Although I’ve never seen the original Space Battleship Yamato anime, nor it’s American incarnation Star Blazers, I’m always a sucker for a good sci-fi action flick. My particular interest in this film was piqued when I saw the trailer; it almost seemed as if the Japanese film industry was trying to make its very own big budget popcorn flick in the vein of Star Wars. As one of Japan’s premier sci-fi franchises on par with Gundam, Yamato seemed like the perfect film to receive this kind of pseudo-Hollywood treatment. However, it was a big gamble… most live-action adaptations of anime created thus far, whether by Americans or Japanese, have been a disappointment. Could Yamato break this trend?
I’m happy to report that the end result is a flawed but fun high-octane sci-fi action film. Although it suffers from all the pitfalls inherent to Hollywood-style blockbusters, it also does an excellent job of playing to its strengths. It is, in every sense of the word, a popcorn film… and a damn entertaining one at that.
In the year 2199, the Earth is under siege by an unknown race of aliens whom humans have named the Gamilas. Although humanity was successful at resisting them initially, the aliens’ technology evolves at a rate faster than humans can match. Now the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable by constant meteorite bombardment, with only a handful of survivors living underground in squalor. The United Nations of Space has refitted the old, scuttled Japanese warship Yamato into Earth’s final star cruiser, intending to evacuate as many survivors as possible. However, a message from the planet Iskandar in the Large Magellanic Cloud offers humanity aid, promising them a device that can cleanse the Earth of radiation and make it livable again. The message also contains schematics for a powerful Wave Motion Engine, which will allow the Yamato to make the journey quickly using warp. As humanity’s last hope, the Yamato sets out on a desperate journey to find Iskandar, dogged by Gamilas attacks along the way.
More after the break.
What I Liked
Battlestar Yamato: As many reviewers before me have stated, Yamato draws heavy inspiration from the 2004 American sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica. Despite the incredibly pulpy high-concept premise, the actual day-to-day life aboard the Yamato is presented with a gritty edge. The ship groans and creaks, wires and tubes run amok in the corridors, mechanics in grimy jumpsuits run about frantically loading torpedoes and fixing equipment, and the camera shakes about like it’s held by a lousy drunk. All this helps to ground the viewer in the human aspect of the story, in a way that many sci-fi blockbusters like the Star Wars prequels never manage to accomplish. This universe feels real, and that makes the story all the more potent.
The special effects and action scenes are also heavily inspired by Galactica. For the most part the CGI is fantastic, and the space battles manage to offer a few spectacles that made even a special-effects weary otaku like me gasp in amazement. However, there are more than a few instances where the frenetic camerawork makes the battles hard to follow, and the CGI drops in quality significantly when action shifts to the on-foot battles on Iskandar. For the most part, however, the special effects and action are indistinguishable from a high budget Hollywood film.
Cool Old Guy: The highlight of Yamato‘s casting is easily Tsutomu Yamazaki, who is best described as the Japanese incarnation of Edward James Olmos. As Juzo Okita, he brings a real gravitas to the role as both the Yamato’s war-weary captain and the mentor of the hot-blooded young pilot Susumu Kodai.
Susumu is played by pretty boy Takuya Kimura of SMAP fame. He’s not exactly a very nuanced actor, but he fills his roll well enough; he’s hotblooded, hunky, and delivers inspirational speeches in a passionate, wavering voice that would make Bill Pullman proud. The rest of the cast is also memorable, although the story doesn’t give them much of a chance to shine. The weakest link is probably Meisa Kuroki’s character Yuki Mori, who starts off as an action girl but quickly becomes feminized into Susumu’s love interest.
PacingPacingPacing: Yamato crams an entire season’s worth of plot into two-and-a-half hours of film, and actually manages to do it effectively. Although the story is cliched and has some flaws, the film moves at such a rapid clip that any problems or awkward scenes are quickly glossed over by another space battle, another explosion, another drama-filled shoutout between hot-blooded Susumu and his superior officers. This pacing is really what makes the film work; it’s trying so hard to entertain that there’s never a boring moment. Ultimately, this is the key to making a big-budget blockbuster work effectively, and Yamato has hit the nail squarely on the head.
What I Hated
Drama: Although Yamato takes heavy inspiration from Galactica, it also has the DNA of J-Dramas, the eastern equivalent of American soap operas. For the most part it’s better written and acted than those TV soaps, but there are still several moments when the overacting and hamfisted dialogue become mawkish. Of particular note are the seemingly endless inspirational speeches which Captain Okita and Susumu are constantly giving to the Yamato crew, which become tiresome quickly. Additionally, the love subplot is a real groaner, and could have been cut out of the film entirely to no deleterious effect. By the end of the movie, I’d seen enough tearful goodbyes and heroic sacrifices to fill ten TVTropes pages. This detracted from the emotional potency of the film, which is a real shame because the characters are so vividly realized.
Redshirts: The film’s central characters are Susumu, Yuki and Captain Okita. Sadly, every other character takes a backseat to this trio, and are given minimal development. This is a pity, since many of these characters are far more interesting than Yuki, who is little more than a bog-standard bland romantic interest. When each of these secondary characters dies or makes a heroic sacrifice, it’s difficult to feel sentimental about them because they received so little development in the first place.
Iskandar ex Machina: For the most part, the plot of this film is solidly written. However, when our heroes arrive at Iskandar and learn THE SHOCKING TRUTH, the big reveal comes off as overly convoluted and improperly foreshadowed, temporarily shattering suspension of disbelief. If the Gamilas themselves had gotten more screentime, as opposed to being faceless mysterious aliens for most of the film, this reveal would have made a great deal more sense. Fortunately, the plot quickly gets back on track and buries this troublesome scene under more action and explosions… but the sense of disappointment remains.
By now, you’re probably thinking “Is this film really worth watching? It seems like it has a lot of problems.” Just to be perfectly clear, there are some major flaws with this movie… but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. The fast pacing, exciting action and (for the most part) well crafted story managed to gloss over these niggles and make the overall film hugely enjoyable. This is not a dumb action movie that requires mental deficiency to enjoy, like so many Hollywood films. Unlike the work of Michael Bay or George Lucas, it manages to rise above it’s problems, and that alone makes it worthwhile.