Saturday, April 14, 2012

we're off to outer space: a review of "Space Battleship Yamato"

I was a kid when the animé series "Star Blazers" appeared on American TV. The characters all had funky names like Derek Wildstar, Mark Venture, and Captain Avatar. If I recall correctly, the space battleship began its existence as the Yamato (from World War II) and was rechristened the Argo once it had been refitted. The Argo's claim to fame: the so-called "wave-motion gun," a massive cannon that ran the entire length of the Argo and vomited an unstoppable energy beam out the front. The crew's mission: to save the earth from an alien species called the Gamilons (led by the grim-faced Desslok), who have been pummeling the earth with radiation-emitting "meteor bombs." The crew succeeds in its mission during the first season. The ailing Captain Avatar, like Moses, manages to see the earth, his promised land, one more time before he dies.

The live-action movie "Space Battleship Yamato" (hereinafter SBY) was released in 2010; what I saw was the French-dubbed version of the film, which currently appears in its entirety on YouTube (watch it before it's deleted!). It took a moment for me to readjust to French designations for terms used by the Yamato's crew; for example, the wave-motion gun has now become "le CDO," i.e., "le canon à diffusion ondulatoire." I also have to wonder how much was lost in translation: Japanese, like Korean, is a language spoken in multiple registers, where the choice of words and suffixes can say much about the relationship between two interlocutors and what they're feeling at the moment.* French conveys its own subtleties, too, but not the same ones.

Those issues aside, I thought the film was entertaining, if only in a B-movie sort of way. The engaging story moves along at a good clip, and captures many of the elements from the late-70s animé series, even reproducing some of the old series' iconic moments. Some of the changes, especially regarding the nature of the bad guys, were a bit jarring, but they were also a fitting update for a more sophisticated moviegoing audience. On the down side, the movie's acting and dialogue are anything but sophisticated. One francophone YouTube commenter said the acting was "un peu moisi,"-- a bit moldy (i.e., corny, hackneyed). As with many Korean dramas, this Japanese film didn't engage in much emotional subtlety, although it did feature a few playful moments.

The overarching story is basically the same as that of the first season of the animé series. The earth's surface has been almost completely irradiated by a mysterious alien race known to the humans as the Gamilas (no longer the Gamilons). This seems to be an attack, but we learn later that the aliens are actually "seeding" the planet in preparation for colonization. Old Captain Okita requests the reactivation of the battleship Yamato, the earth's only remaining ironclad. The Yamato is refitted for combat. Susumu Kodai, a former fighter pilot, is on the earth's irradiated surface during a metal-salvage sortie when an alien drone impacts next to him; the drone contains information about a new warp drive and the location of a planet: Iskandar. The drone's impact throws off Kodai's helmet, but instead of being killed by the ambient radiation, Kodai somehow manages to survive. The drone's plans are incorporated into the Yamato's design, and a volunteer crew-- including the newly reenlisted Kodai-- is off to outer space. They manage to reach Iskandar, discover the solution for decontaminating the earth's surface (the drone's decontaminating properties provided a hint of what Iskandarian tech could do), and return home. The film's finale, which features an honorable self-sacrifice, would make a Klingon proud.

As other reviewers have noted, SBY's special effects have a bit of a "Battlestar Galactica" vibe to them, right down to the shaky camera work during some of the dogfight scenes, and the retro interior of the Yamato.** Japanese SF films don't enjoy the massive budgets that Hollywood productions have, so the viewer will need to scale down his or her expectations. The military uniforms, meanwhile, are straight out of Buck Rogers/motocross chic. I had an easier time relating to the black-clad special ops team than I did to the officers: the latter look ready to hop on dirt bikes. The other thing I couldn't get past was the hair. The main character, Kodai, wears his hair longer than that of most of the female crew of the Yamato. He manages to retain his gravitas despite the flowing locks, but I kept expecting to see slo-mo shots of him tossing his hair back and forth like Fabio. Not that it mattered: the female character who becomes Kodai's love interest is able to see past the femmy 'do.

Ah, that love interest. The character's name is Yuki, a fighter pilot who has gained prominence in the absence of former ace Kodai, and she makes more of an impression on the viewer than the 1970s character did. The animé version of Yuki (can't remember what her English name was) did a lot of squealing and running into Derek Wildstar's manly embrace, but the 2010 Yuki is-- for most of the film, at least-- all business, and very reminiscent of BSG's Starbuck.*** She gets weepy at the end, once she lets down her emotional defenses, but she's a tough soldier the rest of the time. The love story between her and Kodai happens a bit too hastily, in terms of screen time, but we have to remember that the Yamato's round trip is supposed to last the better part of a year-- plenty of time for a romance to blossom. Which leads me to what I thought was the movie's coolest scene: Kodai and Yuki in passionate embrace, falling slowly to the floor right as the Yamato jumps into warp. I remember I yelled at my screen: Why hasn't anyone ELSE thought to do that? We need more hyperspace love scenes, people.

But this is a Japanese film: feminism, while ascendant, is still a hard sell in East Asia. Unlike the broad-shouldered, butch, and somewhat muscular Starbuck, Yuki is slim and cat-eyed; she's in the movie to attract the teen boys. There's an unintentionally hilarious scene, around the beginning of the third reel, in which Yuki is possessed by an alien force that blows her clothes off-- well, her spacesuit, anyway-- leaving in her nothing but a tank top and tight pants. I had a good laugh. Had I been fifteen years old, I might have stared at Yuki in awed, reverent silence, but as a guy in my early forties, I was more amused than titillated.

Thankfully, the movie does bring in some mature themes for us older folks. Kodai's friendship with most of the Yamato's senior bridge crew, and with his old Black Tigers fighter squadron, keeps the film grounded, and his ongoing conflict with the Yamato's grizzled captain, Okita, drives the plot forward. At the beginning of the film, Kodai's older brother had sacrificed his own ship to allow Okita's ship to escape a Gamilas attack. The younger Kodai had left the military as a reaction to this loss, which is why we first meet him on earth, scrounging for scrap metal to sell. Kodai, young and impetuous, doesn't understand how Captain Okita is able to sacrifice crew members... until Kodai himself is given the chance to command the Yamato after the captain falls ill. I thought this interplay was one of the better subplots in the movie.

While no one would accuse SBY of being particularly profound, it does deal with questions of bereavement, the fraternity of warriors, courage in the face of the unknown, and total commitment to a cause. All in all, the film is worth a look-see if you remember the old TV series, but the story is perfectly comprehensible to newbies as well. I doubt that I'd have paid to see the movie on a big screen, but it works well enough for small-screen viewing. Expect plenty of cliché dialogue and situations, and if you're a BSG fan, prepare to see the "Adama maneuver" along with many other visual references to BSG.

*In Korean, for example, if an older character says "Ant-gae" ("앉게") to a younger character, this command to sit down would resonate with the fact that the older character feels superior enough to the younger character to dispense with politeness. The closest we could get to translating that in English might be a terse, "Sit." If he speaks with enough venom, the voice actor might succeed at conveying, to an anglophone audience, the interiority of the Korean actor over whose voice he's dubbing. But I've rarely heard a successful instance of this over many years of watching dubbed films. Subtitles, distracting though they be, are infinitely preferable.

**The bridge design of the Yamato will be of special interest to SF nerds: its hierarchical layout is more reminiscent of the bridge of the Klingon fighter from "Star Trek III" than of the more democratically laid-out CIC of the Galactica (by the way... did the Galactica not have chairs for its senior officers?).

***There are, come to think of it, enough BSG references in SBY to make me wonder how popular BSG might have been in Japan. One such reference was the "blind jump," which also occurs in the "Razor" special episode of BSG. Ever since "Star Wars," SF fans have known the importance of plotting your hyperspace/FTL/warp jumps before you actually leap into that mode of travel. Jumping blindly is likely to get you killed, as Han Solo noted: "If we didn't have the right calculations, we'd fly right into a star, or bounce too close to a supernova, and that would end your trip real quick, wouldn't it?"


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