Space Battleship Yamato

Matt Kamen on the big-budget remake of an anime classic

The original Space Battleship Yamato is rightly considered a classic of Japanese science fiction – the 1974 anime is comparable to Star Trek in terms of the influence it has had on its home country. Generations of viewers have grown up on tales of Captain Okita, Susumu Kodai, Yuki Mori and the rest of the valiant crew of the Yamato, following their desperate quest to reach the remote planet Iscandar in hope of finding a way to save Earth from the Gamilas aliens. Thanks to the American edited version Star Blazers, the story has fans around the world too – all of which places a huge weight of cultural responsibility on anyone brave enough to risk adapting it to a new medium.

In bringing Yamato to life, that weight was shouldered by director Takashi Yamazaki. Despite having won acclaim for his slice-of-life movies Always: Sunset on Third Street (two films based on a manga by Ryohei Saigan, released in 2005 and 2007, the first winning Yamazaki ‘Best Director’ at the Japanese Academy Awards) his earlier sci-fi movies – 2000’s Juvenile and 2002’s Returner – enjoyed only lukewarm receptions. This made Yamazaki something of a wild card to helm such a beloved franchise. However, benefitting from a colossal ¥2.2 billion budget and an A-list cast – including Takuya Kimura (Howl’s Moving Castle, and a national treasure as part of boy-band SMAP) as Kodai, Meisa Kuroki (Crows Zero, Assault Girls) as Mori, and the legendary Tsutomu Yamazaki as Captain Okita – Yamato’s live-action debut would become one of the most successful films in Japan’s cinematic history, grossing more than double its cost and winning praise from critics.

A significant amount of that phenomenal budget went into visual effects, the results of which are clear to see on screen. Space Battleship Yamato is one of the most ambitious sci-fi movies from Japan in years, replicating many of the high stakes, epic scale space battles from the anime. During production, Kimura insisted the CG be improved even further, committing himself to lengthy reshoots and even sacrificing a portion of his considerable starring salary to ensure the film looked as good as possible.

Space Battleship Yamato

The final cut, released in December 2010, wasn’t a straight emulation of its forebears. While keeping much of the core story and its subplots intact – the Yamato racing to Iscandar with Gamilas forces dogging it along the way, Kodai’s burgeoning relationship with Mori, and Okita’s declining health amongst them – Shimako Sato’s screenplay updated several elements for modern sensibilities. Some, such as the anime’s Queen Starsha being renamed ‘Iscandar’ in line with the people she reigned over, are mere surface changes. Others reflect updated attitudes in the real world, with this version of Yuki being far sterner than her gentle animated predecessor, and serving as a fighter pilot rather than a nurse. The ship’s medical officer, Sakezo Sado, was originally a comedic male supporting character but is now a far more serious female doctor, incorporating aspects of Yuki’s classic personality. Perhaps the biggest change is the nature of the conflict – and connection – between Iscandar and Gamilas, a twist we won’t spoil but which paints the story in a more poignant light. Long term fans will appreciate subtle nods to the enduring Yamato legacy though, including cameos by original voice actors from the anime.

That classic series proved revolutionary, proving showing that long-form, mature storytelling was achievable in anime. This feature length effort could be similarly influential, showing that Japan’s science fiction cinema can stand alongside Hollywood’s finest, with complex plots, serious acting and visuals that look the part. This is a Space Battleship Yamato for the 21st century, one that meets the expectations of the devoted while delivering a modern retelling of the revered space opera.

Space Battleship Yamato, the live-action movie, is out on Monday on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

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