‘Space Battleship Yamato’: Lost In Space Opera [REVIEW]

Space Battleship Yamato” is screening as part of the Japan Film Festival of San Francisco. The festival runs from July 27-August 4th. You can find ticketing and film info on the festival’s official site.

As a child, I don’t recall ever seeing an actual episode of “Star Blazers,” the name given to the English-language version of the 77-episode “Space Battleship Yamamoto, but I was familiar with the striking design of the titular ship: a WWII-era destroyer given sleek lines, with the mast of the ship carved out for its iconic wave cannon. I couldn’t tell you the names of any of the characters, stories, or even what the show as about, but I could describe that–designed by master animator Leiji Matsumoto–ship in intimate detail.

With director Takashi Yamazaki’s overlong and generally personality free live-action remake… well, at least they got the ship design right.

Set in the year 2199, Earth is under assault by the mysterious Gamilons, whose radioactive bombs have made the surface of the Earth uninhabitable. But when former Defense Force pilot-turned-scavenger Susumu Kodai (voice and screen actor Takuya Kimura) comes across a communication device from the Iscandar, another alien species still, the last remnants of humanity learn that there might be a cure for the radiation problem somewhere out there in the stars. So they send up the Yamato: an advanced ship equipped with the devastating wave beam and capable of point-to-point jumps across vast distances at warp speed.

Thematically (and really, visually), there’s a lot of low-rent “Battlestar Galactica” in terms of the the big question: what would we, as a race, be willing to do to survive. The stern Captain Okita (Tsutomu Yamazaki) must make hard decisions for his crew, and impress upon the hotshot Kodai that sometimes the captain has to do terrible things for the greater good. Structurally, it’s all fine, as far as it goes, but the details of the film are so broadly sketched along with its characters, that when the final assault on Iscandar happens in the final act, you’re mostly left scratching you head at which of the cannon fodder characters meeting their doom are the ones you’re supposed to care about.

Kimura does his best with Kodai, a cocky cartoon of a character in a movie that’s supposed to be very, very serious. It doesn’t help that he’s paired with the utterly stiff Meisa Kuroki, who plays the hotshot pilot/love interest Yuki Mori. She hates him until she likes him, and there’s really no nuance to the character, taking her from a stone-cold badass pilot to a quivering mass of lovestruck jelly without the script actually earning it. Similarly, a major plot point about the nature of the enemy holds very little weight since it wasn’t set up in any tangible way leading up to the climax: so instead of a reveal, it’s really just an odd piece of new information.

If you’re still keen on giving the movie a try, you’ll have to suffer through lots of confusing and not especially visually-arresting dogfights between same-y enemy ship designs and the Yamato’s Tiger fighters. Again, the “BSG” influence is transparent, with lots of that rapid digital focus pulling in and out on vessels in a distance to give the fights some sense of visual context and speed. Lifting from the “BSG” wouldn’t really stick out so much if “Yamato” had something interesting to show among its overly-designed ships. The interior of the Yamato is is slightly sadder affair, all bare gray walls, and a fixed, po-faced command center that wouldn’t be out of place in some of the cheaper sci-fi TV output from the early 70’s.

The whole thing is a mess: from conception, to tone, to aesthetics. Worse, “Yamato” never finds a valid reason to exist, some great idea at the heart of the property that would compel a studio to dump millions of dollars into bringing a cartoon to the big screen as a movie with actors. It’s not good, and the voyage of the “Yamato” isn’t one worth taking.