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Review: “Space Battleship Yamato” Live Action Movie Blu-ray (UK Edition): To Boldly Go Where Mainstream Sci-Fi Has Gone Before

Space Battleship Yamato Susumu Kodai

MANB8120_BD_Space_Battleship_Yamato_3DThere’s a pantheon of space opera anime that includes Gundam, Macross, Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999, to name a few. Those last two lead us to Space Battleship Yamato, which is arguably the greatest entrant from its co-creator Leiji Matsumoto. Indeed there can arguably be no better benchmark for a story being legendary than the level of awareness of it even from those who haven’t fully sampled it. That’s certainly true for me as despite the high reverence, I haven’t actually watched any of the range of Yamato animated productions. So what then of this big budget live action treatment riding partially on nostalgia?

Live action adaptations of anime could be an article in of itself. There have been a range of terrible ones including Gundam’s infamous G-Saviour and the MST3K worthy Dragonball Evolution. Seemingly what looks brilliant in stylised animation doesn’t exactly translate back to reality.

The story is set 200 years in our future. Aliens from outside the Milky Way have targeted Earth with coordinated bombing of meteorites, slowly reducing the planet to a lifeless husk and forcing the small remnants of humanity into spartan shelters below the surface. A glimmer of hope emerges when a capsule crashes to the surface, containing a message from another race of aliens. In response a mission of desperation is launched using the refitted form of the legendary Japanese battleship Yamato. Can the crew of this ship find a lifeline for Earth? And what of their interpersonal drama?

It’s fairly easy to see why Yamato was considered workable for a movie adaptation.  The story at its core is a classic space quest adventure with brave yet human heroes riding into the unknown onyx abyss to save the day. It’s pretty bold to start the story off with Earth and humanity seemingly only months away from extinction. There’s plenty of blockbuster sci-fi films where at best a few landmarks get trashed but Yamato is working from a worst-case scenario you tend to only see in cult movies. Possibly the best communicator of this is Captain Okita, the commander of the Yamato. His role in the movie suggests an old military man who has seen far too many good and younger men die, and by this point is simply trying to keep it together for his subordinates and terrified civilian masses. Admittedly sometimes Tsutomu Yamazki comes off as a wee bit too lifeless, as if the director felt his character of a Japanese Captain Birdseye was most important as an iconic linking visual to the animations.

Our main protagonist is Takuya Kimura’s Susumu Kodai, a former ace space fighter pilot now making a living as a junk collector. Kodai’s elder brother was one of those to have died in a previous battle under Okita’s command and as such he initially joins the mission with partial thoughts of vengeance. Much is made of his reckless nature and how at his heart he’d make an excellent commander, in a way not too different to the journey of Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot. That film actually seems to have been quite an influence on this film. I know that some parts of the movie are lifted from past incarnations, but with a story of a young, hot-headed male prodigy who enters the chain of command by unusual means and is involved in a free fall set piece siege of a desert planet, I do have to wonder if there wasn’t a heavy influence from Abrams’ film released one year prior.

Kodai soon butts heads with the seasoned and professional Yuki Mori, a female pilot who is loyal to Okita and resentful to Kodai for seemingly having turned coward during the on-going war. Meisa Kuroki does well with presenting the character as believably strong willed and independent without treading into being self-righteous. Sadly she’s later betrayed by a forced quota-filling love plot that’s a major factor in shaping the second half. Does Japan just take offense at the idea that a woman can avoid being subservient without it being some kind of subtext for playing hard to get?

155E-01_compS_r1B.0119Speaking of which, I raise an eyebrow at the idea of refitting a World War II era Japanese battleship both on a technical and ethical level. There’s actually a scene late into the movie where a speech is delivered about how the Yamato is sailing once more to yet again be an embodiment of hope, directly referencing its WWII activities…I know you’ll encounter things like this when sampling world cinema, but being descended from ancestors and a country that were part of the Allies, the whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Production values are impressive. The elements of the anime are workably translated into reality, particularly the uniforms which are obviously trying to echo the famous costumes without looking silly on a real person. The Yamato itself of course gets a lot of the attention and putting politics aside, the debut of the iconic wave motion cannon is glorious. One of the biggest changes are the Gamilas aliens, who have gone from simply being blue skinned humanoids to a more modern-Hollywood style truly alien race. Admittedly with the majority of the focus being on a human cast, this does leave little time to explore the Gamilas race. In a way this helps present them as mysterious and terrifying but once their motive is revealed I couldn’t help but see them as more suited for a more long term serial story like, of course, the earlier TV incarnations.

Cinema extravaganzas are very much at home on Blu-ray and if underwhelming in story the movie is certainly a treat for the eyes, be it the fiery orange landscapes of the ruined Earth or the majestic grandeur of space. As should be expected the frequent dog fight battles are the real treat.  The Japanese-only audio is presented in a choice of DTS-HD 5.1 and LPCM 5.1 with an additional option of English subtitles.

1208-035Aside from a pair of theatrical trailers, the extras are all focused on the high volume of CGI required to bring the film to life. This includes a visual breakdown of the elements of pretty much every major shot in the movie. Most audiences will be familiar that modern blockbuster film making relies on building limited sets for the actors and bolstering it with green-screen CGI but I was genuinely amazed to see just how good a job the visual effects artists had done. Even shots I assume had only basic CGI or simple details like railings on a walkway were revealed to be much more elaborate. The focus continues with a comparison between sequences and the pre-visualization motion storyboards, test footage of the Yamato model flying over areas of Japan and pre-animated 360 turnarounds of the various vehicles and vessels seen in the film. I would have welcomed some actual interviews with the producers to gain slightly more specific clarity, but if you’re familiar with my past reviews I guess there’s seemingly no pleasing me in that regard.

I wouldn’t say the live action Space Battleship Yamato is a bad movie. It’s certainly one of the more respectful live action adaptations and a degree of care and budget was afforded to it. But perhaps being a close adaptation is it’s failing, as what we’re presented is a story we’ve seen many times before both in movies and sci-fi in general. Say what you like about G-Saviour but at least it offered a Gundam story we’d never seen before as opposed to an updated retelling which suffers from Hollywood clichés and a few select failings of Japanese cinema (are epilogues taboo?).

I’d recommend watching it but this is perhaps aimed at bigger Yamato/Leiji Matsumoto fans than I.

Space Battleship Yamato (UK Edition) is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk