The “Space Battleship Yamato” franchise, known abroad under such titles as “Star Blazers” and “Space Cruiser Yamato,” began life in 1974 as a TV cartoon space opera, then generated a hit animated film in 1977. Two more TV series and four more films followed, concluding the saga with the 1983 feature “Final Yamato.”
Series creator and producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki and series director Leiji Matsumoto fought in court for years about the “Yamato” copyrights, finally agreeing in 2003 to share them. Nishizaki subsequently directed a “Yamato” animation that did indifferent business following its theatrical release in December 2009. On Nov. 7 of this year, he died after falling into the sea off Chichijima Island from a boat called, appropriately, “Yamato.”
Hype over Takashi Yamazaki’s live-action film “Space Battleship Yamato” has been building in Japan and abroad since it was announced in the summer of 2009. One reason was the ¥2 billion budget, a huge amount for a Japanese film, much of which has been lavished on effects.
Another is director Yamazaki, who confirmed his A-list status with his two smash “Always” films (2005 and 2007), nostalgic dramas set in a downtown Tokyo neighborhood in the late 1950s. His 2009 time-travel thriller “Ballad: Na Mo Naki Koi no Uta” (“Ballad”) did not strike the same box-office sweet spot, but hardly dented Yamazaki’s reputation as a hit-maker.
But for the local audience, especially, the biggest draw is star Takuya Kimura, who has been voted the most popular male entertainer and sexiest man in show business/Japan/the universe in poll after poll since his rise to the top with the pop group SMAP in the early 1990s.
“Space Battleship Yamato” is accordingly one of the biggest domestic releases this year. Quite often, the pressure of pleasing the various constituencies of a project like this, from fans to corporate sponsors, results in an overblown mess. But Yamazaki, working with scriptwriter Shimako Sato (a director in her own right who also happens to be Yamazaki’s wife), has made a film that is good, uncomplicated fun for kids, and with plenty of CG spectacle and thrills (if not in the ever-more common 3-D).
At the same time, “Space Battleship Yamato” is not only packed with references to the original “Yamato” series, but also contains various thematic elements, from old-fashioned patriotism to contemporary eco-consciousness, that give older fans more to chew on than the usual kiddy popcorn fare.
Yamazaki, however, is no Takashi Miike — a gleeful subverter of the genre he is ostensibly celebrating. Despite the manga-esque tone, with its comic and dramatic exaggerations, the movie takes itself seriously as drama. This is not an easy balancing act to pull off, as dozens of jokey-fakey TV dramas make clear, but Yamazaki’s principals, starting with Kimura’s cocky pilot Susumu Kodai, are both cartoonishly heroic and recognizably human — that is, likably flawed. Think Harrison Ford’s cheeky pilot in “Stars Wars,” but with a better hairdresser.
The story begins in 2194, when an alien force, the Gamilas, invade Earth and wipe out most of humanity. Five years on, the survivors are living as fugitives underground, while the planet has become a radiated wasteland from alien bombings. One day, Kodai, who has quit piloting but not surface adventuring, is knocked flat by the landing impact of a capsule from outer space. It turns out to be from Iscandar, a planet 148,000 light years from Earth — and has the unexplained power to locally, if not completely, destroy the deadly radiation.
The chief of the Earth defense forces (Isao Hashizume) decides to send the Yamato, a space ship outfitted with a faster-than-light “wave-motion engine,” to Iscandar to obtain the technology that can revive the planet before humanity becomes extinct. With the white-bearded, rock-steady Capt. Okita (Tsutomu Yamazaki) in command, the fearless Kodai at the helm and the rest of the handpicked crew, including ace fighter pilot Yuki Mori (Meisa Kuroki), at their battle stations, the Yamato makes it past the Gamilas fleet in Earth orbit — but many perils still await.
The parallels with the real Yamato — a massive battleship sunk by Allied air power on a suicidal voyage to Okinawa in the closing days of World War II — are obvious, as is the Yamato-damashii (Japanese spirit) that Kodai and his comrades share with the real Yamato’s heroic crew, most of whom went down with the ship. (There is not a single foreign face among the cinematic Yamato’s space voyagers, which means either Japan escaped the worst of the radiation — or the producers figured that gaijin [non-Japanese] on such a symbolically laden vessel would offend local sensibilities.)
I doubt, though, that this background noise will faze most non-Japanese fans, especially those with fond childhood memories of the series. Also, Japanese who know their World War II history will find that, far more than the ethos of the Imperial Navy, with its rigid hierarchy and brutal discipline, “Space Battleship Yamato” is influenced by the egalitarianism of modern Hollywood action films, in which juniors frankly speak their minds to seniors and feisty girls like Yuki pop pushy guys on the nose.
The film is also plotted like its Hollywood models, as big action scenes interrupt the dramatics with predictable regularity. The climax, however, is quite Japanese in sentiment, if Hollywood in scale. But how to interpret the crew’s often repeated salute, with the right fist thumping the heart? Vaguely fascistic? Goofily innocent and sincere? By the end of the 22nd century, I just hope we humans are still around, silly salutes included.