annoy long time fans as they simultaneously create an utterly bland story for new comers. Not that I’m a fan of sequels but any attempt to redeem the franchise will have to square itself to the non-canon ending of this movie – I’d elaborate but it would be a bit of a spoiler. Not even the splendid variations on the classic SBY soundtrack saved this movie from the depths of mediocrity and tedium. It’s always sad to see a classic story go astray. Hopefully Space Battleship Yamato will find its future renaissance back on the small screen where it belongs.
Overall Score: – 1.5