On Star Blazers, Space Cruiser/Battleship Yamato, the Yamato Movie, and Yamato 2199: A Rant

One of the earliest things I can remember is Star Blazers.

I was about six or seven years old when it hit. Star Blazers wove itself into my consciousness in a way no other series could have. Transformers didn’t hit until 1984; Robotech didn’t hit until 1985. Star Blazers got there first. I’m sure it affects, to this day, what I consider a good story to be.

When my ‘anime mentor’ ushered me into the world of non-edited anime, the film Final Yamato was one of the earliest pieces I had – I think I got it on VHS around 1987, along with Megazone 23, the Macross movie, and raw, unsubbed Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam.  For a long time Final Yamato was the only version of Star Blazers I had access to. I couldn’t understand the dialogue, and I couldn’t remember a damn thing about the original storyline. Final Yamato was and is a slow, ponderous, strangely haunted beast of a movie. It was too long to watch repeatedly, but now and then I would dig up Final and watch the tearful parade of ponderous gloom and doom. There was a while where I fell asleep to the sound of the original Yamato soundtrack.

Still, Yamato faded into the background, replaced by newer, faster things. I did, however, always remember Yamato as good and thought of it with fuzzy fondness. I remembered a few key visuals, just fragments from long ago, as ephemeral as dreams: Desslock’s eerie cheering squad, the body of the Argo drifting through space, the appearance of the Comet Empire.

Over the years that followed, what very little else I retained, surprisingly, came from Corn Pone Flicks’ Bad American Dubbing series- a comedy classic of the Old Guard of Anime Fandom, but not very revealing as to the original nature of the storyline.

I saw the live-action movie a couple of years back at a friend’s house during a particularly intense and emotional weekend, alongside the first 2 parts of Gundam Unicorn. How heavy and dark the Yamato story was, how its characters were wound wire-tight around a core of the bitterest kind of hope! The idea stuck with me during a tough weekend that was all about hope and hopelessness. Still, it didn’t catch fire. It reminded me that Yamato Was Good, but that was all.

The seed planted back in 1980 was still waiting to blossom.

Finally, this month, I got a whim to go back to space, back to what some call the first true masterpiece of anime; to Yamato.  In the last couple of weeks I’ve watched a metric ton of Yamato material. So here’s some thoughts about what I’ve seen so far, in no particular order.

“No matter how dark the moment, love and hope are always possible.”

Star Blazers (episodes 1-11)
Watch it on Youtube (requires account login)

For all that’s been said, Star Blazers was about as faithful a translation as you could hope for in an era where (and this is still all too common a mentality) the idea of translating was to make sure the lip flaps had dialogue yammering all the way through them. This lead to a lot of “Huh?”s and overly verbose dialogue from characters who really shouldn’t be that talky. However, to its eternal praise, the US producers left the music alone – and the music is at least 50% of the “character” of the series. Not only that, they stuck to the spirit of the original theme song, producing a really good version that fans of a certain age still joyfully sing to this very day. What changes were made were generally thoughtful and reasonable changes, and a lot got through that later adaptations of anime series would shy away from.

That said, Star Blazers really, really falls down on the voices chosen for the Gamilons – to the point where it’s very, very difficult to sit through it. A panoply of terrible Russian, German, and “fey” accents were tossed into the Gamilons (Hm, cold war relics?) – Desslock’s is particularly irritating. He was the inspiration for Char Aznable, and he’s cast, in English, as an unthreatening, fey, nearly effeminate character – clearly coded as gay. Because, of course, back then, villains were always homosexual and questionable, right? Sigh. When the Gamilons aren’t being voice-retconned into a different sexuality, they’re just very, very difficult to actually understand – and it’s kind of important to know what they’re saying.

The Star Force, on the other hand, have really solid voices, and the actors bring some emotion into their roles. It’s a far cry from the flat, hasty toneless dubs so often slapped on conversions from the 90’s; The producers clearly took their material seriously, and the actors did a good job with the scripts they were given.

A serious stumbling block for me was the two-part episode “The Reflex Gun”, episodes 7 and 8. This felt really, really filler-y and tedious with a lot of logical flaws and gaps.  Still, the sense of ‘submarine in space’ couldn’t come across any clearer, and I’m full of love for the perversely unreasonable analog controls of the ship – so many buttons to push and levers to pull!

“We are not now that strength
Which in old days moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are.”

Space Battleship Yamato 2199
(it’s streaming online in various places, easy enough to find with a Google)

Concurrent with Star Blazers, as soon as I found word of this year’s official remake online I had to look it up and watch it too.

2199 is something I currently have very mixed feelings about. While there is much to-do in Japan about how this is a “Yamato for the modern age” and it’s involving “Yamato generation” staff like the prickly Hideaki Anno, something is just plain missing from this retake. The old series may be clunky and have bellbottoms everywhere, but there’s a warmth and grandeur that isn’t here.

The animation is crisp, and modern, but the CG of the ships already somehow feels dated and underwhelming a mere six months in; the Yamato has been redesigned and, somehow, is just -smaller- against the crystal-clear space backgrounds. The darkness and holy mystery of space has disappeared.

With the characters also redesigned, and everything trimmed and tightened, somehow the “old” designs of the spacecraft just end up looking foolish.  Now the Yamato doesn’t fit with its crew; it’s an Evangelion with a layer of oldskool paint and kibble.  The distance between the ship and people brings a subtle disharmony into the show.

Also, the ships just move too damn fast in space – all of them do – and yet they don’t bring the true three-dimensionality of space battle into it. The CG animators have even been quoted as complaining about the animation director wanting a small roll on the ship while it turns, as if it were in water, because it’s ‘not necessary’ – but that’s the POINT of the Yamato being in space. It is in one sense ridiculous, and in another defiant and mythical. In the original series, the Yamato generally moves very slowly. It luxuriously dominates the frame, drifting by the camera at a lazy, almost unreasonable pace (considering they’re in space and should be at warp speed to get where they’re going on time!)

The Yamato should be as big as space, or even bigger, against the infinite darkness. 2199’s Yamato shrinks against its surroundings. It seems to me that it reflects a bigger gap between the people of the past and the people of the present.

2199 has some smaller, subtler problems; totally eschewing Kodai’s growth from hot-headed punk to mature, substantial leader, the new series has chosen to take the ‘hot bloodedness’ out of him because the director feels that such ‘heroism’ is no longer relatable in the modern age. Is that true? God help us if it is. The Hero’s Journey doesn’t change with the passing of a few decades. Okita is as rumbly and raspy as ever, at least.

The original is wonderful, but on the other hand when I see it now, there are a lot of parts where I think, “It would be more consistent this way.” I wanted the story part and the scientific part to fit together perfectly, and if this made it a plus-alpha [over the top] work, I intended to push it forward actively.  –Director Izibuchi

Yes, perhaps, but as I’m starting to understand (slowly) in my own work, sometimes you have to let science and the literal go in order to get to the soul… that’s maybe an unfair complaint, though…

I can’t even comment on what feels to me a pointless, useless addition of new female characters – they seem to have no narrative weight, and god help us, one of them is clearly the Ayanami Rei stand-in. So far these characters don’t even count as standing with the Macross bridge bunnies; I have literally no idea why they were added, because they’re doing nothing of use. I suppose it’s just to add some necessary cheesecake for the ‘goddess’ magazines and softcore audience, but bleh. It actually depowers and waters down Yuki’s character; she was much stronger being the only woman on the crew.

I also don’t like the changed salute. I don’t care if it was an embarrassing throwback to Axis days or whatever; I want the original salute, dammit!

The original salute, dammit!

Space Battleship Yamato (subbed version)
(available on various streaming sites sporadically)

As of Episode 12, I am switching away from Star Blazers to watch as much of the subbed version online as I can find in streaming form. I’m interested to hear the original voices now that I have the roots of the story again; I want to experience the series without even the most well-meaning of cuts and corrections between us.

I’m very amused how often the Yamato has a massive malfunction of some kind; it wouldn’t be much of a quest if it were an easy trip, but one can see in Mobile Suit Gundam‘s reflection the woes of the Yamato. It’s a tossup which of the big ships of anime break down more – the White Base or the Yamato? Sometimes the breakdowns seem strained and ridiculously plot-devicey, even for an experimental ship. But it does drive the story onward…

Will the Yamato reach Iskandar in time? What a brilliant story conceit; the Cruel Writer in me absolutely adores the relentless urgency enforced by the show’s ticking-clock timeline.

Hurry, Yamato: the earth only has 350 days left!

I’m back to falling asleep to the Yamato soundtrack once more. Now, it’s just on my iPod, instead of on a warbly tape with Cat People‘s soundtrack on the other side. The more things change…

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