Space Battleship Yamato -- Film Review

In Space Battleship Yamato, visual-effects expert Takashi Yamazaki ("Always – Sunset on Third Street" and its sequel) harnesses a reported $23.9 million budget to design a sleek futurist look without losing sight of the ‘70s illustration style of its prototypical animation

For this is the first ever live-action version of the Japanese animated sci-fi saga that has run for 36 years on TV. Yamazaki neither resorts to retro kitsch nor brainless action-and-effects ostentation. This helps one overlook the perfunctory and ruthlessly condensed plot, which centers on the coming-of-age of its rebellious space cadet hero Kodai (superstar Takuya Kimura).

Japanese box office pierced the stratosphere to be the number one hit upon release, gaining $12 million in just five days. It already sold to major Asian and European territories with talks with U.S. buyers underway.

As the series was widely aired throughout Asia, and broadcast in the U.S. in an edited version as The Star Blazers, it’s etched in the collective childhood memory of general audiences. For its fanatic fan base, it has higher cult status than Star Trek.

In 2194, Earth is attacked by alien race Gamilas. They wipe out the multinational defense force while polluting the air with radioactive bombs. Five years later, a message from planet Iscandar drops on truant space pilot Susumu Kodai. It contains a cleansing device that can undo the radiation.

With the human race’s survival expiring in one year, the last space crew led by Captain Okita (Tsutomu Yamazaki) sets out for Iscandar steering the Yamato. Secretly constructed underground, it’s Earth’s last spaceship. The crew undergoes four missions, each time encountering the hostile interference of Gamilas. Near the end, their secret agenda is disclosed but it’s that’s not so different from most alien agendas in sci-fi.

The intergalactic battles between fighter spacecraft and ground level combat are neatly sandwiched between personal dramas. Each crossfire escalates in scale and tension. Not concerned about competing with the breathless, hyper-kinetic pace of Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters, the action is orchestrated with a classical poise that recalls the poetic aesthetics of the earlyStar Warstrilogy and 2001 Space Odyssey.

The intricate designs and details of space vehicles and interior cabins look overwhelmingly real yet they glow with a sheen unique to animation. This aestheticization of machinery appeals to the sensibility of mechageeks.

The screenplay by Yamazaki’s regular creative partner Shimako Sato (director of K20) moves in a perfectly clear direction, cutting out most narrative digressions. Even viewers with zero knowledge of the original can pick up the plot and the vibes between the characters instantly.

The Yamato in the series’ first conception was assembled from the carcass of the naval carrier of the same name, which was sunk during Word War II. A kamikaze spirit still prevails even though it is reworked into an ecological motif.

Kimura, installed to lure female audiences less enamored of this school-boy stuff, neither surprises nor disappoints. The 40-year-old plays for the umpteenth time an idealistic individualist. He takes on bureaucratic systems and talks back at the boss, only to fill in the boss’ shoes after learning about team spirit, sacrifice and responsibility. In short, there’s a bit of Top Gunand a lot of Japanese corporate ethics stirred in there.

It is a role Kimura played in another TV-to-film hit Hero. The difference: In Yamato, the camaraderie is not the bantering kind. It’s dead serious, accentuated by portentous music jarring with the theme song by Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. The supporting characters are all stereotypes —the stern father figure, the family man, the hot-headed lone wolf fighter, the eager beaver rookie and so on. The flirty, playful chemistry Kimura has with Heroco-star Takako Matsu is totally missing in the romantic scenes with female lead Yuki (Meisa Kuroki). She looks like a pretty mannequin in a permanent pout.

Opened: December 1 (Japan)
Toho, TBS Pictures, Sedic International and other members of Space Battleship Yamato Production Committee present a Robot Production Co. production.
Cast: Takuya Kimura, Meisa Kuroki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Shinichi Tsutsumi, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Naoto Ogata, Reiko Takashima
Director-VFX director: Takashi Yamazaki
Screenwriter: Shimako Sato
Based on the story by: Yoshinobu Nishiaki
Chief producer: Ichiro Nobukuni
Producers: Toshiaki Nakazawa, Kazuya Hamana
Director of photography: Kozou Shibazaki
Art director: Anri Kamijou
Costume designer: Kazuo Matsuda
Music: Naoki Sato
Editor: Ryuji Miyajima
Sales: TBS Films
No rating, 130 minutes

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