Anime Review – Space Battleship Yamato 2199 Episodes 1-10 (2012)
I’m going to do something I almost always do not and that is to pen a review of an on-going series that has not even reached its half-way point. The show in question, as you might have guessed by now, is the remade Space Battleship Yamato 2199 which I briefly blogged about as coming soon last year. Well, now that the first ten episodes are out I figured that it was about time I gave some of my impressions of perhaps the most famous anime to hit Western shores in the 1970s. Sure, Robotech aka Macross, was more popular in the early 1980s but it is definitely Yamato which captured the imagination of many a fan and looking back today it is staggering to realize its influence considering it was released in 1972 a full five years before George Lucas launched his seminal Star Wars.
I will not bother to re-review the original show yet I will hesitantly upload my critique I wrote way back in high school just for fun. Regardless, besides Star Trek, Space Battleship Yamato aka Star Blazers in the West was perhaps the only science fiction show which caused me to drop what I was currently doing and stay glued to the TV when it was on. Since then I have seen it multiple times although it has been more than two decades since I have bothered to put it on so please excuse me for any inconsistencies in this review as my memory of some of its finer points is decidedly hazy. For this particular review I will be referencing many of the differences as well as similarities with the Westernized Star Blazers instead of the original Japanese source material merely because I just do not have a handy copy of it on hand. As such I’ve utilized the Japanese names for the series although I’ve placed their English translated ones in brackets for those more familiar with Star Blazers.
The easiest way in which to describe Space Battleship Yamato 2199 to a current Western audience is to compare it to both J.J. Abram’s Star Trek reboot as well as Ron Moore’s remade Battlestar Galactica with one big exception in that Yamato 2199 stays almost verbatim to the original show especially in the early episodes. While Abrams and Moore decided to take the “core” tenets of both shows and then proceed to augment or outright change them Yamato 2199 feels inherently more like a loving recreation of almost everything that came before. For the first seven episodes the plot sticks to established canon so closely that it even recreates the exact same shot compositions from the original show utilizing similar musical cues.
This is one of the more famous shots in the original show depicting the battle near Pluto that starts the series. In this shot Captain Okita’s (Avatar’s) flagship sounds the retreat and turns around to head back towards Earth but instead of following orders Susumu Kodai’s (Derek Wildstar) brother Mamoru Kodai (Alex Wildstar) disobeys orders and heads back into battle in order to protect the flagship as it retreats.
Here’s the matching shot of the same event from Yamato 2199.
In fact the music soundtrack for Yamato 2199 is done by Akira Miyagawa who is the son of Hiroshi Miyagawa, the composer of the original show. How cool is that? Akira actually takes his father’s score and brings it up to date with a refreshing new sound that manages to keep all the famous pieces intact albeit with slightly different arrangements. As a personal opinion the only thing that is grating is that he is also keeps the obvious disco styling that his father used that were a sign of the early 1970s and while that will please many fans I just have an allergy to anything that sounds as if John Travolta is about to pop on stage and point his finger at the moon.
Space Battleship Yamato 2199 is a full-on space opera much closer in tone to Moore’s Battlestar Galactica’s grim version of humanity’s future rather than the sparkling castle on the hill mentality seen in Gene Roddenberry’s science fiction opus. Instead, Yamato 2199 opens on an emotional downer as a large contingent of Earth’s Space Fleet is completely decimated in a last ditch battle around Pluto against the mysterious evil Gamilas (Gamelon) Empire. It is quickly elaborated on that Earth is on her last legs due to almost eighty years of constant asteroid bombardment that has rendered the planet an irradiated wasteland forcing humanity underground. It turns out that the planet is being terra-formed to make it suitable for alien habitation as the numerous plants and vegetation that have managed to spring to life are toxic to human beings. Conditions are now so dire that the combination of radiation and poisonous vegetation has managed to seep into the ground and experts have painfully concluded that at the current rate of penetration that humanity has roughly only one year left before extinction.
However, it is revealed that roughly one year before the events depicted in the first episode that Starsha, a member of an alien race based on the planet Iscandar, has secretly contacted Earth with what seems to be a miracle plan to save humanity. Starsha claims that her technology could somehow terra-form Earth back into a sparkling blue marble and that the only precondition of handing over the plans is that humans travel to her planet to pick it up. Starsha knows that humanity is still technologically living in the Stone Age and has not even mastered FTL (Faster-than-light) travel thus in her message she includes plans for a wave motion engine that will allow them to accomplish this feat.
Everyone on Earth knows this is a “Hail Mary” last ditch plan but considering that the only alternative is to abandon the planet the powers that be decide that this is their only shot at coming out victorious thus the nations of Earth unite to build a secret spaceship away from the prying eyes of the Gamilas reconnaissance planes and hope that the Iscandarans will keep their word.
It should come as no surprise that the secret spaceship’s name is Yamato and that the series chronicles the ship and its crew on its near-suicidal quest to complete its journey to and from Iscandar while avoiding the Gamilas (Gamelon) Empire. Fans of Battlestar Galactica should feel comfortable with the narrative that essentially pits one military ship against the full brunt of an alien species bent on nothing short of humanity’s extinction. Nevertheless, while the overall plot sounds vaguely similar to Galactica the way in which it unfolds is very much crouched in Japanese samurai culture exemplifying one of Yamato 2199’s biggest draws in having a primary antagonist who is not merely a moustache-twirling lunatic with the propensity to histrionically laugh at every opportunity.
Sure, some of the Gamilas (Gamelon) generals and supporting characters do their best to chew scenery yet the main antagonist, leader Dessler (Desslok) is one of anime’s great figures as he is anything but mad, rather coming across as a calm and calculating ruler who actually accedes to a code of honour. The longer the Yamato survives constant assault the greater Dessler’s respect for the human vessel and its crew and it is not uncommon to see him give his opponents or his own people credit (although often times posthumously). Granted, he’s a bit more loony this early on in the original show yet it is obvious that the crew working on Yamato 2199 is modeling Dessler as he appears much later on in the original series.
On the flip side, the crew of the Yamato, especially Captain Okita (Avatar) most definitely follows a strict code of honour even going so far as to trust a rival Gamilas Captain to save his ship at one point in the season and it is precisely this concept of “honour amongst men” that sets the show apart from many of its Western counterparts. Nevertheless, Yamato 2199 does a great job in adding some political intrigue by sprinkling foreshadowing hints into the narrative that portray underlying tension that was not part of the old series. Thus there are new characters on the Yamato that seem to have their own secret agendas that run opposite to Okita’s (Avatar’s) plan as well as additional information that suggests that perhaps it was humanity which initially started the conflict with Gamilas that truly add flavor and a sense of suspense for long time fans. Shades of Babylon 5, perhaps?
Virtually all the returning characters mirror their past incarnations from the original show albeit with some minor tinkering that frankly works in the show’s favor. For instance, Kodai (Wildstar) is a much calmer figure, far more in control of his emotions than before where he was the epitome of the word “hotheaded.” Purists might be off-put with this change but by and large it allows Kodai to appear more mature as any officer in a military should. His innate sense of self-doubt is still apparent but at least this early in the show it allows viewers to understand how noble a veteran leader Okita (Avatar) is and how his leadership style rubs off on his crew.
Much like Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, Yamato 2199 attempts to present a more gender equal cast although not to the extent of changing some of the members into the opposite sex. Don’t expect a radical imagining of Kodai’s (Wildstar’s) best friend Shima (Venture) from a man to a woman but rather an expansion of the number of Yamato crewmembers, usually of the female variety. Fans of the original show will easily recount that it had only one female character of note, namely Yuki (Nova) and that for the most part she was merely window dressing. Not so this time around as Yuki is much more in-your-face and aggressive although not as overt as Meisa Kuroki was in the live-action Yamato movie released a few years ago.
Yet Yamato 2199 has many new female characters most presciently being Akira Yamamoto, one of the fighter pilots who visually bares more than a passing resemblance to Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion. Her addition allows the show to create your standard love triangle between her, Kodai (Wildstar) and Yuki (Nova). Other additions include Makoto Harada, a truly ditzy nurse with obvious fan-service design replete with thigh-high boots and your typically high-pitched voice; Warrant Officer Yuria Misaki who actually is part of a different shift who takes over Yuki’s (Nova) bridge station when she is off duty and who doubles as the ship’s radio DJ (it actually makes more sense than it sounds!); Information Officer Lieutenant Kaoru Niimi who provides Intel on the enemy as well as psychological assessments yet harbors some reservations with their current mission. Obviously, there are a gaggle of new male characters as well including the fact that the Yamato now has a dedicated security team unlike having to rely on their pilots and other crew members to fill this rather important role.
The various spaceship designs from the Gamilas and Earth fleets to even minor details such as the small capsule that the dying Iscandar woman Sarsha brings to humanity or the reflecting cannon weapon on Pluto are virtually the same albeit rendered to modern standards. The two most overt design changes comes in relation to Yamato’s fighter squadron which sports much more intricate designs and the characters themselves as Yamato 2199 ditches the art style from the original show made by Leiji Matsumoto in favor for ones penned by Nobuteru Yuki famous for his character design work in The Vision of Escaflowne, Heat Guy J, Paradise Kiss and Xenosaga: The Animation. He also worked as the character designer for the video games Chrono Cross and Dragon Force 2. Still, Nobuteru Yuki more than pays homage to Matsumoto as all the characters bare enough resemblance to their original forms to make them easily recognizable. The uniforms and other costumes have also been updated but they certainly take cues from the original show as well as the various full length movies. Then again, much like J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot the female characters still wear totally inappropriate uniforms, in this case form-fitting bodysuits, that accentuate their many curves yet this is par for the course for most anime productions.
Nevertheless, this loving approach does not come without peril as Gus Van Sant’s remade Psycho should remind viewers that merely “copying” an older film does not necessarily translate into an equal or superior product. I have to admit that though I loved watching the first few episodes of Yamato 2199 I still felt a slight twinge of regret that the show was really doing nothing but updating the visuals. Thankfully, with each successive episode it quickly becomes apparent that this new team has certainly done their homework and that each minor change soon is justified and expanded. The overall narrative remains largely unchanged but the characters themselves are given much more time to interact allowing more complex plotlines to emerge. Additionally, the newly introduced characters start to develop into fully rounded individuals with clear motivations and in some cases radically change some of the established relationships giving added flavor and generating intrigue where none previously existed.
An example of this character tinkering comes in relation to Yuki (Nova) whose entire backstory seems to have been majorly reworked. In the original Yuki (Nova) bore a strong physical resemblance to the Queen of Iscandar yet it was nothing but mere coincidence whereas this time around it is strongly hinted that she could be her sister but through some currently unexplained reason does not remember her past beyond a certain point in time.
This marks as good a point as any to move into my next observation which is that one of the reasons that the original show left such a positive impression on my young psyche was that it allowed itself to focus entire episodes on character development without a hint of any action. Diehard fans will understand that I am obviously referring to the episode in question where the Yamato passes beyond Pluto’s orbit and effectively loses communication with Earth. Captain Okita (Avatar) decides to give each crewmember a scant few minutes of time for one last chat with their family left on Earth before leaving communication range.
Perhaps more than any episode that I can remember this was an emotional gutwrencher precisely because it not only allowed viewers to get a glimpse of each character’s backstory but it also perfectly highlighted how Kodai (Wildstar) and Captain Okita (Avatar) were kindred spirits as they had no one left to talk to and were essentially alone in the universe. Yamato 2199 thankfully keeps this episode almost intact and manages to cram in even more character building a feat that is more than appreciated and shows how the new staff understand that audiences require these kinds of expository episodes in order to build empathy for their plight.
It is definitely a good sign that quiet introspective sequences are frequently interspersed between the highly charged action moments and the new staff surprises even further by penning a totally brand new episode that takes place right after the crew speaks to Earth one last time and is completely focused on Analyzer (IQ9) and his exploits to probe the existential question of life. Although it is certainly a cliché to keep bringing up Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” the episode at least makes reference to it and other famous science fiction works that focus on the same themes.
At the same time Yamato 2199 appears to plug as many plot holes as possible that were glaringly obvious in Star Blazers. As an example, in Star Blazers when the Gamilas (Gamelon) antagonists are revealed they have humanistic coloured skin instead of their now traditional blue. It made for a jarring sight to see early Gamelon soldiers all look like regular humans and then suddenly for no voiced reason move to a bluish tinge. If you want a Western analogy just think about how the Klingons looked in original Star Trek as opposed to their redesign from Star Trek: The Motion Picture onwards. No definitive reason for the change is ever given leading to a wholly inexplicable juxtaposition.
In Yamato 2199 this is now all conveniently explained by some short account given that only pure blood Gamilas (Gamelon) citizens are blue-skinned and that inferior races that had long ago succumbed to Gamilas (Gamelon) rule bore other colours. Additionally, the governmental system of the antagonists is further elucidated on that subservient races could still aid the empire as secondary citizens setting up a caste-like system of rule.
The most obvious reason to initially watch this series are the new visuals which are simply outstanding and though some particular nitpicky fans might say that it is only due to the sign of the times this is plainly false as the attention to detail in Yamato 2199 is staggering as the show consistently displays extremely high quality and polish and is perhaps the best anime example of melding 2D animation with 3D scenes. For the most part the Yamato and all the spaceships including the various fighters are all modeled in 3D although the animators will occasionally utilize a detailed 2D drawing depending on the scene in question. To their credit, the show’s CG team has really taken notice of a lot of recent Western science fiction series such as J.J. Abram’s Star Trek reboot and obviously Battlestar Galactica. The influence can be seen in certain shots which truly attempt to create a sense that space is three dimensional and that the past works that have shown spaceships moving in essentially a 2D plane are long gone.
Concurrently, the move to 3D shines because the team has paid close attention to rendering proper light sources which give the show an air of authenticity. When explosions boom near the Yamato it casts the proper shades of light over the ship and it is always a plus when realistic shadows are shown. This applies for any light source such as when Yamato fires her main guns with shock rounds or when the ship is caught in a kind of intergalactic dead space between dimensions which makes the vessel appear as if it were a submarine under water as diffused light reflects across her hull.
However, the animators do have a problem in that they both have to make the show fresh as well as constantly reference old material thus for every dynamic new shot of the Yamato there are still old school ideas that frankly standout like sore thumbs in this reboot. Having Okita (Avatar) actually use a periscope during a space battle is more than a little awkward and the same can be said of allowing Kodai (Wildstar) to keep manually aiming the wave motion gun with his usual gun trigger mechanism. One would think that at this point in humanity’s future that computers would have taken over such tasks with their ability to calculate and compensate far better than human physical skill.
The space animation is also not “perfect” as each episode does have a shot or two where the movement becomes noticeably “off” as if someone forgot to turn on the physics engine in the rendering software but for the most part this is quality stuff. Simple shots of the Yamato slowly turning on its axis as it enters the frame give the show a much more dynamic feel. The attention to detail really shows in these small elements that most will not bother recognizing especially in the area of graphics displays and GUIs that are shown on the Yamato’s monitors.
Seriously, the level of HUDs and computer screen displays feel organic as if they are all designed from the same operating system much like the famous LCARS GUI you see originating from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The level of consistency permeates the Yamato no matter where the scene takes place from the bridge to the CIC to their version of stellar cartography. In fact I would venture a guess that the animators have spent an inordinate amount of time on these displays as I rarely see the same ones utilized in subsequent episodes.
Take a look – here are two shots from the original show of the “amazing” console graphics displays.
Here’s a matching shot of the new radar display in Yamato 2199.
Additionally, here’s a great shot of Yamato’s new damage control screen showing the various parts of the ship under duress.
Additionally, the animators have thrown in an enormous amount of detail such as showing the Yamato’s individual thrusters firing whenever it has to spin around or even in something as basic as the ship’s anchor firing or the fighter launch system that resembles a kind of revolving gun-like chamber that spits planes out of the rear hangar essentially flying backwards. Even if it looks initially baffling the high quality of the visuals go a long way into crafting a believable universe and it gives the impression that the technical team working on the show is constantly doing overtime to perfect the smallest detail.
After ten episodes I am more than elated to report that the team working on Space Battleship Yamato 2199 sincerely seems to know what they are doing by lovingly recreating the show for modern audiences while adding enough intrigue through new plotlines and characters to entice older fans to anticipate each new episode. I have no idea how the show will fair with the next sixteen episodes although if it keeps up this level of quality then it might turn out to be one of the best remakes in science fiction history and yes I’m starring at you Battlestar Galactica. Not that I hated that show as I actually loved it but that I thought it progressively got worse the closer it got to its climax especially in the last season where it seemed that the show was running out of gas. Hopefully Yamato 2199 doesn’t degenerate into a metaphysical mess or ignores providing cogent answers to the various plotlines it has already established.
The only real obstacle to more anime fans watching this right now is the fact that Yamato 2199 has had an odd release schedule whereby two or three episodes are released every few months in OVA format which is mildly annoying. However, as long as the quality remains high this is a small price to pay although viewers who desire to see a show in one continuous sitting would be advised to wait a bit longer for more episodes to premiere. If you are an old-school Star Blazers fan and have never even heard of this remake the answer is clear – go get it a.s.a.p.
***1/2 out of ****
2012, Japan, Approximately 220 Minutes (10 Episodes), AIC/Xebec
Chief Directors by Yutaka Izubuchi, Akihiro Enomoto
Produced by Atsushi Ariyoshi, Fumi Teranishi, Hideaki Matsumoto, Mikio Gunji, Tetsuya Matsubara
Series Writer Yutaka Izubuchi
Music By Akira Miyagawa
Character Design: Nobuteru Yuki
Art Director: Minoru Maeda
Daisuke Ono: Susumu Kodai
Houko Kuwashima: Yuki Mori
Kenichi Suzumura: Daisuke Shima
Takayuki Sugo: Captain Jūzō Okita
Aya Hisakawa: Lt. Kaoru Niimi
Aya Uchida: Warrant Officer Yuria Misaki
Rie Tanaka: Ensign Akira Yamamoto
Rina Satou: Makoto Harada
Chō: Analyzer Unit 09
Daisuke Hirakawa: Hiroki Shinohara
Fumihide Ise: Hajime Hirata
Hiroshi Tsuchida: Susumu Yamazaki
Houchu Ohtsuka: Shirō Sanada
Akio Ohtsuka: General Domel
Keiji Fujiwara: Master Chief Isami Enomoto
Kikuko Inoue: Starsha Iscandar
Kouichi Yamadera: Aberdt Dessler
Masashi Hirose: Gremmdt Goer
Masato Kokubun: Yoshikazu Aihara
Mitsuru Miyamoto: Mamoru Kodai
Mugihito: Hikozaemon Tokugawa
Shigeru Chiba: Dr. Sakezō Sado
© 2013 The Galactic Pillow