By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“We’re oooooooooff in out-ter space/We’re leeaaving Moth-er Earth/To saaaaaaave the hum-an raaaace/Our Star Bla-zers!”
This theme rang out, starting in 1979, in my friend Tom’s bedroom, my friend Sam’s den room, and through American televisions all over the country. “Star Blazers” was the first anime to be shown in America, which boasted a through-line, an overarching plot. The episodes were not entirely self-contained, and had to be watched chronologically to follow the plot.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, “Star Blazers” had millions of kids glued to their tubes. It helped spearhead the anime craze in America that persists today. Few Western viewers at the time knew that they were watching a dubbed and heavily edited reworking of the Japanese anime series “Space Battleship Yamato.”
The “Space Battleship Yamato” live-action movie coming to Seattle’s Grand Illusion recreates the early seasons of “Space Battleship Yamato” with an eye toward the original Japanese storyline.
After a long and losing war with aliens called the “Gamilas,” Earth is very nearly spent. A message from a distant planet arrives — it’s another alien race, this one wanting to ally with Earth against the Gamilas.
The friendly alien race sends plans for advanced technology, promising more if the humans will come visit them. The battleship “Yamato” is rebuilt, incorporating an interplanetary warp drive and a wave-motion cannon with staggering destructive power.
Much of the tension onboard during the mission arises from the young hotshot pilot Susumu Kodai (played by Takuya Kimura) and the ship’s captain, Okita (Tsutomu Yamazaki). The older man sees much of himself in the younger man, but he must run the ship according to protocol.
Kodai, who’s already lost a brother to the Gamila war, doesn’t care for any rules, only results.
Captain Okita’s face cannot, of course, be shown as immobile as it does in the anime, in which the artists could simply render his face still as a corpse. Yamazaki keeps his face very still, however, forcing the viewer to peer at it closely for any sign of emotion, including, eventually, the actor’s rich eye expressions. Kodai’s wide-eyed expressions and broad-lipped sneers also seem to be derived from the drawings.
The original “Yamato” was, for a time, the flagship of the Japanese combined fleet during World War II. It was sunk in April 1945 during a Japanese suicide mission known as ‘Operation Ten-Go’ at the battle of Okinawa. Kodai refers to this name lineage during some desperate hours. He is giving orders by then, and he is much more used to defying them. He’s also leading his friends and compatriots into an extremely dangerous situation with no guarantee of success.
The crew’s reactions to Kodai’s call to arms — whooping, hollering, banging each other over their shoulders, pumping themselves up for what may be the last time — have a resonance across wars, across nations. But thanks to the Yamato historical reference, they also hold very Japanese resonances. The original Yamato was sent on a suicide mission to save Japan. This time, in a hypothetical future, it’s the future of humanity at stake, but with an all-Japanese crew.
Prominent writer/director Christopher McQuarrie is at work on an English-language adaptation of “Star Blazers,” but there’s no indication yet on whether he’ll follow the Westernized approach.
The story and characters have proved their attraction across the anime-loving world. This film reminds us of its distinctly Japanese roots. (end)
“Space Battleship Yamato” plays Dec. 15-16 at the Grand Illusion Cinema, 1403 N.E. 50th Street in Seattle’s University District. For prices and show times, call 206-523-3935 or visit www.grandillusioncinema.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.