Space Battleship Yamato or Uchū Senkan Yamato (2011)
Well, here we go crossing cultural boundaries again — this time into contemporary Japanese science fiction. Despite my advanced age, this is my first time into live action space opera with battles between an Earth and an invading alien fleet. Up to now, I had contented myself with memories of paying to sit through all fifteen of the Toho Studios’ Godzilla films up to 1975 with all the variations of monsters trampling pieces of Japan into rubble, sometimes under the influence of invading aliens as in Destroy All Monsters. Thereafter, I’ve contented myself with the sometimes excellent anime SF and fantasy. Now, I’ve come back full circle because Space Battleship Yamato or Uchū Senkan Yamato is based on an anime series that was distributed in the West as Space Cruiser Yamato or Star Blazers. There have been a number of different versions of a storyline based on a ship called the Yamato, some in a series and others as free-standing films, but all this has passed me by. I’m a beginner on this storyline.
So we have an alien space fleet that stands off Earth around Mars orbit and starts slinging meteorites our way. This has slowly reduced the surface of Earth to slag and dramatically increased the levels of radiation. A Japanese space fleet engages the enemy, but is outclassed. Only the lead ship escapes and returns to Earth. There seems no hope until a message is received from the occupants of a planet called Iscandar which is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud. In the original anime, the star system had two habitable planets, the second being called Gamilas. In this version, the Gamilans seem to be a different political party on Iscandar. Thematically, the outcome is the same. Since the one or two planets is/are dying, there’s a need to relocate to a more desirable residence and, as always, with a little redecoration, Earth will do just fine. The message seems to indicate that the Iscandar faction will help defend Earth.
The question we now have to consider is whether films such as this need to make any sense. We start off feeling very real. The first CGI battle is impressively one-sided and, once you get used to seeing the Earth fleet as “naval” vessels adapted for space, it’s all good fun watching batteries of heavy gun emplacements firing broadsides much as the original Yamato-class battleships did in WWII. Once you’re in the vacuum of outer space where there’s no friction, a “ship” can be any shape and have any manner of kit hanging off its superstructure. Quite how you would fly such vessels out of and into Earth’s atmosphere without burning off all these fancy bits is not for us to query. Indeed, once the titular Battleship bursts from its underground shipyard in a series of controlled explosions to remove the surface protections, we have a conflation of submarine and surface battleship which makes for an even more confusing sight. I suppose manufacturing new ships on the surface is impossible, so they dig up old warships and refit them for outer space. Obviously, there’s no shortage of scientists and engineers for this work.
As to the crew, it seems there’s a shortage of trained personnel so volunteers are re-enlisted and, without any obvious training, they fit straight back into the saddle even though there’s alien technology to master. The new weapon is great fun. The ship is pointed in the right direction and the “hero” holds a gun, rather like one of these electronic arcade rail shooter games, and, when the trigger is pulled, all enemies are blasted by the energy beam. There are also single-seater fighters in the Battlestar Galactica style, that seem to outclass the alien equivalents which is a surprise given the loss of Earth materiel in the first battle. Anyway, no matter how Earth has managed to produce such superior technology from the Iscandar message and train the engineering, navigation and weapons crews, we migrate across light years to Ascandar and a final series of fights. I’m always amazed at how long defending aliens are prepared to stand back instead of pushing forward in a steady wave until the invaders are overwhelmed. In this case, the aliens allow contact with the Ascandar faction, and fail to prevent the placement and arming of a bomb to destroy their primary facility. So much for superior technology when, as a dying civilisation, there are not as many able-bodied troops to call on.
The major fascination, however, lies in the social interaction of the human crew. The dying captain taps Susumu Kodai, the wild child, as acting captain and retires to his cabin to await the inevitable. This is all rather slow-moving and, frankly, not very interesting. We have the re-enlisted fighter wing rebonding and the inevitable misunderstandings hindering the romantic interest between the wild child and his obvious partner, Yuki Mori. Some of the scenes where the crew call Earth as they set off on their mission of hope are mawkishly sentimental and set up tear-jerking deaths later on. Overall, these scenes offer an insight into the way the Japanese express their hopes and emotions. There’s so much suppressed and merely hinted at until occasional outbursts of sometimes violent behaviour demonstrates the reality of feelings. But the pace of the narrative runs out of steam between the battle set-pieces.
Had this been a romantic drama set in an office block threatened with demolition by a corrupt landlord, the office staff would have combined in a fight to preserve their way of life, and I could have accepted this exploration of the emotional subtext. But in the middle of a military foray to a distant planet, it’s a distinctly Japanese decision to spend quite so much time on the emotional lives of the crew. Structurally, I suspect this is a problem of trying to adapt a long-running series of stories into a single film. Where you have short individual episodes, you can focus on individuals and groups in the build-up to a big climax. This cannot be an ensemble piece. With only a short period of time available, the screenwriter Shimako Sato and director, Takashi Yamazaki should have redefined the focus on the hero and left out a lot of the detail on the crew.
As has been required in every film since Alien, there’s a great space cat carried around by the ship’s doctor. The human crew is required to perform against the CGI backgrounds and their delivery is efficient. The two principals are Takuya Kimura, charismatic singer, actor and the face of Gatsby, who swaggers insolently as Susumu Kodai and then leads with courage and a self-sacrificing dedication to Earth’s survival, and Meisa Kuroki, singer and actress, who is pleasingly tough as Yuki Mori at the outset and then prepared to overcome her prejudices to see the better side of our hero. This leaves us with Tsutomu Yamazaki as Juzo Okita, the ship’s captain. He’s been there, done that and now tries to do it all again in a last desperate throw to give Earth hope again.
So Space Battleship Yamato is a film with passable CGI space battles and reasonably good fighting sequences showing realistic rates of attrition, but it’s all dragged out a bit too long for my taste. Perhaps those of you hoping to see a reasonably faithful recreation of the original anime will be happier. After all, nostalgia makes the eye grow fonder.