Matt Kamen on the anime series that defined Japanese SF for a generation.
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Sunday 6th October 1974: on this otherwise unremarkable day in history, Osaka-based network Yomiuri Telecasting Corporation broadcast the first episode of Space Battleship Yamato – and changed Japanese television forever.
Set in 2199, the series depicted an Earth reduced to a barren, radioactive wasteland – the result of years of unprovoked assaults by the alien Gamilas forces, seeking to radically change the environment to better suit their colonisation. With humanity driven to the brink of extinction, the few survivors retreated to subterranean cities, abandoning the uninhabitable surface. All seemed lost until a message of hope arrives from Queen Starsha of the the distant world Iscandar, offering a way to restore our once-fertile planet and drive off the Gamilas. Starsha’s message also carried plans for the faster-than-light technology needed to get there and retrieve the promised Cosmo-Cleaner D. With nothing left to lose, the desperate Earth Defence Force secretly retrofits the ancient World War II naval battleship Yamato, now destined for one last mission on a sea of stars.
Captained by the grizzled Juzo Okita, the Yamato departs for Iscandar with a rag-tag crew and no guarantee that the fabled ‘cure’ truly exists, or that they will even survive the journey. Amongst them is the hot-headed Susumu Kodai, orphaned in a Gamilas attack and blaming Okita for the subsequent death of his brother Mamoru, and the beautiful Yuki Mori, a nurse with far greater skills that come into play along the way. As the quest begins, there are only an estimated 365 days until the remnants of humanity are wiped from existence – a single, fragile, precious year – and the Gamilas are hot on the Yamato’s tail….
This may sound like any given space opera series but for the time, Space Battleship Yamato was a trailblazer. The gravitas was unprecedented, and the year-long countdown added incredible tension to the voyage. Every diversion the crew were forced to take pushed Earth one step closer to doomsday. Unlike many of its contemporaries, the risks taken by Yamato’s characters could have fatal repercussions, and an ongoing subplot saw Captain Okita slowly succumbing to worsening health. Okita’s relationship with Kodai was also groundbreaking, a surprisingly heartfelt and human progression that took them from a guilt-ridden commander and rebellious subordinate, to an ersatz father and son. Kodai even took temporary command of the Yamato when Okita could no longer serve. Japanese audiences had rarely seen such depth in animation before, especially not in a children’s space cartoon.
Yet for all its positives, the series was almost a very different beast. Originally envisioned in 1973 by Yoshinobu Nishizaki, Yamato was first developed as Asteroid Ship Icarus, conceived as an international Lord of the Flies in space. The search for Iscandar was still the main thrust, but the crew were to have been teenagers from around the world rather than a cross-generational mix of soldiers and survivors. Nishizaki’s idea was potentially darker too, planning for rival factions to arise amongst the youths, each acting on their own ambitions. Despite early interest, networks weren’t ready to sign off on such a bleak treatment – reputations and, more importantly, budgets were on the line and anything too controversial was to be avoided.
Enter Leiji Matsumoto, then better known in the publishing world for his manga works, including war drama The Cockpit and I Am a Man!, a grounded comedy following a student struggling to enter University. Matsumoto’s star was on the rise in the early 1970s, and his consultancy on what would become Yamato became a near-total overhaul. His distinctive art style – slender women, athletic men, dwarfish sidekicks – became the driving force for the show’s overall look, while his mecha designs became as distinctive to Japanese viewers as X-Wings or the Starship Enterprise are to western audiences.
Although Matsumoto’s take was enough to get the series greenlit, the original airing still didn’t prove to be a huge success. Much like the original Star Trek series in America, the viewing figures weren’t quite what the network was expecting and Yamato ended up being canned early, cut from a planned 39 episodes to 26 during its run (it competed in the schedules against Heidi, the girls’ cartoon made by a young Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki). However, also like Trek, Yamato proved far more popular after the fact. Positive word of mouth and improved ratings during re-runs led to a 1977 movie re-telling, and despite the cinematic outing being a condensed version of the TV series with only a handful of newly animated scenes, it was a hit in Japanese cinemas.
Since then, Yamato’s influence and importance has been clear, both domestically and internationally. Two further television seasons followed – simply Space Battleship Yamato II and III, airing in 1978 and 1980, respectively. All three seasons were eventually adapted into the American Starblazers, which itself turned a generation of western viewers into nascent anime fans. The series fared rather well in the transition too, retaining most of the depth and maturity of the original version, with only character names anglicised and some of the more overtly Japanese cultural elements dropped, such as the ship itself being renamed the Argo.
Four more animated movies appeared in Japan, bridging the gap between seasons or telling standalone stories, while 2010’s live-action Yamato movie echoed the success of the 1977 film (surpassing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at the Japanse box office). More recently, Yamato 2199 debuted as seven theatrical releases before being repackaged as a 26 episode TV series, both approaches serving as a retelling of the original series with modern animation.
The first show’s impact on the Japanese film and TV industries lead to a wave of similarly-themed space operas, each hoping for success by latching onto the zeitgeist Yamato helped create. Its lingering influence in turn gave rise to more subtle nods – humans migrating to underground cities in Neon Genesis Evangelion, for instance. Incidentally, Nishizaki’s idea for what would have been Asteroid Ship Icarus, in its broadest sense, would get some exploration in the unrelated 1999 anime Infinite Ryvius. However, given neither Nishizaki nor Matsumoto were involved, the similarity is likely coincidental rather than a direct proto-Yamato influence, though the story behind those original plans is well documented.
Next year marks the 40th anniversary of Space Battleship Yamato, and though the decades between haven’t been the kindest to either of the figures involved in its creation (Nishizaki and Matsumoto infamously fought over the legal rights to the series) Yamato itself remains as beloved and important as ever. Anime as we enjoy it today, with all its potential for mature and emotional storytelling, owes a lot to that seemingly insignificant broadcast on an otherwise unremarkable October day.
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Space Battleship Yamato, the live-action remake, is out in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.